On Advertising

I wanted to name this article “Why I hate (almost) all advertising”, but I figured many less people would click on it as the position seems very extreme. And maybe my position on the matter is extreme, but of course that in and of itself does not necessarily make it wrong. I think we have gone morally and intellectually way off course with advertising.

In this article, I hope to outline a brief history of advertising, where I think it has gone wrong, and where I think it is (wrongly) going in the future. I hope to make a compelling argument that convinces more than zero people to move slightly in the direction of agreeing with me, something that I think is hard to do nowadays. Even if people strongly disagree, I welcome any conversation on the topic. Anyway, my attempt…

A Brief History of Advertising

According to Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, America saw its first paid newspaper advertisements in the early 1704. Two such advertisements took the form of a Wanted ad for the capture of a thief and the renting of a plot of land. These and other such advertisements during Postman’s “Age of Exposition” and what I will call “Phase 1 of Advertising” were predicated on the fact that the customers were literate, rational, and analytical. The advertisements actually made claims about their products.

During “Phase 2”, which Postman describes well in the following quote, we see a dramatic shift:

As late as 1980, advertising, still understood to consist of words, was regarded as an essentially serious and rational enterprise whose purpose was to convey information and make claims in propositional form. Advertising was, as Stephen Douglas said in another context, intended to appeal to understanding, not to passions. This is not to say that during the period of typographic display, the claims that were put forward were true. Words cannot guarantee their truth content. Rather, they assemble a context in which the question, ‘Is this true or false?’, is relevant.

Postman goes on to say that this is the time during which America saw its first illustrations in advertising in addition to the use of slogans (e.g. “You press the button; we do the rest.”) This is followed by jingles and rhymes. Postman adds:

By the turn of the century, advertisers no longer assumed rationality on the part of their customers. Advertising became one part depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory.

It is hard to disagree with Postman here, even today. Almost no commercial today, written or televised, assumes consumer rationality. Many state no facts about the product or service to be sold, but instead rely upon emotional appeal. While heavily utilized throughout the past 100 years, I believe this phase is starting to be eclipsed by a new, socially and politically motivated breed of advertising. This form puts the product or service being peddled in the extreme background and relies upon the consumer agreeing to an ideology to make the sale. I call this Phase 3, and will describe the dangers of this as well as Phase 2 below.

What is wrong with Advertising?

Advertising in and of itself does not seem morally ambiguous. In fact, what I have described as Phase 1 above seems to be perfectly fine. If the advertisement makes you aware of a brand and does so in an honest way, then there seems to be nothing wrong (One could argue, that advertisements being everywhere in the modern world could be seen as wrong – in this article I hope to only discuss within the context of a given advertisement). What does it mean to be honest? This is where Phase 2 of advertising goes wrong. Postman’s claim that advertising in this period often contains no truth propositional content seems hardly debatable. Remember, this means that the content of the advertisement can be true or false. As an example “Fords are the safest automobile as rated by X” can be either true or false. “Just do it” or “Obey your thirst” have no truth propositional content and are thus empty: they tell you nothing of the product and make no actual claim that can be verified.

Commercials of this era often do not attempt to claim anything at all and often rely on emotional appeal to sell a product. A great example is from Fancy Feast:

What have you learned about Fancy Feast in this commercial? Absolutely nothing. Further, the brand scores particularly low compared to other cat foods. This does not faze most people I talk to, probably because this type of marketing is so rampant that they expect it and only hope to be entertained. When people talk about and spread a commercial like this because of the emotional appeal (marriage, love, cute cat), the emotional content crowds out any need for propositional content. As a result, successful companies become not those that produce the best cat food, but those that produce the best marketing and/or advertising teams. This is why ALS received a lot of money for the Ice Bucket Challenge even though relatively few people contract ALS and we are nowhere near to a cure: because the advertising and marketing plans for ALS were much better than for other charities (Consider donating at http://www.givewell.org/ to get the most out of your dollar!). Psychological, manipulative tricks are developed and utilized to get you to buy a product, instead of the product relying upon its own merits.

Notice that in Phase 2, the product has receded into the background. The goal is to get you into a mood or feeling and then present to you an often unrelated product, in the hopes that you associate the two in your head. In Phase 3 of Advertising, the product or service recedes possibly even more, and ideology replaces direct emotional appeals. Take, for instance, the following Ax commercial:

Like Phase 2, we see the product only at the very end of the video. But here we see more. At the end of the video we find out something about “Peace One Day” and “Supporting Peace One Day” and we are asked to tweet with #KissForPeace, a phrase that contains the product name in an insidious way; a tweeter might see the phrase and retag it without even being aware of the Axe campaign to sell more Axe. Here we have the new Axe product bound up with notions of patriotism, peace, and love much more directly than in the Fancy Feasts commercial.  We are for peace (who isn’t?) and want to share it with our friends on social media. Fancy Feasts made a cute commercial that reminds one of positive emotions. Axe becomes a symbol of peace.

Another example for Dove:

Here we are told that beauty is on the inside (from a beauty product company!) and want to invest in a campaign to lift women’s feeling of self-worth. Notably, this commercial does not even advertise a specific product, but wants you to form a general positive association with the brand. The product, therefore, has receded into nothingness.

Lately there have been many such “see yourself positively, ladies” advertisements. The feminist that I am feels crushed by the fact that these advertisements are so tricky and serve to sell more products. To me, the fact that they are selling a product compromises the positive message. This is likea really good friend of yours says they heard of a great new plan for you to make money and you later find out that they make more money in the process by selling to you. It is disappointing and deceptive. Here is one for Always, again, no specific product:

Here is one for Verizon:

These have drifted so far from selling any actual product or service that it is almost unbelievable. These videos attempt to convey that these companies understand deep, human emotions and needs, but that is something they can never do, for they compromise their ideals by virtue of the fact that they are selling something. As a result, “I’m lovin’ it” can never say anything about love, no matter how hard it tries.

What Can We Do?

When a problem is so ubiquitous, it can seem overwhelming and fruitless to even try to find a solution. Still, I think we need to do our best. For one example, I think we can learn more about the various tricks that companies employ when creating advertising. A good start is to review some informal fallacies, something that I strongly believe should be taught in high school, if not grade school. These show the various ways that claims can be falsely made (when there is a claim at all! (“Just do it!”). People of all ages that I know seem unaware of the common techniques that advertisers (and politicians, journalists, etc) use to make (unfounded) points. We can think more critically when we see a commercial and analyze what it is trying to convey, instead of simply accepting that commercials can or should be pure entertainment completely divorced from the product or service they are trying to sell.

7 Comments

  1. I have to admit that the cat in the first commercial is just terribly cute and I hate having to hate her…:( I do hate the AXE one with a burning passion though.

    In Germany, for the women’s soccer World Championship they had a commercial where women kicked soccerballs into …washing machines. -.- Can you believe that?!

    Reply

  2. I also hate most advertising, and I personally find it really unfortunate how pervasive advertising has become in our lives.

    I’ve noticed the increasing emphasis on brand association in advertising over the years. One category of commercials I find particularly annoying are beer commercials involving lots of attractive women surrounding a man drinking whichever company’s beer.

    However, I disagree that what you call “Phase 3” of advertising is necessarily worse than “Phase 2”. I think both involve selling things based on associations made with the company, rather than specific product claims, which clearly gives advantage to the best marketing campaign, rather than the best product. But, given the choice between the two, couldn’t the fact that the advertising may make people think about a socially relevant issue in some way offset the fact they are manipulating people into having a positive association with the brand?

    I guess it may depend on how likely people are to be manipulated by “Phase 3” in comparison with “Phase 2” emotional appeals. My baseline assumption is the majority of people would probably be manipulated by both (and some people would be manipulated by neither). But perhaps there is marginal increase in the consumer base they can pull in with appealing to moral ideals.

    Do you think that’s the case? Or is there another reason you think this type of advertising is more insidious?

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  3. I see what you mean, Laura. I often wonder myself whether or not “Phase 3” is better. As you say, raising awareness for a socially good cause leads to good effects.

    I feel like commercials with women and beer are terrible, but limited in their terribleness. Ok, you are trying to sell beer and are appealing to a base instinct for sex. Manipulative and annoying. When I see commercials where companies try to pretend they are socially relevant, I feel like they are reaching levels of manipulation never before seen, even getting people to advertise for them under the guise of a positive cause. This makes it so much worse for me. I often forget to look at the good part of the outcome – that more people support the cause – because everything feels so tainted. It feels like the reach of companies appropriating the deepest things in life (thoughts on war, feminism, environmentalism) is now unbounded and that scares me and is more insidious than the more “simple” appeals to sex and popularity of yesteryear.

    Reply

    1. I have a few thought triggered by the points you made.

      First, you are definitely right about the companies getting you to advertise for them. “Social marketing” has reached disgusting levels over the past few years, where it seems like companies are constantly trying to get you to push their products on your friends, even offering you financial incentives in some cases. I’ve always seen this as “selling out” your friends, and found it a repugnant thing to do.

      I hadn’t thought about how campaigns that support certain ideals will almost certainly cause a lot more people to “share” advertising through social channels, when they would not have otherwise, and perhaps without even realizing what they are advertising for. People who would never post to their facebook timeline that they just bought Dove body wash (for example), may be not only be willing to post the “Real Beauty” ad, but actually feel good about doing it. The same thing goes for the marketing hashtags like KissForPeace, and maybe even more so.

      I think that’s an important point. Advertisers are potentially trying not only to be seen as socially conscious, but also to find ways to get people to share advertising via social media, without it feeling tacky, or necessarily like advertising at all. I still think there will be a positive side to spreading such messages, but it becomes questionable whether that is outweighed by people becoming unsuspecting vessels of advertising. Clearly it’s better to spread socially relevant messages in a way that is decoupled from marketing.

      As a side note, how do you feel about co-opting charitable campaigns directly on product packaging? That’s something that has been going on for a long time. For example, the Yoplait “Save lids to save lives” campaign to raise money for breast cancer research. (Do they even still do that?). It’s similar in that it’s designed to make a person feel like they are doing a socially good thing when buying a product. But it didn’t (at least originally) have the same aspect of re-advertising that has come with increased use of social media for marketing. Although, it could be argued that a lot of those campaigns relied on traditional (non-digital) peer pressure to get people to “contribute to the cause” by buying more product.

      Second, you made the distinction between ads that appeal to base instinct versus appropriating social causes. I’m torn as to whether I think it could be a positive sign that this type of appeal has started to become common. It’s nefarious for the reasons already mentioned. But I can’t help but think that if advertisers believe this form of advertising will work as well or better than the traditional base instinct manipulation (at least for a big enough demographic to pour advertising dollars into this strategy), that could be a reflection of the fact that people overall are becoming more socially conscious, and less motivated by more basic thing like sex and materialism.

      Reply

      1. Hey Laura – sorry it took so long to respond – I have been away from the computer for a while.

        I don’t like when there are charities on products, but maybe I should reexamine my thoughts on the issue, because more charity seems like better than less charity. I think this can also be a case, however, where the charity that gets the most money is not the charity with the most need, but the one that partnered with Yoplait. I think people should concentrate more on giving effectively – I think there is a general notion of “any dollar I give is worth the same no matter where it goes” and that charities on products lends itself to this “no think” mode of donating.

        Also, you mentioned that it is hard to read the site. Your last long comment appears hard to read to me as well and I am not sure why. I can fix that, but I wanted to ask whether you felt the site in general was hard to read or just that comment. Thanks for your feedback, both on the content and on the form!

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        1. Hey Devon, The site in general takes just a little bit of extra effort for me to read, because of the dark vertical lines in the background image. I wouldn’t have mentioned that, except the comment replies are definitely difficult to read with the white background and light text.

          Reply

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