Earlier this morning I got the chance to watch a little bit of this documentary on advertising that PBS made back in 2004. While I haven’t watched all of it, I did get through the first section of it, which talked heavily about the saturation of advertising in modern America. Basically, the documentary argued that because advertisers are all trying desperately to break through to us, we’ve become very jaded towards advertising and it’s stopped working.
Actually what they said was “Consumers are like roaches. After a while, if you spray them too much they build up a resistance.”
Have we as a culture “built up a resistance?” On the one hand, yeah. Duh. If I wasn’t capable of filtering out the thousands of ads I see in a week than I would be the proud owner of several dozen cars, at least 4 slap-chops, some Oxy-Clean, lots of other detritus, and probably that Chihuahua from the Taco Bell commercials. It takes an especially clever ad to get through to me and make me want to buy something purely because of the ad.
When televised commercials and consumerism first started to take hold in America, the major selling points of the ads were how much better the product advertised was than other products. You still see this to a degree in paper towel commercials. You know that ubiquitous segment in every paper towel commercial where each brand claims to be 10 times as absorbant as “a leading competitor?” That’s how most old commercials worked. They’d show you their product, tell you why it’s better, and then maybe display the logo on the screen using newfangled film editing techniques. That sort of advertising has slowly evolved in two drastically different ways. And both of them are horrifying.
The first, and most obviously terrifying of the spawn of early advertising is the infomercial. I’m going to include an example here from our good friend and unfortunately deceased Billy Mays:
The infomercial, as seen above, seeks to sell a product on the product’s own merits, as evidenced by the dozens of text overlays with things like “Mince!”, Dice!”, and “Ham!” The whole two minutes is focuesed on showing you the chopping device chopping and mincing it’s way through as many things as they can shove in front of the camera so that you, like my easily swayed roommate who watched this with me, will be thinking of all the many ways you could use something like the Quick Chop in your everyday life. By the time the screen came up that was supposed to tell you how to order my roommate was practically drooling over the prospect of ordering one. His reaction when he discovered the number to call had been eliminated looked something like this:
You also may have noticed the cleverest part of the infomercial. About 2/3 of the way through, Mr. Mays switched over from demonstrating the Quick Chop, which he’d told us was $19.95 already, to showing us all sorts of other cool things we would get with our purchase. Wow! Did you see that? He offered to give us a cheese grater too! Wait, he wants to give me TWO cheese graters? Holy Hors D’ouvres Batman! NO WAY! TWO Quick Chops and two cheese graters? All for the same price as 1 Quick Chop? That’s incredible.
Before you run off to buy your amazing new kitchen gadgets, think about just one thing for me. Why on earth would you ever need two of the same chopping gadget if the first one was really as spectacular as it looks. That’s the kicker. What you don’t hear in the infomercial is that the reason the company can afford to give you all this stuff for 20 bucks is that its dirt cheap to make. You aren’t buying high end kitchen gadgets here, you’re getting whatever the company could afford to make for less than 20 dollars and still have cash left over for profit. That’s the trick of the infomercial, and that’s why you should never be my roommate when making purchases.
On the other side of the coin, you have the early advert’s other child. For lack of a better term, I’m going to refer to them as Emotionally Manipulative Ads (EMAs) Watch this ad if you are confused.
Most of you probably recognize this ad. It was wildly successful at selling iPods and has become on of the more famous ads of the last 10 years. But wait, what’s an iPod? The commercial never says, or even shows the product other than in vague silhouette. Is “iPod” the dance everyone seems to be doing? Maybe its the thing they’re holding that connects to their heads? But…what does it do?
If I’d never heard of an iPod before I would have come to the conclusion that the iPod was some sort of electrotherapy device that caused people to flail wildly whenever they turned it on. That’s not the point of EMAs. EMAs create a feeling or emotion inside of you and try to make you want the product on “feeling” level. Apple wants you to watch that ad and associate the iPod with happiness, bright colors, high energy, dancing, and the awesome and upbeat Fratellis song playing in the background. They don’t care if you even know what the product is. You’ll figure that out later when you go to the apple store and start asking around for the thing in their commercial that makes the black people dance. After your hilarious misunderstanding with the African-American store employee, he’ll show you an iPod and you’ll buy it because you want to dance too.
These kind of ads are everywhere these days, and they, unlike most infomercials, work on the average consumer (not my roommate.) People are much less aware of being emotionally manipulated than they are of products making overblown claims about themselves as they have for decades. No longer to ad associates try to sell you a product based on its own merits. They’re selling you a culture. Corona beer? Joyful partying on a beach in the Caribbean. Lexus cars? Relaxing luxury and soft comfort. Nike shoes? Hardcore commitment and serious athletics. Canada? Harmless cheer and better healthcare. Whoops, that last one might not be a brand. Starting to see a pattern? What about beer takes you to the Caribbean? Why does a shoe equate to hardcore athletics? Why are Canadians so darn nice? None of those things necessarily equate with the product that is being sold. However, by associating the product with desirable characteristics the advertisers hope that we’ll make that connection too.
Both infomercials and EMAs have the same goal: getting us to buy the product. Obviously. But where do we draw the line with pithy sales pitches and emotional manipulation? When does it become unethical to make my roommate want to buy two Quick Chops and cheese graters when he already owns knives and a grater? When does associating a music player with joyful happiness cross the line into making a product something it isn’t? Easy.
When you’re selling Furbys.