Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Commercials Made me Do It!

Reader el shared the following comment from one of online discussions about the bad, mean and scary advertisement industry:
I like how the ad messages evolved from WW2, “Be beautiful while you work in the factories and marry a sailor!” to post WW2 get-back-in-the-kitchen and marry a veteran. The social engineering is really remarkable–it went well beyond creating needs and selling products to shaping behavior in all walks of life.  Advertisements still work that way, but I think they’ve gotten much more clever at being subtle. Insidious.
I can just imagine those subtle and insidious ad executives getting together and creating a world-wide conspiracy to shape people's behavior. Of course, it would make a lot more sense - and be a whole lot easier - simply to discover what people's basic needs and drives are and try to tap into those needs and drives. Is it possible that the old fogy Ockham was right and the simplest explanation is, indeed, the correct one?

I, for one, am sick to death of hearing how advertisement influences people to do things they don't want and buy stuff they don't need. As somebody who speaks to people for a living, I know very well that people have a tendency only to hear what they want to. You can repeat something a hundred times over, write it on a board, sing and dance it, put it in flashing lights and bright colors, and still people will hear the exact opposite of what you are saying because that's what they want to do. 

A while ago, there was this theory that advertisers put subliminal messages into TV commercials to provoke people to want to buy things on a subconscious level. I don't know about other people, but I can't even say with certainty what company my favorite commercials represent. People of the TV generations have learned to tune out of commercials to the point where they couldn't tell you what was being advertised two seconds after the commercials aired. I do, however, watch attentively the advertisement for products that I want to buy.

People criticize advertisement for talking us into buying stuff we don't need and getting into massive debt as we keep consuming like crazy. I could buy into this argument had I not read Benito Perez Galdos's 1884 novel La de Bringas, whose protagonist, Rosalia Bringas, gets into debt through an unbridled consumption of useless objects. Her crazy spending gets so bad that she has to resort to prostitution to repay her debts. One could, of course, find much earlier examples of out-of-control purchases that left people destitute. So somehow people managed to overspend without watching TV commercials.

Advertisement promotes an impossible standard of beauty, people claim. In order to believe this you need to forget that for millenia people did all kinds of crazy, bizarre and dangerous things to their bodies to pursue an impossible standard of beauty. Foot binding, neck elongation, drinking of vinegar - all these practices existed long before anybody heard of advertisement.

In my opinion, all that advertisement does is give us exactly what we want anyways. The impossible standards of beauty and loads of useless junk are things that human beings always have and always will pursue. Beauty, by its nature, has to be impossible to attain, or it would be no beauty at all. If everybody is special, then nobody is. It is very easy and attractive to find some outside agency that we can happily blame for everything that goes wrong in our lives. It isn't my fault that I bought objects I couldn't afford. The bad, nasty commercials made me do it. I'm not to blame for eating junk and then torturing myself with stupid diets to lose weight. The greedy ad execs are at fault. I'm not a responsible individual. I'm just a weak, powerless object at the mercy of forces beyond my control.

Or am I?


karnak said...

Even a basic study of advertising will show you that needs can be created. For example, we may have a basic need to drink but the preference between coke and pepsi is an artificially created need.

Clarissa said...

And what difference does that choice between two very similar drinks that cost the same make to a consumer?

Pagan Topologist said...

I will skip this discussion. I drink water, coffee, juice, and sometimes wine or tea. Coke and Pepsi are unhealthy and expensive and pointless.

Clarissa said...

That's exactly what I believe, too. People in my country have been known to clean toilets with Sprite and 7Up because of how fast they eat away all dirt. :-)

Anonymous said...

I wish I could remember the title of this odd semi sci fi Spanish movie I saw years ago, where there are primitive terrorist types from "Planeta Asturias" plotting against the government. Their lemma is anti advertising; they chant: "!No queremos adelgazar! !No queremos oler bien!"

Clarissa said...

This is very funny. :-) I wish I knew the movie.

Rimi said...

"I, for one, am sick to death of hearing how advertisement influences people to do things they don't want and buy stuff they don't need."

Spoken like the Rimi of yesteryears. I have since seen first hand the subconscious dependence people have on ALL kinds of adverts, including paid-for 'article' space. I once spotted a ridiculously pro-GM fish and grains in the Boston Globe's post-editorial page, was immediately suspicious and googled the author. He turned out to be the CEO of a biotech firm that specilises in biotech salmon, and has 'interests' in some GM grains.

Then, just when I was getting ready to share a laugh about this crookedness, no less than five people at my uni told me how this 'learned' article was making them rethink their stance. Because as everyone knows, The Boston Globe is a bastion of unbiased, honest, progressive journalism (hah!).

So you see, it's not just believing the actors on TV who pretend to be doctors, or wanting to be hot like that model. It's about the merging of brandworth: something with a very different market image allows itself to be piggy-ridden by more suspect market images, and it is this complex network of reinforced value that finally attaches itself to a product.

Also, an overworked, debt-ridden, badly educated and television-addicted audience helps. It was the absence of this culture that made me scoff at the idea adverts could shape your world-view, but I've changed my mind after seeing the average American person. And it's slowly going that way in India too.

Spanish prof said...

Is it "Accion Mutante" by Alex de la Iglesia? I saw it years ago, and vaguely remember it, but it sounds about right.

Anonymous said...

The evil lies in that children and uneducated can be strongly influenced to the extent to almost being controlled. More mature people and educated people are still being influenced and are choosing lower quality products over higher quality products. Either people become more educated in the mechanisms of marketing, and get more knowledgeable and picky when choosing their products or good quality product developers improve their marketing skills. But we know that in our perfect world neither of this is going to happen, do we?


Anonymous said...

Connecting dots: Why do people think Mac is cool, PC is OK and Linux difficult?

Why do people drink coke, rather than pepsi or juice?


Clarissa said...

I don't know about other people but for me: Mac is difficult, PC is unreliable and Linux is for programmers and It people. :-)

Clarissa said...

I think that often people choose lower quality products because they are cheaper. Not everybody can afford freshly squeezed juice. The way the economy is right now almost nobody can afford it.

Anonymous said...

"Foot binding, neck elongation, drinking of vinegar" were all advertised even back then. The advertisements were not as sophisticated as they are now but they were advertised. Take a product, attach a visibly happy person to that product, our innate need for happiness drives us to get that product.

People are still irresponsible for not noticing the insidious lies but you can't say advertisements don't result in behavioral change. Why else will companies pay billions of dollars for advertisements?

Pagan Topologist said...

From what I understand, advertising is most effective when the customer is unaware of it. For example, it is well known in the bar and tavern industry that having red tables/tablecloths will increase alcohol sales. Many owners dod not do this, since it also increases the number of fights that occur.