I’m going to tell you a little secret. There is no, I repeat NO, corporate conspiracy trying to turn us all into mindless consumers. Advertising is not carefully contrived to make us want to buy things. And there is no subliminal seduction in advertising. I hate to burst your bubble, folks, but if you buy useless crap it’s your own damn fault. How do I know these things? Very simple, boys and girls: if there was a way to make advertising effective, those ruthless bastards on Madison Avenue would have used it by now to drive their own competitors out of business. Q.E.D. Personally, I think the whole conspiracy theory thing about advertising emerged in the 60s when large numbers of college students got the munchies and needed to explain to each other why they were eating Oreos and Twinkies instead of celery and whole wheat granola.
Here’s the truth. Advertising, especially television advertising, is, at best, a brilliant art form and at worst a minor annoyance. The creative people behind advertising — including the psychologists — are a bunch of shysters who are lying to their corporate masters. Nobody really knows what makes people buy things. However, ad people, over the years, have intimated that they can figure it out. Their hidden agenda, if they even have one, is to secure a way to indulge their art and make bundles of money doing it. The results are all those ads you see everywhere in our universe which are simply following trends that you, “the consumer,” have already set. Look around you, folks! Do you see any ads for sewing machines? No! Why? Because the great mass of people don’t sew anymore. If advertising was the sinister force it’s always been proclaimed to be, there would still be ads for sewing machines, and people would still be buying them. (Whether they sewed or not is a different matter.)
Here’s how ineffective advertising really is. (I’m a little scared of getting sued, so bear with me.) There is a company named after a fruit. Their whole image is based on Young And Cool and they charge outrageous amounts of money for their product — which never goes on sale. Their theory is that people will pay a lot extra for totally cool, and it works. They started an ad campaign in 2006 which featured a comparison between a young, laid-back style of guy and an older, pudgy, suit-and-tie guy. They introduced themselves, and, in the course of 30 seconds, they made fun of the pudgy guy and his product. There were tons of variations on this original ad, and everybody recognized the scenario. Unfortunately, after 3 years, there was no appreciable increase in sales. In fact, the only result of the entire campaign was that people got turned off the company’s image of Young And Cool. The ad was mercilessly lampooned on YouTube. What happened was people began to feel sorry for the little pudgy guy because, after people had seen the ads 110 thousand times the jeans and t-shirt guy just seemed smarmy, sneaky and a bit of a bully. It was an unidentified side effect of doing a direct comparison. In general, people turned slightly against the company named after a fruit, because they perceived it to be mean-spirited.
This ad campaign cost literally tens of millions of dollars and generated a direct negative result. So much for the corporate menace theory! But, here’re the sprinkles on the doughnut. There is another set of ads for a cell phone company in Canada which is using the same type of scenario and is producing a similar negative image. Live and learn? Doesn’t look like it! The cell phone company is spending a dump truck full of money — just the same as the company named after a fruit did — for what is obviously going to be the same result. My question is this: If the evil ad empire can manipulate whole populations at will, how come they’re not doing a better job at it? The answer is simple. Advertising is not that powerful, no matter what people say. Let me explain using television ads as an example.
TV commercials are just little, itty bitty movies. You have to have plot, character, conflict and resolution. They have to contain all this in a 30 second package, and, in most cases, they have to be made in such a way that they can be cut in half and still make sense. Then these ads are always shown with several other little movies in a tiny film festival, stuck between touchdowns in a football game, or something like that. Plus, unlike regular movies, the mark of a good ad is not whether you remember it or not – that’s extra — it’s whether you remember the product or not –which is a good trick. Given this set of constraints – and regardless of how brilliant the film maker is — the chances of an advertisement catching your attention is astronomical. Believe me, Spielberg, Scorsese and Ridley Scott would all suck at making ads. And by the way, radio and print ads are even more difficult.
In actual fact, maybe at one time — when Mad Men ruled the earth — advertising was a powerful thing — to be respected and, perhaps feared. But these days, it’s a weak sister to the much more powerful persuader: “word of mouth.” So this weekend, when you discover all those new Super Bowl ads, sit back, relax and enjoy yourself. You might be watching something that, 1,000 years from now, will be considered a masterpiece of early 21st century art.