Advertisers have been lucky over the past couple of years. The global economy has gone the way of cheese in a fondue and MPs have been picking voters’ pockets. Consequently, the national hate list has been dominated by bankers and politicians whilst those ghastly folk who interrupt the football to sell you car insurance have faded into the background.
It won’t last, of course. No one actually likes advertising because we instinctively feel we’re being told what to do, and that grates. Even if we actually search it out we see it as a necessary evil – the goblin-filled forest that must be traversed to reach the princess in the tower.
I’ve even felt that way myself, but I have to come clean – copywriting is not simply the much-nicer-by-far third cousin twice removed of advertising.
My name is David and I’m… I’m… Oh Lord… I’m an advertiser!
But hang on – should I really head off with some rope to a tree with a usefully low-hanging bough? Sure, there are plenty of times when we don’t appreciate advertising, but there’s a wide range out there, so the question for this blog post is: do I have a soul? …Or, if I take my tongue out of my cheek, is there integrity in advertising and where would I draw a line?
You might be surprised by the area of advertising I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole…
The Slippery Slope
When dealing with essentials, advertisers often focus on price. You already know you’re going to buy it, but you can be persuaded to go where it’s cheapest. That was a rare mistake by Tesco a while ago when they ran a campaign showing how much cheaper their goods were than Sainsbury’s. Asda were then inspired to take exactly the same tack to show their prices were lower than everyone’s – including Tesco. Tesco’s ads were rapidly dropped whilst Asda’s have continued ever since.
Ultimately, these ads are conveying useful, money-saving information. That seems morally fine. (Though if you’re a farmer I would understand why you’d think there are many other areas of the big supermarkets’ operations that are far from fine!)
Alternatively you need persuading that a particular brand is better than the alternatives. In this area car advertising is particularly interesting. Since all cars in a particular price range tend to have exactly the same features they are sold on more intangible qualities, such as ‘fun’. Of course, when I buy my shiny new car I shouldn’t expect it to be able to launch from rooftops to execute barrel-rolls. Neither should I be surprised if it can’t pull off the latest break-dancing moves.
These ads portray the ludicrous as a way of conveying the concept of fun and excitement, but could I demand my money back if the car didn’t seem much fun when I drove it? Of course not – it’s just selling a vague concept. And in all likelihood I won’t even be aware this is why I’m leaning towards that particular brand of car in the first place.
Masters of this are Apple. Reviews consistently point out that competing products are superior in terms of functionality and yet the brand has made itself so iconic that a substantial section of the population want nothing else and will happily sell their grandmother in order to acquire one.
Hmmm. Perhaps we’re reaching the point of three Hail Marys but we’re not Hell-bound yet.
Do You Really Need That?
A great deal of advertising, though, is to convince you to buy something you wouldn’t otherwise have bought. You enjoy your coffee, but wouldn’t it be even nicer if steaming plumes of caffeinated bliss emerged from a proper coffee machine? Your garden looks great, but wouldn’t you enjoy it even more from the plush, velvety padding of a premium luxury relaxer seat? You love your wife, but wouldn’t that love be even greater if you bought her a sparkling eternal diamond solitaire? Because anything less than a diamond means you’re a cheapskate…
Well now of course we’re starting to look shifty. People are quite happy without these products but the lifestyle gurus of the advertising world do their best to convince them they’re not – that their lives aren’t entirely complete until the breadmaker-shaped hole that wasn’t there five minutes ago is filled.
Even so, I can cope with this. After all, these products are designed to make life better, albeit in an infinitesimally small way. And no one’s forcing you to buy them.
Ahhhh… now that’s where we start to reach the line.
You Really Don’t Need That!
What if you’ve already bought your coffee-making, diamond-studded, bread-producing all-swinging-and-dancing garden relaxer? Well now the company has a problem. So they try to sell you a slightly better one.
Prime territory for this approach is the mobile phone. Once technology was cheap enough the market was quickly saturated with phones – which created a quandary for the manufacturers. Part of the response has been to add ever more technology to the phones, latterly turning them into media centres, but a significant thrust in advertising was to make the phone a fashion item.
Ads would show sad old phones being hidden away by their owners in shame before a new, fashionable purchase suddenly brought social acceptability and a whole new life of fun and friends. People now started buying new phones that did pretty much the same as their old one, but this was the latest model.
Now again, I don’t have a problem with this – adults are perfectly capable of deciding what to spend their money on.
But, this becomes more problematic with kids. Fitting in and fashionability are crucial to a child and this is a highly vulnerable market. So we come to an area now where I start to feel uncomfortable. It’s still a grey area, but leads into the final stage where I would say, “Not for me.”
A Bridge Too Far
Thankfully tobacco advertising has already been swept away, so I would never be faced with a decision about working on promoting it (which would be a very easy decision). Alcohol is another difficult area. I enjoy it myself but remain alert to the social problems it generates. Frankly the majority of the population enjoys alcohol responsibly, so I would be happy working with any campaign that was not essentially promoting the message, “Have a great time and probably a lot of success with the opposite sex with alcohol.” Of course, such restrictions are already in place, but there are still ads where subtle implications along these lines exist.
However, ads aimed at children simply aren’t something I would want to engage with. Persuading a child that they want a particular cereal that probably isn’t the best thing for them to be eating, or a toy that they certainly don’t need isn’t for me.
But there’s one area of advertising that genuinely offends and enrages me. I would never give a moment’s consideration to involving myself in this area of the industry.
Be Afraid – Be Very Afraid
Fear sells. You only have to read any tabloid to see their awareness that hitting readers’ panic buttons persuades them to buy the paper. And just look where that leads – at least one child died from measles because she hadn’t been immunised against it after the MMR vaccine scare whipped up by the tabloids. The scientific consensus was that the vaccine was safe, but you wouldn’t have thought that from the coverage.
What works for papers works for advertisers and the ads I abhor are those which try to scare parents into buying products to ‘protect’ their children. Notably disinfectants.
The worst out of these was for Dettol Surface Cleaner (no YouTube video I could find). A mother is preparing a chicken dish for dinner and has been chopping carrots on the same board as the chicken. She then passes a slice of carrot to her child in a high chair, but as he moves it towards his mouth it morphs into a raw chicken leg.
STOP! No! Raw chicken! That poor child! How can we protect him?
Dettol Surface Cleaner to the rescue! And another innocent life is saved.
As I said, this ludicrous scaremongering is only the worst example. Have a think whenever you see an ad for disinfectants and see just how many feature young children.
Manipulating parents’ fears for their children is one thing, but what annoys me even more is that a number of scientific studies now make it clear that over-clean environments are actually damaging to children. We sterilise our homes to such a degree that kids aren’t given the exposure to germs necessary in early life to stimulate and develop their immune systems. This means they will be far more susceptible to truly nasty infections later in life and indeed this may even be responsible for the increase in allergies amongst our children.
Far from promoting healthy children, these ads play on the natural fears of parents and potentially risk their future health.
And so we have the latest in the line. It follows the principles we’ve seen above – you already have soap, but there’s a machine that can make your soap even better!
Yes, the Dettol No-Touch Handwash System is here. Note the kids in the ad, of course, looking happy and healthy in a germ-free home. And yet here’s the glorious illogic: a normal pump has germs on the handle, we’re told, but what exactly are you going to do after touching it? Oh yes – wash your hands. And with Dettol the soap is supposed to kill 99.9% of all germs, so why on earth should you be concerned about touching a germy pump button anyway? Your hands are already dirty – that’s why you’re washing them. In all likelihood, there will be more germs on your hand than on the handle; that’s how it became germy in the first place! So touching the handle of a normal soap dispenser is going to make no difference whatsoever.
Now of course a grimy soap pump doesn’t actually look very attractive and I would entirely understand households wanting a no-touch dispenser in order to improve the look of their kitchen or bathroom. Yet that isn’t the basis on which the product is being sold. Instead, nonsensical reasoning is deployed to worry parents and the fear button is pushed once again. An understandable reason for buying this product is ditched in favour of a spurious one, because fear sells more than cosmetic appeal.
So, there’s my surprising no-go area for advertising: manipulative fear-driven ads that exploit parents’ concerns by over-cooking the hazards of day-to-day life. As far as the fear button goes, I’m all for a no-touch system.
I’m off to wash my hands now – they feel a bit dirty after that…