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"And Now A Word From Our Sponsor..."

The first thing you have to understand is that without advertising it would be impossible for any other media to exist on a meaningful scale.  Advertising income supports the machines that enable the creation and distribution of every form of media content – television, newspapers, magazines, music, books, sports and the Internet.  For a better understanding of what media would be like if consumers had to support it, consider the PBS business model.       

It is worth noting that the advent of modern advertising came into being at a simpler point in time when there were fewer things for us to want.  In 1960, we might have seen ads for three or four brands of toothpaste.  Today, we have a dozen brands of toothpaste, half as many brands of mouthwash, various brands of dental floss, toothbrushes, tooth whiteners, tooth alignment devices and/or treatments, breath freshening and/or whitening chewing gum, vitamins to enhance teeth, treatment for gingivitis and dentures.  And when you finish using all those products, don’t forget to call 1-800-DENTIST.   

There are certain psychological factors that contribute to the success or failure of advertising.  If you understand the way that advertisers appeal to our emotions, you can become more effective in the way you respond to them. 

1.  We want to achieve our fullest potential.

The Army’s “Be All That You Can Be” and “An Army of One” campaigns were extremely successful in recruiting young men who had not yet found their place in the world and wanted to do something to prove themselves worthy of respect.  This same desire drives us to purchase shampoo, cosmetics, deodorant, clothes, shoes, skin care products, diet sodas, gym memberships, Jenny Craig food plans, not to mention The Fobi Pouch, stomach stapling and gastric bypass surgery.  Personal insecurity is our greatest vulnerability.   
2.  We fear being social outcasts.

All of us have a need to belong to something that is bigger than ourselves.  It’s an extension of the primal instinct to be part of the tribe in order to increase the chances of survival.  Inherent within this pack mentality is a full spectrum set of rules for social acceptability.  Bad breath and body odor exist at one end of the spectrum, while smelly carpets and dingy laundry are at the other.  In this regard, subtext is king – what is said by implication often has a much greater influence than what is said by actual declaration. 

3.  We enjoy positive memories.

In recent years, scrapbooks have become a multi-billion dollar industry.  It is as if we have all become obsessed with memorializing the meaningful moments of our lives in multi-colored boxes and books with stickers and cut outs and journal notes wrapping around the images.     We also have collective cultural memories, and these are a ripe target for advertisers.  Anything that will arouse an emotion in us is fair game.  Ads built around a holiday theme want you to remember a positive experience in your childhood and be inspired to share a modern version of the same experience with your own children.  The inclusion of cute kids and/or pets is a manipulative device that enables the product to benefit from a second layer of sell.  Ultimately, we respond well to images that commemorate universal themes and rites of passage.  Even if we don’t have our own positive memories, we all wish we did.  In that case, we are inspired to recreate the advertising images in our own lives. 

4.  We are easily scared into submission.

Recent trends in automotive advertising have manipulated shock value to up-sell side air bags and on-star systems.  Public service announcements offer a politically correct approach to difficult issues.  These techniques work because they are fear tactics cloaked in artistic production values.  Negative stereotypes reinforce our fear of that which is foreign or unknown.  We are appropriately shocked by testimonials from people who will speak against a product or service (ie: tobacco or controlled substances) that they previously supported for the sake of telling you the truth and protecting you.  (Can we ever forget the image of a terminal lung cancer victim smoking a cigarette through her tracheotomy hole???) 

5.  Humor makes us more receptive to the ad’s message.

Commercials give us a “time out” from our favorite programs to get something from the kitchen or put the kids to bed.  But advertisers don’t want us to take time out from their message so they frequently use humor to keep us watching.  Humor relaxes us.  It is the Hamburger Helper of advertising – the message enhancer that makes us focus on the ad even if we’ve already seen it a dozen times. 

6.  We easily succumb to peer pressure.
In the same way that we want to be included in the social groups that surround us, we often demonstrate an enthusiasm to adopt a herd mentality.  We might scoff and say it’s so high school to have to conform to someone else’s expectations of how you should behave – but we tend to conform anyway.  Advertisers manipulate us by establishing a common enemy we can fear or resent – and then offering us a product or service that unites us in triumph over that enemy. 

7.  We need to find solutions to our problems.

Modern life can be overwhelming.  We all have too many responsibilities and not enough time or money to deal with them.  Smart advertisers establish a partnership between consumers and their company that provides the product or service.  If we’re overwhelmed by machines, they offer experts to help us deal with them.  If we need to buy a big ticket item, they educate us on why their product is best suited to our needs.  Throughout it all, they keep reminding us that they are there for us and that they care.    

8.  We are predictable.

Demography is the statistical study of human populations.  Advertisers target demographics because their focus groups have determined that most products appeal to the needs and/or desires of specific demographic segments.    In television, advertising demographics drive programming decisions.  In print media, advertising drives editorial content.  Placement of specific ads in the midst of specific content creates an association between the emotional connection we have to entertainment content and the subsequent emotional desire we have to purchase a product or service.  As a result, advertising is choreographing many of our collective choices. 

9.  Placement of advertising influences us in subliminal ways.

It takes 5 frames of video for us to absorb an image.  Television runs at a rate of 30 frames per second.  What you see is often much more than what you think you see.  Why do our children all want the same toy at the same time?  Why do we find ourselves having actual cravings for the food products we see in commercials – even when we may not be hungry?  What factors make us select the specific brand of products we purchase with loyalty?  The answers to these questions are deeply embedded in the science of creating advertising that will influence our decisions in subtle – often imperceptible – ways. 

Unless you have retro leanings toward a return to the barter system (and a pediatrician who is willing to accept a chicken in payment for your kid’s flu shot) you’ll probably agree that Capitalism is the most desirable system to live under.  Capitalism is driven by commerce.  Advertisers enable competition in that commercial market, which ultimately benefits us in many ways.  Articles in this section will explore the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of the images and slogans that drive our consumer society. 

What If Firefighters Ran The World With Sprint Nextel Phones?
May 6th 2008

One of the most powerful techniques advertisers have in their bag of tricks is the ability to create an emotional impact by linking their product to a beloved cultural icon.  Certainly, in the post-9/11 collective frame of reference there is no greater iconic hero than the firefighter.  The sound byte is permanently etched into our subconscious.  Firefighters run into burning buildings – what could possibly be more heroic? 

Sprint Nextel could have shown the iconic hero in the field, saving babies from burning buildings, or performing dramatic rescue efforts on old folks in the throes of cardiac arrest.  Instead, they chose to layer icon upon icon and placed the firefighters into a different field of battle – the United States Congress.  Suddenly, what could have been a simple product promotion becomes a significant social statement.

There is no doubt that we are watching a commercial for a phone service because the firefighters repeatedly speak into their Sprint Nextel Powersource Devices (referenced as such in the fine print that flashes quickly across the bottom of the screen).  But one can only imagine the congressional leaders on the opposite end of the role reversal.  Rather than racing into the burning building to save lives, would the congressional leaders debate their positions on the situation, negotiate to attach earmarks and then table the matter or send it to committee?  Would C-Span spring for a second camera to record the moment – and if so,  would anybody watch?     

The simple brilliance of this commercial is that it manages to express it’s brand message AND make an important political statement AND pay homage to a revered cultural icon.  At the same time, the simple tragedy is that our government is unable to use their basic common sense to do what everyone can easily agree is right – balance the budget, reduce the tax forms to one page, improve the roads, and insist on clean water.  When the Chief shakes his head and says, “Easiest job I’ve ever had,” the commercial delivers the Sprint Nextel slogan: “Get more done with Nextel Direct Connect.”  Within a matter of seconds, we have been entertained, educated and subconsciously convinced that if the Nextel Direct Connect is the choice of these firefighters it ought to be our choice, too.

Perhaps the solution to our sociopolitical challenges is to force the American public to watch C-Span at least as often as they watch Oprah or Leno or ESPN.  Confronted with a few hours of the self-indulgent oratory and pontification – commercial free, I might add – we might all be eager to hold our elected representatives to a higher standard of accountability.  CC


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