Saturday, May 05, 2007


I'm going to have to go into full soapbox mode for this one, so everyone should probably stand back. In fact you may just want to browse out of here.

I think that advertising cheapens and coarsens our lives. It pollutes society. It takes the joy out of everything it touches. It teaches us all the wrong lessons. Any one ad, taken in isolation, is irritating but benign. It's the cumulative force of tens of thousands of them, over years, that cause permanent damage.

Coca Cola, you see, doesn't make you happy. It doesn't mean that the party has started, it doesn't help you bond with the guys, it doesn't take you back to the old days. There are other things in life that really can make you happy; but if you've been tricked into thinking that Coca Cola does it, you're that much poorer. You're further away from the real pursuit of happiness. You've let Coca Cola detour you into a dead end.

I've tried to resist this programming. I know that ads promise things, like happiness, that have nothing to do with their product, but I don't think I've escaped the effects. I know I've been programmed to think that going out and buying something will make me feel better. The act of buying and the act of owning have been drilled into me as the source of personal fulfillment.

Just a brief disclaimer now. All of this is not a prelude to saying that we need to a) renounce materialism and go live on a commune, or b) find Jesus. I'm actually a big cheerleader for materialism, in the sense that I think that all of our material conveniences and comforts are necessary stage-setting for the real pursuit of personal fulfillment. My swiffer doesn't provide happiness, but it cuts the cleaning time in half so that I can spend that surplus time doing something meaningful (or, more typically, playing Grand Theft Auto). For that reason alone I'm grateful for the swiffer.

It's "branding" that has to go. Branding is evil. Branding is responsible for this cheapening of our lives. Here's my amateur theory on the subject.

I think in the old days of consumerism, the really old days, there was no government oversight, no money-back guarantee, snake oil salesmen selling you mysterious tonics and potions, and lots of bad science floating around. If you bought something, drank it, and were allergic to the wrong thing, you could keel over and die. This is why good products, back then, had to trade on their name. If your toothpaste said "Colgate" on it, then you could be relatively assured that it was good toothpaste.

I seem to remember as a kid that a lot of advertising would stress the word "guarantee". Our product is guaranteed. Works every time or your money back. Company founders would appear in their best suit in the ad and give their personal word that the product was guaranteed to work as promised. You don't see that too much anymore. No one makes "It really works!" the focus of the ad these days. Now it's more likely to be a 30 second skit with a joke and some sexual innuendo with the product as a central prop to the play.

The reason why the "guarantee" ads have disappeared is that everything is guaranteed now. By the time something gets to your supermarket shelf, it's passed every conceivable test for safety and effectiveness. And if something still manages to go wrong, you get immediate service recovery. And if something still isn't resolved to your satisfaction, you can sue the bastards.

But the whole reason that Brands and Jingles and Catch-Phrases existed was to convince you of the quality of the product. Now that the quality of any product on any shelf is always guaranteed, what do we need the aggressive sales pitch for anymore? I've always conceded that commercials can sometimes function in an instructive way - for example showing me a upcoming movie that I wasn't aware of, or alerting me to a going-out-of-business sale, or announcing hat day at the ballpark, etc. But there's no longer any need to tell me to use Colgate brand toothpaste.

Because, now, there's no difference between Colgate, Aquafresh and Crest. None. It's all the same thing. Any ad that tries to persuade you that Colgate is superior is just a phenomenal waste of time, money and energy. At best, it annoys you and spoils an otherwise pleasant 30 seconds. At worst it actually succeeds in persuading you that Colgate is better.

So how can a commercial persuade you that one branded commodity product is better than another branded commodity product. The method that marketers have discovered is to persuade you that the toothpaste offers something more than just the normal toothpaste-y goods. One way is to differentiate the brand by inventing lots of different toothpaste categories, like Tartar control, extra whitening, maximum strength (?), etc.

But the problem with that is that Aquafresh and Crest will quickly mimic any successful toothpaste differentiation you can cook up. They'll have their own Tartar control product. So now what?

Now is when you get really sneaky. Now is when you decide that toothpaste can actually transport you into an entirely different lifestyle or social class. If you make an ad that shows a woman scrubbing with Colgate before hopping gleefully into bed with an attractive man in what is obviously a well appointed house, you're pitching a lifestyle. If you see that commercial enough thousands of times, you might actually start to associate Colgate with great sex and fabulous wealth.

And yes, I'm by no means the first person to make this case. In fact it's been made to me in several classrooms - sadly though it's been made by teachers who actually endorse this kind of marketing, and who clearly admire the strategy.

Modern marketing says that you don't pitch the product, because that's futile - all of your competitors have the same product. You have to pitch something that's out of reach, something that's otherwise unobtainable. Colgate doesn't just clean your teeth, it also leads to great sex. You don't need to demonstrate how Colgate can provide great sex, you just need to put them in the same picture frame over and over.

Now this indeed might be the best way to boost toothpaste sales. I can't fault the theory on its successful track record. But I wonder if the professors and faculty in my school's Marketing Department have thought about what they're helping to do to society. (Jeez, and I really hate writing sentences like that last one. But it's worth it. The message has to get out.)

What it does is promote a gnawing sense of insecurity that whatever we currently have isn't good enough. This bombardment of film footage that we are constantly subjected to that equates product ownership with happiness - it messes with our programming. I know my programming has been permanently altered. If someone were to ask me right now: what's the best laundry detergent on the market? Without hesitation I would say "Tide". But, Tide isn't better than any other detergent. All of those detergents: Wisk, Gain, All, Cheer, Tide - all of them - they're all the same. That smug sense of satisfaction I get when I take my Tide to the laundry room and see all the poor saps with their generic supermarket detergent. How I pity them! They can't afford Tide. Maybe I should be charitable and give them a cup? Give them a taste of the good life... See how Tide has twisted my brain?

And these professors, these educators are going into the classroom every day and instructing the next generation how to perpetuate the deception. Does anyone ever raise their hand and ask why we should devote so much time and strategy to convince total strangers that Coke is better than Pepsi, when it's actually not better? That would be a fun question to ask in class.

What can I possibly hope for here? Will ads ever die? Sometimes, when the product becomes so commoditized that no one can even pretend to claim that their brand is better, then the ads go away. Like... I don't know - salt. No one makes ads trying to claim that their salt is the bomb. Unless I just haven't seen them. I can't recall any salt ads where the woman takes the salt down from the cupboard and the muscular, manly husband comes up behind her and puts his arms around her and nuzzles her neck. "Mmm... smells delicious honey. Is that Morton's Iodized table salt?"

Well, yep, I'm definitely plummeting down from the coffee high now, so it's time to wrap it up. People, don't be fooled by ads. All those different brands, they're all the same. Okay, maybe a laundry detergent connoisseur can detect the slightly different bouquet of Cheer and prefers it to Downy, but whose fault is it that he got the idea in his head to have a detergent preference in the first place? Can one really have a preference? Can one really express individuality through brand choice?

All right, I'm done. No more soapbox today.

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