Sunday, July 6, 2008

Things I Hate: Commercials

I was thinking about this yesterday. Today I was privy to the straw that broke the camel's back so to speak. I was thinking about the effectiveness of commercials in my consumer decisions. I decided that at least half the time the outcome of a commercial elicits the opposite as to their intended purpose. I don't pretend to be the only person who dislikes commercials, but I doubt people really think about it. What is their purpose? Fundamentally, it is to inform the consumer as to the availability of a product or service. The next step in advertising sophistication is to inform the consumer as to the benefit of said product or service by either positively presenting their product or service, or negatively presenting the competition. The later is the first crux. Finally, they must make the commercial memorable in a favorable way by being provocative when smearing the competition or "pop" or "edgy" when trying to promote their own positive characteristics. This is the second crux.

By smearing the competition as inferior we are ultimately deteriorating society by pushing the bounds of ethics. This is common and obvious in the realm of politics. Also, they fail to present a proper persuasive argument by all too often dwelling on a one sided bias. This sort of mentality slights fair trade and ethical competition by forcing the common consumer to make choices without complete knowledge of the product and its alternatives. Inevitably if no company takes the high road, then the consumer must choose between the least of all evils. Complete negative reinforcement will only create lower consumer moral.

The second, and most damnable characteristic of ad campaigns, is the exploitation of consumer through a blunt force trauma use of unsophisticated suggestions. Miracle cleaners and car salesmen are two good examples. A local car commercial was going to have some guy on a motorcycle jump 14 cars. So. I wondered if anybody would even show up to see it. They use an unnaturally annoying high pressure salesman with a fake persona and sales pitch poorly riding a wheelie on camera as he spouts out some crap about this motorcycle jump. What does that have to do with the product? It's simply annoying. It's exploiting people that are unsophisticated enough get excited about gimmicks. The miracle cleaner guy is the same way. He talks quickly and excitably in order to be memorable. His statements are reinforced by a questionable "right before your eyes" demonstration. Any moron should be appalled by the obvious use of rudimentary manipulation techniques.

Either way, these are primitive tactics, brutal like the prom night fumbling in the back seat of your father's car. A conscience stance against these exploitations will align with the spirit of capitalism and the best products will shine through. I will not dance to their tune. An online consumer rating system could effectively weed out the less worthy. Maybe Angie's List is making an attempt at that. I'm not sure if it handles consumer goods or not. If it doesn't then it should.

This paragraph is my acceptance as to the inevitability of commercials. Remember the old Gillette commercials? "Gillette, the best a man can get." They were sophisticated and affective because they employed attractive people in a "normal" yet modern setting. Consider them further. They always depicted a ruggedly handsome man shaving; hence, an attractive person in a normal situation. They were selling razors so they used sharp lines and harsh shadows to define edges. They also used deep, rich color schemes that appealed to the sophisticated side of the consumer. Is this manipulation of emotions? Definitely, but they appealed to complex, evolved emotions. They were void of flashy, trendy gimmicks.

I have to say, sex sells. Damn, I love the most recent Edge shave gel commercials with the hot girls shooting each other with shaving cream. I am a corporate pawn. But let's consider that further though. Sex is as primitive as it gets but sexuality is as sophisticated as it gets. Sexuality and sensuality are equally affective on men and women because sexual, mysterious people are desired and admired. Even purely sexual women such as in the Edge commercials bring positive reinforcement while remaining essentially neutral in a capitalistic way. They are pushing the envelope as to what is exploitation of consumers. I acknowledge that.

My last thought pertains to the "straw" I referred to in the first sentence. I was watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on ABC Family. After I started counting and before I lost my patience it was averaging 5-10 minutes of movie before airing 4-7 minutes of commercials. The total run time is 3.5 hours. The DVD runtime is 2.5 hours. If we adjust for the "edited to fit in the allotted runtime" clause, I'd bet we're talking about a 2 hour runtime without commercials. This is unreasonable. The same thing happened with Batman Begins on FX (I think). Just like poor commercials forcing away my business, I quit watching! Furthermore, it's likely I will not watch your station again because of it. I take things to the extreme, but ask yourself my dear reader…why don't you?

And now a deep thought…

The achievement of mankind cannot be measured by its tangible creations. It can only be assessed by marveling at the great expanse of knowledge learned through its generations.


E.Jacob said...

Hey dude, good comments, but one note. The root of all commercials is simply to sell their product in any way they can. Sex, catchy tunes and these distractions accomplish that. We really can't blame them at all, they just do what works.

As you mentioned, the whole problem is that the average Joe is just a (ignorant) pawn in this whole system. If we really wanted honest simple ads our dollars would speak for us very effectively.

Most of the online TV channels only show short 20 second ads at the same intervals. I wonder what made this shift? Has the internet made us more annoyed by ads? Or does it allow more directed ads, so they require less of them? Also, with tivo and such consumers have thrown a wrench into there simple system. Additionally, the entire TV industry seemed to react to this and the internet in a very slow fashion.

One final note, I probably gave the ad makers too much credit by saying that they 'do what works' since as you pointed out... a lot of ads piss me off as well. Also, many times on internet TV, they show the same damned 20 second commercial at every break. That is hardly an effective use of time.

Eric Tarnowski said...

While I certainly agree with you that much of today's advertising is annoying, often even irritating, I think you are guilty of oversimplifying in your argument. Advertising today is more sophisticated than the gimmicks and sales pitches you decry. To use the lowest forms of the craft (and local car ads certainly qualify) as a basis for argument is like making judgments of humanity based on the mentally handicapped. It is a myopic approach that lends itself to lazy generalizations. At the end of the day, the output may be annoying, but with much of today's advertising, there is much more going on than your argument acknowledges.

The first thing to consider when evaluating advertising and its relative (in?)effectiveness is that the purpose of a specific advertisement is often more nuanced than to just sell a product. (A side note here: for the purposes of this discussion, I am going to focus my sample to national advertising campaigns crafted by professional agencies. Local ads are certainly a different animal entirely and a topic for discussion all their own.) While at the end of the day all advertising is intended to drive sales, specific advertisements can be crafted to work towards this goal by affecting a variety of less direct outcomes. Ads can be intended to establish brand identity, generate brand awareness, instill various brand associations, create brand loyalty, or at their most basic, drive specific purchase decisions. To achieve these ends, ads are crafted very differently. An ad that may be effective at creating brand awareness may not have any direct benefit at all in driving purchasing behavior. However, it can be a key foundational component in an overall advertising campaign that ultimately will drive sales. Without considering the specific purpose of an ad, much of today's advertisement can seem pointless and stupid. In reality that may be exactly what was intended.

The second major factor to consider is target market. Most ads today are not designed to appeal to a general audience; they are designed for a specific subset of consumers. However, while focused on a specific market, they are also designed to be effective for as broad of a cross-sector of that subset as possible. What this means is that a good percentage of the advertisements received be a given individual will not be effective because said individual is either not in the target market or varies in their preferences from the most common attributes of said market. If you find that most of the ads you are exposed to do not appeal to you, consider the possibility that your advertising preferences do not align with your demographic and media preferences. If you prefer sophisticated ads, turn off FX and pick up a New Yorker.

This reality is what leads to the situation that seems to be at the root of your angst towards advertising: oversaturation. Because traditional media only allows for limited and primitive targeting, advertisers take a shotgun approach and we get bombarded with ads, most of which do not appeal to us at all. Sure, advertisers can run beer commercials during football games and arthritis medication ads during the Price is Right, but as soon as you, a 25-year-old, single male, flips on Harry Potter on the ABC Family channel, that all goes right out the window. Throw in the fact that most people have DVRs and cable TV with hundreds of options, and advertisers have no choice but to desperately increase the amount of advertising they are throwing out there in hopes that some of it sticks.

And this is where technology is changing the game. On the web, where sophisticated data collection and individual profiling is available, it is much more possible to target advertisements to viewers. This creates a “less is more” situation where the most effective way to reach consumers is through fewer advertisements that are more specific and viewer-appropriate. As this technology becomes more mature and gets incorporated in more and more types of media, look for this to continue to be the trend. The issue, of course, is that all of this comes at the expense of privacy. In order for ads to be more targeted to you, the advertisers need to know more about you.

As far as your concerns regarding the manipulation of data to represent an incomplete or inaccurate representation of the facts, I must defer to my capitalist/libertarian talking points. The basis of our economy is the freedom of choice and an accompanying freedom of information. While an advertisement may provide only a one-sided perspective on a product, that is not the only source of product information available to consumers, and that is not the only product available for them to choose. A whole host of services and groups have popped up to self-regulate the field of product information (Consumer Reports, et al.) and the market creates a natural incentive to be truthful in ads. Due to the availability of information, deceptive advertisers can only achieve a short-term benefit if any at all, because their reputations will be ruined.

While it is true that some ads, particularly political ones, “dumb-down” their message to a discouragingly low level, I take that more as a point of concern for our society than for advertising. The fact that a large portion of our society is willing to accept such messages and make critically important decisions based on them is troublesome on many levels. In this “information age”, when more information is available to us with one click of a button than was ever available in any library in the world, it makes me worry about our future as a society that our populace is so ignorant.

To pull this back into a cohesive argument before I head down the political rat hole, my response to your argument regarding commercials can be summed up as follows:

·There is nothing inherently bad about commercials
·Yes, we are exposed to too many of them
·Most of which do not appeal to us
·That is often by design
·As media becomes more sophisticated, this will be reduced
·Thinking about the political state of this country makes me want to cry

A long way around to get there, I know, but what can I say, I felt compelled.

Josh said...

Eric(s)! Great responses. You inadvertently pointed out that the purpose of the post was less to convince advertisers to stop their current practices, but more to make the consumer realize for themselves the manipulative means advertisers use.

I'm quite aware of and in agreement with the majority of your response. I feel like I preach a little to much about my opinions. It is always much more affective if a person becomes aware on their own terms. If I were to write that post in a way that belittled my reader by assuming their inherent ignorance, then I have simultaneously insulted my reader (who may be oblivious to that as well) and have not "inspired" their own awareness. Inevitably, I am insulting my reader because I am using the same manipulative tactics advertisers use. The question then becomes: do the ends justify the means. I did have trouble writing this post so perhaps my tactics were overshadowed by an honest frustration. Perhaps I need more practice.

Ultimately, I don't think my point was made. I feel responsible consumer should not need or want to be exposed to modern advertising tactics. It could be ignorance of what's actually happening, or it could be acceptance of what I consider unethical treatment of intelligent beings. Either way, it all points to a greater human failure.