Saturday, July 14, 2012

Advertising's "Culture of Meanness"

I saw an older ad for Rogers Communications today. I didn't like this particular ad when it originally ran and now they are recycling it. Two couples are having a barbecue and the women are sitting at a backyard table chatting amiably when all of a sudden the guys yell out in glee, because they are surreptitiously watching "The Big Game" on some sort of mobile device. The women look at them and one of the men sheepishly says, "The burgers are done!" I don't remember what comes next, something about "men and their barbecues" I think (having, apparently, not enough brain power to figure out what's going on), but it's pretty much just crap. The point of this ad is the guys are "getting away with something" because they are watching the game on the sly while they are together cooking the burgers on the grill. But why does there have to be this subterfuge? Why can't they be watching the game while the women have their own mobile device, watching whatever they want to watch? (Actually, it would be better if they were also watching the same damn game, but that's a blog post for another day.) I don't know why this particular Rogers ad got to me today because people generally act reprehensibly in virtually all of their tv spots and most of them are far worse than this one. But it got me thinking about how much meanness and unnecessary anguish is being used these days to sell things that really shouldn't need that kind of a campaign. I understand the value of tugging at your heartstrings or playing with your emotions to give to a "noble cause" (as I spoke of in my post about aggressive solicitation this week), but to sell a phone? Really?

There was a commercial for some breath freshener or another on television recently (bad luck, marketing wizards: I have no idea which product you were selling) where there was a guy home alone and he decided to make himself a huge sandwich of some kind, with plenty of onions and other ingredients that would make his breath really foul. He has just polished it off gleefully when he hears a key in the lock and runs to the bathroom to "freshen his breath". (Side note: if anyone out there has ever come across a product that will eliminate all traces of raw onions from your breath in a few seconds, I'd love to hear about it.) He returns to the kitchen just in time to greet his wife, her arms laden with groceries, who says, "Oh, sweetie! You must be starving! Sorry I'm late!" She then notices the dish in the sink and says, with a sly grin, "I'm pretty sure I washed all the dishes before I left...." So to sum up: 1) the guy, home alone, cannot be trusted to feed himself; 2) he clearly does not wash any of the dishes in this household; 3) he doesn't shop for groceries with his wife; 4) he eats food behind her back and tries to disguise it; and 5) she is clearly ok with all of this. Whatever happened to "You've Come a Long Way, Baby?" Things don't work this way in my home, do they in yours? If not, why are they still propagating this myth on television?

But that's only part of the problem and it's one that has been around as long as television itself. What has really bothered me recently is the realization that society has regressed to the point where we cannot consider a person or treatment or enterprise to be a success unless something or someone else is a failure. The cartoon elephant pictured at left was part of a television campaign recently to help men overcome "Erectile Dysfunction" or "ED". In the tv spot, replete with truly horrible animation, the elephant is hiding in the room but eventually comes out into the open with a big smile, ostensibly so they can "talk about the elephant in the room". All is good so far. Eventually it is suggested that the man has "worked things out", nudge nudge, and he and his lucky wife are standing at their front door, waving goodbye to the elephant. So the elephant helped the man and he and his wife are now happy so everybody wins. Right? Not so much. The elephant is clearly devastated by this turn of events and trudges away from the smiling couple, overtly heartbroken. Why? Why is that necessary to sell....whatever product they were selling? (Again, no idea what the name of the remedy was. More bad advertising.) Why can't the elephant be happy with the outcome he helped bring about? Why do marketers think the best way to get their point across is crushing the spirits of a cartoon elephant?

Remember this ad for Knorr? (Aha! Finally one I can remember!) I know a lot of my friends really liked this ad, with the crying salt shaker, "because it was so cute". I hated it. You're having problems with high blood pressure? You want to cut salt out of your diet? Try these Knorr products! They will help you! Yay! Well done, you've set your mind to change your eating habits and accomplished your goal, so we should be celebrating this. But do we? Nope, not at all. We have to watch a salt shaker become homeless and be forced to watch this now-happy family through a window from out in the cold. Is it clever? Sure is. Is the shaker cute? Hell, yes. Does anyone or anything need to be crushed so this person can accomplish her goals? Of course not. But how can marketing people be reasonably expected to get the point of "winning" across if there isn't a devastated "loser" in plain sight?

I know it seems like I'm being too sensitive and perhaps that's true. But this is an issue that has been bothering me for a very long time and is showing no signs whatsoever of disappearing. In fact, it seems to be getting worse every year - and it's not restricted solely to advertising. Slightly off-topic but still part of this overall malaise: do you remember the game show Press Your Luck? "Big money, no Whammies!" It ran for three years back in the mid-'80s and the main element of the game was a contestant had to try to get through all of their spins and avoid the "Whammies" on the board. Seems like a simple enough concept, right? Not too long ago, they tried to "revive" it for the Game Show Network in the States, only the new show was called Whammy. All of a sudden the risks were greater and more frequent and the entire concept of the original game was turned on its head. When did we become a society that would far rather see our fellow humans fail than succeed? Is it part of the greater fear-mongering tendencies of all of the television networks? Did we become meaner, or were we told to become meaner?

IKEA, who have run many clever and sometimes brilliant ads over the years, recognized this trend several years ago when they ran a brilliant campaign using the immensely talented director, Spike Jonze. Do you remember this ad?

"That is because you are crazy." You know, I think they nailed it back in 2005. Maybe we are all just crazy.


  1. The breath freshening ad is for Scope.

    I personally have the most problems with ads that stereotype male and female characteristics. Men are portrayed as bumbling dummies who can't cook, look after children or possibly tie their own shoelaces. Women are overbearing shrews, the rulemakers who delight only in shopping or having an immaculate home, with little patience for male pursuits like sports (as in the Rogers ad you mentioned). These kinds of stereotypes are bad for both men and women.

    1. Well, you've ruined the point of my "bad avertising" remark by remembering the brand. ;)

      I hate those kinds of ads, too. As you well know, I mainly hate ads that get away with things they really shouldn't get away with, like the Netflix ad where the woman is about to watch the movie with the hunky guy in it and she approaches him with his shirt off and says, "Shhh....don't speak." My take has always been this: whenever you make an ad, before you let it go to air, imagine in your head replace the characters with different genders or ethnicity. If it wouldn't air with those changes, it shouldn't air at all.

  2. I can't stand any of the Rogers ads. LIke Sarah, I dislike the stereotyping. And so many ads just insult your intelligence!

    1. Yeah, the Rogers ads are particularly egregious. I sure didn't mind leading with them tonight. :)


I've kept my comments open and moderation-free for many years, but I've been forced to now review them before they post due to the actions of one member of my family. I apologize for having to take this stance, but that's the way the world is headed, sad to say. Thank you for your understanding.

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