September 5, 2002
9:50 AM   Subscribe

What's happened to advertising? Ads used to be straightforward. You could look at an ad and know just what they wanted you to buy and why . Have we become so cynical that being told the product and its benefits is no longer sufficient? Ads now range from the surreal to perplexing. Is the future of advertising a series of short films that have little to nothing to do with the product?
posted by Kellydamnit (42 comments total)
God, I hope so...
posted by techgnollogic at 9:56 AM on September 5, 2002

How hard can you sell a car, or a sneaker, or a carbonated beverage? The major brands are saturated, and while the occasional campaign still undertakes the mission of differentiating a competitor's products from those of the advertiser, all brands are now basically lifestyle brands. As a means to extend a lifestyle brand, why not offer cool/sexy/funny/ evocative/provocative/water-cooler-fodder short films whose creativity often surpasses the TV programming that bookends them? It's a great in-roads into the hipster market.

As with every other topic, no straight argument will be as effective and illuminating as a bent one from The Onion.
posted by blueshammer at 10:00 AM on September 5, 2002

The ads I particularly dislike are the ones for a prescriptive medicine where we are not even told what it is for, just told "to ask your doctor about..."

I find the whole idea of advertising prescriptive medicine distasteful and even unethical. I have visions of people wasting their time at the doctor's office with "Could I use XXX? The people in the ads seem so happy and relieved."
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 10:04 AM on September 5, 2002

the greatest auto dealer commercial is coming.
posted by chrisroberts at 10:04 AM on September 5, 2002

All major advertising is still running on the concept of positioning that has flourished over the last 20 years. Although in ints current form its a huge emphasis on style in order to separate itself from a cutthroat and highly competitive market, especially when targeting younger ages. Having a clever tagline such as "Coke is it" by itself doesn't cut it anymore. You have to have a incredible tagline ("Got Milk?"), and the barrage of style and cool to deliver that message ahead of all the other advertising you're getting during the day. Surrealism is the "in" thing right now, because it's a conversation piece. However, that doesn't mean it always works. In my opinion, the new Virgin Mobile Wireless "Come to Sexy" commercials are a complete fucking disaster.

Being just surreal doesn't work, you also have to be intriguing, like the Nike Le Parkour commercials.
posted by Stan Chin at 10:09 AM on September 5, 2002

I must say I enjoy Saatchi & Saatchi's campaign for some crazy swinger club med thing: "subliminal sex" which I heard won some awards for advertising. [image via filepile]
posted by mathowie at 10:22 AM on September 5, 2002

Good post and good links, Kellydamnit. I feel torn about these new and incomprehensible commercials. On one hand, some of them are good entertainment, on the other, I feel insulted by this whole "lifestyle" advertising. I mean, do they think I'll buy Levi's because I see a car chase involving a couple wearing jeans? What happened to good old informative ads? Or, even scarier, do these ads affect me without me realizing it?

The day of reckoning is near for the industry I think. Once they start measuring accurately how many more jeans/cars/bottles of shampoo they sell because they show expensive mini-movies having nothing to do with the product, advertising will be back to basics. Or maybe I'm just a grumpy old coot...
posted by Triplanetary at 10:26 AM on September 5, 2002

Normally I would say the confusion is purposeful, as no matter what the product might be, the advertiser is usually selling something more abstract (sex or the promise of sex, coolness, the promise of a fantasy life or lifestyle, the respect and envy of the Jones's next door, etc.)

But, yeah, wacky and surreal is taking over. I like surreal, at least maybe till Dali starts selling kitchen appliances.
posted by Shane at 10:29 AM on September 5, 2002

I have to wonder why certain companies even bother to advertise anymore. I mean, what would be the economic impact on a company like Coke or Pepsi if they just stopped their print and TV advertising altogether?

Those products are such a part of our daily life in this country that it's hard to imagine them losing any noticeable market share due to a lack of advertising.

Those two products are inescapable already -- you can't go to a sporting event, see a movie, eat fast food, or stop at a gas station without seeing Coke and Pepsi products all over the place. Their TV ads just seem to be overkill.
posted by Reggie452 at 10:41 AM on September 5, 2002

I for one am happy about the current state of commercials (apart from those like Old Navy that I find so offensively stupid I swear I will never set foot in one of their stores)

It's about time a greater sense of artistic value has permeated commercial desires.
posted by LuxFX at 10:43 AM on September 5, 2002

They're playing chicken. If coke stopped with TV campaigns, then Pepsi would overtake them eventually (well, maybe not in the South, where every liquid is referred to as "a coke." "I got a papercut." "Here, put some coke on it.") If they both stopped, then the onslaught of Dr. Pepper would take hold, and I would be in nirvana because I would blissfully dance through street fountains flowing with the sweet...sweet... Dr. Pepper.
posted by Stan Chin at 10:45 AM on September 5, 2002

Has anyone seen this Freedom to Move [3.5mb quicktime] Levi's commercial? (I think it was only broadcast in Europe) The damn thing is better than most movies I've seen recently-- it's got excitement, mystery, beauty, pathos, a great soundtrack, and lots of stuff going boom. Oh, and jeans.
posted by gwint at 10:48 AM on September 5, 2002

Secret Life of Gravy: the reason some pharma ads mention a product by name but do not state its medicinal qualities is because of FDA advertising regulations. If a pharma ad mentions the beneficial aspects of a drug (for indigestion! for social anxiety disorder! and so on) by law the ad must also mention the FDA registered side effects (may cause baldness or heart failure.) Thus many companies now simply mention their product name, show happy people, and usually a web link or phone number for information.
posted by pjgulliver at 10:50 AM on September 5, 2002

But, yeah, wacky and surreal is taking over. I like surreal, at least maybe till Dali starts selling kitchen appliances.
posted by Shane at 10:29 AM PST on September 5

I'm having a pain-in-the-ass time finding a reference to it, but I swear Dali did an ad endorsing Alka Seltzer. Can anyone confirm this?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 10:53 AM on September 5, 2002

Has anyone seen this Freedom to Move [3.5mb quicktime] Levi's commercial?

I have no clue what's going on in that... but damn I want some jeans now. And that girl. Preferably both. More preferably the girl without the jeans on.
posted by Stan Chin at 10:55 AM on September 5, 2002

A friend of mine who went to Rice picked up the soda pop = Coke slang. "Do you want a Coke?" "Sure." "What kind of Coke do you want?" "A Dr. Pepper." "OK...." That has to make me wonder how effective advertising is after a while (like the people who supposedly followed the storyline in Taster's Choice commercials but couldn't remember the name of the coffee).
posted by redshoes3 at 10:57 AM on September 5, 2002

I mean, do they think I'll buy Levi's because I see a car chase involving a couple wearing jeans?

Actually... I... um... bought a pair because of that commercial. I really like the commercial, what can I say? Of course, my base impetus was that I was looking to buy jeans, and they fit quite perfectly and look good on me. And I'll buy another pair because they fit and look so well. Truthfully, though, the ad did have an effect. It's the only ad ever that has had such a profound immediate effect on my buying.

Frankly, I'm happy to see more cinematic, elusive ads. I enjoy the cinematography and the mini-stories, and they're so non-intrusive (rather than "buy coke now!") that I don't loathe them.
posted by The Michael The at 10:59 AM on September 5, 2002

...what would be the economic impact on a company like Coke or Pepsi if they just stopped... advertising..?

I see your point, but remember: The more often you remind Homer Simpson of donuts, the more donuts he eats. Mmmm!

Homer is, in many ways, the secret to understanding people.
posted by Shane at 11:05 AM on September 5, 2002

Wasn't this what all the hoo-hah was about when those Obsession ads came out? "These ads have nothing to do with perfume, they're just some Cocteau outtakes!" It's hardly something new. I mean, Max Headroom, for chrissakes?
posted by mikrophon at 11:21 AM on September 5, 2002

Erm. Since television is really a shared religious experience that allows us to connect when we discuss it the next day, and the great religious art of the past was essentially sponsorship ("see! that's me, next to the sorrowing virgin!") glorifying the patron, I have no doubt that the end of the trend is advertisements that we love and appreciate in their own right. And some of them will be great works of art in their own right. (Most of them will be mediocre crap of course, the video equivalent of a Vivaldi concerto tossed off for next Sunday).

At least, that's what I understood from reading Adcult USA, which made the point that expenditure on advertising is out of all proportion to advertising's effect, and sought other explanations for why firms pay for it.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:32 AM on September 5, 2002

Best Beer Ad Ever
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 11:33 AM on September 5, 2002

for PinkStainlessTail: "What might just be an even more intriguing program takes place on Sept. 20, with Dali Movie Madness, a selection of Dali-associated projects that include a pair of rarely seen documentaries, the inevitable but still welcome Un Chien Andalou, and, best of all, a quartet of short commercials Dali created for Datsun cars, Alka Seltzer, Braniff Airlines and Lanvin Chocolate." Weekly Planet: This Week in Film

Wish I could find a graphic...
posted by Dean King at 11:38 AM on September 5, 2002

Thanks Dean. I was pretty sure I wasn't hallucinating.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 11:45 AM on September 5, 2002

While about 85% of tv ads hover somewhere between stupid and insulting, my real gripe is with radio ads. The people who make them should be locked in a room, given a stern talking to, and forced to hear loop tapes of bad actors making "funny" voices.
Reason why I listen no NPR.
posted by signal at 12:01 PM on September 5, 2002

Advertising is getting more entertaining, and that's a good thing. I'm thinking of picking up this book.
posted by owillis at 12:28 PM on September 5, 2002

Good old informative ads?
When RJ Reynolds released Camel cigs around 100 years ago, they hired a NYC ad firm to do a media blitz that postered cities with line drawings of Camels and cryptic messages like "The Camels Are Coming". No reference to the product for months before it was available.

How hard can you sell a car, or a sneaker, or a carbonated beverage?
Real, real hard. Remember when the Altoids campaigns came out? That basically reinvented the market for little, strong mints. Old, generic product completely reinvigorated by killer marketing.

Abstract, story ads have been around for quite a while as well, like the already mention Taster's Choice campaign. I think a deodorant company is starting a new one of those.

I agree that Coke's ads seem pretty pointless at this point, but I think that's cause the ads lately have been mostly terrible. All nostalgia. I loved that French olympic ice skater, though.

I'd miss some of the current surreal ads if they were gone, personally. How rad is the whole Nike presto campaign? I actually checked out the website to see the product cause the ads are so good.
posted by jeb at 12:34 PM on September 5, 2002

What the original poster probably figured out (and the rest of you know as well), as that all these "perplexing" ads have been wildly successful because you:

A. Have stopped to think about them.

B. Have posted about them here.

It's slam dunk for the advertisers. The goal is for them to get beyond the 30 seconds they have you, and they've done it - for better or worse.
posted by jca at 12:48 PM on September 5, 2002

It is pretty funny how commercials are getting smarter than the TV shows they interrupt. I'm surprised that there's not more product placement during the shows, actually. Movies still have them beat by a longshot. Goldmember was one big, long commercial.

I usually hate all commercials by default but some make me laugh. This one in particular got me giggling. It's just so weird.
posted by picea at 1:01 PM on September 5, 2002

OK - so the advertisers want me to notice and think about their product beyond the 30 second commercial I see. My question is - what good does that do if I have no intention of buying that product? Sure - those damn Mazda commercials can make me rant on and on about that annoying zoom-zoom kid, but that's not going to make me buy one of their cars. In fact, I'm determined to never buy a Mazda car, ever. So - isn't this the opposite effect of what the advertisers are looking for?
posted by MsVader at 1:20 PM on September 5, 2002

Or the Carrot Top ads. I'm never, ever going to dial down the center when I need to make a collect call. I'm sticking with Ava Savalot.
posted by jeb at 1:40 PM on September 5, 2002

A couple months back there were some music video-like commercials featuring wrestling video and rock concert video over some Creed soundtrack. I'm thinking, "Okay, so it's a wrestling commercial. No, wait, it's a Creed commercial." Then finally I see the light: It's a commercial for the WWF AND Creed. It's an all-in-one miracle of modern technology! It's like having product placements right inside another commercial!

I don't generally spend much time on commercials, what with the TiVo and all, but this was bizarre enough to get my attention. Not that it made me want to watch wrestling or buy any Creed.
posted by Galvatron at 1:48 PM on September 5, 2002

i second the loving joy that is TiVo's ability to fast forward through the BlipVerts, but there is one commercial that really draws my ire, it's for Wrangler jeans (apparently i'm not the only one irritated by this either).

In it we are treated to nice looking albeit overly saturated images of people hanging out next to flags, (it's very patriotic). This didn't bother me, patriotism sells. We are also treated to a classic rock song playing over it. This also does not bother me, though clearly it does anger some.

No, what bothers me is the choice of song: Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son". Arguably one of the most anti-patriotic/ war songs written being used to sell exactly what is rails against. They accomplished this by removing key phrases:

Some folks are born made to wave the flag
Yeah, the red, white, and blue.

and then cutting the next line:

And when the band plays 'Hail to the Chief'
Yeah, they'll point the cannon at you.

Ok, i'm done fuming for now.
posted by quin at 3:21 PM on September 5, 2002

Seems like a number of us have problems with commercials for jeans. Personally, I find Express Jeans commercials insulting. "I am an incredibly beautiful person, and I am in love with this other incredibly beautiful person." Clearly there is a causal relationship with the Express Jeans they both wear.

I'm okay with commercials as humor. I'm okay with commercials as art. I have problems with commercials unapologetically glorifying superficiality.
posted by Galvatron at 3:45 PM on September 5, 2002

Reading this thread I start to wonder how much commercials affect even those of us who take great pride in being independent-minded.

A couple of weeks ago I remember being in the store to pick up some food product I'd never bought before (don't remember which) and being faced with two alternatives. Somehow, picking the one I'd seen the most on TV just felt like the safer choice.

So lifestyle advertising maybe works after all. Good thing I have Tivo!
posted by Triplanetary at 4:37 PM on September 5, 2002

I agree that ads todays are so much more entertaining than many of the shows they break up...except, that is, for those putrid Herbal Essances ads.

I'd have to say car ads tend to be my faves. Anyone remember the Grim Reaper ad? Had Mr. Death saving a baby bird, flying a kite, sunbathing? I still get giggles just *thinking* about it.

Funny thing is, I couldn't tell you the car they were marketing for the life of me.
posted by Windigo at 7:37 PM on September 5, 2002

The ads do tend to stick in my mind, I'll admit that. OK, I'm not admitting much, since I was thinking about it enough to post the original link. I just don't understand the motivation for them. More often than not I'll end up annoyed at the end, wondering if I missed something. I really can't see how something so cryptic could sell a product.

Half the time I remember the commercial but not the product, actually. When I was looking for the link to the Volkswagen ad it took me some time, since I remembered the basic "plot" but found myself convinced it was for breath mints, not a car.
posted by Kellydamnit at 7:50 PM on September 5, 2002

As for not remembering the product in a lot of ads, I'm going to admit a lot of times it's because Ad Agencies are seeking critical acclaim instead of selling the product. Sometimes they enjoy racking up Ad Awards and completely forget whether a campaign will actually sell. The companies that hire the ad agencies won't be able to complain about the ineffectiveness of the ads because "but look at all the awards we've won! It's not our fault."

It's a big hoopla in the Creative Professional world.
posted by Stan Chin at 7:56 PM on September 5, 2002

Sometime soon after the dawn of the television age, some admen decided to do a study to determine how long people spend reading print ads. Much to their chagrin, they discovered that people had the audacity to spend mere moments glancing at there ads and they didn't bother to read their skillfully developed prose.

Now, I don't know about you all, but the reason I don't read ads is because I'm not interested in the product. Furthermore, since advertising saturates modern existence, if I took a minute to read every ad, I would have no time left to live.

So, instead of admitting that perhaps there's no need to force every reader to know about their product, they decided to make the ad match the attention span. Flash! Bang! A tit and a bit of leg and a sniff of perfume, Calvin Klein perfume. If we can't have their conscious mind, we'll steal their subconscious, schemed the admen. Well, they didn't scheme, per se, they just went on being admen.

They could have figured out another way to fulfill the economic goal of creating informed customers that buy products intelligently, but instead they scraped that goal altogether. There's another way to sell things, they figured, and that's through inundation and branding. Incidentally, inundation leads people to further tune out the message. Sanity requires it. The admen respond to a perceived lack of mindshares by infiltrating their audience's minds further. Eventually, they landed on the idea of intimately attaching their brands to entertainment and art like memetic parasites.

"But the ads are entertaining," you cry, "I like to be entertained." So... freaking... what? True art and humor does not need economic stimulus in order to come into existence. Where money is needed, patrons tend to come out of the woodwork. That's why some bands, even poor ones, don't give a rat's ass if people trade their MP3s illegally. If ads ceased to exist, art and humor will continue to flourish. In fact, I believe they would benefit immensely.

The pervasiveness of advertising is mind numbing and soul starving. There's a reason why eating disorders are endemic and materialism often trumps friends and family. True art helps us know ourselves and brings light to the human condition. Commercial art is mercenary and unpassionate.

By filling our lives with empty appeals to our id, advertising contributes to the postmodern sense of ennui. Life has no meaning but the hollow pursuit of pleasure. That wouldn't be so bad, except the pleasure and acceptance that advertising sells us is a lie. Dandruff shampoo will not automagically bring you hot chicks.

Ads should serve a single goal in our society: to inform customers and to grease the process of competition by leading consumers to the best products. Anything else serves to derail the process.
posted by Skwirl at 3:58 PM on September 7, 2002

Man, oh man, I sure wish I hadn't read that. I never realized how empty my life was until now!
posted by kindall at 5:28 PM on September 7, 2002

Spare me your snarkcasm, kindall. Just because you personally don't feel disenfranchised doesn't mean there aren't people who do. Okay, I got a little wordy in that post, but this is a pet issue of mine. If my prose isn't up to snuff, Adbusters has more to say about the Mental Environmental Movement.
posted by Skwirl at 1:03 AM on September 8, 2002

If you want the same point without the sarcasm, here it is: people don't feel "disenfranchised" by advertising until someone comes along and tells them that that advertising is sucking the life right out of them. But of course, that just goes to show that those bad, bad admen are so sneaky that they can steal your soul without you even noticing... and if you protest that your soul seems to be intact, well, that's a sure sign that you're really deluded, that the admen totally have you eating from their hand -- you'll even defend them after they've stolen your soul! Poor sheeple! This line of thinking is no different from a conspiracy theory, where the absence of evidence of a conspiracy merely proves how powerful the conspiracy really is. It is a perversely attractive meme that causes one's mind to run in logical circles, thinking internally consistent thoughts with no relation to reality. And it is fundamentally cynical and disrespectful of humanity.

The ads are entertaining, and I like to be entertained. So freaking what, you ask? I like to be entertained, that's freaking what! That is sufficient! And in reality, the more entertaining an ad is in itself, the more the ad draws attention to itself, the less effective it actually is and the closer it is to art. If the reason for the ad is sufficiently obscure, there might as well not be a reason; in fact, you often get the impression that a lot of the most memorable advertisements (such as the EDS "herding cats" spot, a personal favorite) were created before the pitchmen even knew exactly what they'd be selling. (This is also why people often can't remember what was actually being pitched with these sorts of ads; when the idea was originally conceived, nothing was.) And creativity for creativity's sake is, as far as I'm concerned, a fairly solid indicator of artistic potential.

Ironically, the same people who ascribe such power to advertising are often the same people who tell you that violent video games could never cause things like Columbine, or that obviously books like Lolita don't encourage pedophiles. Only advertising has that special patented voodoo with the power to cloud men's minds. This constitutes a postmodern reversal of cause and effect: in reality, the memes aren't sticky because they're selling something, they're being used to sell something because they're sticky, or at least thought to be sticky. There are a lot of sticky memes, and not all of them are invented by pitchmen. If you believe advertising is dangerous and should be curtailed so sharply that it would become useless (i.e., restricting it to informing customers and helping your competitors), then for consistency's sake you should also advocate against the spread of other potentially damaging ideas -- in other words, you should support censorship.

So, those were some of the things that were running through my head that got boiled down to the snarky one-liner. I didn't bother typing it all out because, hey, whose mind is going to be changed anyway? Sarcasm is just as effective, more entertaining, and shorter. Fortunately, I'm having a touch of insomnia at the moment.
posted by kindall at 2:15 AM on September 8, 2002

Let's assume for a second that I concede the point that advertising has no effect on people's behavior. What then? What is the purpose of our multi-billion dollar advertising industry if it neither informs consumers nor influences people to buy products? I can't think of any reason.

Well, I'm still upset. The price of the products I buy has been inflated in order to fund useless bullshit. I am not an advertising patron. I did not agree to fund their artwork. I want my money back.

The purpose of advertising is not art for art's sake. The purpose of advertising is to sell a product. Any advertiser that's not doing that is a piss poor advertiser.

As a matter of fact, I do believe that the media has an effect on individuals. Violent media might not create murderers, but it can make average people more afraid. Violent crime in the US was on the decline across the board in the last decade, and yet the United States prison system continues to grow boundlessly. The publicity and gruesome details of Columbine bred fear and led to gross paranoia and rights abuses in our schools. When people are afraid, they are more willing to submit to a police state.

And yet, I detest censorship of any kind. No matter how disgusted I am with the media's looped-tape footage of planes crashing into the WTC over and over again, I won't advocate censorship. There are other ways to condemn poor uses of free speech. One of those ways is to post your concern on a weblog in order to incite social, instead of legal, change.

Incidentally, our laws in the US state that advertising is not free speech. It's regulated by the FCC and the FTC.

Since you brought the subject of censorship up, it is interesting to point out that the symbiotic relationship between journalism and advertising has given the advertisers much sway in censoring unsavory stories.
posted by Skwirl at 7:35 PM on September 8, 2002

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