Wednesday, February 02, 2011

TV and advertising: no respect for the market

Is it just me, or has TV advertising become completely tired and jaded lately?

Aside from the sharp suits, cool demeanours and sassy women of 1950s Madison Avenue, below the surface of TV's Mad Men, one can't help but be fascinated and appalled at the rapid growth of a wholly unsavoury and immoral industry designed to make shitloads of money through the blatant manipulation of people's thoughts and actions.

These advertising firms are the origin of things which have not only become commonplace in our lives, but have done so in such a way as to convince us that they've existed for ever.  Such as the fat, jolly, bearded fellow who "Ho ho hos" his way down the chimney every December, and whom a few of us can still remember was once known as Saint Nicholas.  It is a false assumption that he always wore red and white – even though this stylisation from the Coca-Cola 'family' can't be more than 60 years old!

Same goes for the 'age old tradition of sending greeting cards' – Hallmark's deliberate, massive scaling-up of an otherwise unnecessary 'tradition' resulting in a multi-billion dollar empire.  Or the introduction and subsequent integration into people's lives of a whole host of 'must have' products such as disposable nappies, frozen vegetables and paper towels.

It's true that this commercially-driven, mass brainwashing didn't happen without firm intent, considerable expense and subtatntial elbow grease, at least metaphorically.  The efforts which advertising agencies went to in order to understand their clients' markets was extensive, utilising focus groups, behaviour modelling, surveys and even illegal, hidden cameras and wire-tapping.  It's fair to say that these processes, honed to perfection in pursuit of the advertising dollar, are now available and utilised today to inform less morally corrupt enterprises such as customer service standards for community or government services, for international aid programs, for disaster and humanitarian responses and, I guess, for international espionage.  So while they are processes which can occasionally benefit society, they were definitely developed to generate masses of wealth.

But regardless of whether or not you agree with the motive, or the method, the intention of the advertising industry to learn about the wants and desires, behaviours and practices of the market is evidence that a certain level of respect for that market exists.  The market is not taken for granted, but rather the individuals and groups which comprise it are viewed as highly legitimate, and their thoughts and ideas important.  Sure, this desire to hear from, and understand them precedes a merciless attempt at mass brainwashing, but up until that point, there were great efforts made towards engagement and learning, and this is what is to be admired.

This is the way it has been for years, not only on Madison Avenue, but here in Australia, also.

And as a result, although we now better understand the evil intent, there have been some pretty wonderful, enjoyable and truly entertaining advertising campaigns over the years, not only from the hallowed agencies of Madison Avenue, but also from our own, home-grown pretenders.

Remember the Four-n-Twenty hot stuff ad from the 70s?  Fantastic ambience! – which could have only been possible through in-depth study of who eats pies, and why.  Interestingly, one of my favourite ads of all time was also from Four-n-Twenty, this time from the late 90s.  This was a tremendous demonstration of the advertising agency getting 'back to basics'; everything, including the slick Holden sliding past at the beginning, being clear evidence that it was developed after very close and respectful consideration of the market.

Australian Coke ads were also pretty great over the years, with their big 'blow-up things' over tropical shore lines, on which young people were having about the best time anyone could with their clothes on (although admittedly only barely on), demonstrating that the advertisers' knew what it was that people really want from their fizzy beverages.

Speaking of which, the Big M Girls were a leaf out of the old 'Sex Sells' book.  They were eventually retired to the mechanics' shop walls once the smouldering remains of the last bras sputtered out on the pavement.  But this vehicle boosted the sale of chocolate-flavoured milk to a receptive, even wanting market for decades.

These days, with the advent of u-toob and internet-based social marketing tools, advertising has taken an entirely new direction, with sometimes feature-length ads being developed using CGIs and other home-editing goodies and being spread throughout the world in seconds like supersonic viruses.  But again, someone has done their homework, and aimed this stuff just right.

So with consumerism at an all-time high, and the responsibility for worldwide economic recovery lying squarely on the shoulders of recognised, multi-national brands producing lots of shiny 'must have' stuff that nobody needs, why has the decades-old commitment to understanding the market and targeting advertising accordingly suddenly been dropped?

Or have we, the market, finally 'evolved' such that we are now so brain-dead that we will buy whatever shit is going, for no other reason than that it is there?  My case in point was a TV ad I saw tonight (during prime time, not at 3am) for a jewellery store; an attractive looking, female model in an expensive-looking evening gown opens a jewellery box and says, "This reminds me of Spain".  This is followed by close-ups of a couple of diamond rings and a necklace.

Hmmm ... why Spain?  No reason?  Yeah, that's what I thought.  Tck, tck, not good enough, Madison.  Lift your game or we, the market, might just decide to start thinking again, and decide that we really don't have need for the John Wayne commemorative plate set.

And while we're on the subject of the poor state of TV, a post I read today over at about the way reality TV promotes nasty, social hatred and bigotry, reminded me of how powerful those horrible, negative lessons can be when such programs go viral and global.

While facilitating public consultation with groups of community, civil society and government stakeholders about the new national health promotion policy in Samoa last year, one of the senior government officials, in complete honesty, asked me, as an Australian, to explain to the gathering about the benefits of "that great, nation-wide public health initiative on Australian television, The Biggest Loser", and to convince the audience to consider such an approach for Samoa.

"Yes, Your Excellency", I replied, "Indeed, public health research has shown that the best way to make obese people lose weight is to expose them to public ridicule by having them wear bikinis and work-out until they throw-up on national television".*  And with that, The Biggest Loser has been adopted as national health promotion policy in Samoa for the next ten years.

It is no wonder the US, through free trade agreements, are so keen to ensure that other nation's TV is rife with their content.  The unsuspecting can be so susceptible to political, social and even religious views and ideologies they see on The Box.  Very concerning indeed.

* - just to be clear, I said nothing of the sort!

The Big M Girls, keeping a nation hooked-up to chocolate milk for decades.  Pic:

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