Monday, August 15, 2011

Passionate Advertising? or Watch What You Watch

As a (ex) student of communications, I tend to notice ads much more than the average bear. Throughout my college career, we were taught to be critical when viewing any kind of advertising, never just accepting it, but always questioning. While this attitude did initially ruin my ability to just enjoy the colors and effects in pretty ads, I realize just how important a role advertising plays in a capitalistic consumer culture.

I am reminded of Émile Zola's short story, "Death By Advertising"
(for those of us raised in the age of television, reading is kind of annoying, so I've included an informative video about the gist of the story below):

So it's true, advertising is important in what it tells us to buy, and eventually, DO with our lives. But lately, I've noticed a much more dangerous tactic employed by ad companies. Ads like the viral sensation that is the "Old Spice Guy" aren't as bad because they are primarily for entertainment, and the fact that these commercials are random, makes them less "calculatingly obvious":


But now we come to the dangerous ads. The ones that inspire, that instill hope. These ads are never explicitly about the product they hope to publicize. They involve inspirational messages and images. I first noticed this during Dove's Real Beauty Campaign.

During this period, Dove's products were advertised not simply as beauty products, but as products that help your "real beauty". The campaign was aimed at undoing the damage done my unrealistic advertising that polluted women's perception of themselves. Their most popular ad ("Evolution") showcased how much work went into a photo shoot, to highlight the fact that real women cannot possibly attain such standards. But the one I found a little scary was this one:

At first glance, this ad is heartwarming, and has a remarkably positive message. But what this ad fails to enlighten the viewers about, is that Dove is owned by Unilever, the same company that owns Axe Body Spray. Axe has some of the most sexist and misogynistic commercials in the industry. For the purposes of politeness, I chose to describe Dove as hypocritical...

Ditto for the following ads by Absolut Vodka and Levi's.

Tagline: “Doing things differently leads to something exceptional”
Song: New Order – “Ceremony”
Premise: Artists creating extravagant works of art to highlight above tagline

They’ve given vodka pertinence, and social importance! It’s Vodka! The alcohol of choice for people who basically want to get schwasted out of their minds! And they’ve given it this new-agey “make a difference” feel; by inserting the right music and art, they’ve transformed it from a common vulgarity to “high art”. It’s gone from an uncultured street and pub activity of the masses to a piece to be analyzed, considered, deliberated.

Instead of alienating a growing young adult market with social consciousness (or hipsters who consider themselves to be better than most) like most liquor companies, they’ve embraced that alternative fold of kids, thereby tapping into 100% of the youth market, something I don’t think has ever been done before! They’ve also kept the “idiots”, or the so-called “low-brow” market, because the video is, in the basest terms, visually pleasing! Drunk ppl <3 pretty pictures, smart drunk people love the (implied, albeit bullshit) message behind it, and especially the use of the alternative-but-still-good-enough-to-be-mainstream music and employing artists. They’ve unlocked the potential of middle America, and BOTH coasts. (Not to mention people elsewhere in the world dying desperately to be American, or act American in some wayà while still keeping the geography deliberately ambiguous, so it doesn’t alienate anyone in the capitalist, consuming world).

Calling it the “Absolut Anthem” helps too. And making it viral and putting it on YouTube is always a brilliant decision to capture the youth market, something surprisingly few companies end up doing!

It is a brilliant marketing campaign.

The part that scares me, however, is that is is not about social consciousness or inspiration. It is about Vodka. The brilliance of this commercial leaves a strong and lasting image ... about Vodka.


This series of commercials involves hopeful images of young people doing what they do best, having sex and "rebelling". Many ads in this campaign involve inspirational snippets from Walt Whitman's poems "America" and "O' Pioneers". I'm not even American, and somehow, this rubs me the wrong way. This situation is almost as bad as when Che Guevarra's image and likeness is used to sell t-shirts to misinformed, privileged teens. The irony is not just palpable, it's sickening. A beloved national poet is being used to sell blue jeans: his words of inspiration, originally written to stir the youth to action, are involved in commercials for clothing...

So I think the moral here is, consume with caution, youth of the world. Always remember to have your own opinion.