They Can Sell You Almost Anything!
“Today’s advertising industry is the most potent and powerful mass marketing and merchandising instrument ever devised by man.”—Paul Stevens, writer of television commercials
MOST people think that advertising does not really affect their decisions. They think they ignore it and make up their own minds. Money-wise business executives know better. Throughout the world, these men hang their fortunes on tremendous advertising budgets. They build wants and sway our thinking in ways that we may not even realize.
Advertising messages strike our eyes and ears from all directions—from newspapers, magazines, television, radio, billboards, buses, subways, taxicabs, river barges, T-shirts, and from other sources too numerous to mention. It has been estimated that Americans encounter as many as 1,600 advertising messages a day.
“I would guess,” mused Jack Smith, writer of a lighthearted column in the Los Angeles Times, “that the average American takes in more words every day from advertising than from any other source, including news, books, magazines, and his or her spouse.”
World wide, manufacturers seek new ways to persuade you to buy. A single soap manufacturer, Procter & Gamble, spent $460,000,000 on advertising in the United States alone in 1977—more than $8 for every family in the nation! Such sums would not be spent if they did not produce results.
Paul Stevens, a television ad writer, said in his book I Can Sell You Anything: “Advertising tells you what to buy, how to buy, and why to buy any particular brand or product. The thing that amazes me is that it continues to work.” In his best-selling book The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard wrote: “The result is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives.”
Such advertising is most effective when it deals with nonurgent needs. A man who is hungry does not need to be told that he needs food. But the man who already has a perfectly good car has to be tempted if he is to go into debt to buy a new one.
Much advertising is truthful, direct, straightforward, honest. It can be amusing, charming, delightful. It can provide valuable information—telling you what a product will do, how much it costs, where to buy it at a lower price.
But advertisers must sell products that are little different from their competitors’ products. There really is not a great deal of difference between many brands of gasoline, cake mixes, soaps, detergents or even automobiles. But manufacturers must sell their brand. Tremendous sums of money are involved. Thus, the advertising people are under great pressure to come up with successful campaigns.
How can they convince you that Brand X is better than Brand Y when the two brands are almost identical? They may say that owning Brand X is more pleasurable, that “nicer” people use it, or that it gives some vague and unspecified advantages.
Laboratory tests show that all brands of gasoline having the same octane rating perform essentially the same in an automobile engine. So one brand promises “happy motoring,” while another advertises “fast starts.” One major oil company bypassed the whole matter by advertising: “Put a tiger in your tank.” Now, everyone knew they were not really selling tigers. But the slogan was translated into many languages, and sold a lot of gas.
Think about what the ads really say. Are they claiming that a product is “different”? Of course it is! Perhaps it has been dyed brown, while the competing product is blue. It may also have more important differences, but “different” does not necessarily mean “better.”
What does “better” mean? Better than it was last year? Better than a competitor’s product? Better than one that sells for only half as much? A claim that is not specific probably does not mean much.
Tricks with Words
There are tricky little words that advertisers hope you will overlook. Think, for example, of the wonderful little word “helps.” A manufacturer says his product “helps keep you young.” Why doesn’t he say it “keeps you young”? Because it doesn’t. He counts on your overlooking the little word “helps” and remembering only the promise of youth.
How often you have heard that word! “Helps prevent cavities.” “Helps keep your house germ-free.” “Helps stop . . .” “Helps overcome . . .” Advertisers know that most people overlook the qualifier.
Consider, too, the little word “like.” Is a glass of Portuguese wine really ‘like taking a trip to Portugal’? Hardly! But you are transported in thought to a romantic foreign place. Moonlit nights and graceful dancers are not bottled in the wine, but that marvelous little word “like” can help an advertiser establish an aura that his product would not otherwise have had.
What does a promise of “as much as 20 per cent more mileage mean”? Advertisers know that most people hear the “20 per cent,” not the qualifier. They are not promising you 20 percent, or even one percent. The problem is that we want to get 20 percent more mileage, and that is what we hear.
Why You Buy
Advertising agencies have spent a great deal of money learning why you make certain decisions. They play on secret miseries and self-doubts. They try to manipulate guilt feelings, fears, anxieties, feelings of loneliness and inner tensions in order to influence your decisions. They think they can persuade you in ways you may not even recognize. This study is called Motivation Research, or MR.
An advertising executive explained why a woman will pay 10 times as much for skin cream as for soap. The soap promises to make her clean, but the skin cream offers to make her beautiful. In effect, the customer is not buying skin cream, but hope. She does not buy fruit, but vitality. She is not sold shoes, but lovely feet. Her husband does not really buy a car for its technical aspects, but for prestige, and for the personality it projects. Manufacturers know that when he says “that is not my kind of car,” he does not mean that it will not provide good, comfortable transportation. Instead, he means it will not transmit the aura of distinction, prosperity, youth, sportiness, masculinity or maturity that a manufacturer has built around the car of his choice. Cars are not just means of transportation; manufacturers have made them into symbols. Does a man feel “big” in a bigger car, or “sporty” in a sportier one? If you doubt this, just compare the names Porsche, Mercedes, Volkswagen and Honda, and see if cars have not been given traits far beyond the need for transportation.
Even household cleansers are sold in this way. Many housewives consider cleaning to be an unrewarded and unappreciated drudgery. Soap ads build their feeling of “worth and esteem,” exalting the wisdom and competence of the housekeeper.
Television ad writer Paul Stevens says about the picture detergent commercials convey: “There’s father, the titular head of the household. There’s mother, the real head, the one who makes the ultimate decisions, and around whom everything else revolves. . . . Don’t kid yourself, that’s why you buy it. It isn’t the mysterious additive or the three kinds of cleaners that gets you. It’s mother emerging the all-knowing and all-wise, always right in the end.”
Another commentator said of commercials for certain specially prepared frozen foods: “As shown on TV, when a housewife serves these to her family orchestras play in the background and she draws admiring glances. But if her husband stops to figure out the cost, the sounds she hears may not be those of an orchestra.”
Can You BUY Happiness?
Advertisers often try to make you dissatisfied with what you have. They preach the doctrine of obsoletism—that what you have is old, outmoded, to be discarded. They try to persuade you that you must have more and more and more and newer and newer and newer things—new clothing, new appliances, new automobiles. And how often you see long-familiar products in packaging proclaiming “new and improved”!
They promise happiness through possessions. They urge you to spend, suggesting that spending will make you happy and envied, and that their products will make you popular, beautiful or handsome. They want to convince you to pass your time in expensive activities—driving the newest car, taking pictures with the most expensive camera, or being entertained by the largest television set.
This prompts a “thing” culture. The idea is that things will bring you happiness. Our closets and our garages are filled with things, but we are told: ‘Buy more things, then you will be happy.’
But buying is not a solution to disillusionment with life. It does not change the state of the world. Real problems are not solved in this way.
Realizing this, you can be on your guard. You can screen out unwanted ads. You can recognize that many advertisers champion a materialistic goal. They want you to imagine having things you do not have, and, if necessary, even to be willing to go into debt to get them.
But if you do that, you may have less time for things that really matter. You may work harder, spend fewer hours with your family, and sink deeper into the problems of our modern “things”-oriented society.
Long ago the greatest Leader earth has ever known gave a warning that is most appropriate today. He said: “Keep your eyes open and guard against every sort of covetousness, because even when a person has an abundance his life does not result from the things he possesses.”—Luke 12:15.
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CAVEAT EMPTOR—Let the buyer beware!
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“Valuable things will be of no benefit on the day of fury, but righteousness itself will deliver from death.”—Prov. 11:4.