If you’re anything like me, you probably think you’re not really taken in by advertising. That’s what I usually think, but every now and then I’m jolted into thinking otherwise. Most recently, after a rare half-hour spent watching TV – I’m one of the few people who try to watch more TV rather than less – I found myself wishing I could buy the seven-seater family car-cum-minivan I’d just seen advertised. We’re a two-person household. And I don’t drive.
So I’m afraid this post risks being another one about how useless I am. On the surface I know that adverts make ridiculous claims: I know perfectly well that using a particular shampoo wouldn’t actually make me look like a Hollywood actress, for example. But on a more subtle level, advertising does create an association in your mind between brand and image. If you asked me to name a brand of sexy car, sophisticated perfume or luxurious phone, for example, I wouldn’t have any trouble doing so. There are also brands whose logos give me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside because I grew up seeing them all over the place, and the warm, fuzzy feeling persists even though I now know perfectly well they’re huge, faceless multinationals.
Things are a bit different when adverts get scientific (or pseudoscientific), as so many do these days: ads for skin creams, dietary supplements, that kind of thing. I’ve been taken in by these more times than I care to remember. In theory it’s illegal for a company to make untrue claims about a product, but in practice companies can imply a lot while staying just the right side of the law. In fact, apparently some companies have their adverts vetted by lawyers to make sure of this.
Pretty obviously, if you’re not careful you turn into a mindless consumer and waste your money on products that don’t do what they say they do or that you don’t need. As a result you have to spend more time earning money and less on things like being with your children or taking care of your health. A few years ago I taught teenagers, and I was struck by how many of the parents of the stroppiest, worst-behaved kids worked very long hours so they could give their children “what we didn’t have”. They had the best of intentions, of course, but they seemed not to have noticed that their children didn’t have what they themselves had had: close relationships with their parents.
Anyway, aside from mindless consumerism, constant advertising – and we are exposed to it constantly these days – has another effect that I think is just as damaging: the mentality it creates. One well-established method of advertising is to create a need in the mind of your audience and then present your product as the solution to it. So on some level you can end up permanently dissatisfied with what you’ve already got – not a recipe for a contented life.
However, there’s no point getting indignant about companies immorally (or amorally) exploiting consumers. Companies will always do whatever they can to maximise their profits, and even if we don’t like that, that’s the way it is.
The trap to avoid falling into is to think that because we can’t change advertising practice we might as well give up. We’re not powerless automatons: as I said last week, once you start telling yourself you can’t control your own actions you’re done for. We certainly can at least try to be rational in how we respond to advertising – you can never be completely objective in life, but that’s no reason not to do the best you can. When you go to buy something, ask yourself honestly whether you’re attracted by the product or by its branding. When you choose between similar products, try to be swayed by the items themselves, not their packaging.
And, as so often in life, part of the solution is to educate yourself: are a manufacturer’s claims plausible? Is a particular argument put forward by someone neutral, or only by people who’ll make money if other people believe it? Develop some healthy scepticism.