It is human to question. Unfortunately, it is also human to jump to uninformed conclusions, and to pounce on those who dare bring up evidence or its lack. Not even skeptics, who pride themselves on critical thinking, are immune. It is especially tempting and easy to succumb when the field in question is fashionable to hate.
Advertising presents just such a sitting duck. Objecting to a product often goes hand-in-hand with demonizing the advertising industry for “pushing,” “tricking,” “hypnotizing,” etc. The gist is that we manipulate the masses into buying stuff against their will, under their conscious radar. (Tellingly, the accusers often exempt themselves. They aren’t subject to our wiles. It’s everyone else — that is, all those lesser minds out there — that they’re worried about.)
The accusation du jour, catalyzed by a viral video of an irresistible, outraged little girl, is that evil advertisers trick girls into wanting pink-colored products and boys into wanting action figures.
The accusation is utter nonsense.
There is only one reason that marketers produce pink stuff for girls. It is that people buy pink stuff for girls. If people started buying green instead, marketers would dump pink for green without hesitation. There is an admitted bit of vicious circle going on here, but the circle always begins — and ends — with what the market embraces. When buyers refuse to embrace a product, and/or demand another in its place, and/or change their mind about what they want, marketers adapt or go out of business.
If advertisers really can control the masses against their will, surely the world’s largest and most experienced advertisers should be masters of the craft. Yet, somehow, the Coca-Cola Company was powerless to trick the market into wanting New Coke. Clever headlines, retouched photos and glib text failed to trick people into wolfing down Colgate brand frozen dinners. Women didn’t give up silk for Bic brand disposable panties. No one wanted anything to do with Gerber brand pureed food for adults, McDonald’s brand kids’ clothing, or Harley-Davidson brand cologne. For that matter, perhaps you noticed that not too many people own an Edsel, nor ever did, despite its enjoying six decades of top-of-mind name recognition.
Pretty poor showing for an industry that allegedly controls minds.
Far from hypnotizing or tricking, what we marketers really do is try things and see what happens. When we score a hit, we repeat it. Should we notice a technique that tends to score more hits than others — like say, putting a photo at the top of an ad with the headline right under it instead of vice-versa — we use it more often.
Intra-industry myths are partly to blame for the accusations hurled at advertisers. For instance, a common ad industry myth goes something like this: “If an ad is truly creative, it will sell.” The claim unabashedly smacks of mind control. It also happens to be demonstrably false. Trouble is, most ad people buy into and spread it. Who could blame the public for believing the alleged experts?
We do our best to entice. That’s our job. But we are powerless to make you act against your will. If we could, I would be rich. Note: I am not rich.
In the end, Dear Reader, it is you who decides to buy or not to buy.
If you bought something you neither need nor even want at a price you cannot afford, do not blame a marketer. We cannot create desire. Peers, circumstances, genes and who-know-what else can, but we can’t. All we can do is hold up a mirror to your desires and make acting on them as easy for you as possible. Yet at some point, you and you alone make the choice as to whether or not to pull out your wallet.
Now, there is one trick that most marketers in my experience do not use, but that many unscrupulous ones do. It’s called lying. Sadly, advertising that lies is in many cases legal. For a readily-available example, scrutinize the advertising of so-called organic foods and so-called nutritional supplements, much if not most of which flagrantly misleads yet rests entirely within the law. There is no proven health benefit to organic foods (most of which are organic only in a legal, not practical, sense), and most supplements disclaim in the small type what they scream in the large.
If you want to rail against advertisers, may I suggest you quit titling at the mind-control windmill and go after the liars. I shall join with you.