Advertising Is Stronger Than Life


A lot of people don’t know this but the first three of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks’ five 2000-Year-Old Man albums each had a few other routines on them. In one of those routines, ‘The Ad Man’, Brooks aimed his satiric eye at Madison Avenue. After explaining that since menthol was the latest rage (this was 1961) his company planned to introduce mentholated bread (which would be the blue kind because the green kind looked like mold), Reiner asked him what would be next? His newest client, Brooks replied, was The American Cardiologist Society. ‘We’re going to put cholesterol into the American heart.’ When Reiner expressed doubts that people would fall for that, Brooks answered:

“Sure they will. Advertising is a lot stronger than life, you know.”

As prescient as that statement was, Brooks didn’t go far enough. We have now reached the point where advertising isn’t ‘stronger than life’–it is life. Advertisers, who have found themselves smack up against a wall of cynicism and ridicule as the result of their relentless, pounding, wall-to-wall tactics, are opting for an insidious new strategy that don’t just blur the lines between advertising and life, it erases them.

In order to breach a consumer’s “initial headset barrier” against advertising, he said, the sales pitch must be “embedded” in something more palatable, such as a TV show, a sporting event, a video game. It must woo with charm and empathy. [President and chief executive of the National Assn. of Advertisers Robert] Liodice laid out the strategy: “First, capture the consumer’s attention in human, intriguing and emotional ways. Then, embrace the consumer. Get him or her to feel comfortable with you. Finally, make the sale without really selling. Let the consumer know, hey, we’re always there when they need us.”

In fact, advertising is more deeply embedded in our culture than ever before. Almost nothing is excluded from branding — not our cities, our museums, our schools. Even our private lives are being co-opted by corporations desperate to reframe their images as “authentic.”

“Stealth” strategies are essential to disarm our cynicism, advertisers say. So teenagers are hired to study trends among their peers and develop ways to reach them — known as “peer-to-peer” or “viral” marketing. Actors are hired to shill product while posing as consumers in Internet chat rooms or on city streets — in the name of creating “organic” brand awareness. Logos and slogans are “seamlessly” integrated into the story lines of films, video games, even textbooks.

Consumer activists call this “ad creep” and predict an Orwellian corporate takeover of society. But advertisers herald this movement as the future. Soon, they say, advertising will so effectively impersonate the ideas we use to define ourselves that we won’t even consider it selling.

“Advertising,” says Jeff Hicks of the Crispin Porter + Bogusky agency, “will disappear.”

And, consequently, virtually no experience will be commercial-free.

If you’re wondering what they meant by that, here’s an example: Remember that nice Japanese couple you met in Seattle who asked you to take their picture with their cel-phone and then told you all about it? Plants.

[Sony’s ad agency hired actors to play] “tourists” in Manhattan and Seattle asking passersby to photograph them with their new Sony Ericsson camera phones.

The ‘rap group’ you saw in the Frisco BART that you were suspicious of because they were turning Beatles’ lyrics into an ad jingle for AT&T? Or the ‘spoken-word poets’ who performed along with a Nissan commercial you had to sit through in that Santa Monica movie theater you payed big bucks to get into? Yup: more plants. In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott imagined a future where advertising was plastered over every available surface. We reached that plateau a decade ago.

Advertisers are hiring companies that do nothing but “outsource the influencer,” which means finding the hippest person on every block and sending “street teams” to “seed product” to them, creating “organic” buzz. Magazines are hosting branding events — celebrity parties, concerts and fashion shows — paid for by their advertisers, whose products end up in the hands of the “cultural influencers” attending.

Brands are also creating their own product-themed content. BMW, American Express and Nike have produced short films, often broadcast online, and hired major Hollywood filmmakers to direct them. Jeep has created more than 20 video games, two network reality shows and a magazine.

As arts funding disappears and tax cuts threaten local governments, advertisers are paying to brand institutions once considered sacrosanct. New York City has declared Snapple its “official soft drink.” Coca-Cola is the “proud sponsor” of the National PTA. Orkin has sponsored an exhibit — the O. Orkin Insect Zoo — at the Smithsonian Institution. And at Walt Disney Concert Hall, an auditorium is named for the Ron Burkle Ralphs/Food 4 Less Foundation.

Now they’re turning people into ads–and ads into people–

In this reality, brands are personified. They are “living, breathing entities that have DNA,” says Jeep’s vice president of marketing, Jeff Bell, who describes his company’s brand as “more of the singer-songwriter, but it also feels great on the beach…. It’s the only brand I know of that’s very, very comfortable in camouflage fatigues and also at Woodstock.”

Ad agencies develop “ethnographic” and “psychographic” profiles of their brands — whether snack crackers or luxury cars — before conceptualizing the campaigns. Once the “personality” is determined, a series of decisions follows, such as which events to sponsor, which celebrities to sign as spokespeople, which genre of movie to be featured in.

‘Shame’ has never been in Mad Ave’s vocabulary. As LAT reporter Gina Piccalo points out, this latest trend in advertising privacy invasion began…in our schools.

The Channel One Network, owned by New York-based Primedia Inc. and produced in L.A., pioneered this approach in 1990 and now beams news and commercials via satellite to 8 million teens in America’s middle and high schools. Late last year, ABC partnered with MindShare North America to create programs showcasing the agency’s clients, including Sears and Unilever; the first program, “The Days,” debuted in July. And GE Healthcare Systems and NBC’s Patient Channel, a 24-hour network broadcast in hospital rooms, delivers a captive audience of 6 million patients and their visitors to drug makers.

The Channel One Network (or CON–for once an accurate acronym, if unintentionally so) is more than a cultural embarrassment, it’s an evil encroachment in territory where it doesn’t belong. There are schools where their contract stipulates that CON can’t be turned off in the cafeteria or the tv monitors in the halls as long as school is in session. Teachers still control whether or not to use it in their classrooms, but for how long? CON is pushing a new stipulation that would require teachers to use at least one CON program a week per class.

There’s a reason why it started there. Everybody over the mental age of 13 knows enough these days not to go into a movie until the previews are on so they don’t have to sit through the ads. Adults get pissed about paying to see advertising; kids don’t know any better. To them, it has always been this way. When I was a lot younger, back in The Old Days, the desirable audience for advertisers was 25-55. The low end was desirable because they were starting families and could be convinced that they needed to ‘buy stuff’ for ‘a good life’; the upper end because they actually had money to spend. Now the target audience is 18-29.

The advertising industry has offered a lot of explanations for why they made the switch but there are two compelling reasons they don’t talk about: 1) consumers over 30 have been so bombarded with ads for so long that they simply tune them out. They’ve learned how to ignore even onslaughts of ads; kids haven’t. The age that is still vulnerable to advertising is sinking lower and lower, and advertising is sinking with it, aiming more and more of its pitches at younger and younger kids; and 2) if adults are themselves highly resistant to insistent advertising, as parents they’re highly vulnerable to their kids–who aren’t. Robert Bernstein, the inventor of the McDonald’s Happy Meal, was even bragging about it on the HM’s 25th Anniversary the other day.

Happy Meals lure millions of children to McDonald’s restaurants and also bring in sales from parents who pick up a Big Mac or Chicken McNuggets for themselves when they stop in. Happy Meals are served at 31,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries and have made McDonald’s the world’s biggest distributor of toys.

Marketing experts agree that it was brilliant.

Happy Meals proved that you could actually ‘brand’ a meal and make kids harass their parents for it,” said Adam Hanft, president of Hanft Raboy & Partners, a New York advertising and marketing firm.

Exactly as Bernstein had planned.

“My feeling was if you get the children to think about McDonald’s, mom would bring them there,” he said. (emphasis added)

From the LAT again:

Advertisers bank on teenagers being “brand loyal” by age 15, hence campaigns such as McDonald’s “McKids” clothing and videos for toddlers, and sixth-grade math textbooks published by McGraw-Hill that feature references to Nike and Gatorade. (Branded textbooks were banned in California in 1999.)

The problem with all this–besides its unethical manipulation and total disregard for any human value that doesn’t have a $ attached to it–is that they’ve taken it about as far as it can go. From here on, everything they try to sneak into our lives risks a major consumer backlash from people old enough to have had enough, and that age is shrinking, too. The brightest teenagers, leaders on the streets and in the schools, are seeing their music, their clothes, their preferences in film, tv, fashion and even speech, co-opted by a corporate culture bent on turning everything into profits, and they’re getting as cynical as their parents–more cynical. That’s what punk and grunge were about; that’s what tattoos and body piercing were about; that’s what the shindogu phenomenon in Japan was about–trying to find a self-identifier that was so far out that the hordes of merciless corporate omnivores would be incapable of subsuming it. They all learned a valuable lesson–the hard way: there’s no such thing. And they’re angry.

“Advertisers are plainly getting more aggressive in their deployment of advertising in every nook and cranny of our culture,” says Gary Ruskin, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Commercial Alert. “And people are getting more angry at that.”


“There is an underside to this strategy,” says Kalle Lasn, founder of the aggressively anti-corporate Adbusters Media Foundation and Adbusters magazine. “You may have success, but bit by bit by bit you’re painting yourself into a corner…. Many of the real street kids, the real activist types, for them, it is further proof that their culture is so easily being hijacked…. It’s a technique whose success is in diminishing returns and is actually creating more cynicism.”

That anger is forcing them further and further underground. Ad agency execs are turning into covert operatives, spying on us and reporting back to HQ.

After years of media overload, today’s consumers have become just as marketing savvy as the folks here. If they catch a whiff of commercialism, they tune out. So advertisers are turning to the experts — psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists — and employing a sensitivity and intuitiveness that most of us don’t expect from our own families, let alone our favorite brand of soap.

They’re going deeper into our psyches than ever before, analyzing such banal rituals as the amount of time we steep our tea bags, the type of mouse pad we prefer or the source of nostalgia behind our choice of soft drink. They’re identifying how the feminist revolution and our parents’ divorces influence our choice of dog food or sports car or Internet service provider.

“The intellectual side of what we do is becoming more and more complex and more and more necessary,” says Suzanne Powers, director of account planning. “Anthropologically speaking, we’re digging into a brand’s roots as well as society’s roots.”

In other words, they’ve learned to lead by following. It’s invidious and culture-destroying and they’ve only just begun. They have brought those same techniques to political advertising: poll heavily, figure out what people want to hear and then sell it to them as if it were your idea. Rove used that approach with great success in Junior’s 2000 campaign; it may have been the only reason the election was close enough to steal. Stealth advertising leads to stealth political campaigning and stealth candidates.

But just as Lasn said, the irony for ad agencies–and politicians–to beware of is that their tactics for bypassing this rising rage are only going to create even more rage, even more cynicism, even more resistance. The radical right is facing the same dilemma–even as they exploit our anger to divide us into blocks opposing each other, a resistance to that devisiveness is building up under the surface. All it needs is the right spark and that anger will explode

Got a match, John?

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