Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Why Is Everyone Smiling?

The Rebel Consumer wants to know why people smile so often in advertisements.

Early in actor James Coburn's career he appeared in an electric razor ad for television. He said the hardest part was smiling while shaving. This was not a natural thing to do but a big grin was obligatory.

We have gotten so used to ads we have stopped noticing that everyone is smiling no matter how odd it is. People eating a slice of pizza are smiling, people losing weight are smiling as they bounce around now suddenly free of twenty pounds. People who were depressed are instantly happy leading full lives because they now take a prescription medicine. People with arthritis can dance freely with big grins on their faces. People who want whiter teeth are smiling because their teeth now light up a room.

I mean, come on! How absurd. And yet it is this nonsensical reality that we are exposed to hundreds of times a day in ad after ad. It is as though there were another world out there where everyone is always happy and confident.

As consumers we accept this reality, because we have no choice. If we watch commercial TV, the ads will be there. If we drive down the road, billboards will be there. If we walk into a supermarket, the displays will be there.

While critics of media often focus on a particular ad campaign or advertisements to a target group such as tweens, I believe the most destructive aspect of advertising is its cumulative effect. If everyone is smiling in all the ads, what do they know that I don't? Why are their lives happier than mine? Why can't I find a product that will make me feel that good? My life seems so drab and the world of ads seems so exciting; why can't I live like that?

Of course, this is all nonsense but when children grow up with ads, mature with ads, become adults with ads, when they have seen about one million ads on TV by the age of twenty-one, it may be hard to shake the feeling that ads present a better way of life. While we may deny it rationally, deep inside advertisers have convinced us that they offer a warm, smiley world by repeating their message day after day.

They have programed us. And those who think they are not programmed are the most vulnerable. This is because these people are not aware how media forces operate on individuals and on the society and thus they cannot resist these forces.

Yet if you want to unplug the influence of advertising, there are places to start that are quite effective. Here is step #1.

For just one day, pay attention to how often people smile during all TV ads. When you really notice, it's quite ridiculous. You may even start laughing after the two hundredth ad. It's like watching gangs of lunatics who believe everything is wonderful all the time no matter what.

And once you have done this, you have started to remove some of the sting and power that ads have over your life.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

My Identity Does Not Come From Advertising

In the last blog article, I quoted Dr. Joseph Heath (Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto) from his article entitled "The Rebel Sell: If we all hate consumerism, how come we can’t stop shopping?" He argues that anti-consumerism leads to simply another consumer choice and that rebels with their different tastes are only encouraging businesses to add rebel consumer goods to the marketplace. So instead of getting rid of the problem, rebels are actually making the problem worse. In the article he says,
"What we need to see is that consumption is not about conformity, it’s about distinction. People consume in order to set themselves apart from others. To show that they are cooler (Nike shoes), better connected (the latest nightclub), better informed (single-malt Scotch), morally superior (Guatemalan handcrafts), or just plain richer (bmw)."

So I thought I would take his test myself and list some of the products that I use, for example: a Buick Park Avenue Ultra (top of the line), a Brooks Brothers shirt, an Eddie Bauer down vest and Beck's imported dark beer.

What do these products tell you about me? Take a guess and then read on.

First the Buick: My Buick may be top of the line, but it is 15 years old, a 1991 model. I don't really like Buick's (or at least I thought I didn't) but this car was in mint condition and was unbelievably comfortable. I bought it only after doing thorough search for the best deal in the area where I live. I paid $2000 with a 40,000 mile 3.8 liter six cylinder engine that some consider to be the finest engine built by GM and that gets 23 mpg in town and 31 mpg on the highway. Also Buicks are common where I live, everyone knows how to repair them and I can find parts easily. I bought a quality model because I knew that a top of the line car in the used market only costs a bit more than an economy model and that luxury models are usually better made to begin with. The new price for this car is about $35,000. So if you see me coming down the road in my Buick put away your preconceptions; I bought it because it was the best deal and *NOT* because of the image that people have about Buick owners.

But what about the Brooks Brothers shirt and the Eddie Bauer down vest? I know that Brooks Brothers makes excellent shirts, certainly some of the best, but my wife paid 50 cents for mine in the thrift store. It retailed for $65. And I know that Eddie Bauer has made excellent down products for decades but my wife paid only $2 for what was listed in the catalogue for $88. Again I was after quality and the best deal not the image that I would present.

This picture is from my interview on MSNBC about buying clothing.

But what about that Beck's dark beer? I love the taste of a good German or Irish dark beer more than any other kind. I only drink one or two at the most in an evening, so it does not cost that much. At my bar, draft Guinness is served in plastic cups, so I don't impress anyone. And when I took two bottles of dark beer to a NASCAR race in Roxboro, North Carolina, I was definitely not cool since they were all drinking Budweiser!

So what image am I trying to project? Am I trying to impress people with my Buick Park Avenue, Brooks Brothers shirt, Eddie Bauer vest and refined German dark beer? No! I found excellent quality that met my needs for a great price. Image was not part of my thinking.

But did I buy things that will encourage businesses to add new goods into the market place as Dr. Heath has asserted? No, the Buick and the clothes were all used. I was, in fact, recycling. As for the Beck's beer, it has been made since 1553; it is definitely not a new product.

So Dr. Heath was flat wrong. Rebel consumers can live 'outside' the regular marketplace, shop for what they really need, find quality stuff and pay a lot less. At the same time rebels can avoid the problem of adding more junk to the marketplace.

The false 'trap' of Dr. Heath's article was to assert that we are all stuck with equally bad choices no matter what consumer products we buy. While we all live in a consumer society, some choices are much better than others and these can help individuals, families, and the environment while avoiding the siren song of advertising.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Does Your Identity Come From Advertising?

The Rebel Consumer is about getting free of the advertising-marketing-consumer culture. Yet critics say that to be rebellious is simply another choice in today's market place. In short there is nothing you can do.

This is undiluted hog-wash.

If you derive your identity from the products you own, then yes, you are stuck. If instead you get your identity from your mate or family or close friends or your dog or the hobby or art that you create or all of the above, then brand image is unimportant.

Yet critics keep insisting we are stuck.

As noted in the excellent Frontline report (PBS), advertising does not want to fill our environment, it wants *TO BE* the environment. This means that there is no escape. It also means that as a culture we have let advertising define who we are and what we want. Yet, quite simply, if we do not accept that definition, we are free.

Nevertheless critics keep painting people as helpless consumers at the mercy of marketing. In this article called The Rebel Sell the author emphatically makes this point:
"Many people who are, in their own minds, opposed to consumerism nevertheless actively participate in the sort of behaviour that drives it.
"What we need to see is that consumption is not about conformity, it’s about distinction. People consume in order to set themselves apart from others. To show that they are cooler (Nike shoes), better connected (the latest nightclub), better informed (single-malt Scotch), morally superior (Guatemalan handcrafts), or just plain richer (bmw)."

I can only have pity on a person who would care about this list of products and think that they are important to his or her identity and who would work and go into debt and worry over such things.

If you really like Nike shoes and they fit and wear well, great, buy them. Yet anyone who presented me a full list like this, is saying that he/she has no real identity. She/he is instead trying to choose her/his identity from the marketplace. They are doomed to failure and also disappointment.

The things that you care passionately about like the person you love, the relationships you have, the quiet moments when you are at peace -- these are where your identity comes from. Yet as a culture we are vulnerable. In a mobile society like ours, people may feel rootless and look for their identity in products. Marketing takes advantage of such people.

Advertising and brands give us a false choice. Buying a product can make you comfortable for a time but as Jean Kilbourne as said, "We can never be satisfied, because the products we love cannot love us back."

If your primary identity comes from the marketplace, you have made an empty choice.

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