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Two Puzzles of Modern Advertising

April 27th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

The purpose of retail advertising is to induce in consumers a desire to acquire goods or services. This being so, one might think of it as a subtle kind of art form: an announcement of availability, a delineating of features, perhaps a comparison with other brands, and a statement of the product’s suitability for its intended purpose.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the way it turns out, at all. The vast majority of modern advertising appeals either to prejudice, stereotypes, illusions or delusions. The situations are fake, the characters aren’t real, and the product claims are bogus. Even just a moment’s reflection should be sufficient to realize such advertising appeals, if it does, only to the lowest common denominator of consumer preference.

My primary objection to most advertising, though, isn’t aesthetic. Rather, it’s strictly economic: I can’t understand how the advertiser possibly thinks (a) the advertising is efficacious, in the sense it will lure consumers into actually consuming the advertised goods or services; and (b) the advertising is cost-effective, especially in comparison to other possible ways of achieving its ostensible purposes, or in comparison with the cost of advertising in other media. For example, I have seen many advertising campaigns where it would be less expensive, and more efficacious, simply to hand out $20 bills to everybody who buys the product. Or, you simply could give them the product, and consumers either will recognize its superior characteristics, or not.

There are two special sub-categories of advertising that particularly are curious. The first is cigarette companies, which are required by Federal legislation to spend most of their advertising budget telling consumers not to buy their product. Evidently they would prefer to do this, rather than simply not advertise at all. From this, one can conclude the substantive propositional content of the advertising itself, is meaningless. If it was meaningful, and the advertising was efficacious, then the targeted demographic would be persuaded by the advertising to stop buying tobacco products, which hasn’t happened. Rather, the simple mention of the advertised product, and a depiction of its use in pseudo-sexy situations of the sort cigarette advertisers favor, seemingly is enough to induce in the susceptible consumer a desire to buy — despite the (ostensibly) negative message. Alcohol companies face the same dilemma, though it is not quite so acute.

Thus we have a farcical situation where the tobacco company spends money on advertising telling consumers not to buy its product, but the advertising is “coded” with sub-text, carrying precisely the opposite message. This works, or works well-enough. In fact, it would be most interesting to see which worked better: a straight-on appeal, absent the governmental warning; or the coded appeal, with the warning. Either way, the advertising is duplicitous and hypocritical, both for the tobacco company and the government. The government is not achieving its stated objective to deter cigarette smoking. And, the tobacco company is not deploying its advertising resources efficiently, that is, in a manner most likely to achieve the intended result.

The second case is that of pharmaceutical companies. Doctors are the ones who write prescriptions, and pharmaceutical companies certainly spend enough money targeting them. However, they also spend billions of dollars on direct-to-consumer advertising. Again, though, it is advertising with a twist, in that the pharmaceutical company also is required by Federal law to include lengthy disclaimers about the product, and its use or potential for mis-use. In magazines, for example, the typical drug ad is accompanied by an entire page of teeny-tiny type, enumerating potential side-effects. On television, it is accompanied by out-of-body interludes during which one of the characters turns to the camera and, as if addressing his or her friends, starts discussing potential risks or complications.

These collateral phenomena are amusing enough, but what is even more entertaining is the advertiser’s concept of the consumer’s thought process. The advertiser’s reasoning must go something like this. Although not a physician, the consumer is sufficiently knowledgeable to diagnose his or her own symptoms. Not only that, the consumer also is a sophisticated pharmacologist, so after making this self-diagnosis, he or she can prescribe the appropriate medication.

This scenario strikes me as implausible, if not entirely unbelievable. It hypothesizes a consumer who goes into a doctor’s office and says something like, “You know, I saw on television the other night about this new drug xyz, and that got me to thinking, I may have that disease, or at least I think I may have symptoms of it, and I’d like to try some of this wonder-drug, because the people in that ad sure looked as though they were experiencing relief.” With exceptions, such as life-style drugs (anti-depressants, erectile dysfunction, etc.), it is hard to imagine this scenario actually occurring. Or, if it does, being given any credence whatsoever by the physician. Why even have the physician in the supply chain, if a more direct route is available?

These two examples are sufficient for me to doubt not only the efficacy of most advertising, but also the motives of most advertisers. If tobacco companies could save money by not advertising at all, then they would be the first to do so – clearly, their advertising, even with all of the restrictions, still is efficacious. This suggests the government should ban all tobacco advertising, at least in mass media, if it is serious about public health (or, more properly stated, public health and economic cost in relationship to tobacco company profitability). And, the same also must be true for pharmaceutical companies. There is no logical reason for a product sold only to pharmacists, and prescribed only by doctors, to be advertised directly to consumers. Once again, I’m sure pharmaceutical companies test their advertising concepts thoroughly, so direct-to-consumer advertising must “work,” in the sense of selling more drugs (though how consumers manage to leap through the logical hoops, and convince their doctors to prescribe the desired medication, is a mystery). This type of advertising serves no socially useful or other ascertainable purpose, and also should be eliminated.