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Human Development - Advertising

Advertising practices

Getting the right message across

It's a fine line between advertising and propaganda. While advertising should endeavor to be honest and decent in showcasing a product or service, propaganda blatantly ignores any rules of decency in proclaiming its message.

These days, with the intricacies of market analysis and subtle messaging techniques at their disposal that fine line has become finer than ever.

Just about every country has its advertising watch dogs, that try to make sure that advertisers stick to the basic rules of fair trade, decency and honesty. But in the ever ruthless corporate battle for market dominance in any given sector or any particular product, advertising in many cases has gone well beyond propaganda in its results without actually crossing the official line.

It is sometimes extremely hard to tell whether a television ad crosses the line from advertising to propaganda, stating a lie, or making insinuations which are contrary to accepted moral and ethical standards.


Subliminal deception

One example is that of a fast food chain that ran a television commercial in a number of European countries successfully for several months before the advertising commission banned it from the air.

The story involved the portrayal of a family with two young kids where both parents work. Father comes home after picking up the two kids from school. Mother isn't home yet. The father then asks whether they should wait for mother to cook or that the kids would rather go to this fast food restaurant.

The kids, of course, are enthusiastic about going to XXX and father and children pull a disgusted face at the thought of mom's cooking. The mother comes home, gets the low down from the rest of the family and they all go happily to XXX where the additional message is that this fast food makes wholesome and healthy meals for the whole family. Better than mom's cooking, in other words.

This particular commercial contains a number of statements which makes it unsuitable for general viewing:

1. It assumes that mom's cooking is so bad that everyone prefers junk food. While this may be true in some cases it certainly is not a message that should be accepted as general truth. We all love our mom's cooking simply because it has all the associated feelings of home and love. Feelings that are not easily associated with any fast food restaurant.

2. It also blames the mother for not being there when her family needs her, i.e. to provide a wholesome and healthy meal. The fact that she is a working mom is being held against her. A blanket negative message about women as mothers without any redeeming qualities. So much for women's lib. Instead the fast food restaurant is supposed to take the place of the mother. Excuse me?

3. The father is portrayed as conspiring with the children against the mother. And even though it might be meant to be a harmless conspiracy without any real negative intent, it again emphasizes the mother's failure to take proper care of her children and family. In addition, the father is portrayed as a weakling because, if the mother is indeed such a bad cook, he should have said something about this a long time ago.

4. The final message that is being portrayed here is that the junk food is equal to, if not better, in nutritional value, than anything mom could possibly cook up. Yeah right. The average mother who cares about her children, and isn't economically paralyzed, certainly has a good idea about general nutrition and is perfectly capable of putting a decent meal on the table. Besides, if the mother is a working mom, it should be everyone's job to help with the family meal rather than to go for junk food.

In a general sense this, and many other, television commercials are targeted at children, not adults. It is no secret that the latest Generation X is spoilt, lazy about doing anything in the house and tend to get what they want one way or another. Parents' better sense notwithstanding. That is why this commercial, and many others, are aimed at children and teenagers rather than adults.

Especially at holiday times are children ruthlessly targeted with misleading commercials, as this short article from the PennState College of Agricultural Sciences mentions; "Toy Commercials often misleading."

Many people will not consider any of the above when watching this commercial. If we were all thinkers television commercials such as these would never be made in the first place, right?

The commercial's real message should be that going to a fast food restaurant is an occasional and fun alternative on days when traditional food preparation is not possible or just a bit too much trouble rather than rudely trying to undermine the traditional concepts of home life.

This is just one typical example of how advertising, in this television commercials, can be misleading without actually seeming so. As a rule, regarding advertising as a consumer, there's only one adage we recommend; question everything!

(See also Advertising methods)


Advertising practices and standards

Codes for Advertising Practices (CAP) - The UK advertising practices codes.
Federal Trade Commission - The US Federal Trade Commission enforces federal consumer protection laws that prevent fraud, deception and unfair business practices.
The European Advertising Standards Alliance - the EASA is, on behalf of the advertising industry, the single authoritative voice on advertising self-regulation issues.
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission - The ACCC promotes competition and fair trade in the market place to benefit consumers, business and the community.
The World Trade Organization - The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations.

A little awareness goes a long way

Being somewhat, if not completely, skeptic about advertising is generally a good idea. Since every package states that its product is perfect, we already know that this is not so. In fact, we'd recommend a healthy dose of skepticism just to be on the safe side.

When you are happy with a product you tend to stick with it. This brand loyalty is what manufacturers are looking for. And they will go to great lengths to try to ensure this loyalty.

Normally speaking there would be no reason to switch brands once you are happy. And you would have to have a good reason to do so. The competing brand, however, wants you to switch your loyalty to their brand. They can persuade you in a variety of ways. For example, by copying the brand packaging, lowering the price, or placing the product at a more advantageous location in stores.

Or they can simply launch a better advertising campaign, convincing existing brand loyal buyers to switch. All fair as far as competition rules are concerned.

It gets less fair when a company holds a monopoly on a product or even product range and the consumer has no choice. It is also not correct when they lie outright in their advertising campaign or packaging. But where the second practice can be contained to a single wrong purchase, the first can't.

Price is another issue that needs skepticism. While a lower price may be advertised for product it usually means the actual product is either not up to the usual standard, contains sub-standard ingredients, is near it's sell by date, or is simply not popular and needs to be dumped.


The reverse is also true, just because a product is expensive doesn't necessarily mean it's also of a better quality. With many products being made in China these days, for example, quality standards are far less than what we are used to but the manufacturer sells it at the same old price because of the brand name, and loyalty. Of course anyone familiar enough with a brand is soon aware of this.

Brand loyalty has something worth while. But brand loyalty is a two way street. And if the brands want the consumer to stay loyal, they need to to do the same.

Other products are simply what they say they are but are being used unfairly by the retailer to make a profit. Pet medicines for example are often not used correctly by the veterinarian. While the vet recommends yearly vaccinations, for example, the general vaccines used are actually active from anywhere between 18 and 24 months. In other words, where you would only have to go twice every three years you are now going every year.

In this case it is the retailer which uses unfair advertising practices, taking advantage of something the customer generally has no idea of, i.e. veterinary medicine.

When you add up all the small scale dishonesties during a year, you can safe yourself a lot of money just by being a little aware.


Going for the money

Of course, it is always easier to make advertising do what it is suppose to do - bring in the money.

Forget about useful content designed to improve the human condition, it is irrelevant.

Formulating television channels for the sole purpose of airing commercials of a particular type of consumer is not that difficult.

There are thousands of channels like this already on the air and soon it will be millions. Mindless programs to motivate watchers to forget all about choice and accept what is offered.

Soaps and reality shows, for example, offer a dangerous drug which is highly addictive - someone else's life.

When you are continuously occupied with someone else's life, you have no time of your own. Just following instructions is always easier than making decisions for yourself.

The only message being sent here is "Buy from me." How boring. Quality is no longer important, just quantity. Quantity of viewers, consumers and money.

Advertising can be used more positively than this.


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