Monday, 22 May 2017

Lies of the Admen

Ah, yes, advertising - a pet hatred of mine, yet it is one of those things that capitalism seems to need to produce in order to survive. In my mind the concept of advertising (and marketing in general) is to convince somebody that they need something that they don't want, and to then make them part ways with an extraordinary amount of money to possess it. The other aspect is built in obsolescence, and I have to admit that I cringe every time I hear a sales person mention that the product I just bought will need to be replaced in around two years (though my laptop is currently four years old, as is my desktop computer, and at this stage I see no need to replace either).

Yet it is advertising that really gets me because while I can basically ignore built in obsolence, it can be hard, very hard, to fight off the tactics of the advertising executive, whether it be through flashy posters, eye-catching covers, or an engrossing television commercial. However, while I do manage to avoid the lure of looking good by buying brand name clothing, or a prestige car, I still cannot avoid the lure of a well put together movie trailer, or an eye catching book cover (and this is not to mention the sweet taste of a packet of chips or a craft beer).

I was going to suggest that you may be wandering why I am writing a post about advertising, but then I realised that if you have been following my blog then such a post probably wouldn't come as a surprise, especially with some of my previous anti-capitalist rants. However, it isn't the case that I have just binge watched Mad Men, but rather it is because when I visited the Communications Museum in Frankfurt there was an exhibition on the history of advertising, and since I did spend some time there I felt that maybe I should use it as a topic of my post.

Advertise or Die

The truth is that for a business to survive in the modern world they need to advertise, but they need to advertise in such a way as to grab the attention of the consumer. The reality is that there are lots and lots of stuff out there, and people have limited time and resources, so the role of the adman is to be in sync with the consumer - they need to understand what attracts them, what desires they have, and what will grab their attention. However it goes beyond that because as every marketer is told they must know their audience. In fact the reality is that audiences aren't prebuilt, so you need to create them, and to do that you need to know who your target is, and how to draw them into the honeypot. More so, you need to have an understanding of where their attention lays so as to be able insert yourself into their field of vision - it is no good placing ads in newspapers when everybody is getting their news off of the bubble that is Facebook.

The world is indeed changing because it has actually become much easier to measure how well an advertisement is working, and in fact how productive a adman happens to be. In the past it was very hit or miss, and with the cost of producing ads, particularly television ads, being so high one mistake could cost a company millions in lost sales. However, if one manages to hit upon the right note, and capture the attention of the audience, then sales would boom. However, these days, with Search Engine Optimisation, cookies, and website tracking, is is now much easier to see which adds are working, and which outlets are generating the most traffic.

However, demographics are changing, and changing a lot. In the past things were pretty cut and dry - the women wore dresses and men drank beer. However that isn't necessarily the case any more. In fact it isn't just the rise of the LGBT community but also numerous role reversals. These days we have men staying at home looking after the kids while the women go out to work, and we have young metro-sexual men who take as much interest in their appearance as women do. One way that advertisers grab the attention of the viewer is by stepping outside of the ordinary, and changing things around, and even adding a little humour, but the reality is that these days the norm is so diverse that there isn't necessarily one common theme left in our society. Yet in many cases advertisers still focus on what is considered the main stream since that is where the largest source of revenue is, and only targets minorities when they have something that is specific to them.

Behind the Curtain

It sounds as if I have been speaking about advertising in general, however we can't forget that this is a German museum, and for about fifty years Germany was divided into East and West, with the east being a planned economy while the west was a capitalist market economy. It is easy to dismiss the East as being a backward communist country with no life and no soul, and in a sense there is the fact that in East Germany there was no competition - there would only be one company and that company was owned by the state. However, that did not necessarily mean that there was no advertising. In fact even in Orwell's dystopian world of 1984 we had advertising.

The thing is that there is more to advertising than simply attempting to capture the attention of the consumers and convincing them to purchase your product as opposed to somebody else's product. No, advertising has a lot to do with information distribution, as well as propoganda. In fact that is basically what advertising is, propoganda - there is no two ways about it. The reality is that no matter how many times the add tells you something, Coke simply does not add life, and that small car made by Toyota is basically no different than that small car made by Ford. Oh, and the only reason that BMW costs a lot more is because you are paying for a brand (and a lifestyle).

In the German Democratic Republic, the idea behind advertising was to promote the government, and to make people believe that the government was working for them, and was supporting them (which to be honest with you sounds pretty much what is happening here in the West). However another aspect of advertising was to make people aware of what was available, and to also organise the planned economy to make sure that there wasn't an oversupply of goods, and if there was then to direct the populace to buy that product so as to bring the supply down.

The Marlboro Man

If there is one product that demonstrates the nature of advertising and that is the cigarette (though you could also argue clothing to an extent - how different is a t-shirt with a Nike symbol on it to a t-shirt with an Adidas symbol on it?). The truth about cigarettes is that across brands there is actually no difference. In fact tests have been performed where people were given cigarettes made by different brands and they weren't actually able to tell the difference. Mind you, I am still sitting here scratching my head wondering how this whole plain packaging is supposed to work, particularly since removing the branding on cigarette packets seems to do little to stop people smoking - however forcing stores to hide them in cupboards certain does do the trick (as does demonising smokers).

Yet if there was one industry that had mastered the nature of the brand, and the iconic image of the Marlboro man, sitting astride his horse wearing his huge stetson had is a testament to that, it is the tobacco industry. In fact I still remember sitting in the car on the way to church every Sunday morning and passing a billboard that had the Marlboro man sitting there and looking out over the banked up traffic - and from what I can remember that billboard sat there for years, right up until the time in which all cigarette advertising was banned. In a sense what was being said was that real men smoke Marlboro.

I probably should mention as a side note that the Malboro billboard, and the alco-pop billboard, that I would regularly see as an impressionable young kid, did have an impact upon me, though I don't actually drink alcohol - still, there were a lot of other things that shaped my development than a couple of billboards on the way to church.

However on the other side we have Camel, a cigarette that, at least where I was concerned, came across as being exotic. Yet the brand image that came across was that it was adventurous, and took the image of the man who wandered across deserts and made his way through jungles. Yet it was the exotic nature of the cigarettes that captured my friend's imagination because, well, it had a soft back, and cigarettes that came in soft packs must be better than the ones that come in the hard packs. In fact the nature of the brand even makes us believe that the cigarettes that come from one type of packaging differs from that which comes from another - when it reality that are both cigarettes.

Researching the Market

So, with the high cost of producing advertisements, companies, and advertisers, need to know whether their strategy is going to work, and one way they do this is through market research. You may have received calls from people asking if you would like to participate in some form of research (I have, and I usually decline because, well, I'm not all that interested in buying anything). The thing is that before they go ahead with their project, they need to know whether it is going to work, and what it is that will attract people's attention. In fact they will also bring groups into rooms to see how they will react to certain products and posters.

Yet things have changed a lot since when I was young. First of all we now have mobile phones, which means that there is a much greater reach for researchers to get information from, because previously they were only really able to get people who happened to be at home when the phone rang (and that is if people are at home). The other thing is that we now have social media, and we are putting so much of our information on line - our likes and dislikes, our wanderings, and our interests and hobbies - that marketers are able to mine this information to be able to customise their products.

One way that they do this is by creating profiles - not profiles such as our various social media accounts, but rather a profile of a generic type of person and the type of things that captures their attention. Mind you, we are still very much in the early days, but as this develops advertisers will be able to tailor adds to specific individuals that are designed to grab their attention much more than a generic advertisement would. Further, as your online activity increases, marketers are able to determine what you like, and what you are looking for, so that wherever you turn on the web you will be confronted with ads that basically reflect your greatest desires.

The Jagerbomb

The only time I have heard of Jagermeister was a cocktail known as a 'Jagerbomb', which is supposed to be some Jagermeister mixed with Redbull in a shot glass (and it is pretty pricey by the way). However, it appears that sometime in the past the drink was basically was one would term as an 'old man's drink', that is a drink that was only consumed by a certain demographic. To be honest I have a lot of difficulty picturing Jagermeister as being such a drink, but that is probably a testimony to the way that they managed to turn its image around. In fact the campaign that they used was termed 'Jagermeister, Eine fur Alles' (Jagermeister, a 'drink' for all), and the way they did this was through a series of adds where the subject began the sentence with the phrase 'I drink Jagermeister because ...'.

Well, while the campaign was a successful (as is evidenced by the popularity of the Jagerbomb), it sort of opened itself up to some criticism, namely through a German parody magazine Pardon. Here they had an image of a child holding a glass of Jagermeister with the words 'I drink Jagermeister because my dealer is currently in goal' (and later changed it to 'I no longer drink Jagermeister because me dealer is now out of gaol'). Jagermeister wasn't particularly happy with that and sued the magazine, however the judge ruled against then namely because the content of the ad clearly indicated that it was satire. However, what the ad did do was raise awareness of the problem of underage drinking, and also drinking to solve one's problems.

About the Weather

The thing is that iconic ads lead to parodical ads, and this was the case the Deutschebahn. When the automobile because ubiquitous all of a sudden people began to believe that trains were, well, on the way out. In fact they were expecting them to suffer a slow, and rather painful, death. Well, that never happened, and if you travel to Germany today you can pretty much get to most parts of the country (or at least most cities and towns) by catching a train. Actually, that is the case with a lot of Europe (which is probably the main reason that I love the place). Anyway, they came up with a poster - a black background with white letters, and the phrase 'Alles reden vom wetter ... wir nicht' (everybody talks about the weather - we don't).

This iconic imagery basically captured the hearts and minds of the German people, and it basically turned Deutschebahn's fortunes around. However it was one of those images that kept on coming back again, and again. For instance the student communist league used the words, but changed the background to red, and instead of the train have the heads of the three communist icons. The Greens also used the concept with their posters.

So, there we have it, some thoughts on advertising, and the way that it works. In a sense it is a part of our culture and our society, though I have to admit that it is a shame that so much creativity simply goes into creating pithy things that are used to sell stupid products, that is until I discovered that Andy Warhol began his career in advertising.

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Lies of the Admen by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

1 comment:

  1. For what it's worth, the quote, "Everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." is from 19th Century American author Charles Dudley Warner.

    Also, here in the US, it is a tradition to watch the Super Bowl to see (and mock) the commercials. :D