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Advertising Gone Bad. Just What Message Are You Sending?

Stephen has worked in advertising for the better part of twenty years, and currently works in print media with a popular local magazine.


Advertising, Good or Bad?

I have worked in advertising, in one form or another, for most of my adult life. I love advertising. I think it is great when it works, not so great when it doesn't. I do not believe, as many people do (and there are a great many on both sides of the argument) that it is inherently good or inherently bad in any kind of social or moral context, it is just a part of doing business. For many a very important part. To my way of thinking an ad is good if it works and bad if it doesn't. I enjoy a really well written, well made, and terrifically executed television commercial as much as a good TV show, or a great print ad as much as an entertaining short story (or at least an amusing comic strip). I feel great when I help a client develop an advertising campaign for their product or service that really nails it, and brings in business. After all, isn't that what advertising is supposed to do? bring in business.

Though I believe that over commercialization can be bad (ex: what has become of both Christmas and Easter) I do not believe that advertising in itself is. It is just a selling tool. At the most basic level it is designed to inform; to give us the knowledge to make an educated decision about whether or not to purchase a particular product or service. Those that believe that advertising is bad support the idea that it is biased, that the ads only show products in their best light, from one side. That it "pushes products down our throats". Though I do not wish to spend too much time here on the truth in advertising debate, or whether or not products are being forced upon us (exploring these issues from both sides of the argument would take volumes) I will say this: of course advertising is biased, and of course advertisers are trying to make us buy things. Companies are spending money, in many cases a great deal of money, to try to convince us to buy their products or services. This does not make it bad, it just makes it advertising. As consumers it is up to us to perform due diligence before making a purchase decision. I am not going to go to a restaurant and plunk down twenty dollars on a hamburger because the restaurant owners tell me that it is the "best hamburger ever, and well worth the money". However, if ten of my friends tell me the same thing then, yes, I will risk the twenty bucks to try it. I would consider seeking the opinion of ten other people as having performed due diligence.

I have probably gotten a little deeper into this topic than is truly warranted here but I want to be perfectly clear, I do not believe that advertising is bad. I believe it is necessary, and even important. I think it can be informative and entertaining, and believe that it should be. What I have an issue with, and what I am addressing here are those occasions when advertising crosses a line. I have noticed from time to time that advertisers have, in an attempt to create amusing and entertaining ads, gone too far. I have seen ads that go from teetering on a moral ledge to ads that appear to condone criminal activity.

I am no prude, far from it. And I have nothing whatever against the advertising industry, I make my living in it. I do, however, believe that advertisers have a responsibility to be mindful of the activities and attitudes that they appear to promote or condone. I am not referring to the oft cited beer commercial where a group of friends are having a great time around the pool or on the beach with a beer in their hands. These are great ads. I love having beer with friends in social settings, as do millions of people. Because some people become alcohol abusers is no more a reason to attack beer commercials than the fact that some people become morbidly obese and drop dead of a thunder clap heart attack at age thirty five is a reason to blame fast food ads. And I am not talking about advertisers lying about or misrepresenting their products. There are government agencies in place to protect consumers from this. I am talking about something completely different.

The Message Beneath the Message

What I am talking about here is the message beneath the message, or the secondary message if you will. The activity or lifestyle choice that the advertiser appears to be promoting or condoning while promoting their product or service. I have been noticing more and more lately what I feel to be a disturbing trend among advertisers toward using questionable attitudes and activities in an attempt to create amusing and entertaining ads.

I have seen everything from ads that appear to promote a backward and corrupt sense of family values to ads that seem to not only condone but to applaud criminal activity. I believe this trend in advertising is at best misguided but harmless, at worst, dangerous.

The problem is what, if anything, to do about it. I do not believe in censorship, and I am a staunch supporter of free speech. I do believe, however, that advertisers have a moral responsibility to be selective as to how they choose to promote their products or services, to look at what message their ads are actually sending, and to decide whether on not this message is appropriate, or could potentially have a negative social impact, or support or condone an immoral, or even illegal activity. The advertiser has to keep in mind that if their ad is on television or online it can be seen by anyone, including children,and those with impressionable minds,or even people of weak moral or criminal character that could find personal validation in these ads. I think advertisers should make greater efforts to police themselves with regards to the messages they are sending.

Here I have chosen to look at three recent examples that I find particularly disturbing.

Little Caesar's "Little Caesar"

This recent offering from Little Caesar's would perhaps be slightly amusing if it were not for the fact that it so clearly and vividly portrays a problem that is affecting a great number of families today, and is negatively affecting society in general: kids have too much control and too little respect. The kids did not create this problem, society did, and society needs to fix it, not condone it.

I know that there are lots of people who think this ad is the height of wit. I have read a great many comments on it by people who think it is funny and perfectly acceptable, and I guess to young people with no children to raise, or to people who, for some reason, cannot see the moral decline or the erosion of family values that this ad represents, it is. But for the rest of us it is just plain disturbing.

I do not want to go into everything that is wrong with this ad, or every social problem that it is indicative of, and the reasons behind them. That subject could take up an entire semester of university in a number of different disciplines. I also think that, for most people, the problems are glaringly obvious. I will say this though, I think it is sad that so many people do not recognize the issues portrayed here as a real problems. I read one comment on the ad where the person stated that "it is funny because it is the opposite of how things really are, and this does not happen in real life". If only this were true. This person has obviously never witnessed a small child having a tantrum at the Walmart, or a spoiled youngster, similar to the one in the ad, giving a parent grief for the failure of that parent to provide exactly what the child wants exactly when the child wants it. And the parent, on the verge of tears, pleading with the child to take the, hopefully placating, offering that the parent has managed to procure. This behavior is very much real, and very prevalent. The lack of gratitude displayed by the child in this ad is also very real in this age of entitlement.

Another comment I read said, "I love this commercial it's hilarious". The person making this particular comment goes by the handle MafiaPrince713; need I say more?

Really Little Caesar's, what were you thinking.

Can You Count All of the Crimes Committed?

How can anyone possibly think that this ad is funny? How can Mazda possibly think that this is a great way to showcase the performance and handling of one of its automobiles? Let's look at this for a moment. This is not a movie where someone is presenting us with an account of a fictional story where a theft leads to a dangerous car chase. Though at the movies this makes for great comedy, it is not acceptable in real life. This is an ad where a car company is trying to sell us an automobile based on lifestyle and a type of person, and how this car will fit that person and lifestyle.

So, let's see: a man and woman crash a wedding, the woman steals (yes, that's right, steals) the bride's bouquet, the man and woman then run away with the stolen flowers and jump into their Mazda getaway car (is the car also stolen? probably not, but given the couples moral character, not impossible), the understandably upset bride's maids hop into their car to give chase. What follows is a high speed pursuit through city streets, were numerous moving violations are committed, and terrifying examples of dangerous, even life threatening, driving occur. All the while the two thieves are grinning away, and in the end, thanks to the handling and performance of their Mazda, they get away with the crimes.

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This ad is just so wrong on so many levels. From the crimes committed to the dangerous acts performed. Sadly, this is not the only such ad Mazda has used to try to sell their cars. Mazda executives really need to take a serious look at the messages they are presenting in their ads, get a new ad agency, and fire the marketing people who approved these ads for broadcast in the first place. There are so many better ways to market automobiles without condoning and normalizing criminal activity, and glorifying dangerous driving.

Is Learning to Share no Longer Important?

Since when has learning to share not been an important part of child development? The selfishness displayed in this ad is incredible. I cannot understand how the people at Yoplait could possibly believe that the behavior portrayed here is in any way cute or funny. It is actually extremely troubling that this company would attempt to promote their product by having a child lie to her father, then perform a selfish act so that she would not have to share with him. This is yet another sad commentary on the current state of society, and what it deems to be normal and acceptable. The only consolation here is that this type of advertising seems to be only engaged in by a small number of companies, and the ads of this nature are few and far between.

What is truly amazing is that Yoplait is a company that supposedly promotes a healthy lifestyle. Somehow they managed to miss the fact that a lot more goes into a healthy lifestyle than what we eat. That in order to raise happy, healthy and well adjusted children parents have to be just as concerned with their child's social and moral well being as with their physical well being, and that promoting and condoning this kind of attitude and behavior goes very much against this.

In sharp contrast to the Yoplait ad is this beautiful commercial out of Thailand. I think the ad speaks for itself.

This is just one example of the many ads out there where the advertiser gets it right. There are also a multitude of advertisements that, though not taking quite the moral high ground that this commercial does, present their products and services in a way that is perfectly safe and acceptable to, and part of, a properly functioning, healthy and happy, society. Hopefully the creators of the morally corrupt and socially misguided ads presented above, and the many more like them, as well as the company executives who approve them, will put more thought into their future campaigns, and will more closely consider the messages that they are sending, and the attitudes and behaviors that they are associating with their products and services.

© 2017 Stephen Barnes


Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on September 15, 2017:

Thank you Mary, I am glad you found the topic interesting. I do not watch much television myself but when I do I tend to pay close attention to the advertising, a habit that comes from working in the industry I guess, and when I see really bad advertising it bothers me. I usually just vent to my wife But that Little Caesar's commercial bothered me so much I felt that I needed a larger audience.

Mary Wickison from USA on September 15, 2017:

I haven't watched television since 2009 and I am certain when I do, I will be dismayed by what is considered 'acceptable'.

I think you're right, that advertisers should be aware of their moral obligation to show a positive side of their client's products.

That kid in the pizza ad emotionally bothers me. The wedding one, although I don't find it bad, I think it is too stupid.

I think everyone likes a happy ending whether it is on a television program or a commercial and that means a morally correct one.

Interesting topic.

Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on September 11, 2017:

Thank you Angel, I am glad you enjoyed the article. I agree that it can be difficult to find the right balance sometimes but I believe that advertisers can strike gold without resorting to ads like those featured here. The Danone ad that I cite is a perfect example of striking this gold.

Angel Guzman from Joliet, Illinois on September 10, 2017:

The pizza commercial was simply uncomfortable. The car one I really enjoyed! Good read and it's tough finding that balance of advertising gold sometimes.

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