Badvertising

1 April 2019
By: Jeffrey Reichel

Face it. Advertising is powerful. However, it’s not the type of power we commonly associate with physical strength or brute force. Instead, advertising utilizes the power of words and visuals to push us into action. I used the word action because it’s very open ended. For example, have you ever seen a commercial for the 16th time and immediately changed the channel? Well that’s an action. On the contrary, have you ever passed a Taco Bell billboard and impulsively decided to try their latest edible “creation?” That’s also an action. Now that we’re on the same page, I’m going to dig up and detail a few instances from the ad-archives that were so powerful, they shaped the world as we know it.

Whether we’d be better or worse as a society because of these instances is strictly up to you.

To kick things off, I’m going to tell you about an event that rattled the entire online ad industry. It was so powerful, it still affects people browsing the internet to this very day. Does the name Ethan Zuckerman ring a bell? Probably not, but if you’ve ever encountered a pop-up ad and had your whole online experience derailed, you can thank Mr. Zuckerman. He was the creator of the notorious pop-up ad, considered by many to be the most tragic innovation in the history of the internet. In fact, it’s so awful, he even admitted to personally regretting its inception and has apologized for creating them. Not much to decide here. Pop-up ads are clearly the worst. I also find it pertinent to mention that anyone whose last name begins with “Zucker” can’t be trusted at this point. Stay vigilant folks.

ethan zuckerman pop up ads pm3 agency

Moving on, let’s travel back to the 1920s.

This decade, that many refer to as the “Roaring Twenties,” was a progressive time for our country in many respects. With the auto industry, organized crime, and tuberculosis all on the rise, this was truly a time to be alive. Amidst all of the exciting innovations, a little company you might know by the name of Listerine was about to push the boundaries of advertising. Originally, Listerine was used for everything from scrubbing floors to cleaning feet, but in 1921 this jack-of-all-trades product found its primary niche and became the mouthwash mastodon we recognize today.

The company did so by pioneering an advertising technique that has stood the test of time, which is to base your creative messaging around an innate human truth. For George Lambert, the son of Listerine’s founder, that truth was that people have bad breath. Mind you, this was a time when oral hygiene was in its infantile years, so I’d imagine the average person’s breath was potent enough to make a mothball cry. That being said, the product’s market relevance was so strong you could smell it, but George took it one step further and coined the faux-medical term, “Halitosis.” Obviously, medical words usually sound way more intense than they really are, so I do consider this to be clever, but also a blatant scare tactic. For example, “horripilation” is the medical term for when you get the chills. Case and point. So, by implementing the word, “Halitosis,” into the company’s advertising efforts, he summarized a problem that everyone “suffered” from while also providing them with an immediate solution: Listerine. As you can imagine, his faux-medical adverts mortified the masses and Listerine’s mouthwash flew off the shelves. Ultimately, this secured a foundation for the Listerine we know today. After all, you can’t spell loose morals without oral.

listerine 1920s advertising halitosis makes you unpopular
sad child with a cartel about the great depression of 1930s badvertising pm3 agency

Now, let’s jump to the 1930’s:

a period we affectionately dubbed, “The Great Depression.” In case you didn’t catch on to the name, this era was fraught with financial despair for businesses and consumers alike. However, there was one business in particular that managed to miraculously emerge from this period, not only unscathed but more lucrative than it had ever been before. Fast forward to 1938, when it all began. With businesses failing left and right, the De Beers Group, a corporation that specializes in diamond sourcing and sales, decided they weren’t going down without a fight. Granted, this was without-a-doubt the worst time to be selling expensive jewelry, but that didn’t stop them from throwing caution to the wind and defying the odds.

So, what exactly did they do? Well, they used everything from Hollywood actors to household-magazines to push their message: “A Diamond is Forever.” This tagline was paired with not-so-subtle implications that a man is expected to spend at least a month’s salary on a diamond engagement ring. A new standard had been set by celebrities, and American’s ate it up. So much so, that by the 1980s, the social norm increased to rings valued at, or over, 2 month’s pay. If you’re reading this now, then you can see first-hand, how coveted engagement rings have become. Just take a gander at the latest girl in your Facebook newsfeed that got engaged. She’s inevitably showing off the new “bling” with her hand poshly draped as if she’s the Queen of England beckoning a kiss.

In fact, this social norm has become so engrained in American society, it would be considered taboo to not buy one for your future bride. Thanks to a clever ad campaign that’s almost a century old, today’s groom gets the pleasure of dropping a mortgage on a rock that’s no bigger than an acorn. If all of this has you concerned about breaking the bank, worry not, because Emory University did a study and found that the more expensive the diamond is, the more likely you are to get divorced. Cheers! Now, you can save your money and marriage with a small diamond!

All in all, I find it fascinating that many of us, including myself, have gone the majority of our lives and never stopped to question things like this. It makes me wonder what else I may have unconsciously overlooked. Like, why are extra small candy bars considered “fun-size?” Whatever the reason may be, one thing is for certain – advertising is powerful. Whether it’s ineffective or successful depends on the viewer. The only constant is that it ALWAYS instigates some form of action. Sometimes, as witnessed above, those actions stand the test of time or even continue to snowball. That’s why I believe, as advertisers, it’s our responsibility to actively question the way things are and use our unique power to incite positive changes within our society. Remember folks, all big changes begin with a “fun-size” effort.

¡Gracias!

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