Protecting Ourselves From Commercials

rockwell_antennaOne of my favorite quotes from Gilbert Keith Chesterton (truth to tell, I have about 987 of them) is this one about advertising:

“Only a very soft-headed, sentimental, and rather servile generation of men could possibly be affected by advertisements at all. People who are a little more hard-headed, humorous, and intellectually independent, see the rather simple joke; and are not impressed by this or any other form of self-praise. Almost any other men in almost any other age would have seen the joke.

“If you had said to a man in the Stone Age, ‘Ugg says Ugg makes the best stone hatchets,’ he would have perceived a lack of detachment and disinterestedness about the testimonial. If you had said to a medieval peasant, ‘Robert the Bowyer proclaims, with three blasts of a horn, that he makes good bows,’ the peasant would have said, ‘Well, of course he does,’ and thought about something more important. It is only among people whose minds have been weakened by a sort of mesmerism that so transparent a trick as that of advertisement could ever have been tried at all.”

We Americans have certainly been mesmerized. Not willingly, of course. Many of us have worn out the fast-forward buttons on our remotes in an effort to avoid the most common advertisements of our age, commercials. But that effort works only with shows we’ve recorded earlier. Watching live means being subjected to commercials. There are only so many trips we can take to the bathroom or the fridge. And despite our best efforts to tune commercials out, we’re seldom completely successful.

The best proof of that is the number of old advertising slogans still rattling around in our heads, long after we’ve forgotten more important information. One golden oldie was “Quick, Henry, the Flit.” (First introduced as a print ad in 1928, with art work by Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, it was still around in the early 1950s.)

Other old slogans still cluttering my mind are LSMFT (“Lucky Strike means fine tobacco”), “I’d walk a mile for a Camel,” “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” “Where’s the beef?” “Try it, you’ll like it,” “Good to the last drop,” “Don’t leave home without it,” “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” “The pause that refreshes,” “He likes it! Hey, Mikey,” “Have it your way,” and that vague invitation to all manner of self-indulgence, “Just do it.”

If silly slogans could take up residence in our minds so readily, it is not unreasonable to assume that the ideas and values associated with them can do so, as well. How are we to protect ourselves from being misinformed and following advice that may be foolish and even harmful?

First, we can remind ourselves that the main purpose of commercials is to sell us a product, a service, or a point of view. That realization will keep us more alert to manipulation.

Next, we can look closely at the disclaimers and warnings in commercials. This takes effort because most commercials emphasize the “pitch” with lovely scenery, attractive/interesting people, and positive statements about the product or service. In contrast, the disclaimers and warnings appear at the bottom of the screen or in blandly stated voiceovers. (If it weren’t for the danger of lawsuits, they might not be there at all.)

Example: A commercial for a prescription drug to help people quit smoking features a woman explaining how wonderfully the product worked for her. Then an off camera voice tells us all about how effective the product is. Meanwhile, at the bottom of screen where only alert viewers will notice, the side effects are listed: “changes in behavior, thinking or mood; hostility; agitation; depressed mood and suicidal thoughts or actions while taking or after stopping [the drug].” An off-camera voice adds more possible side effects to the list: swelling of face, mouth, throat, or a rash, mental health complications, nausea, trouble sleeping, unusual dreams.

Comment: Those who are alert enough to read this “fine print” probably won’t be begging their doctors for a prescription. They might even decide that will-power is a safer approach than drugs.

In addition, we can keep our curiosity alive and ask questions about commercials, starting with whether they make sense.

Example: A commercial for an energy product features a spokeswoman sitting next to a pile of research. She informs us of an “amazing” study conducted with over 3000 doctors. The results: that 73% “would recommend a low-calorie energy supplement to their healthy patients who use energy supplements.” She ends with the recommendation, “Ask your doctor. We already asked 3000.”

Comment: What’s so amazing about 73%? Why not 100%? After all, the survey asked nothing more than, “If your patients are determined to take such supplements, would you recommend they take ones with fewer calories?” Apparently there is nothing in the pile of research that recommends taking the particular product the woman is hawking. But the sponsor is counting on us to react mindlessly and say “Wow! That proves the product is worth using.”

Another example: A commercial for a “light” facelift includes this comment from a satisfied user: “I’m a firm believer that if there’s something you can do to make yourself feel better about yourself, then absolutely, go do it.” Presumably, we are supposed to say, “Hey, I’ll bet this kind of facelift will make me feel better about myself,” and then rush out to get one.

Comment: Before rushing out, we could ask whether there are other ways to feel better about ourselves without paying someone to take a scalpel to our face. With a little imagination, we might come up with these ideas, among others: sign up to contribute to a poor Asian or African child’s care, make regular visits to a friend or relative in a nursing home, donate our unused clothing to charity, volunteer time helping in a soup kitchen.

Finally, we can check out the claims made in the commercial. The more tempted we are to buy what the commercial is touting, the greater the value of this approach.

Example: With more and more Americans entering their fifties and sixties, there is a growing market for joint pain supplements. One such product, featuring a famous athlete, is the focus of a current and very persuasive commercial.

Comment: A quick Google search is revealing. One informational site makes this comment:  “The makers of [the product] claim that, in healthy people, there is improved joint function and flexibility in 4 to 8 weeks after beginning to [take the product]. However, the claims are not based on any apparent clinical studies nor have they been evaluated by the FDA.” Another site, Consumer Health Answers, evaluates 20 joint pain supplements and ranks this one 19th!

Another example: The process of aging has a special effect on men—lowering the male hormone testosterone. Accordingly, products designed to overcome the condition known as “Low T” have hit the market. Commercials promise those who take these dietary supplements are promised increased hair growth, muscle tone, energy and sexual desire, as well as enhanced mood and motivation. In short, they promise to restore manliness. The appeal is powerful.

Comment: A Google search of the dangers/side effects of testosterone supplements lists the following possibilities: kidney problems, elevated blood pressure, weakened immune system, and increased risk of prostate cancer, blood clots, infertility, and liver damage. Restoring manliness, it seems, comes with a cost.

Examining commercials critically doesn’t require us to set aside our sense of humor. We can still laugh at the kid banished to the crib but managing to use his electronic gadgets to trade stocks, and the guy with a leg up on the competition, literally, in the La Quinta commercial. But even as we enjoy the humor, we should remember that by their very nature advertisements are, as Chesterton rightly observed, tricks intended to mesmerize us.

Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved