Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Oh, advertising.

Yesterday while waiting to hear Sherman Alexie read from his new novel "Flight" (see Powell's for the description), I picked up an interesting flip-through on matchbook covers. I learned that these were highly-collectible, inexpensive pieces of pop-culture art. Not entirely surprising. The pictures of the matchbox covers were the most interesting part of the book. Running the gamut from lighthouses to insecticides, the book displayed a fascinating array of cultural tidbits from the last century.

While the commentary regarding the pictures themselves was un-helpful and obvious, there were some trends to matchbook advertising that I had never thought about before (then again, I'd never spent much time pondering matchboxes before either). In the communist Eastern Bloc countries, matchbooks were often used as a means by which to convey health messages and images of party ideals. You'd see images of people exercising, pictures of people working hard in the fields or in the factories, images of smiling women, and heroic pictures of men on horseback--all in the stark, clean, two-color, block-figure style that you see in many old party propaganda posters from the old USSR. I understand that it was a cheap way to rapidly distribute a message--and likely a way to convey that point in a decidedly non-overt, subliminal way. Beyond a glance or two, who ever really looks at and contemplates the wrapper advertising their matches? Of course this was made possible by the fact that the government controlled the match-making industry, and thus was less concerned with advertising a product than a company might otherwise be, leaving them freer to distribute any message they chose.

This theme was repeated throughout many non-communist countries, however, too. Scandinavian countries promoted good health by encouraging people to be active and swim (the irony of advertising health on something primarily used to enable smoking is certainly not lost on me), Western European countries warned parents of the dangers of their children pulling boiling pots of water off the stove or falling through thin ice. African countries emphasized the danger from and transmission cycle of disease-carrying flies--all on the covers of their matchbooks.

So, fine. Fascinating. Hooray for foreign governments tapping into the subliminal power of a well-designed ad as a means by which to distribute a social message. Not a new story, but a refreshing one--way to look out for the greater good! Way to capitalize on something that people are going to buy regardless of what is on the cover.

I'd probably have filed this little tidbit of information away and not thought of it again were it not for a TV commercial I saw, just this morning, that jived so well with the theme of the public health messages on the matchbooks.

I was waiting for the weather forecast to come on and munching away on my cereal, when one of those "Make good choices" commercials came on. Usually sponsored by Kaiser or another health insurance group, the commercials advocate that people take the stairs instead of the elevator, or drink water instead of a soda--essentially, as one commercial states, to "be your own cause." This seemed to be another one of those--it showed a man choosing an apple instead of a donut, recycling instead of throwing away his aluminum can. These commercials appeal to me--they're colorful, well-designed, and have appealing ping-pingy-ping music. I wasn't really paying attention, though, until the final few frames. They caught my attention when they showed a man trying to decide between two big screen TVs displaying vibrant nature scenes. As I'm sure the creators intended, I expected the "good choice" to be seeing those landscapes in person on a walk, instead of watching them on a TV. But no! The ad turned out to be a HD Digital TV commercial encouraging you to make the "best choice" and buy the right (fancier) TV. Wuuuuh?

Like advocating good health and exercise on smoking paraphernalia, these is a huge amount of irony in promoting good health and exercise in an advertisement selling TVs. Only slightly more extreme would be advertising abstinence on condom wrappers. "Make the healthy choice! Buy a big new TV!" How is encouraging people to sit in front of a fancy new TV at all congruent with the notion of making good, healthy choices, and encouraging them exercise and reduce-reuse-recycle?

Furthermore, the move from government-sponsored health messages to those that are promoted and driven by commercial companies strikes me as interesting. While, theoretically, the government has the general population's health and best interests in mind as a general rule (out current administration notwithstanding), I find that their well-intentioned advertisements to be safe and healthy seem benign and even smart. Yet, for a private company with the ultimate goals of furthering their product and increasing their profits to advertise in this way strikes me as sinister and even misleading. The logical conclusion of the commercial in question is "If you want to be 'healthy' you will buy this." To me, watching lots of television on a new TV seems the antithesis of healthy. I think the company is banking on the fact that we will subliminally associate the two images without ever questioning that correlation. Seems pretty sinister to me.

I'm going to be thinking about this for a while, I think. What is the role of ethics in advertising? What counts as misleading your consumer? Ultimately, the responsibility of what to buy and how to use that product isn't in the hands of the advertiser, yet do they have any inherent responsibility? How effective is "subliminality" anyhow, how do you control what's overt and what's implied? Should you? Is it ultimately the responsibility of the consumer to make those connections and decisions for themselves? How much does the intent of the ad matter? Why does ti seem more ethical when it's for a "good cause"? Questions to think about while fussing around with databses.

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