Something bothered me today while I sat behind a desk living the life of a retail sales associate. An older woman, probably in her 80’s, came in to return a facial product she’d bought that promised to diminish the look of fine lines and wrinkles and improve her skin’s youthful appearance. She’d gone through the entire bottle and was disgruntled to discover no such miracles. Now you might be thinking, “well I would want a refund too!”… but she didn’t. What she demanded of us was that we sell her a second bottle of the same product at a discounted rate. If you’re confused, stay with me another minute.
This elderly women, with her kind eyes and deep-set laugh lines, was not just trying to play the system and get free stuff. Her reasoning behind the strange request was that she had seen an infomercial on TV for the product and whole-heartedly believed she just needed to keep trying. At first I thought it was funny that she would be so quick to believe what she had seen on TV. When I thought about it though, I’ve probably been in her shoes on more than one occasion..
Advertising is made to set an ideal, stage an experience, and even inspire people to action. Many would say that it is the consumers’ fault for buying into these ads. Yet, then you realize it’s not just a teenager with his or her first paycheck sprinting to the mall to invest in the latest advertised trend. Our culture is centered on goods, and we all consume advertising like we tune into the evening news. For example, how many of you had to think twice when you came across Google Nose BETA on Monday? Advertising isn’t always quite that outright with its tricks, but you get the point.
I think that the trickery sells. Whether an ad simply draws your attention or gets you fired up about something, we all want to think we’ve got a chance to take part in something “better.” A better experience, a better product, you name it, we want it. In his book Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism, James Twitchell attempts to debunk the idea that advertising is the culprit behind an elaborate deceptive scheme. He says, “What advertising does is add meaning to otherwise interchangeable and often unnecessary products by the dull hum of background noise.” In his book he explores why we blame advertisers, how advertisers are effective, and what about our consumer culture actually drives this success. It isn’t the products themselves but the meaning attached to them through what Twitchell calls the “rhetoric of salvation” that sends us to the checkout counters.
So you see, what this nice old woman made me realize today is that advertising is so much more than believing in a product. We’ve all learned not to judge a book by its cover, and not to believe everything we see on TV (oh, the clichés!), but next time you start to think that you’re above the allure of the ads ask yourself this. Is it what the ad is selling or what you’d be buying that’s pulling you in. As Twitchell says, “Ads are what we know about the world around us.” What will you buy today?