Can Advertising Change the World?

One of the biggest criticisms of advertising is that it sells people things that they don’t need. This type of criticism paints the ad person as just a schmuck for hire that will sell anything without regards to ethics. It points to historical cases of duplicitous advertising and marketing: P.T. Barnum gets crowds to line up to see the head of a monkey crudely sewn onto the body of a fish;  Lydia E. Pinkham inserts a non-existent sign under the Brooklyn Bridge;  Listerine invents the nonscientific term halitosis in order to sell mouthwash; De Beers convinces us that a “diamond is forever,” ensuring that diamonds don’t flood the market and lose their value. The list goes on and on.

Now, I’m not here to argue that any of the above cases are ethical or that present day advertising is consistently ethical. Rather, I argue that advertising reflects the times. Change happens on a societal level and advertising slowly comes to reflect that change. Ads have always reflected society’s ideal vision–for good or for bad.

The modern day ideal American family isn’t just Anglo-Saxon–it’s all shades, all genders, all theologies– and advertising is slowly starting to reflect that. For example, in the advertising of the 1950’s, the only place where you would see a wife was in the kitchen. Today, as women take their rightful place as power players in the economy, it’s not uncommon to see a women on TV in business attire.

With all that in mind: Do I think advertising can change the world for better? You’d be surprised to know that I think that it absolutely can. It’s not going to create radical change, but it’s a powerful vehicle that can accelerate change at certain points in history.

Some very recent examples of advertising being used for good:

1. A record 55% of Americans now support gay marriage. Unfortunately, mainstream advertising still seems to consider showing a gay couple as controversial and political–gay people  are almost non-existent in ads. However, Amazon was brave enough to release an ad that includes a married man that happens to be gay.

2.

One thing that really warmed my heart after the Boston Marathon tragedy was how Hill Holliday created The One Fund in seven hours. The bombing had barely happened and the folks of Hill Holliday were able to pull together the resolve to create  a unified fund for the victims of the bombing.

3. The Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” displays the negative results of America’s unhealthy perception of an ideal woman. It a vanguard of sorts in representing America’s changing ideals.

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Something You Otter Know About Puns

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YOU OTTER KNOW..

It’s Thursday May 22, 2013 and I’m on a dream vacation to San Francisco, birthplace of the great Harvey Milk. I’m about to leave the Aquarium of the Bay after spending 15 minutes–quite the disappointment. This bald fella stands about five feet from an advertisement for the upcoming  Sea Otters exhibit. He stares at it as if trying to figure out a puzzle, tilts his head sideways, and bites his fingernails. After what seems like 10 minutes, his eyes light up and his hand comes out of his mouth. His right index finger extends knowingly. Others ignore the pun completely; it’s not worth the effort.

OTTERLY EXCITING!

Advertisers have an affinity for puns. Entire sites are dedicated to the puns of advertising, like this Tumblr. And there’s been a lot of talk about some truly superb ads lately that have used puns. In my last blog post I highlighted Ship My Pants; it’s no secret that I love that commercial.   And it’s also no secret that I am just generally a fan of puns–even bad ones. It’s all good pun.

But advertising is a form of sales. If the pun befuddles the message that the ad is trying to convey,  that’s wasted dollars. A bad pun might be hilarious to the copywriter creating it, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to sell diapers. A good pun, one that most of society can easily get, can make a campaign. A clever, timely pun shows that a brand is tuned into the pulse of culture.

So, advertising, you have my permission to pun (Advertising: “Thanks, Jonathan!”). Please, please, just don’t be lazy about it. Mustard up the courage to put your best foot forward, pepper the ads with your wit, and relish in the  reward.

Four QR codes across a subway track and modern day sexist advertising:  we still need to talk.