I’ve been thinking a lot about advertising lately, for various reasons. Partially that’s due to me watching the first couple seasons of Mad Men, finally, which of course rotates around the creation of advertising as a central premise. In lesser hands, it’s easy to imagine Mad Men following the House formula: every episode would have an advertiser with an image problem, Don Draper’s team would beat their heads against it for a few days, and ten minutes before the end, Draper’s eyes would get all misty, someone would say something innocuous to spur his brain into action, and he’d come up with the perfect tagline. Of course, that does play out here and there on Mad Men, but it’s so immensely satisfying when it does happen that I can’t help but enjoy it, and I appreciate the fact that it’s a show that tries so hard to avoid formula.
But I’ve wandered afield from my point: I detest advertising, especially television advertising, on a profound level. The falseness of the life Draper leads on Mad Men is surely some kind of reflection of the state of advertising itself: a shiny, attractive exterior covering something rotten to the core. I don’t own a DVR, so I don’t have much of a way to avoid the ads on shows except for muting them. I’d mind doing so a lot less if television ads themselves weren’t immensely inane, almost without fail.
The most succinct summation of what advertising is probably comes from Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s epic-length look at addiction and consumption. “It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.” That’s almost always true (and certainly was in the case of his fictional, and disgusting, tongue-scraper commercials in the book), sometimes in non-obvious ways. Even those horrible vodka ads featuring chiseled 30somethings in tuxedos helping women hail cabs create an anxiety, a feeling that someone, somewhere, is having more fun than you are, and that you could be part of the club if only you were drinking Ketel One/Grey Goose/Stolichnaya/whatever. (If you haven’t read DFW’s masterful essay on television, “E Unibus Pluram”, click this PDF link and slot out an hour to dig through it; it’s a great read, even 20 years later.)
Obviously advertising does have a pretty large benefit to it: it allows for the creation of vast amounts of media that consumers don’t have to pay for. Even that might not be technically true, though: we “pay” with our time, with an increasing susceptibility to marketing messages, with our inculcated preference to brands with large marketing budgets over equally effective but lesser-known products. Even though I consciously ignore the pop-up ads that appear in Angry Birds, I always wonder how much they get through to me on a subconscious level, whether or not they’re affecting me more than I know.
But that’s all just musing on a slow news day. My question for everyone is: what’s the most blatantly false advertisement you can recall seeing? Obviously every advertisement engages in some form of falsehood, whether it be by making a McDonalds hamburger look way better than the one you’ll actually receive in the store, or shooting an actress giving a “customer testimonial,” etc. But some ads go beyond that, and are straight-up willing to lie to get you to buy their product. There are some laws against that kind of thing, especially as regarding claims of health benefits from some products, but advertisers are paid grand amounts of money to skirt those laws as best they can.
One example that still sticks out to me is Crispix:
Everything about this product is a lie: that shit got soggy so quick, it was like eating a bowl full of mush by the time you got a few bites in, and you had to basically turn your milk into a sugar absorption medium to make it taste like anything other than cardboard. And yet, every single ad - even the cereal’s name! - is designed to make you think that it would not, in fact, turn into a wheat-and-corn slurry when doused in dairy products, when in fact that’s exactly what it did.
It still enrages me, but I remember Crispix more than any other cereal, so maybe that was the point? It’s horrible advertising, but it accomplished its goal: establish Crispix as a brand that is stuck in my head for all time. Anyway, I’m curious: what other advertisements can you recall that feature horrifically untrue statements?