I love following the world of media and marketing. Ever since studying communications in university, I have learned to see the world through the lens of marketers. I am fascinated by how much advertising we encounter in our everyday lives. But not all of it is obvious to us. As I learned on a recent episode of Under the Influence (one of my favourite podcasts), marketing is even the reason behind hockey's three period segmentation.
Marketers have found such creative ways to get our attention and sell us their products. This billion dollar industry has both captivated us and revolted us simultaneously. Many of us feel like the clutter of billboards, commercials, and publicity take up too much of our space and attention without offering us anything in return. Yet at the same time, countless people look forward to watching Super Bowl ads every year.
Our capitalist, consumer society requires that we buy. It doesn’t matter if we need it or if it’s good, we just need to buy. Advertising is the tool that companies use to grab our attention and get us to spend. Whether we like it or not, we have been trained to spend, covet, and waste. Companies will do anything to sell. The bottom line is the bottom line.
Advertisers employ numerous tactics. Depending on the brand or the product, they may simply appeal to their own merchandise, convincing us that it’s the best. More clever companies may appeal to our emotions, like CocaCola bringing happiness to the world, or WestJet bringing joy at Christmas by giving away gifts to passengers. Beer and car companies often suggest that we will find our active and adventurous identities in their product. And some companies simply use sex to get our attention - oh, all the yogurt commercials that don’t make us think of yogurt.
There is one marketing tactic that has caught my attention in the last few months. It has confused me and given me pause. Maybe you’ve seen these commercials, which appear to be making a claim to morality, using sensitive topics to win people over. The ads make statements that appeal to a far deeper part of our human character, and I don’t think I like it. Let me explain.
Affirming Red Rose Tea
The first time I saw this commercial, I couldn’t believe my eyes. In it, a young woman nervously waits for a friend with her father. The father makes them tea. As her friend, another young woman, arrives, they share that they are not just friends, but in a relationship. The father appears to be angry and walks away leaving the two women to console each other. But then the man returns with another cup of Red Rose and a smile.
The Good Deeds Cup
If you watch sports, you couldn’t have missed Chevrolet’s big campaign to award a kids hockey team with what they call “the most meaningful trophy in sports.” The challenge - teams are supposed to do good deeds in their community and send in videos of them doing these things to compete for the most impressive good deed. This year, a Manitoba team in the Pas won!
Recently, Smirnoff Vodka has been using the slogan “Stay Open.” The context is seen clearly in their ads. We are all immigrants to this country, and we need to be open to all others who come in. In this quasi-political claim, Smirnoff blatantly tells us that they have become the number one vodka in the country because they have been “open.”
These are just three examples, but I know there are many more. TD Bank has marketed themselves as being open to the LGBTQ community for a number of years. Subaru has their “Share the Love” campaign, and British Airlines in “Fuelled by Love.”
No matter what any company says through their advertising, it all comes down to us buying their products. If that means they need to first convince us that they are a morally upstanding company, they will. If that means they want to exploit personal stories to highlight themselves, they will. It seems like no company would ever come out with a moral statement if they were certain it would cost them. That's not necessarily negative, but the simply reality that businesses need to turn a profit in order to survive.
When it comes down to it, advertising is always manipulation. In this case, companies are using some of the most sensitive issues to manipulate us into buying their products. I’m not saying that people in these companies are not affirming, open, or like good deeds, or even that these messages can’t be good. But the goal is that when you stand in the grocery aisle pondering what kind of tea to buy, you’ll pick Red Rose because you liked the two women and their coming-out story. The goal is that you associate a Chevrolet truck with being good so that they next time you buy a car, you won’t go for that sinful Ford.
Since when did we allow companies to be our moral compass? Since when were we impressed with companies that send us messages that are already the status quo. Maybe if Smirnoff ran the “Stay Open” campaign in the 1950’s in the Southern United States, I would believe that they were taking a risk in making a statement. All they are doing now is appealing to one of our already closely held Canadian values to convince us to buy their product.
If there’s one positive that I take away from these ads, it’s that people still care about morality. As much as we might talk about relativism, these companies have discovered that an appeal to our beliefs is a good way to make money. What this tells me is that people still care. People still want to know what right and wrong is. People care about good deeds, their families, and communities.
I really don’t care if you drink Red Rose, drive a Chevy, or enjoy Smirnoff. I probably would too. But it would be naïve to believe that these companies care about morality for morality’s sake. As soon as the public opinion changes, so will they. We need to find our morality somewhere else. I long to ground myself not in something, but in someone. I choose to join in the 2,000 year old confessing tradition that claims that the creator of the universe, the source of all life, will show us the way to good life. That person, of course, is Jesus Christ, who offers Himself as our guide, strength and moral compass.