Each week on CBC Radio, Ad Guy Bruce Chambers deconstructs current advertising campaigns, explains how they modify our behaviour, and uncovers the hypocrisy and half-truths.
The Ad Guy’s Ad-Proofing Tips help you recognize and resist the techniques that marketers use to influence you. As you develop critical thinking skills around advertising, you’ll become better at avoiding manipulation, so you can feel more confident and fulfilled. And since you won’t be spending as much money, you can relax and spend less time working!
Temptation is much easier to avoid than it is to resist. Try to spend less time with commercial radio, TV, magazines, websites, newspapers, etc. Get your entertainment and information from sources that don’t contain ads. Or try to avoid as many ads as possible by turning down the volume, scrolling down, not clicking, changing the station, covering the page, etc. Every ad you don’t encounter is an opportunity to avoid manipulation.
Shop with a purpose.
List your five favourite pastimes. If shopping is on the list, ask yourself why. The function of shopping is to find and purchase the items you need. Shopping is a task or errand. Seeing it as entertainment is exactly what marketers have taught us to do. We’re conditioned to think it’s fun to spend hours roaming malls even when we’re not looking for a particular item. Unfortunately, this leads us directly into the powerful temptations that marketers have in store for us. Instead of shopping for fun, shop with a purpose. If you don’t need or want a specific item, stay away from the stores.
Ads are not an art form.
Try not to think of advertising as an art form or entertainment. At best, advertising is a mechanism for delivering useful information. More commonly, it’s manipulative propaganda that puts our financial security and self-esteem at risk. Marketers want us to view advertising as culture (by showing reels of award-winning commercials and displaying clever ads in modern art museums), so we’ll enjoy being manipulated and actually seek it out. Instead, try to see advertising as occasionally-useful information that you can easily find when you need to buy a product. The rest of the time, do your best to avoid it.
Don’t let party allegiance replace critical thinking.
Political parties are just as shrewd and manipulative as other marketers. They use psychographic profiling to identify voters whose interests and values are similar to party policies. Then they target those voters with messages that reinforce the similarities and create a feeling of belonging to a like-minded movement. Eventually, voters begin to identify themselves not simply as voters, but as NDPers or Conservatives. At that point, life becomes easy for voters—and the political party. No longer do voters have to think or do research before forming an opinion. They simply follow the party position. And when elections come along, they simply vote for their party without a second thought. But instead of letting someone else make your decisions for you, why not look at every issue with fresh eyes and thoughtful analysis? It’s possible you’re a Liberal on some issues and a Green on others. Then when you go to vote, you have total freedom to weigh all the options and make your own independent decision.
Do you really need it?
When you think about it, we have very few needs. Food, shelter, clothing, transportation and communication. But there’s not much profit in selling basic needs. So marketers create new needs by converting frivolous wants into critical necessities. Wanting the latest tablet computer or Miley Cyrus skirt may not be enough to make you spend the money. So marketers point out the consequences of not having these products—being left behind by technology, losing friends because you’re no longer cool—and suddenly you realize you absolutely NEED them. But before you get swept up in this process, list the things that give you value as a person, make people like you and make you feel good about yourself. Chances are there isn’t a product on that list.
Tune out the guilt.
Ever notice how there’s often a cute, defenceless kid in ads for water filters, cars with extra airbags, organic foods or investments? Marketers know we may be too practical and skeptical to buy every product that claims to protect our OWN wellbeing. So they play the “kid” card. They get us to question how responsible, loving parents could even think of not buying extra “protection” that’s essential to the preservation of our children. Then once we’re feeling guilty, they show us how that guilt can be transformed into love and pride, simply by buying the product. Instead of feeling guilty, think of all the things you do to care for your children. Think of how you grew up safe and healthy without all of today’s “advancements”. Be confident you’re doing everything that’s reasonable, and tune out the guilt.
Maintain rather than buy.
Keeping your possessions in good condition with a little ongoing maintenance helps them last longer, so you don’t have to buy new products as often. When your computer slows down, you can sometimes squeeze more life out of it by getting a tech to reorganize your hard drive; keeping your car’s maintenance up to date may seem expensive, but it can delay the purchase of a new car for several years; and keeping your house and personal items clean makes all those expensive plug-in and spray-on deodorizers unnecessary. Bottom line: instead of looking for things to buy, look for opportunities to avoid buying.
You’re not as bad as the ads say you are.
Watch enough ads and you’ll start feeling ugly, smelly, fat, unpopular or unsuccessful. You see, marketers are in the business of destroying our self-esteem—either by pointing out our inadequacies or comparing us to impossibly idealized people. The goal is to make us feel bad about ourselves so when they show us how to start feeling better, we jump at the chance. Of course, feeling better always involves buying hair colour, mouth wash, a sports car or a dating service. The best way to resist this strategy is to keep in mind that the world shown in ads is totally fake. Nobody’s that good looking, happy, rich or successful. Stop and rationally consider whether there’s really anything wrong with you. Chances are, you’re fine the way you are, without buying a single product.
Watch ads with your mind, not your feelings.
The reason ads create feelings with visuals, music and drama is to engage us on an emotional level. If they talked to us in logical, intellectual terms, we’d immediately say no almost all the time. This is because there’s no rational reason to spend money on things like luxury cars, stiletto heels, eyelash extensions, junk food and granite countertops. By associating such things with love, sex, pride, guilt, fear, ego, loneliness, etc., the ads appeal to our emotions rather than our brain. And since our emotions are like a child who can’t say no, we make irrational buying decisions. Instead of simply letting the feelings wash over you, engage your mind. Consciously try to identify the techniques being used to manipulate you, then make a conscious decision to say no.
Dare to be a little out of fashion.
Whether something is in or out of fashion is an entirely arbitrary decision made by people who want to sell us stuff. That’s why fashions change so quickly: so they can sell us stuff more often. Designers create new looks and tell us we’ll look lame if we don’t wear them. What they don’t mention is that we’ll look just as lame if we keep wearing them after the next fashion cycle begins. The best response is to wear simple, untrendy looks. That way you’ll never be completely in or out of fashion, and you can wear the same looks for several years. Make a game of it. Every time you see new fashion advertised, try to spot the designs that are likely to look ridiculous in just a few short months. Then wait a few months and see if you were right!
Try not to link your identity with a brand.
If you like a brand so much that you’ve started to see yourself as an Apple guy, Chanel woman, Ford truck man or Dove girl, you’re at high risk of being sold a bunch of stuff you don’t need. The ultimate goal of marketers is to turn you into such a fan that you actually link your identity with a brand. If you’re an Apple guy, you subconsciously start dressing, acting and talking like the guys in Apple commercials. You sign up for the latest Apple emails about new products. You constantly upgrade your products to keep yourself in line with the rest of the Apple community. You might even find yourself defending Apple products when talking to PC guys. In effect, you’re becoming a living, breathing Apple commercial. But you can begin to regain your identity by looking at every purchase you make in isolation. Ignore brand, and simply buy the best-reviewed product at the lowest price. Do this often enough and you’ll have a new identity: shrewd consumer who’s too smart to fall for marketer manipulation.
Embrace your inner cheapness.
Back in our grandparents’ day, cheapness was a virtue. You didn’t spend what you didn’t have, and you were always on the lookout for opportunities to save money. Of course, cheapness for cheapness’ sake isn’t very attractive. But look at all the goals you can accomplish by being cheap. You can consume less which is better for the environment. You can borrow less which saves you money and helps you get a good night’s sleep. You can cook more of your own meals, have a vegetable garden, dry clothes outdoors, walk/cycle more instead of driving—all of which save money, help the environment AND promote improved health. Try to see cheap as chic. And before long, all those ads will make you smile and shake your head at the stupidity of it all.
Don’t use flyers or coupons unless you’re very strong.
Yes, you can save a lot of money by taking advantage of the deeply discounted prices in flyers and coupons. These prices are often so low, the retailer may take a loss on them. But retailers know they can use these deals as bait to get you into the store where they can tempt you with dozens of regular-price items before you find the sale prices. The only shoppers who actually save money using flyers and coupons are the ones strong enough to walk past all the other products, buy the discounted items, then leave. If you’re not this strong, it’s better to ignore flyers and coupons, and simply visit stores when you actually need something, with a list in hand.
Never add your name to mailing lists.
When you make a purchase, you’re often given the opportunity to tick a box that says, “I’d like to receive news of new products and special offers” or “Send me your monthly newsletter”. NEVER tick that box. If it’s already ticked, be sure to untick it. It’s just another way for marketers to slowly break down your resistance until you buy more stuff. If you bought once, the company knows you’re extremely likely to buy again, since you’ve already demonstrated an affinity for its products. Therefore, it’s going to keep tempting you with details about new, improved features and fabulous new colours. Remember, the fewer times you expose yourself to temptation, the fewer expensive, unnecessary products you’ll end up buying.
Don’t wear logos.
If you’re going to do marketing for a company by allowing its logo to be displayed on your clothes, you’re providing a service for which you should be paid. At the very least, logoed clothing should be priced lower to make up for the extra value the brand is getting. But in reality, the opposite is true. A golf shirt with a crocodile on it costs MUCH more than an unadorned shirt of comparable quality. Why do we prefer logoed products? Because marketers have convinced us that wearing a company’s logo gives us the same attractive, exotic, sexy image as the brand itself. Which might explain why North America’s #1 tattoo in the 1990s was the Nike swoosh. Try to keep in mind that cattle get branded. Independent thinkers do not.
Don’t “Ask your Doctor”.
In Canada, commercials that mention prescription drugs by name aren’t allowed to say what the drug is for. So we get intriguing, obtuse ads that end with the line, “Ask your doctor if DRUG X is right for you.” Instead of letting your doctor diagnose your condition and prescribe a drug if necessary, pharmaceutical companies recommend a drug then encourage you to make a medical appointment to see if your doctor thinks you might need it. This is marketing out of control! If you see a drug commercial and have no idea what the drug is for, ignore it. Don’t ask your doctor. Trust the health care system to do its job, without the manipulation of drug marketers.
Avoid buying vehicles designed by marketers.
You might think something as basic as transportation would be all about filling a need. But in fact, some of the most popular types of vehicles were the brainchild of marketers. Take the SUV. Sure there have been rugged 4x4s since WWII. But in the 1990s, car companies needed a sexier, higher-margin replacement for the minivan. So they took a heavy truck frame, put a huge engine in it, added four-wheel-drive, loaded it with luxury and convinced men they were more manly if they drove an SUV instead of a minivan. Then they convinced women that the unwieldy size and teetering height of SUVs made them safer. To feed our fantasies, the ads showed SUVs going off-road in the wilderness, even though most of them are used as gas-guzzling, single-occupancy commuter vehicles. Regardless of OUR needs, marketers are very clever at making us want something that satisfies THEIR need for higher profits.
How to have an offending ad pulled.
Marketers don’t go out of their way to offend people. After all, they want to make us like them so we buy more stuff from them. But sometimes in an effort to catch our attention, be funny or appeal to a certain group of people, they inadvertently insult, stereotype or marginalize another group of people. When this happens, it’s often difficult—especially in today’s world of “self-regulation”—to get an industry watchdog to take action against the marketer. But there’s a quicker, more direct route to having an offensive ad removed. First of all, mobilize the group that you feel is being demeaned. Have as many group members as possible (especially official representatives of the group) make written complaints to the company that ran the ad. Then go to the media and publicize your concerns. Most companies will promptly pull the ad rather than enduring a firestorm of negative publicity.
Be wary of alternate product uses.
After a few decades, many products begin to experience sales declines, from changing needs or consumer boredom. Since companies have invested too much in such products to simply discontinue them, they sometimes try to get us to use the products in a different way. Like repositioning baking soda from a cooking product to a fridge deodorizer. Or encouraging us to use fabric softener sheets as deodorizers for running shoes. We’re supposed to believe that since a product is known for working well in one area, it will work well in another area too. But this is just marketers’ wishful thinking. When you shop for a product, don’t make your decision on brand name alone. Look for objective evidence that it answers YOUR need—instead of the manufacturer’s need to find a new market for its product.
Try not to be “upsold”.
Ever notice how a brand you’ve been buying for years slowly evolves into something more elaborate and expensive? Good examples are the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Forty years ago, both were subcompacts with basic features and low prices. But manufacturers aren’t content selling basic, low-margin products forever. Once they’ve created loyal customers, they want to “upsell” us to more expensive models. Such upselling is easier if the more expensive model has the same name. So they migrate a name like Civic or Corolla onto an ever-larger, more luxurious product. Since it still has the same name, we think it’s what we’ve always been buying—in spite of the exorbitant new price! For proof this is happening, you only have to look at the continual introduction of “entry level” cars to replace the now expensive Civics and Corollas. To avoid being upsold, ignore the product name. Instead, pay attention to which features you’re used to and need, and keep buying that level of product, regardless of what it’s called.
Cross-promoted products are even harder to resist.
Ever notice how Cascade dishwasher detergent has the “grease-fighting power of Dawn”? Or Mr. Clean comes with the “fresh scent of Febreze”? These are known as cross promotions: products or ads that combine two different brands. Since each brand has its own customer base, if a marketer combines two brands into one product or ad, twice as many people could potentially make a purchase. If you really like Febreze but are kind of neutral about Tide, chances are you’ll buy new Tide with the “fresh scent of Febreze”. But we don’t have to be as simple-minded as marketers want us to be. When you shop for a product, don’t make your decision on brand name alone. Look for objective evidence that a product answers your need. If it doesn’t, buy whatever brand works best.
Beware being stereotyped.
Stereotypes are dehumanizing and insulting, right? So why do they so frequently appear in advertising? Ads are short and have to be a quick read. There’s no room for complex, fully fleshed-out people. It’s much more reliable for marketers to revert to well-known stereotypes. Like “sloppy, distracted teenage boy”, “young woman obsessed with fashion” or “old man who doesn’t understand computers”. When you see an ad that reduces you to a stereotype, look closely and analyze why the stereotype is being used. Chances are you’ll find it’s a device to help you quickly understand the kind of people the product is aimed at, so you’ll think it’s right for you too. Instead of allowing yourself to be put into that little box, recognize that you’re more complex than that. And reject any ad that tries to sell you stuff by stereotyping you.
Recognize when you're being encouraged to be selfish.
Advertising is all about self-indulgence without guilt. The only way marketers can convince us to buy a basically selfish product is to make sure we don’t FEEL selfish when we buy it. We’re not going to buy something if there’s a risk that every time we use it, people are going to assume we’re just thinking of ourselves. To reduce this risk, marketers disguise self-indulgence as something more socially acceptable, like being concerned for others or the environment. It’s not a monster SUV, it’s a safe family vehicle. I’m not frivolously replacing my 6 month old tablet computer with the latest and greatest, it’s a quicker way to stay in touch with my kids. By positioning products this way, marketers make selfishness guilt-free. What you can do to counter this ploy is try to recognize self-indulgence as self-indulgence, and make a conscious decision whether that’s how you want to live your life.
Try not to be a semi-ethical consumer.
Some ads talk about how much good a company does, rather than promoting the product. A coffee brand focuses on the money it spends on guide dogs and medical airlifts. A tea brand focuses on how sustainable its production is and the benefits to local growers. With no mention of taste or other product features, you’d think sales might drop. But not in the age of the “semi-ethical consumer”. From research, marketers know that a large proportion of today’s consumers want to do the right thing. But only if it’s not inconvenient or expensive. So marketers dress up their sometimes environmentally- and ethically-suspect products in socially-responsible clothes—so consumers can indulge themselves without feeling guilty. Next time you see a marketer focused on all the good it does, ask yourself if it’s trying to distract you from some aspect of its product that it doesn’t want you to think about.
Say "no" to flavoured water, and enjoy tap water instead.
We all used to drink water from the tap, and everything was fine. But then beverage and filtration companies started casting doubt on the quality, safety and taste of tap water. This campaign was so effective at creating fear that many of us gave up tap water and switched to more expensive, less sustainable, not-actually-safer bottled water. Now that bottled water has fallen out of favour, beverage companies have a new ploy. It’s not that tap water is unsafe, it’s just that it’s boring. So to make tap water exciting, we’re being offered flavour packets, often containing sweeteners and caffeine (to keep us coming back for more). Instead of spending money dressing up your water, why not simply enjoy fresh, clean, clear, almost-free tap water—and tell those marketers to peddle their brightly-coloured additives someplace else.
Cold and flu marketing can be hazardous to your health.
Throughout the winter, there’s a virtual epidemic of ads for cold and flu products. Since we all occasionally get sick and long for relief, we’re highly susceptible to such marketing. But even in our weakened state, it’s necessary to stay alert for irresponsible messages. Like medication ads that promise to reduce cold and flu symptoms so we can go back to work sooner—what they’re not saying is that even though symptoms are relieved, we may still be contagious. Or ads that show cheery cold sufferers passing around the tissue box, potentially spreading cold germs from user to user. Or ads that encourage replacing soap and water with anti-bacterial hand-wash, which may lead to reduced resistance to bacteria. Rather than listening to marketers who are anxious to sell us stuff, seek out and follow the advice of health professionals.
Eliminate food with cartoon mascots from your kids' diet.
Cartoons have always been a mainstay of kids’ TV and movies. Which is why so many products aimed at kids use cartoon characters to attract attention. Marketers realize that young children can’t tell the difference between commercials and programs, especially when cartoons are used in both. Of course, ads for sugary cereals and high-fat hamburgers are banned from young kids’ programming. But those same kids watch more “mature” programs with their parents. This is where cartoon mascots are really valuable to marketers. Even though ads in family shows aren’t technically aimed at young children, the cartoons in the ads attract kids’ attention and create powerful temptation. Limit your family viewing to pre-recorded programs with the ads removed, and try not to buy any product with a cartoon on it. If your kids never become friends with Ronald McDonald and Count Chocula, maybe they can avoid obesity.
Try to remember the things marketers would like you to forget.
Advertising is so powerful, it can actually rewrite history. When a marketer wants you to forget some past failure, all it has to do is change the topic, repeat the new message countless times—and voila! consumers remember the current messages and forget the past. Back in the 80s, Ford was trumpeting “Quality is Job One”—until surveys demonstrated Ford quality was actually lower than Japanese brands. So Ford ads stopped focusing on quality for several years. However, a couple of years ago, huge numbers of Ford commercials started talking about “quality like never before”. The result: very few consumers remember Ford’s old inaccurate quality claims, and lots of consumers perceive that Ford stands for quality. Only by cultivating a long memory for such issues can we avoid being taken in by shifting ad claims that may or may not reflect reality.
Sexy food ads sell us food that ends up making us unsexy.
Ads position food as a sensual experience, offering a level of pleasure and arousal similar to sex. Young couples strip off their clothes while eating pasta. Young women eat hamburgers in a wildly suggestive manner. And chocolate is seen as the ultimate aphrodisiac. Of course, the sexual references are there to catch our attention. After all, sex sells. But on a deeper level, food marketers are anxious to associate their products with attractive, fit people. Since we all want an attractive, fit image, we subconsciously believe we can achieve it simply by being seen eating the same food. Of course, the sad irony is that no one stays attractive and fit if they routinely eat fattening, unhealthy food. Next time you see one of these ads, go ahead and appreciate the bodies. But remember how those people manage to keep such bodies, and eat something tasty and responsible instead.
Don't buy into the glorification of "outlaw culture”.
Lots of ads aimed at young men depict dangerous, violent or criminal behaviour. Like beer brands that brag about the bootlegging they did during prohibition, car ads that show organized crime as humorous, or products that use infamous law-breakers as spokespeople. While most segments of the population would perceive such associations as negative, the opposite is true of young men. As they explore masculinity and assert their identity, it’s very alluring for young men to fantasize about doing destructive, illegal things and rebelling against authority. Buying products with an outlaw image helps them feel powerful, instead of young and inexperienced. What parents can do is point out that these outlaw images are carefully crafted by corporations. So when young men buy into them, they’re actually embracing the establishment culture they’re trying so hard to rebel against.
Marketers will do almost anything to get our attention.
Due to the huge number of advertising messages we’re exposed to every day, marketers are going to ever-greater lengths to break through the clutter. A carmaker sent out such creepy emails that one woman became terrified she was being stalked. A fast food restaurant ran a commercial making fun of a man who was coming out to his family. A pasta sauce used the promise of kinky sex to draw us in. Not only are such concepts shocking, they don’t relate to what’s being sold, so viewers feel manipulated and become more cynical about advertising. Then to break through all that cynicism, marketers have to be even sneakier and nastier the next time. So the vicious cycle continues until advertising becomes almost unbearable. Oops, I guess we’re already there.
Consider the consequences of your actions.
It’s only human to want to live consequence free, to do whatever we want and not take responsibility for our actions. But somewhere, deep inside us is a little voice—usually our mother’s—telling us this isn’t such a good idea. The trouble is, there’s a much louder voice coming from marketers telling us to go ahead and do it anyway. You see, there’s no money to be made by encouraging us to act responsibly. So marketers appeal to our emotions which are prone to knee-jerk decisions and instant gratification. Before you hit the “buy” button, engage your brain. Pause for a few minutes, consider some options, think about the consequences. Chances are it’ll become obvious that you can’t afford it or it’ll make you fat or it’ll break the second time you use it. When marketers say “Act now!” that’s always a hint that you need to stop and think and reconsider.
Beware contemporary "bait and switch”.Old fashioned “bait and switch” is illegal. That’s when a retailer gets you into the store by advertising a high-end product at a ridiculously low price. Then when you see the product, it turns out to be a low-end model so the price isn’t all that good. That practice doesn’t happen much anymore. Instead, marketers advertise a product that’s wildly extreme—like quadruple hamburgers or 250-kilometre-per-hour sports cars—to get you in the door. Then it’s easy to talk you into a chicken sandwich or compact sedan because they seem so sensible and responsible in comparison. Next time you’re tempted to visit a store just to have a peek at some astonishing new product that you have no intention of buying, remember you could end up buying something else you really don’t need.
Be skeptical about advocacy advertising.
While advertising gets us to buy a product, advocacy ads try to buy us. These are ads run by industries to get us to agree with their point of view. Instead of buying something, we’re supposed to feel more positive about an issue so the next time governments have to make a decision about it, we’ll vote in favour. We frequently see advocacy ads for oil, pharmaceuticals, unions, coal, renewable fuels, nuclear and more. Unfortunately, in helping us form a more “enlightened” opinion, advocacy ads are sometimes selective about the truth. And while industries can afford to run ads promoting their views, consumer groups often don’t have the money to advertise the other side of the truth. So we end up being bought and paid for by the folks with the deepest pockets. (Of course, you should also be equally skeptical about the advocacy ads run by non-commercial, less-well-funded organizations, like environmental groups, animal rights activists, etc.)
Nutraceuticals can be harmful for your budget.
As Baby Boomers age, they want foods that help them stay younger, more active and healthier. So marketers are busy introducing nutraceuticals, foods that are thought to prevent disease, reduce aging and promote better health. Such foods are advertised almost like medicine, with no mention of taste (or lack of taste!). Examples are low-cholesterol margarine, high-fibre cereal and probiotic yogurt. Manufacturers can advertise that these products are good for us, as long as they can cite research that supports their claims. The problem is some manufacturers commission their own research that lets them make new health claims about existing products. So suddenly almost every packaged food out there is healthy and age-defying. Rather than simply believing the ads and studies, consult a doctor or nutritionist. Chances are you can eat healthier AND save money by simply buying fresh foods and simple ingredients.
There's nothing scarier than disinfectant product ads.
Fear is a powerful motivator. Marketers know we’ll do almost anything to avoid risk and danger—especially when our children are involved. So they keep introducing products to help eliminate even the tiniest chance of being exposed to germs and allergens. Since going to such extremes isn’t entirely logical—and can actually lead to some bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics—marketers rely on fear to sell these products. They create ads that are mini-horror movies depicting germs as monstrous creatures lurking almost everywhere and ready to grab us when we least expect it. However, by looking at the situation rationally, and weighing risks against benefits, we can see through such ploys. This allows us to avoid being hooked by the fear, so we can simply smile, and save some money by not buying the product.
Behaving irresponsibly isn't as much fun as ads imply it is.
Marketers are in the business of making trivial or unnecessary products look so appealing, we can’t live without them. Not content with selling working men practical, utilitarian pick-ups, carmakers introduce luxury trucks with huge engines and show them gleefully tearing up the countryside as they race each other. Or cruise lines tempt us with posh trans-Caribbean ships that are loaded with such luxuries as open-air ice skating rinks. Next time you see an ad that tries to convince you that you deserve such extravagances, stop and think how crushing the payments on that truck would be, and how many greenhouse gases are produced keeping ice frozen in the tropics. Do a quick cost-benefit analysis and you’ll find that most products just aren’t worth the debt, worry and guilt.
Avoid Word of Mouth 2.0.
Word of mouth advertising has always been the Holy Grail of marketers. If they can get customers to talk up products with friends, imagine how much money could be saved by not running ads. Even more important, recommendations from friends tend to be more believable. So imagine marketers’ excitement when social media like Facebook and Twitter were introduced! All marketers have to do is plant a subtle comment—usually for free—and users gladly chat up the product with their friends. Except, unlike traditional word of mouth, this new kind of chatter reaches hundreds, then thousands, then millions of “friends”. Of course, there’s always the risk of negative comments, but vigilant and clever marketers can turn even them into positive messages. The best way to put a stop to this insidious form of free advertising is to refuse to play along. Never mention a product in your posts and shut down any discussion that includes products. Basically, keep social media social, instead of commercial.
Be suspicious when a marketer targets your minority group.
When a major corporation advertises its products to a minority group, it often gets an extra return on its investment. Sure, it makes sales. But it can also win substantial goodwill and loyalty. Historically, many groups defined by skin colour, religion or sexual orientation have either been ignored or negatively portrayed by the media. So when a major advertiser runs an ad aimed specifically at a minority—with positive portrayals and acknowledgement of the group’s value—the group’s members are often touched, impressed and inclined to offer their allegiance. Just keep in mind that marketers don’t recognize minority groups because it’s the right thing to do. They do it because minorities are growing in numbers, influence and spending power. If you belong to a minority group, try not to buy a product simply because it was targeted at your group. Go through the same process you normally would: decide whether you need the product, weigh its pros and cons, and consider competing suppliers (unless they’re actively antagonistic to your minority group).
Pay attention to who your son's role models are.
With advertising messages virtually everywhere, 24/7, it’s not surprising that much of what boys and young men learn about manhood comes from the role models they see in advertising. Now, this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the full diversity of male appearance and behaviour was presented. But it isn’t. In one of the largest ad categories aimed at young males—alcohol—they’re portrayed as macho, extroverted, homophobic, irrational risk-seekers totally obsessed with impressing each other and female bystanders. Unfortunately, this unrelenting barrage of imagery encourages young male viewers to model such behaviour. Until marketers discover how to get attention by depicting rational, loving men acting responsibly, our sons are at risk of learning unhealthy behaviours from ads.
Clever words can transform negatives into positives.
Metaphors and similes are common in advertising. Usually, they simply help us understand what a product is like. For instance, a brand of chocolate may be as smooth as silk. But some marketers use figures of speech to imply things that may not be factual. For instance, in an oil industry commercial, the consistency of oil sands tailings is described as “essentially like yogurt”. Now if the ad simply wanted to explain the consistency of tailings, it could have compared them to liquid bathroom cleanser. But instead, it compared them to yogurt, a food that’s not only harmless but widely considered to be healthy. The result: we get the impression that oil sands tailings aren’t as bad as we thought. To avoid being taken in, pay close attention to choice of words and see if the marketer’s trying to cover something up.
Play sports. Don’t consume sports.
Professional sports are products just like any other. The teams are corporations owned by wealthy people and staffed by wealthy players. Yet, unlike other companies, professional sports corporations get much of their marketing for free, thanks to us. We pay big bucks to wear the corporate logo to work on game day. Neighbourhood businesses do elaborate window displays. Local media provide unlimited coverage of the sports corporation’s every move. Local and national governments pay for crowd control and subsidize corporate worksites (arenas and stadiums). TV networks pay millions to broadcast one corporation’s struggles against another. Instead of feeding the corporate sports machine with your hard-earned dollars, consider tuning it out. And instead, play an inexpensive sport yourself or watch a live amateur game in your neighbourhood.
Don't fall for greenwashing.
Greenwashing is when a marketer implies that its product is somehow more environmentally friendly than it actually is. Like when a household cleaner manufacturer advertises its new line of environmentally safe products, but doesn’t list ingredients to back up the claim. Or when a detergent manufacturer focuses on the environmental benefits of saving energy with its cold water detergent, but doesn’t mention the surfactants the product contains, which are harmful to fish. Sometimes the greenest choice is not buying anything at all. Failing that, stick to products that list all ingredients, so you know what you’re getting into. Rather than shelling out for the latest environmental innovation, it can be cheaper and greener to rely on such old standbys as soap, vinegar, baking soda and elbow grease.
Just because an ad gets banned doesn't mean it didn't work.
It can be difficult for non-profit organizations and lesser-known companies with tiny ad budgets to get noticed. Even if they can afford to create an arresting ad, they often can’t afford to give it enough media exposure to reach a sizable audience. So what some low-budget marketers do is create an ad that’s deliberately outrageous, shocking and potentially offensive. Then when the ad gets banned by media outlets or industry regulators, the marketer issues news releases that claim censorship or unfairness. This often results in far more publicity than the marketer could have generated through paid ad placements. But the strategy isn’t without risk. Sometimes the ad can be so offensive, it drives away potential customers. Next time you hear about an outrageous ad being banned, ask yourself why it happened and what the marketer stood to gain from such notoriety.
Try to avoid turning your wedding into a spend-fest.
Weddings—and brides, in particular—are a huge marketing opportunity. Marketers have spent the past several decades repositioning weddings from simple unions to extravagant Hollywood affairs, with designer dresses, stretch limousines, enormous diamonds, exotic locations and gourmet catering. Commercials, magazines, TV shows and movies all work hard to convince us that this is the new norm. As a result, the average Canadian wedding costs about $30,000, and that doesn’t begin to include all the related purchases for gifts, honeymoon, new home, furniture, etc. As you’re planning your wedding, ask yourself what’s important to you and your partner. All the bling that puts you deep in debt for decades? Or, a modest celebration that leaves you in good financial health for your life together.
Consuming ads can lead to eating disorders.
If we followed the advice of marketers, we’d all have some kind of eating disorder. Some ads encourage us to eat huge quantities of junk food, others make us feel guilty about our weight by showing impossibly idealized bodies, and still others encourage us to go on the latest diet. Basically, there’s no way marketers can lose. They make money by encouraging us to overeat. They make money by encouraging us to feel guilty about being overweight. And the resulting confusion and paranoia means we’re likely to switch back and forth between junk food and diet products for the rest of our lives. The best defense is awareness. Realize that no one lives on junk food and still looks gorgeous and healthy. And no one who loses weight on short-term diets manages to keep it off after reverting to previous eating habits. These are all lies designed to get us addicted to unhealthy foods and diets. Try to tune such messages out, eat sensibly and trust that you’re fine the way you are.
Don't follow your nose into a store.
Aromas are particularly effective at evoking memories. For instance, the right aroma can be used to make people feel relaxed and receptive by recalling fond childhood memories. It only makes sense that you might smell chocolate when you walk by a chocolate bar vending machine, or a crisp linen scent when you walk past a shirt store. But in many cases, such aromas are created by electronically-circulated custom-designed chemicals. This is called Scent Marketing. Marketers study consumer behavior and come up with scents that deliver specific messages. Citrus suggests cleanliness, lavender suggests relaxation and cedar suggests luxury. By circulating the correct scent in a store, marketers can generate significant sales increases. The next time you’re drawn into a store by inexplicably positive feelings, see if there’s a scent associated with your feelings. Then look at that store’s products online and see if they still have the same attraction.
Beware selective truths.
Marketers rarely tell blatant lies. Instead, they’re very selective with the truth. In the real world, there are positive and negative sides to every story. But in advertising, only the positive side is presented. For instance, Nutella commercials stress the cup of skim milk, real cocoa and 106 hazelnuts that are in every jar. All true. But the first two ingredients on the label—sugar and palm oil—are never mentioned. If you listened to the ad and never looked at the label, you’d think you were feeding your kids health food. Similarly, kids’ cereal ads stress the goodness of whole grains, which in reality are outweighed by the negative health consequences of all the sugar these cereals contain. When you hear a product claim in an ad, consider what the marketer may not be telling you. Do some research, then buy the product that actually fits your needs.
Buying a product can't really save the planet.
Ever notice how many commercials hardly mention the product, and instead focus on the brand’s charitable work? Such ads are usually aimed at Millennials. Traditional campaigns aren’t as effective on younger consumers because today’s generation doesn’t pay much attention to traditional media. So instead, marketers wrap themselves in causes. If you’re a Millennial, you may be receptive to this strategy because—more so than previous generations—you see yourself as equal to authority figures, you’re very aware of world issues and you believe it’s up to you to make a difference. When marketers position a product as working alongside you in saving the rainforest, the polar bear, or victims of natural disaster, you’re more likely to buy that product. How can you resist such marketing? Support the causes you believe in, buy the products you need—and ignore any attempts to link them.
Consider what computer-based learning toys teach your baby.
High-tech toys and games are marketed as brain boosters for baby. By getting children started on these mini-computers as early as possible, the ads would have you believe that reading, math and thinking skills are accelerated so kids can easily get into the most desirable kindergartens and eventually win lucrative scholarships into prestigious universities. But what these products are really getting children into is a life of video games, smartphones and tablets—skills they can easily pick up on their own. And instead of resulting in higher intelligence, heavy use of computer-based learning toys frequently results in myopia and carpal tunnel syndrome. Instead of spending big bucks on so-called learning toys, try spending more time interacting one-on-one with your child.
“Enlightened sexism” is still sexism.
Back before feminism really took hold, it was common to see blatantly sexist ads that depicted women as less intelligent than men or as sex objects used to get men’s attention. For much of the 80s, 90s and 00s, using sexism to sell a product had disappeared, but now it’s back as “enlightened sexism”. This is where women are objectified, but the tone is ironic. It’s as if everyone in the ad—including the scantily-clad woman—is winking and saying, “Isn’t it funny how men used to be so awful and women were so naïve?” The only trouble is that most viewers don’t notice the irony. All they see is sexy, passive women being used to get their attention. So marketers make money, young men learn to view women the same way their grandfathers’ did, and women’s self-esteem is reduced so they’re more susceptible to fashion, cosmetic and weight-loss ads.
Before you buy, consider where that urge is coming from.
Marketers are getting increasingly sophisticated in the way they entice us to buy. Many major corporations use neuromarketing to make their ads as irresistible as possible. During message development, they play early versions to research subjects whose brain waves, eye movements, heart rate, breathing and conductive skin response are measured. In this way, they can scientifically select ad elements that are virtually guaranteed to get the desired response. The next time you have an urge to buy a product, stop and think where that urge came from. Chances are you can link your urge back to an ad you hardly even noticed at the time. Remember, knowledge is power. If you can figure out what’s making you want something, you might stop wanting it—and save yourself some money!
Ads that make fun of themselves are even harder to resist.
A recent trend in marketing is to use self-parody and self-deprecation. TV shows incorporate “ironic” product placements into the plot and seem to be laughing at the fact that they’re promoting a product. Ads take such a light-hearted, sarcastic tone that they seem to be making fun of the product and sometimes the company itself. While it’s entertaining for us to watch ads that ridicule brands and advertising, remember, we’re still watching ads. By allowing themselves to be made fun of, brands motivate us to let our guard down and join in the fun, which allows the message to seep into our subconscious with less resistance. Marketers are diabolically clever. Just when you think it’s safe to laugh at their self-deprecation, they’re actually planting their message even deeper into your mind. Instead of joining in the fun, try to ignore ALL ads—even the ones that seem to be critical of advertising.
Beware the dreaded Christmas Creep.
Christmas is by far the biggest sales period for retailers. So it’s only natural that they’d like to extend the season as much as possible. The trend to start Christmas ads earlier every year is called Christmas Creep. It’s responsible for Christmas imagery appearing in TV commercials in September, Christmas foods and beverages launching the day after Halloween, and holiday sales extending from October to early January. Marketers know the more often they guilt you into giving generously, the more often you’ll buy something. The solution? Ignore the ads. Make a list of the people you really want to buy for, take your list to the stores, and don’t stray from that list. Sure, the holidays may not be as merry for retailers, but you’ll certainly enjoy it more!
Let kids know that WAY more people smoke in movies than in real life.
With all the restrictions on packaging, retail display, advertising and promotion, you’d think cigarette marketing would be squeezed out of existence. But it’s actually alive and well, and living in the movies. Tobacco companies have been paying studios and stars to feature smoking for generations. Today, when young people watch movies, they see a world where people are four times as likely to smoke than in real life. Since the average young person watches three movies a week, it’s easy to see why so many of them are tempted to emulate their role models. One way to combat this trend is by playing a game while watching movies with your family. Get everyone to call out when they see someone smoking on screen. Then at the end, see how that incidence of smoking compares with Canada’s 2010 rate of 17%. By revealing and ridiculing the manipulation, maybe you can prevent your kids from smoking.
Be suspicious of pharmaceutical industry ads that tout their R&D.
Pharmaceutical companies typically spend substantially more on marketing than they do on research and development. The result is that the market gets flooded with “me too” drugs that are very similar to products already being sold. That’s why we see so many ads for erectile dysfunction drugs that all seem to do the same thing. But the money spent on ads is nothing compared to what pharmaceutical companies spend marketing their products directly to doctors through samples and sales visits. And to add insult to injury, these same companies run TV commercials promoting their commitment to research and development. You have to wonder how much more R&D they could do if they stopped investing in ads telling us about R&D. Next time you get a prescription, ask yourself whether it was driven by good medicine or aggressive promotion.
Mail junk mail back in postage-paid envelopes.
When companies send you junk mail, they usually include a postage-paid envelope for you to use when returning your application form, subscription or purchase request. These postage-paid envelopes cost them nothing until they’re actually used. If you’d like a company to take you off its mailing list, a good way to get its attention is to write “PLEASE REMOVE ME FROM ALL MAILING LISTS” across the application or subscription form and mail it back to them in the postage-paid envelope. If the envelope is big enough, include the original mailing envelope and any additional unwanted flyers or coupon books you received. The more junk they receive—at their expense—the stronger your message that you no longer want to receive mail from them. And the less junk mail you receive, the less likely you are to buy stuff you don’t want or need!
Indulgence offsetting can feel suspiciously good.
Nowadays, conspicuous consumption is no longer an option. Not only is it too expensive, it’s also morally suspect. Plus, there’s the guilt of eating fattening Belgian chocolate or driving a gas-guzzling SUV. So marketers have introduced “indulgence offsetting”, which is a way to help us feel guilt-free about indulging ourselves. Like the resort that offers free admission if you volunteer with a charity. Or the SUV that comes with hybrid engine. Or the premium ice cream that donates money to save honey bees. When guilt stands in the way of buying a product, marketers help you offset that guilt by convincing you your purchase is doing good in another way. It’s positioned as a win-win for both you and marketers. But in reality, you’re still wasting money, clogging your arteries, destroying the environment and gaining weight. Maybe it’s time we viewed consumer guilt as constructive and just said no to all the stuff we don’t need.
Beware hilarious viral videos that become ads.
YouTube is the new television, especially for younger generations. And just like TV, YouTube is becoming littered with ads and spin-off ads. The most popular YouTube videos—the ones that go viral and earn hundreds of millions of views—are irresistible to marketers. Not only do we have to sit through pre-video ads, many videos themselves become ads. For instance, “Charlie bit my finger” became video ads for Gerber and Ragu. What makes these spin-off ads especially hard to resist is their newness and viral potential. YouTube videos are still a novelty for many people, so when they see their favourite video star appearing in a commercial, they share it with all their friends. Rather than giving a company this kind of free marketing, laugh at the video, ignore any spin-off ads you see, and NEVER forward them to friends.
Try to prevent your kids from getting into the fatty, sugary food habit.
Governments and public interest groups are constantly trying to get junk food manufacturers to stop marketing high-sugar, high-fat foods to kids. But according to food marketers, they can’t sell more sensible foods because kids just don’t like the taste of them. This shouldn’t be a surprise since generations of kids have grown up believing that the ultimate treat is a fatty burger with fries or a sugary breakfast cereal. And what helped kids come to that conclusion? Billions of dollars worth of ads featuring enticing cartoon characters and mascots, and exciting free toys and games with each junk food purchase. Now that kids are totally addicted to the taste of high sugar and fat, it’s virtually impossible to convince them that fresh, healthy foods can also be delicious. As a parent, your best defense is prevention: do what you can to stop your kids from being introduced to junk food in the first place.
Avoid humming along with advertising jingles.
Jingles are songs that sell products. Marketers rely on singing ads because they’re often easier to remember than spoken ads. Music, memories and emotion are all stored in the same region of our brain, so when we hear a melody, we instantly relive a memory or emotion associated with it. When an ad uses music from a familiar song, the positive feelings the song evokes become associated with the product. So we’re more likely to be attracted to the product and feel good about buying it. Since we hear jingles repeatedly, they eventually start doing their job even when the commercial isn’t on because we keep humming them. It’s hard to say no to a product when its theme song is playing in your head! To reduce the power of jingles, whenever you hear or start humming one, immediately put on another song.
Avoid cosmetics that promise to cure fake conditions.
Sometimes, a product is so similar to competitors it has no advantages to promote. This is especially true in the cosmetic industry, so marketers come up with new “conditions” their products “cure”. One skin product claims it cures “in-between skin” (skin that’s too old for acne but too young for wrinkles). A lotion promises to treat “shy legs” (legs that aren’t pretty enough to show off). A foundation is named “Beyond Natural”, implying it can make you look even better than “naturally beautiful”. Why do we fall for these simple-minded ploys? Because we want so desperately to stop feeling inadequate compared to the perfect, desirable people in ads. We’re therefore willing to spend big bucks hoping that we too will eventually achieve the digitally-enhanced perfection shown in ads. Instead, maybe we should trust that we’re beautiful the way we are, and spend nothing on cosmetics.
Protect your pre-teens from inappropriate sexualization.
Take a look at the clothes, accessories and furnishings in your pre-teen’s life. Chances are things are looking a lot sexier than they were when you were that age. Kids today might sleep on sheets emblazoned with the Playboy logo, they may be playing with Bratz dolls that are dressed like sex trade workers, their Halloween costume may be a French Maid, and their wardrobes might include Porn Star T-shirts, hotpants, black tights and stiletto heels. When marketers target kids with sexualized products and ads, they’re not just extending their market to a younger audience. They’re also training girls and boys to see that it’s desirable to be viewed as a sex object. Then as these kids become teens and adults, their self-esteem is strongly tied to an impossibly idealized appearance, which is only achievable by buying products.
Sometimes even the visuals in ads are lying.
Fashion and cosmetic ads used to generate sales by showing models who had perfect skin and figures. That would make girls and women feel inadequate so they’d buy the product to improve their appearance. But today, thanks to computer graphics, ads use impossibly idealized images to make women feel even more inferior. One print ad featured a model whose head appeared to be wider than her pelvis. TV ads digitally enhance eyelashes beyond what mascara can do. And anti-aging cream ads airbrush out most wrinkles and signs of age. Beauty marketers do whatever it takes to convince women they have to use expensive products to be “good enough”. Instead of buying this message, recognize that idealized perfection doesn’t exist in the real world, no matter how many products you use. Rest assured you’re already beautiful in your own way, and don’t waste money on empty dreams.
Don’t follow the recommendations of celebrities.
Some celebrities gained their fame by being experts in a certain area. When a pro basketball player recommends a brand of running shoes, you might be tempted to listen. But keep in mind that celebrities are paid to say the exact words that marketers put in their mouths. In some cases, the celebrity may never have even tried the product. Worse still, since celebrity endorsements are expensive, some marketers create fake celebrities. These are actors who appear in commercials and pretend to be experts (like Vince, the ShamWow guy). After seeing these people thousands of times, we begin to perceive them as real celebrities with real expertise and start listening to what they say. Keep in mind that every purchase should be based on a need, not a whim put in your head by some guy on TV. The best advice is to leave the room when these commercials come on—then you’ll never be tempted.
It's best to forget Memory Marketing.
Ever notice all the nostalgia that shows up in ads? We see black-and-white footage of 1950s families, hear 70s and 80s pop songs, and learn to covet retro Beetles, Minis and Fiats. You’d think such images would be aimed at Baby Boomers, since they lived through the same era. But in reality, these ads are aimed at Millennials. This is called Memory Marketing. Millennials associate the brands that their parents and grandparents used with comfort, authenticity, simplicity and stability. So marketers promote products that are similar enough to the originals to evoke the same warm feelings, while being updated with the modern features and nutrition that today’s consumers demand. Next time you’re feeling all warm and cuddly about a retro product, stop and realize what’s happening. Then buy the product you need, rather than the one that feels like a hug from Grandma.
Beware earlier-than-ever back-to school ads.
When marketers hit on a good thing, they can’t help trying to make it even better. Take back-to-school season. It’s grown to become the second biggest sales period of the year, after Christmas. But with the number of kids going to school not growing dramatically, the only way marketers can keep their sales growing dramatically is to get each customer to buy more. To do this, they prolong back-to-school season—starting as early as June in some places—and give us new reasons to buy, week after week. Even if we buy in July, there’ll be new excuses to buy again in August. The best way to combat back-to-school creep is to tune out the ads, make a list of the absolute essentials, make one trip to the stores, and buy only what you need. By avoiding multiple trips over several weeks, you’ll avoid multiple unnecessary purchases.
Nature metaphors make products seem greener than they are.
Instead of just listening to the words in ads, also pay attention to the visuals. Sometimes pictures are used to inject meanings that aren’t present in the words alone. A good example is a Shell commercial that shows tropical fish or running horses instead of cars and gas pumps. Without making any spoken environmental promises, the visuals imply that the gasoline is somehow natural and environmentally friendly. The same strategy is used in a BMW ad that shows organisms growing out of the earth and eventually blossoming into a car. By using visuals to tint products a little greener than they actually are, marketers help us feel more responsible when we buy one. It’s up to us to analyze what ads are really saying—in both words and pictures—and consciously decide whether a product is green or just looks that way.
Don't be fooled by native ads, infomercials or advertorials.
Native ads, infomercials and advertorials are ads dressed up to look like articles, documentaries, reality shows, consumer advocacy programs or newscasts. Marketers know that if they can add an element of reality, entertainment or newsworthiness to their message, they can sometimes trick us into thinking it's objective reporting. The key to avoiding this type of manipulation is to look for brand names. Whenever you see a clearly identified product in any kind of media content, you’re actually consuming an ad. Instead of letting yourself be intrigued by the clever writing or amusing plotline, immediately turn the page or change the channel. The less time you spend engaged, the less likely you are to give in and buy something you don’t need.
Don't watch TV with your laptop, tablet or smartphone.
Ever notice how many TV commercials end with a website, include a scannable code or offer an online coupon? Marketers do this to make TV more sales-effective. Since fewer people—especially young people—watch TV nowadays, marketers want to increase the “click through” of those who are watching. So they make it easy and instantaneous to buy the products you see in TV ads. But the only way this can work is if you have your laptop, tablet or smartphone with you while you’re watching. An easy way to avoid the temptation of instant gratification is to leave those devices in another room. That way you’re more likely to stop and think before you buy, so you end up spending less on a bunch of stuff you don’t need.
Stay away from advertising awards and festivals.
Ads are tools used by marketers to get us to buy stuff. But in today’s cynical age, most consumers immediately recognize ads, view them with disdain and claim that ads have no effect them. Of course, this isn’t true: we’re all affected by ads to some extent. So to make sure we’re willingly exposed to even more ads, marketers are repositioning ads as culture. The Emmys have had a best commercial category since 1997. The Cannes international advertising festival piggybacks on the famous film festival to hand out trophies. And there are an endless stream of TV shows, YouTube videos and movie theatre screenings of “best of” reels of commercials. Not only do marketers earn extra revenues by selling such reels to distributors, they sometimes get us to pay for the privilege of attending the festivals. This is manipulation on top of manipulation on top of manipulation, and all we have to do to stop it is say “No!”
Never engage in conversation with a telemarketer.
There are several hints that a phone call is from a telemarketer: you don’t recognize the number, there’s a long pause before the caller speaks, there are other voices in the background, etc. As soon as you’re sure the person is a telemarketer, say “No thanks” and hang up. Never speak with telemarketers, even if it’s just to tell them not to call again. Many telemarketers are specially trained to turn virtually any response you give them—no matter how rude and negative—into a conversation, which they can then convert into a sales pitch. Before you even notice it, you may be hearing about a product and be tempted to buy. The only 100% foolproof solution is to hang up right at the start. Not only will you avoid temptation, you’ll also avoid a pointless waste of your time.
Be aware that risk can be strangely compelling.
You’d think the last thing a marketer would want to imply is that a product carries a certain amount of risk. However, there are some products—mostly aimed at young men—that use risk as a selling point. By studying human behaviour, marketers understand that putting ourselves in danger can result in an adrenalin rush that produces extreme pleasure. When a young man sees a commercial where a car is being driven dangerously fast, he may be attracted to it, even if he never intends to drive that way. Just knowing he can flirt with danger whenever he wants may be enough to make him buy. Risk is also used to sell cigarettes, alcohol, amusement parks and military careers. If you find yourself strangely attracted to such products, consider the psychological process at play, and realize that pleasure can be found in less expensive, less dangerous ways.
Retirement planning may not be as scary as the banks say it is.
Watching ads for RRSPs and other retirement investments can be kind of depressing. Financial services companies are in the business of making us afraid of being poor when we retire, so we’ll give them large chunks of money on a regular basis. While it makes sense to set aside savings for the future, many experts suggest that the situation isn’t as dire as the banks are telling us. Government and corporate pensions—as well as the equity in our homes—put a sustainable retirement within reach of most Canadians. The real reason for all the scary ads is that financial institutions are desperate for the profits they make from management fees and from loaning out the funds we invest. Instead of worrying about tomorrow, set realistic retirement goals, save responsibly and tune out the ads.
Always read the fine print.
We all do this on a legal contract. But look closely and you’ll see that most ads—including TV commercials—have fine print too. Sometimes it’s just boring legal disclaimers. But often the fine print on ads tells us things the marketer doesn’t really want us to know. Like the soft drink ad that shouts “made with real fruit” and then whispers “contains 5% real fruit juice” in the fine print. Or the mascara ad that shows a starlet with luxuriant eyelashes, but reveals in the fine print that “lash inserts were used to add lash count before applying product”. These are inconvenient truths marketers are required to tell us. But they don’t make the product sound very appealing, so marketers hide such truths in fine print and hope we don’t notice. Make a point of always reading the fine print. You may find it instantly talks you out of buying, so you have one less temptation to worry about!
Don't reward racist messages by buying the product.
We hardly ever see blatant racism in ads anymore. But some marketers still use racist imagery or innuendo to target a certain group or shock us into paying attention. Some politicians run ads that make clichéd, simplistic or insulting suggestions about certain ethnic groups to attract the support of reactionary voters. Some marketers try to make us laugh by portraying exaggerated racist stereotypes. And sometimes, both marketers and politicians are so tone deaf, they inadvertently create racist ads. In all cases, the best response is to complain directly to the advertiser and stop buying the product (or voting for the candidate). Don’t rationalize that it’s basically a good product so you can overlook this one little incident. When advertisers make unacceptable statements and continue to be rewarded with ongoing sales, they come to believe that racism is an acceptable form of communication and continue using it.
Avoid buying disposable products.
Single-use, throw-away products are the crack cocaine of the marketing world. The goal when introducing new products is to come up with something that hooks us into buying again and again. Whoever has the shortest-lived, most-frequently-replaced product wins. And unfortunately, because marketers have made us obsessed with cleanliness and germs, disposable products are making a big comeback. Like Swiffer mops, Lysol wipes, Brita water filters, Scrubbing Bubbles flushable pads, and many more. But the all-time champ is plastic garbage bags. Clever marketers get us to buy a brand new product whose ONLY purpose is to be thrown away. And the masterstroke is that the bags come inside another plastic bag which becomes the first piece of garbage to go inside the garbage bags. Sheer genius!
Try to make your classroom a logo-free zone.
If you’re a student or teacher, look around your classroom and see how many corporate logos you can find. As government funding for education stalls, schools and universities are increasingly forced to look elsewhere for revenue. And marketers are always eager to step in with much-needed cash in return for access to impressionable student minds. Marketing messages in classrooms can range from corporate-themed curriculum materials to fundraising partnership ads (where schools earn a few cents for every product students sell) to posters and supplies branded with logos. See how many of these messages you can remove, even if it means cutting the logo off materials that are actually useful. Try to return the classroom to a place of objective learning, rather than a place where marketers create brand loyalty in new generations of consumers.
Forgive marketers on your schedule, not theirs.
Sometimes companies find themselves at the centre of a crisis and are forced to acknowledge that serious damage has resulted from the use of their products. Ethical companies immediately take responsibility and issue an apology, often via advertising. But then they go into marketing mode. They do surveys to determine how long the issue is going to remain top-of-mind and whether consumers are ready to forgive and forget. Then, when the time is right, they move things along a little quicker by changing the channel. They introduce a new product or a new campaign that focuses consumer attention on subjects that are more positive and constructive for the company. Just remember, you don’t have to go along with this process. If your trust in a company has been shattered, only you can judge whether you can ever forgive it and consider buying its products again.
Male sex objects are just as destructive as female sex objects.
While some people see the sexual objectification of young men in ads as a step forward in equality, it actually makes a serious problem worse. Sure, if marketers are going to use scantily-clad women as bait to sell products to men, it’s only fair to use scantily-clad men as bait to sell products to women. But we already know the damage objectification does to women, including reduced self-esteem and a warped perception of beauty. So instead of subjecting men to the same problems, why not stop using ANYONE as a sex object? Remember, consumers have very loud voices. If you see an ad that objectifies people, contact the marketer, say you’re offended, ask them to remove the ad, and say you don’t support companies who treat people like that. Only if we take a stand against objectification of women AND men will marketers stop doing it.
Some gaming platforms are simply ad-delivery mechanisms.
At least when you or your kids spend time gaming instead of watching TV, you’re not exposed to endless commercials, right? Well, as it turns out, many games include billboards and banners for products, and others reward you when you find and click on hidden ads. Some lifestyle games include a significant shopping component, so you can practice a skill marketers would like you to do more often in real life. Even worse, very young children—right down to toddlers—are being targeted with so-called “learning games”, which teach a whole new generation to associate fun with consumption. And most diabolical of all, portable game consoles and smartphones will soon replace credit and debit cards, which explains why marketers are so happy to see you with one constantly in your hand.
Only when you know it's an ad can you resist it.
Ever notice how certain products suddenly start showing up everywhere? Even before Apple became popular, you’d see Macs in movies, TV shows and in the hands of celebrities. Seventy years ago, diamonds started appearing in movies, songs and on the fingers of Hollywood stars. Seeing these trends, it was easy to think Macs were the next big thing and only diamonds could express true love. But in fact, these were product placements. Marketers pay producers and stars to spotlight their products in “everyday use” so we think this is reality instead of an ad. But the reality is that almost every time you see a recognizable brand used in a high profile way ANYWHERE, it’s an ad. Make a game of spotting obvious product placements, consider why they’re there, then the next time you feel tempted to buy that product, remind yourself where the urge originated and try to resist temptation.
The biggest fear is buying something you don’t need.
One of the most effective emotions in advertising is fear. If marketers can make us truly afraid of something, we’ll do—or buy—almost anything to avoid it. So they spend a lot of time crafting highly emotional scenarios that demonstrate all the things that can go wrong. Like diseases, accidents or financial hardship. But if you pay careful attention and really think about what’s being said, you’ll often notice that the risks are being overstated. For instance, health insurance companies run ads hinting at the ruinous health and financial problems we’d face if we were caught out of province without supplemental travel insurance. But in reality, our provincial health cards provide reasonably consistent coverage no matter where we are in Canada. One of the biggest fears we face is being convinced to spend our money unnecessarily by some truly scary marketers.
Beware familiar icons that have been appropriated by marketers.
One of the ways marketers get our attention and break down our defenses is by making their messages seem familiar and comforting. To do this, they use music, images, names or symbols that have long-established meaning for us. There’s the oil company that shows people giving the peace sign with their fingers to advertise V-power gas. Or the yogurt named after a yoga posture. Marketers appropriate well-established icons to give their products instant familiarity and credibility—instead of spending years and millions of dollars building it for themselves. But instead of buying into the warm feelings the icon helps create, consider its original uses and meanings, and how the people who first took the icon to heart might feel about this new use. Then use this knowledge to reject the product and its attempted manipulation of you and your wallet.
Charities hook up with corporate sponsors because they have no other choice.
A few decades ago, the line between for-profit and not-for-profit organizations was obvious. But today, things are a lot hazier. Thanks to government cutbacks, not-for-profits are forced to raise funds by forming strategic partnerships with corporations, who in turn gain an enhanced public image. This can result in such odd relationships as children’s hospitals being sponsored by fast food companies, or cola brands funding fitness movements. But you don’t have to let the worthy deeds of a not-for-profit force you into purchasing unworthy products. Instead, let the not-for-profit know how you feel. Send a donation directly to it, and point out how you’re going out of your way to avoid supporting its corporate partner. For added impact, send a copy of your note to the corporate partner too!
Room odours are sometimes useful warning signs.
Ads for air fresheners lead us to believe there’s a risk in having odours in our home. Not only do the ads point out the embarrassment of having guests smelling something unpleasant, they also suggest that odours from odour-causing bacteria are especially perilous. But the fact is, odours often let us know when nasty bacteria, natural gas leaks and other dangers are present, so we can take action. By spraying an air freshener that masks or eliminates the odour, we’re simply ignoring the source instead of cleaning it up or investigating it further. That’s what actually puts our family at risk! Instead of taking the advice of ads and reaching for a spray can when you smell something unpleasant, look into the cause, clean it up, and save yourself some money and anxiety.
Don't let Halloween be "Night of the Living Ad".
Some Halloween costumes are scarier than others. The most disturbing are actually walking billboards for companies and products. When you or your kids dress up as an M&M, Crayola Crayon, Green Giant, Count Chocula, Ronald McDonald or Tony the Tiger, you’re providing free marketing for a giant corporation. Many corporations make it even easier for you by selling pre-made costumes in stores—so you’re actually paying for the privilege of promoting their products. In a fair world, corporations would pay YOU to do this work for them. This Halloween, don’t be tricked by marketers. Dress up as a non-corporate character or object, and treat yourself to a commercial-free evening of fun.
How armed forces motivate young recruits to hand over their lives.
As we know, the Canadian Forces shows fighting in its recruitment commercials. This is also true in UK and Australian military ads. But the US military tends to focus on patriotism and technology in its ads, instead of combat. Why the difference? The US has experienced such heavy losses in Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere that parents of recruits don’t want to be reminded of actual fighting. So instead, US recruitment ads show flag-waving, high-tech education and job training. In countries that rarely go to war, showing battle scenes is an effective way to attract recruits who are looking for adventure and risk. But in countries that are almost constantly at war, potential recruits—or at least their parents—would rather not think about how dangerous the military can be. Before considering a military career, it’s a good idea to talk to returning veterans, rather than being tempted by recruitment ads.
Learn to identify news stories that are actually ads.
In the early 20th century, the news media were naïve about marketing, and often allowed marketers to feed them news stories that were little more than product ads. Today, news organizations are more savvy, but they’re also even more prone to manipulation. Thanks to falling viewership/readership, tight budgets and staff cutbacks, the media are desperate for quick-and-easy access to content and future ad revenue. By running stories lifted directly from corporate media releases, they save time and money, and build goodwill with corporations who may be inclined to purchase ads. Yes, there are some legitimate feel-good news stories about successful local companies, but most stories that make positive comments about a brand name are little more than ads and should be immediately ignored.
Humour is important to Millennials, and therefore to marketers.
While previous generations defined themselves by the music they listened to, Millennial men are much more likely to define themselves by their sense of humour. Not only is humour more important to Millennials, they like a different kind of humour: uncomfortable situations, unexpected twists, a fast pace, and absurdity as opposed to irony. That’s why so many of the ads we see use this kind of humour. Marketers are very clever at knowing exactly what attracts Millennial males’ attention, keeps them engaged and gives them a positive impression of the product. If you’re a Millennial, keep this in mind next time you see an ad. Go ahead and have a good laugh, but try to separate your enjoyment from the product being promoted. If you end up buying something you didn’t really want and couldn’t afford, then unfortunately the joke’s on you.
A hint of homoerotica is being used to sell young men fashion.
Traditionally, straight young men haven’t been very comfortable with homosexuality. But Millennial men are different. Instead of using sports, cars and women to attract attention, fashion ads aimed at Millennials increasingly hint at gay and bi relationships. We see shirtless and semi-naked men dancing, embracing and flirting with each other. Surveys reveal that Millennial men are more comfortable with ambiguity, enjoy more freedom from gender expectations, and operate along a broader spectrum of manhood. Plus, they’re drawn to behaviors that others might perceive as forbidden and slightly gross. As a result, they enjoy playing along with the “gay” behavior depicted in fashion ads, thinking it gives them an image of exoticism and complexity—even if they’re entirely conventional underneath. The key to resisting this ploy is to be aware of it. Be yourself, behave how you want to behave, and don’t let marketers pigeonhole you in order to sell you stuff.
Ads that sell the corporation rather than the corporation’s products.
Most ads focus on particular products. But occasionally, marketers run ads about the parent company behind those products. Marketers use corporate ads for several reasons. Sometimes they’re trying to avoid having the corporation’s problems tarnish the image of its products too. For instance, ads about a corporate bankruptcy or corporate apology rarely mention specific product names. Corporate ads are also used to boost share value since investors buy shares under the corporate name, not the product name. And some ads focus on the corporate name as a way to raise employee morale. Since such ads don’t provide any useful information about the products we may be looking for, they should be among the first ads you ignore. Only pay attention to ads when you’re seeking a solution for a specific need. Better yet, don’t pay attention to ANY ads, and do your own research using websites and stores instead.
Don't exchange tweets with brand mascots.
Brand mascots—like Mr. Clean and Cap’n Crunch—were introduced decades ago to put a human face on brands, and create a personality that consumers could identify with and relate to. That’s even more important in the age of Twitter, since most consumers aren’t interested in exchanging tweets with a faceless corporation or logo. By letting us engage in witty conversations with Captain Morgan or the Green Giant, corporations encourage brand loyalty and create opportunities for positive word of mouth. But before you start tweeting and retweeting a brand mascot’s clever one-liners, ask yourself why you’re entering into a relationship with an ad, and whether a giant corporation really needs the free promotion you’re giving it. Instead, exchange tweets with real people about things you care about, and never mention an ad, product or brand in your conversation.
Get the full message by paying attention to ads not targeted at you.
No, I’m not suggesting you expose yourself to more ads. But if you want to see how manipulative marketers are being, pay attention to what they tell other segments of the population. For instance, ads for a particular brand of wieners or frozen pizza might tell us how delicious the products are. But then that same brand introduces a new line of wieners or frozen pizza without all the artificial additives and preservatives. Simultaneously, the marketer is telling price-conscious consumers that its standard products are great, while telling health-conscious consumers that it’s best to avoid the kind of ingredients in its standard products. Such cynical, hypocritical tactics are common in advertising as marketers try to sell each market niche more stuff. But knowledge is power. The more aware you are about what’s going on, the easier it is to make a fully-informed decision and buy the product that’s best for you.
Warn your son that the cosmetic industry is coming to get him.
For generations, cosmetic marketers have been helping to lower women’s self-esteem by pointing out all the flaws in their appearance. This has made women much more likely to buy products that claim to fix such flaws. And now it’s men’s turn to be manipulated. Ads are convincing men that they need eye rollers to cover up dark rings under their eyes, lotions that reduce aging by approximating a facelift, and body shavers that take away all that unsightly hair. Marketers know there’s enormous money to be made in making men as obsessive about appearance and hygiene as they’ve made women over the decades. If you have a pre-teen son, now’s the time to point out to him what marketers are up to. Maybe with a little knowledge and critical thinking, he’ll be able to turn away from all the cosmetic ads soon to be directed at him.
Sugary kids' cereal isn't just for kids anymore.
Selling sugary breakfast cereal to kids isn’t as easy as it used to be. Health advocates and parents have been loudly proclaiming the link between sugary cereals and childhood obesity. As a result, children’s TV channels have begun to restrict ads for these products. So not only are sales dropping due to health concerns, it’s harder to attract new customers because there are fewer places to advertise to kids. But every challenge has a solution. Cereal manufacturers are now marketing their products to adults, both as feel-good nostalgia and as a way to bond with kids over breakfast. And since sugary cereal ads targeting adults can be run during family programming—when lots of children are watching—the ads attract interest from both adults and kids. If you’re a parent, try to resist the temptation of eating kids’ cereal. Letting your kids see their primary role model eating junk food for breakfast is a surefire way to get them hooked on it too.
Patriotism may not be a reliable reason to buy a product.
There are lots of good reasons to buy local products, but some brands wrap themselves in the flag when in fact they’re owned or manufactured elsewhere. For instance, the “Canadian” brand of beer is now owned by a Canadian-American company. And “domestic” cars are often built in Mexico. But marketers still give such brands a Canadian image because it makes us feel better to think we’re supporting our own economy and workers. The truth is that in an increasingly globalized world, multinational ownership and cross-border assembly are the norm. So when marketers try to get you to buy stuff by implying how Canadian it is, take that claim with an imported grain of salt, and buy the product that meets your needs best.
"Amazing shots in sports" videos are a proven marketing tool.
Viral videos are a common way for marketers to deliver their message to millions of people. One especially effective type of viral video is “amazing shots in sports”. This is a video that shows an athlete making a too-good-to-be-true shot in basketball, soccer, tennis, etc. Often—for extra appeal—the athlete is world famous. And frequently—to make it seem more real—the brand name being promoted is downplayed. In many instances, the incredible shot is later proven to have been done with special effects. But the possibility of a hoax makes such videos even more popular, as fans watch again and again to see if they can spot where the effects were used. Just when you thought marketer manipulation couldn’t get any cleverer, here’s an ad that consumers like even more after they discover it’s not telling the truth!
Try to prevent your daughter from being crowned a princess.
Thanks to movies, toys and commercials, millions of girls grow up fantasizing about being princesses. This can be harmless fun in some cases, but in many girls it results in the “princess syndrome”. As these girls grow up, they hang onto the belief that life can be lived as a fairy tale with the whole world revolving around their needs and desires. They surround themselves with expensive things, obsess about their looks and focus on attracting a prince charming. Sure, you may think your daughter is bright enough to see through all this manipulation. But remember, the messages start when she’s very young and susceptible. Beliefs established at that age are extremely hard to shake. The best way to prevent her from succumbing to the princess syndrome is to shield her from obviously manipulative commercials, toys and movies, and actively encourage independent thought, realistic body image and self-sufficiency.
Never forward ad videos.
Sure, they can be entertaining. But by distributing ad videos to all our friends, we’re doing exactly what marketers want us to do. The really successful ones are known as viral videos because once they’re online, they spread like viruses, with no further effort or investment from marketers. The only way this can happen is if millions of people like us keep forwarding them. Not only are we helping to broadcast marketing messages, we’re very generously doing it for free, leaving marketers with more money to develop new ways to manipulate our behavior. Rather than continuing to participate in the manipulation, take a stand by deleting all forwarded ad videos before you view them.
Advertising plays a role in creating bullying.
Ads depict idealized people and situations to give us the impression that everything will be perfect if we buy the product. Another reason ads show only flawless beauty is to help us feel inadequate, which forces us to buy the product so we can feel better about ourselves. But there’s a major downside for society with advertising’s skewed version of reality. By constantly showing perfection and stereotypical norms, marketers help shape our perception of what’s acceptable and unacceptable. It’s easy for people who are obviously “less-than-perfect” to be marginalized and—especially among children and teens—to be bullied. Instead of focusing on an unattainable ideal, maybe marketers should depict the full spectrum of diversity, including imperfection, plainness, disabilities and not conforming to gender stereotypes. If ads were a constant reminder that we’re all different—and a little bit odd each in our own way—maybe it wouldn’t be as tempting to single people out for bullying.