Category Archives: truth in advertising

Antisocial Media.



This ad, which appears in the current issue of Maine North Woods Sporting Journal, is a rich treasure-trove of insight into rural America. In a space 2×3 inches, there’s enough material for at least 2 doctoral dissertations plus a #1 country song.

“Guns. Wedding Gowns. Cold Beer.” Yup…that about covers it. Anything else you can kill, whittle or borrow from a buddy.

While the accompanying photo shows only the first of these 3 essential categories, it takes little imagination to figure out how the other two come into play.

Is the ad’s writer riffing on us? Is he or she in on the joke?  If  “We ain’t got it, you don’t need it!” showed up in a faux-redneck ad for LL Bean or Carhartt, it would be Gold Pencil material. In a cabin in Maine way off the grid, lit by propane lantern, this ad’s irony-free, defiant pedigree is more apparent.

 For a brilliant portrait of the lives this ad reflects, read Joe Bageant’s  “Deer Hunting with Jesus.”  Propane reading light is optional.

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If politicians were pills.

The recent uproar over Mitt Romney’s TV spot in which he shows a clip of Barack Obama saying “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose” without mentioning that Obama was actually quoting John McCain got me fulminatingthinking.

I mean, in the real advertising world, you can’t do an ad that says the sun will rise in the East without an affidavit from an astronomer and even then you have to stick in the word “probably.” And if you’re doing an ad for a prescription drug, you then have to spend 30 seconds warning people about the perils of sunshine.

That, my friends, is the difference between “commercial speech” and “political speech.” The former has to be more or less true, the latter has to be no more than 30 seconds long. Section 315 of the Communications Act specifically requires broadcasters to carry all political advertisements regardless of their truthfulness:

… If any licensee shall permit any person who is a legally qualified candidate for any public office to use a broadcasting station, he shall afford equal opportunities to all other such candidates for that office in the use of such broadcasting station: Provided, That such licensee shall have no power of censorship over the material broadcast under the provisions of this section.

Why did Congress make political advertising a truth-free zone? Something to do with not wanting government to be deciding what is and isn’t true in a candidate’s statements. The government can decide if you’re telling the truth about a nail fungus treatment, but can’t prevent you from lying about issues affecting the wellbeing and future of our country.

But we can dream, can’t we? Let’s imagine candidates were subject to the same advertising rules as prescription drugs. Why not? They all promise relief from life’s miseries. Rick Perry could be Viagra. Mitt Romney? Lipitor. Obama: Xanax.

So many political ads are churned out in the course of a campaign, it would be tough to run them all through the same heavy fact-check and legal gantlet real pharma ads go through. Let’s just focus on the fair-balance copy every spot would have to include:

(Name of candidate) is not for everyone.

Side effects include nausea, itchiness, regret and outrage.

Some people experience homicidal impulses, hysterical laughter or a strong desire to shower when exposed to (name of candidate) for long periods.

If you experience any of these symptoms, ask yourself whether (name of candidate) is right for you.

The Bachman Effect.

How stupid should advertising be to accurately reflect and connect with its target?

Depends on who you ask. David Ogilvy famously wrote, “the customer isn’t stupid. She’s your mother.” Well, we’re not going to touch that one.

In many categories, the rule of thumb is to write to a sixth-grade education. I can live with that. Sixth graders know all sorts of facts, some useful and some not. U.S. history is pretty fresh in their heads, and the kids not stuck in Kansas or some compound in Utah know about evolution. More importantly, they are at an age where they are beginning to understand the adult world and its rules are not what they seem. Their BS meter is on high alert.

Yeah, I wouldn’t mind making ads for sixth graders. What I do mind is writing ads for people who forgot everything they knew in sixth grade, and are damn proud of it because it frees them to make shit up, or—if that requires too much mental effort—believe without a moment’s hesitation the shit other people make up.

Which brings me to Michelle Bachman, the jesterU.S. Representative from Minnesota. Gail Collins accurately characterized her a few weeks ago as, essentially, Tracy Flick hit by the stoopid stick. I don’t want to go into a long recitation of her lies, malapropisms and shaky grasp of historical fact. This is an advertising blog, after all. So let me bring this back to the subject at hand.

Are we making ads for people for people so fucking stupid, they think Michelle Bachman has something useful to say? If so, can we rock it Bachman-style and just make crazy claims and accusations?

Here’s one:

Tide’s bulls-eye design is a secret Al Quaeda missile-targeting program. Buy Gain instead and fight terrorism.

Or how about this:

Ten out of 12 signers of the Constitution preferred Pappa John’s pizza to Dominos. Pappa John: the Founding Pappa pizza.

I don’t think Fox would have a problem with either of these, do you? And if other networks’ Clearance departments have a problem, perhaps we can ask them why they see Michelle Bachman’s lie-strewn diatribes as “news” and make no effort to fact-check?

Accidental truth in advertising.

Some advertisers get so twisted up in their own lies and are so tone-deaf that they wind up inadvertently speaking the truth.

Consider if you will the new campaign from United Healthcare. The theme line is “Health in numbers.”

Why would a managed-care organization ever say something like that? Are they insane? Did a bitter proof-reader or disgruntled studio person remove the words “is not” between “Health” and “in” after one too many denied claims?

Numbers, after all, are not the solution, at least not to the average person. Numbers are the f****** problem. Policy numbers, claim numbers, phone numbers, reason for denial numbers, annual cap on benefits numbers, and the ever-rising number you see on your paycheck every 2 weeks that gets paid out to maintain your coverage.

So did United Healthcare and its agency have a massive wave of contrition, and decide to confess the truth—that healthcare insurance has been reduced to a dehumanized, soulless algorithm?

I’m guessing no. I’m guessing they got clever. They decided to cleverly turn a liability into an asset in the grand tradition of Volkswagen and Benson &Hedges, and make “numbers” mean something good.
If you can choke back the bile long enough to dig into the advertising, you’ll see what I mean: numbers=size=leverage=data=more benefits for more people.

And just to make sure you hate not just the words but the pictures, they plaster numbers all over people’s bodies and foreheads, conjuring up everything from concentration-camp tattoos to UPC codes to some grim near-future dystopia where we truly are nothing but numbers.

But why quibble? Once they used the word “numbers” in the same sentence as the word “health”, they were screwed. Too clever by half, they went 180º from the truth and wound up being honest entirely by accident.