February 24, 2015

Advertising's Greatest Sin

I am an advocate for advertising. I believe it helps create wealth, and creating wealth is what economies are about.

But I am not a blind propagandist. Having worked in the industry for 41 years, I believe advertising has had some troubling effects on society.

Advertising apologists usually trot out the "we just reflect what is going on in society" defense. While this may be true in certain cases, there is one offense in which advertising has maintained a leading role -- the marginalization and belittling of the old.

In its foolish and unrelenting worship of youth, advertisers and marketers have unwittingly created a barrier between generations and done damage to society.

There was a time when several generations in a family would be close, understanding toward each other, and respectfully engaged. Now, too many young people are embarrassed by their parents and treat older people with thinly disguised contempt. Advertising has played too large a role in this.

Young people constantly see themselves glamorized in advertising, and older people dismissed as fools. Here are some recent examples:

This is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for decades. The effect is cumulative. And it is accelerating.

It seems that tech savvy-ness is now a proxy for wisdom, in the language of marketing.

In the real world, we understand that there is no correlation between tech fluency and wisdom -- in fact, some of the most bizarrely maladjusted people we know are basement dwelling web troglodytes.

But in this imaginary advertising world, those who are enthralled with "connectedness" -- i.e, mainly the young -- are portrayed as wise. Those who are not, are dopes and clowns. In this unhealthy, insulting advertising world, older people can't figure out how to turn on a computer or operate a thermostat.

Advertisers wouldn't dare dismiss women or black people or Jews as clueless fools, but dismiss older people as fools on a regular basis.

The aggregate effect of this is more harmful to society than we imagine.


Kram Veger said...

Do you have any evidence at all for what you're claiming here beyond anecdotal observation? Seems rich to make sweeping statements like this based on nothing more than how you feel - 'I saw a couple of ads and young people don't respect me anymore' - when you rightly lampoon and lambast social media 'experts' for effectively the same.

Cecil B. DeMille said...

There's been evidence of social media's inefficacy forever, which social media proponents conveniently ignore. I would love to see an academic study of the effect of advertising on young people's attitude towards old people, but I don't know who'd actually pay for it. AARP? No, that's not a joke.

I think the difference here is pretty clear. What Bob is doing is hurling an accusation (without scientific proof, to be fair). What social media experts are doing is claiming results that clearly are not happening. So, in Bob's defense, there is smoke where he's yelling fire. Social media experts are yelling fire from an iceberg in the North Atlantic. If there are any there, still.

Jeffrey Summers said...

Where's your 41 years of experience to disprove the practical observations of a highly successful ad man whose expertise is enough of a basis from which to make the point? This is the foundation of real expertise. It's also (probably) the reason you'e here reading Bob's posts in the first place.

Kram said...

Hey Jeff. Firstly, it's usually incumbent on those making positive claims to evidence them. Secondly, as much as experience makes for great anecdote, it's great when you combine that with something a little bit more solid than age. Thirdly, an appeal to authority is no real way to make an argument.

Kram said...

Cecil, I can agree. There probably *are* plenty of attitudinal studies re young & old which may/may not touch on advertising. My problem, I suppose, is that so much of our industry is based on angry claims (whether based on anecdote or not) that have no solid foundation or misuse science (in a Gladwellian fashion).

If Bob were to say 'You know what, this advertising is shit and degrades all of us' I could get behind that. What's key here is:

'There was a time when several generations in a family would be close, understanding toward each other, and respectfully engaged. Now, too many young people are embarrassed by their parents and treat older people with thinly disguised contempt. '

Which posits that:

1) There is a definite attitudinal change in young people regarding old people; and

2) Advertising has played too large a role in this.

The first smacks of Golden Age nostalgia and has been the bread and butter of older generations since Icarus - 'In my day young'uns would treat their elders with respect' 1515 or 2015? - and the second smacks of Rosser Reeves fallacy.

Isn't this a problem in advertising thought?

And yes, for anyone who cares to read, I do read this blog, I do respect Bob (which is why I read the blog) and it's why I'd want to see better.

MB USA said...

You lost me at "Firstly..."

Curvingthunder said...

Bob, in addition to your observations in this post, may I add some advertisers and marketers use not only age as a wedge but also gender? Far too often we see in spots the female condescendingly correct a dim witted male's perspective, at which point he typically acknowledges he is foolish and she is all-knowing, followed by her approving nod that he is finally correct. There would be hell to pay were a male to suggest that his female co-star put on her apron and return to her kitchen.

Conor Blake said...

I have to respectfully disagree. Young people dismissing their elders is as old as time itself. "There was a time when several generations in a family would be close, understanding toward each other, and respectfully engaged" is seeing the past through the eyes of nostalgia.

Sure, that tech-savvy is used as a surrogate for wisdom is awful, but it's just replacing a long line of other things that younger people believe makes them superior.

That being said, I agree with your argument that advertising perpetuates this. I just don't believe it's strictly modern or tied to tech.

Curvingthunder said...

Respectfully, ALL of us are not missing Bob's broader point. You are surmising incorrectly. Those who commented were expressing their views or adding supportive examples. Thanks but I don't believe Bob needs your assistance explaining to the masses what you think he wasn't communicating properly.

bob hoffman said...

This is a blog, not a fucking court case.

JeffSexton said...

Craig Ferguson speaks the truth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKUZ42T9diU

royAB said...

When one is talking about experience, is there anything that's 'a little bit more solid than age'?

Tim said...

Showing my age here but I think I prefer Beatrice's wall and Monty's tweets much more than the accepted versions.

Hal Thomas said...

There's a similar marginalization of flyover states and the south. The U.S. market is more diverse than just hipster Millennials living in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. The rest of us are often treated by proxy like the great unwashed masses.

But that's just my opinion.

marco polo said...

Elder (gay, white male, women, muslim, jew, etc. etc. ) bashing is no good - tho it is hard to find humor that doesn't lampoon someone. May I change the topic for one second?

I think we've missed the bigger crime evident in the 2 esurance spots.....their selling strategy is to parrot Geico's 15 minute claim? Really. That's just stupid and bereft of any creativity or analytic thinking. Geico's spent hundreds of millions of dollars on that 15 min/15% claim over many, many years and I actually expected to see a geico spot when I heard that. That's effective advertising!

Erin Read said...

Thank you for this post! As someone who specializes in marketing to 50+ers, I'd say the effects of advertising ageism -- really MARKETING ageism -- are very real.

Y'all seem to be bitchin' at Bob for proof. It's basic psychology. You repeatedly tell someone that they're laughable, not worthy, dumb and incapable and that negativity frames their feelings about themselves.

And guess what? It will spill over to their feelings about your brand.

polhotpot said...

Yes! I am going to use that response next time some nitwit starts demanding peer-reviewed evidence to back up an offhand facetious comment I make.

bob hoffman said...

Wrong. Read your history.

Conor Blake said...


CaliforniaGirl500 said...

I get what you're saying but I think the esurance ads are funny. That said, one of the first lessons of advertising taught by my first boss in a small ad agency was (paraphrase) "don't sacrifice the product in an attempt to be humorous." Are you more pissed off the ads dis older people as "out of touch" as the old man in commercial #3 says? Or do you just want more respect for the now aging, dare I say "aged", boomer generation who still controls the greatest spending power?

Lisa Reswick said...

One of the worst ads I've seen recently was for a company that makes women's handbags. The spot showed gorgeous young models walking around dragging wizened old women who were literally hanging off their bodies—from their necks, waists, etc. The tagline: Don't carry an old bag. I kid you not. I actually saw this ad online.

Stevey said...

No doubt there is truth in what Bob points out. Comments here have also pointed out other examples, even providing a different take on Bob's original point. Another angle here is that the ad industry in general is younger and those are the people creating the ads.

I did a humorous campaign (at 42) for a funeral home using super seniors. It was funny in that the super seniors were being brutally honest about their thoughts on death and making funeral arrangements in a way that only super seniors can get away with. You all know what I mean. So the idea played off this human truth. That's the key here.

Poking fun at the "dumb" husband or the out-of-touch, tech-savvy-less senior is obviously tied to a human truth. The dumb husband is "fair game" in today's world. Scenarios featuring women, even innocently, can get messy.

To Bob's point, perhaps the portrayal of seniors in these ways has flown under the radar. I assume the intent behind many of these spots is humor and not much more than that. Being mindful of sensitivities is an obvious first step. But I'll go a step further.

As concept premises go, these approaches are obvious. Ideas need to be pushed further, passed the easy stuff and based on human truths of the relevant core user group. That's the secret to rising above the fray and keeping the focus on the message.

So have fun and use seniors. Just do it when it's relevant to what you're selling and who you're selling it to.

polhotpot said...

"an appeal to authority is no real way to make an argument."

We've all read the list of logical fallacies. It's not a debating competition. It doesn't make you look clever to wheel this stuff out.

Honestly, I don't know what it is about online comments that brings this out in people. It's only one step up from picking at their grammar.

Would you say something like "an appeal to authority is no real way to make an argument?" to someone you were talking to in the pub?

polhotpot said...

I rather liked the Nest one. Personally, I think it was the off-screen lazy, gadget-obsessed millennial who were made to look dumb in that ad.

You're right about the other two though. Patronising beyond belief. Also, do people really give a shit about saving 7 minutes on their insurance quotes, given that they'll only spend the rest of the evening with their hand absentmindedly down their pants gawping at facebook anyway?

polhotpot said...

These spots also usually confirm the woman's supremacy over domestic matters (by showing the man screwing up vacuum cleaning or cooking or something), subtly reinforcing the message that these things are for women, not men.

I haven't seen many spots where women are outwitting men in "male" environments. You're right though, they are demeaning to all involved.

polhotpot said...

Please can you explain the following terms in English?


Geet choudhary said...

Awesome video...Free business listing here...www.myhoardings.com

Carl Zetie said...

Yet another person who doesn't know what the "appeal to authority" fallacy means. Examples: "My minister says that vaccines are dangerous, and he's an authority figure" --> fallacious appeal to authority. "The CDC says vaccines are safe, and they are the authorities on disease control" --> logical appeal to *expertise*. Unfortunately, America is now chock-full of dimwits who routinely equate their ignorance with other people's expertise, and justify it by bleating "appeal to authority".

Carl Zetie said...

There's one exception to this rule: the most competent, self-assured, comfortable in their own skin, yet humble and attractive men on television? The older men in boner pill adverts, most of whom seem to have been assembled from the parts left over when the gods finished constructing George Clooney.