Aspirational Advertising

angieHave you seen the latest Angie’s List commercial called “gutter?” Of course you have. Jeff is the inept husband who cannot even clean out his gutters because apparently he’s got a debilitating fear of ladders and an overwhelming aversion to touching yucky gutter gunk. His wise and sensible wife calls Angie’s List to hire a contractor to clean out the gutters for hubby. Jeff hugs her with joy and relief for saving him from the horror of gutter-cleaning. Another happy family thanks to Angie’s List. Nice good-natured humor, right?

Well first let me point out that this pro gutter cleaner obviously isn’t all that pro. Sure, he came equipped with the requisite work gloves, but then he set his muck-bucket on top of a slanting roof, reaching up over the edge to toss in the leaf-rot. The pro technique would be to safely hang the bucket from a rung. It would have been hilarious if he had tipped the bucket and it came sliding down in comically slow motion to dump the muck onto Jeff’s head.

But I’m not here today just to make fun of the Angie’s List pro gutter-cleaner guy, rather to illustrate a much bigger problem. Here’s the reality. It is overwhelmingly females who make most purchase decisions and most purchases. So naturally companies craft most of their marketing to influence women. Their typical formula to accomplish this has long been to depict men as big dumb babies and their wives as the smart, wise, and sensible ones who of course demonstrate their competence by choosing their product. This Angie’s List commercial just follows this tried and true marketing approach for consumer advertising – the stupid, incompetent guy and the smart, competent woman. Not picking on Angie’s List here. This ad merely follows the industry norm and is far from the most egregious example.

Is it any wonder that so many American women have the view that men are children who need a mother? One could argue that advertising doesn’t create culture, it just reflects it. But we all know that is a simple-minded cop out. Advertising amplifies and normalizes the cultural hot-buttons that they press over and over to instill the attitudes that become our culture.

Imagine the reverse. Image if Swanson had a campaign that essentially said, buy our frozen dinners because your wife is a cute airhead who can’t cook crappy Salisbury steak!

And I’m not merely defensive about the way advertisers portray men. I also get equally worked up by their typical caricature of elderly people and other groups. I’ve railed since my youth as a teacher about how advertisers contribute to our terrible anti-education culture here in America. Think back a moment. Think of all the famous ads targeting kids. Most of them sell their products by communicating anti-education messages. School is boring. Teachers are dumb. Bueller… Bueller… I’ve got the back to school blues. Quick get to Six Flags before your fun summer ends!

There is no reason that these companies could not sell their products in a socially conscious and responsible way that does not engrain negative cultural images through catchy jingles. Angie’s List could come up with plenty of good reasons to market their services without making men look like idiots. Lifeline could sell their emergency beepers without making the elderly look pathetic. Levi’s could sell jeans without making school look like a gulag. How about showing how well you’ll be able to focus on your great teacher while wearing those comfee new loose crotch jeans at your desk? I’ve occasionally seen a few companies like McDonalds sell their products through positive messages about education, but even they are sporadic.

So why do they all do it? Because it’s easy and it works. If advertisers can leverage the widespread feeling that men are idiots, that old people are pathetic, and that school is stupid, then they can then count on those campaigns working every time. But it amazes me that they do work so well. Do women really like to think of their man as such a pansy that he cannot even climb up seven rungs and pick a few leaves out of a gutter?  And do we really want to see our beloved father as a zombified husk? Do we really want our kids to see going back to school as some kind of cruel joke on them?

Apparently most do and advertising has spent decades reinforcing these memes to ensure that they will move product every time. But advertisers could do so much better as an industry, we could do much better as a society, and each of us could do much better as consumers. Advertising should be aspirational, emphasizing and reinforcing the most noble of cultural attitudes. I think it would sell product just as well, even better.

All we need to do is motivate them to change. We need to start rejecting cheap stereotypes that pit groups against each other and demand more positive, aspirational advertising campaigns. More fact-based arguments and fewer emotional ones. We should start by boycotting any company that sells their products to kids by reinforcing negative feelings about education. That is the most important priority.

Advertising both reflects and shapes our culture. But we can shape advertising too. If only a few more of us stop responding to these stereotypes, even start to actively boycott the offending products, companies and advertisers will change. And those changes in advertising tone will in turn snowball into an avalanche of widespread cultural transformation improving our attitudes about education, about men, about the elderly, and many other important issues and groups.

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