Public Service Announcements used to be a staple on commercial airwaves. The quality of messages put out by service organizations like the Ad Council have helped people become aware of important issues affecting their lives. The Ad Council’s mission is to, “Identify a select number of significant public issues and stimulate action on those issues through communications programs that make a measurable difference in our society.” However, the first PSAs I noticed when I was a kid came from a New York City commercial advertising agency named McCaffery and McCall. McCall sensed the need for more entertaining education and hired Bob Dorough to write one of the first in a series of songs in 1973, that would become known as Schoolhouse Rock. It was 42 years ago this week on January 20, 1973 when ABC’s Michael Eisner aired “Zero my Hero” on his Saturday morning children’s line-up. The series spawned several classics and some of my favorite PSAs of all time.
There was a special combination of the time period of the Hippie generation and creative advertising people recognizing the impact of edutainment before the Hip Hop generation would coin the term some 20 years later in the 1990’s, that made Schoolhouse Rock possible. Even now the songs are still pleasant to listen to, show musicianship and a certain edginess and philosophical insight indicative of the Hippie age.
When I was young, I remember seeing an episode of the Brady Bunch that introduced me to the concept of “caveat emptor”, which Mr. Brady explained as, “let the buyer beware.” This is the idea that it’s up to the buyer to be vigilant about what they purchase. This seems to be the model we work from here in America. It’s up to the consumer to not fall for deceptive marketing. The seller has freedom to market and can employ seductive techniques that persuade buyers to embrace their products creating a desire to buy them. Many of the deceptive practices commercial advertising uses are not overt, but instead subliminal. To me deceptive tactics include associative techniques that put beautiful models in beer commercials for example.
False claims are obviously wrong and deceptive by nature, but the associative techniques that create moods or feelings toward the brand are really the most powerful. The techniques themselves, although deceptive are not necessarily wrong though. So whereas a false claim is deceptive and always wrong, associative techniques are deceptive but not always “wrong’ to do.
Perfume commercials or alcohol commercials are some of the easiest ones to see this practice unfold. Perfume commercials use models and exotic locations to create scenes with a certain mood that have little to do with the way a perfume smells. They sell it based on associations a person makes in their mind to the images they were presented with. If they wanted to illicit smells thru the visuals, they would show pictures of flowers or mountain rivers, like air-freshener commercials do. Instead, they show you two individuals chasing each other through a mansion with their clothes askew. You might not know if they’re running toward each other or away from each other, whether they’re angry or in love. It’s just a mood which seeks to stimulate feelings in the consumer. This, is kind of deceptive because what does the image have to do with the product? What does the commercial imply about the use of the product? Nothing really. And they aren’t really making any claims that they can be held to. They just create a mood and hope the consumer associates strong positive feelings with their brand and subsequently buys it.
Because some advertising is deceptive by nature, some people feel that it’s immoral, and it can be at times. The act of persuasion is almost always an attempt to increase the benefits of the persuader in commercial advertising. Other times, the persuadee or person the ad is directed at, can be warned or cautioned away from something that will harm them which in turn, benefits them. Is it always immoral to persuade someone to purchase something? No, yet sometimes ads cross the line into subliminally shaming, threatening or coercing the consumer with their message. Here, the consumer must remember the line Mr. Brady told his son Greg on an episode of the 1970’s TV show the Brady Bunch “caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.” The episode was all about truth in advertising.
The full episode and synopsis of the show can be found on TV.com (TV.COM LINK) “Greg is all excited as he’s about to go in for his driver’s test. When he passes the test, he decides that he needs his own car so he buys a car for $100 from his friend Eddie who made the car into something it’s not. Finding that he has been stuck, Greg attempts to do the same thing Eddie did, when he tries to sell the car.”