Buy Cover Girl makeup. (You will be beautiful.) Wear Nike sneakers. (Strong.) Drive a Lexus. (Successful.) Drink Budweiser. (How about popular?)
Advertising’s seductive promises can seem harmless and downright silly — but a group of critics, scholars, and journalists argue that there’s nothing funny about the way ads are commandeering our public space. To prove its point, the renegade group will borrow straight from the playbook of the enemy: As the advertising industry honors its own tomorrow night in New York City at the 38th Annual Clio Awards, a small army of critics will be paying a not-so-welcome tribute to the creations of the advertising and media machines.
The first annual Medusa Awards ceremony, sponsored by the Media and Democracy Congress and hosted by media critic Neil Postman, brings together some of the country’s most noted critics of commercialism in an ongoing effort to rouse the American public from the spell of advertising.
“Why should the advertising industry have all the fun?” asks Viveca Greene, coordinator of the Media and Democracy Congress. “They get together to pat themselves on the backs for being so clever. We want to point out how clever they are too…perhaps more clever than any of us realize.”
The Medusa Awards’ dubious honors include: “Excellence in Blaxploitation,” “The Toxic Sludge Is Good for You Award” for advertising disguised as journalism, and the self-explanatory “The Jimmy the Greek Big Black Buck Award for the Most Demeaning Targeted-Marketing Campaign.” The editors of The Baffler will present the “We’re Down with the Workers Award,” and several advertisers will be inducted into the Ms. magazine “No Comment” Hall of Fame.
Few will be surprised by the winner of the Medusa’s “Lifetime Achievement Award”: accused human rights abuser Nike and its owner Philip Knight, who spend a reported $640 million a year on global marketing.
“They’ve taken hypocrisy to a new level,” says Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, who will present the award. He points out the irony of Nike’s popular line of ads promoting the empowerment of women contrasted with the company’s disgraceful treatment of workers in other countries — particularly women.
And Nike’s colossal ad presence is just a drop in the bucket, as ad critics hope to show at the Medusas. “Advertising is like the air we breathe,” says Mark Crispin Miller, author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV, who will present “The Aldous Huxley Award” for the most disarming vision of totalitarianism. “It’s ubiquitous and relentless, and it has tinged every other cultural form. The boundary line between advertising and nonadvertising has become all but invisible.”
This phenomenon is especially evident in children’s programming, which is now penetrating the new spaces of the Internet. “The line between advertising and content is being blurred [on the Web], and children lack the cognitive ability to tell the difference” says Shelley Pasnik, director of children’s policy at the Center for Media Education and one of the presenters of the “Oh, What a Tangled Web(site) You Weave” award. The likely suspects on the Web, Pasnik says, are the same products that dominate Saturday morning TV: toys, fast food, sugared cereals. “When Tony the Tiger or Snap, Crackle, and Pop send a child an unsolicited email, it’s very influential,” she says.
The Clio Awards Web site brags that companies spend more time, effort, and money, second for second, on Clio Award-winning commercials than on most Hollywood films. For that kind of money advertisers can push a lot of consumers’ emotional buttons. As advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather explains on its Web site, “A brand is how the consumers feel about a product, the affection they feel for it, the personality they ascribe to it, the trust and loyalty they give it. Above all – the shared experience they have with it…Dove beauty bar has grown into a worldwide brand on the strength of its relationship with women users. Hershey’s Kisses, Guinness Stout, and Pepsi all mean much more to their users than chocolate, soda, and beer.”
Just what kind of relationship do these people think we’re are having with our soap? And why go to such lengths to make us feel for food and drink?
Tom McElligot, a co-founder of ad agency Fallon McElligot and a Copywriter Hall of Famer, makes no bones about the ultimate incentive behind the business. “Great advertising can sell product,” he declares. “Great advertising can build a career. Great advertising can even make you rich. So why the hell not do it?”
Why not? “Advertising is designed to generate endless self-criticism, to generate all sorts of anxieties, all sorts of doubts, then to offer the entire world of consumer goods as salvation,” says sociologist and media critic Bernard McGrane in The Ad and the Ego, a new documentary exploring the links between advertising and consumer culture to be shown at the awards ceremony. “One message you will never hear in advertising is ‘You’re O.K.‘”
Some companies are trying to stay a step ahead of such criticisms. A new TV commercial for Miller Genuine Draft produced by Weiden & Kennedy (Nike’s powerhouse ad agency) goes beyond the use of supermodels and jocks to push its product. Instead, the slick, black and white ad reaches out to the rest of us by featuring a multicultural cast of young and old, fat and thin, and beautiful and ugly, bowling while enjoying their MGDs.
On the surface, the company appears to be moving in a liberal direction, says Leslie Savan, Village Voice columnist and author of The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV and American Culture — but in reality this “honest” approach seems like little more than an attempt at market expansion disguised as diversity. The trend in advertising, Savan says, is to convince recipients that they’re hip because they understand some message in the ad that not everyone can understand. “There’s something deceptive about flattery,” she says.
The organizers of the Clio Awards say they aren’t bothered by the harsh criticism of their industry, but, then again, advertising is hardly a realm in which critical thinking is encouraged. “We honor advertising excellence,” says Clio Vice President Peter Zapf — but not even he can completely defend the form. “Most advertising is bad,” admits Zapf. “Very few advertising companies can respect the viewers’ intelligence.”