Now and again you come across a killer fact that changes your outlook forever. This happened to me with the British Medical Association’s announcement that for the first time in over a hundred years, life expectancy in the UK is going down, largely because of the rise in infant obesity. Think what this means: In spite of all the advances in prosperity, social welfare, medical care and sanitation, our children’s lives will be shorter than ours.
Now hold that thought and cast your mind back to any recent soft drink commercial. You don’t have to be an anti-capitalist to accept that the market system isn’t doing our children any favours, or to detect a certain disingenuousness in these seductive presentations of what, at the end of the day, are sugar-laden beverages to an overweight and diabetes-ridden youth population. This problem isn’t confined to soft drinks or even processed foods. Look at the advertising of cars or credit cards. What planet are the people who make these ads living on? Presumably not one threatened by environmental degradation or spiralling rates of personal bankruptcy.
The question is, what can advertising, predicated on increasing sales, usefully contribute to solving the problem of obesity, or any of the other negative consequences of over-consumption? This may seem like an insoluble paradox. It’s not. In
fact I promise you that by the end of this article you’ll know precisely how we got into this mess (don’t worry, it’s nobody’s fault). And by the end of part two (next issue) you’re going to understand how advertising can actually help – by building brands that encourage environmental regeneration, improved nutrition and even social order.
What you do with this information is up to you. Just don’t say you haven’t been told.
Selling The Sizzle, Not The Steak.
What do you take to be the state of mind of the young lady on the left (Fig1)? She’s obviously pretty miserable, despite her verbal assurance to the contrary. Psychologists estimate that about 80% of meaning is communicated non-verbally. Not only is the truth clear when communicated in this way, it is delivered with persuasive force precisely because the viewer is left to infer it, creating the impression that the answer originated in his own mind. It’s also true that emotional associations, particularly those we make in our youths, are especially persistent – which is why the stories we were told as children still have the power to move us much more than unfamiliar tales.
Communications of this oblique emotional sort aren’t just more forceful and “sticky” than straightforward statements of fact; they don’t require much in the way of understanding, attention or even assent. We don’t make a conscious decision to salivate when we see a picture of a hamburger, or hear steak sizzling in the pan. And put yourself in the shoes of a manufacturer or advertising agency shackled with the mundane reality of flogging sneakers, soda pop, or sanitary towels. How much more flattering and inspiring to imagine you are selling freedom, rather than tampons?
In the numbers game that is mass media advertising, the inclusiveness and intrusiveness of “selling the sizzle”, and the broader creative canvas this opened up, ensured its ascendancy, particularly after the advent of television. Which is one of the reasons why post-war America became the fertile crescent of modern-day brands and enjoyed a protracted consumer boom, as has been extensively documented in marketing literature. Less well understood is what happened next.
In order to be credible, emotional values have to be allied to tangible benefits. A couple of famous examples from the car industry – the Beetle commercial that asked how the driver of the snow-plough got to the snow-plough, could be assumptive because Beetles were known to be reliable. Volvo could usefully elaborate on the virtues of safety because Volvos were believed to be statistically safer than other cars.
Even soft drink brand values initially reflected useful product qualities. It was perfectly legitimate to celebrate the widespread availability of tasty,
hygienically-prepared refreshing drinks. As the majority of Americans were underweight in the 1950s, their high-calorie composition was no cause for concern.
Once the move from product to brand had been made across the board however, it emerged that competition between brands obeyed different rules from those governing competition between products. For a product to gain a competitive advantage, manufacturers had to improve efficiency to reduce prices or invest in product development. Competitors retaliated in kind, to the benefit of consumers. Brands, on the other hand, could “add value” simply by leveraging an emotional appeal through marketing activity alone.
Here another benefit of emotional branding came to light. It proved impossible to regulate. Promote your orangeade on the basis it contains 50% orange juice, and you’d better be able to substantiate that claim. Market it by suggesting it enables the drinker to fly – and the regulators can’t lay a glove on you. The same goes for the customer. It’s hard to imagine a disgruntled shopper returning her sanitary towels because they failed, in fact, to set her free.
As we know from our unhappy young lady pictured earlier, focusing on the literal message at the expense of the emotional one is to have things exactly the wrong way around. It’s like putting a watchdog in your back garden and leaving the front door wide open. This inability of the advertising authorities to regulate the use of emotion encouraged advertisers to adopt increasingly unrealistic, or “dissonant” emotional values. Given an inch, they naturally took a mile. In soft drink advertising, proportionate values such as refreshment and enjoyment quickly gave way to high-flown feelings of joy, freedom and even love.
Back in the real world, American doctors began to warn about the rise in obesity. If the processed food industry had not had so much invested in emotional branding, it would have been relatively straightforward for manufacturers to adjust their recipes to the changing needs of the time. Otherwise, new products could have been developed that were more suited to contemporary
nutritional requirements. However, the global profitability of these emotional brands made all such adjustments uneconomic. Instead, brand owners found themselves in a unique economic position in regard to the cost versus the benefit of marginal marketing expenditure. Stopping, or even moderating the tone of their advertising, would have resulted in billions of dollars of brand equity melting away. Spending yet more millions supporting their increasingly anachronistic brands made perfect sense in this situation – but only in this situation.
Competing against this kind of marketing muscle was impossible. In any other kind of business, the numbers wouldn’t add up. As evidence mounted about the connection between soft drinks, obesity and diabetes, the folks from Atlanta and elsewhere did what any sensible marketing executives would have done. They put their fingers in their ears and hoped the nasty doctor man would go away, at the same time as ratcheting up the emotional temperature still further. Emotional dissonance lapsed into emotional miss-selling.