Updated on 09.22.14

Positive and Negative Advertisements

Trent Hamm

I don’t comment on advertisements very often, and when I do, it’s usually to skewer it, as I did with Hyundai’s “Dollars and Sense” ad campaign. Advertisements are designed to sell products, after all, and they use a lot of clever techniques to convince you to buy.

Still, I couldn’t help but notice when several readers emailed me to point out ING Direct’s new “We, the Savers” ad campaign. Instead of directly promoting ING, it takes a different tactic, offering up a ten-point “Declaration of Financial Independence.” You can read the full thing here, but here’s a taste:

1. We will spend less than we earn. Saving a little out of every dollar we bring home is the foundation of independence. Without it, we can’t build equity in our home, we can’t invest for the future, and we can’t be ready for challenging times. We promise to pay ourselves first, always.
2. We will use our home as a savings account. Besides shelter and comfort for our family, the role of a house in our financial life is to build equity. We will have a healthy down payment when we buy. We’ll choose the mortgage that lets us pay down the principal fastest. And then we’ll leave that equity safe where it is instead of spending it on things that don’t last.

In short, their ad campaign basically states many of the basic principles I talk about every day. I agree with virtually everything they state on that page, from spending less than you earn to getting involved in politics. I firmly believe that if you took the advice of those ten points, you would be in substantially better financial shape than most people.

It doesn’t change my overall opinion that advertisements are junk, though. As a general rule, the more exposure you have to advertisements, the more likely you are to spend your money in less-than-optimal ways.

But, of course, companies dump billions of dollars each year into advertising. Why? Because it works. Ads influence people all the time, from what kind of hot dog to purchase to which presidential candidate to vote for.

And this one’s no different. The underlying point (although it’s done fairly indirectly) of the ad is to convince you to open up an ING Direct account. Their approach takes advantage of a general move towards frugality going on in America right now.

So why bother to point out this ad at all? There’s really two reasons.

First, if advertising dollars are going to be spent and ads are going to be placed anyway, they might as well come with constructive information instead of destructive information. A commercial break that contains an ad that trumpets “spend less than you earn” as a catchphrase at least has some degree of positive effect in convincing people to make positive financial choices.

Second, highlighting and encouraging companies to present ads that encourage personally responsible behavior can only encourage similar ads. If an ad is going to convince you to buy a product (and they all do), at least that ad can be balanced with some sort of positive additional message.

Take, for example, this rather silly Anheuser-Busch ad:

It goes for the cheap gag and still pushes for Anheuser-Busch products, but the biggest takeaway is to have a designated driver. If that ad lodges into someone’s mind and “sells the product” later, it might convince them to find a buddy to drive them home when they need it, keeping a drunk driver off the road.

Alternately, look at this Dove ad:

It does a great job of demonstrating step-by-step an example of how our idea of physical beauty is distorted. Sure, the point of the ad in the end is to sell Dove products, but if it is capable of convincing a teenage girl to look at a model on a billboard and realize that comparing her own body to that image is a false comparison – and she’s thus able to walk away without a reduced body image – then that Dove ad is substantially more worthwhile than a typical beauty ad which implies you have to use the product to obtain some unattainable level of beauty. I’d far rather that my teenage niece see that Dove commercial than a typical Revlon or Clairol ad with an airbrushed ethereal woman.

From my perspective, this ING Direct campaign falls right into this group – and I hope they run with it.

People take many, many social and moral cues from the media that they consume and they absorb the ideas in surprising ways. While minimal exposure to advertising is always the best route for anyone to take, we all are exposed to some degree of advertising (and some of us are exposed far more than others). If more of those ads chose to include authentically valuable information and messages along with the product, then more people would subtly be exposed to such worthwhile information. And that can only be a net positive from where we are now.

We live in a world filled with advertising. Advertising is obviously there to convince us to buy stuff, but we have the power to choose what we buy. With my dollar, I’d rather support a company or organization with some degree of social responsibility in their work, if for no other reason than it encourages other companies to do the same.

Or, better yet, seek out companies that produce quality products regardless of advertising, and let them know that it was not the ads that sold you on the product, but the impartial reviews you found.

At the same time, I’d rather avoid companies that promote stereotypes, false images, and false information in their ads.

Just remember: the next time you see an ad that tries to play on your fears or on your self-esteem, don’t give that company your dollar. Instead, seek companies that try to inform or do other positive things along with their advertising. Better yet, support companies that don’t spend much money on advertising at all and instead produce high quality, low cost products.

In the end, the dollar you spend at the supermarket, the drug store, or the car dealership doesn’t just buy a product, but it’s also a vote for the kind of advertising you see. Fall prey to an ad that promotes nothing but image and you’re telling them you want to see more fluff. Alternately, you can support products that promote informative ads that at least have some degree of redeeming value – or buy generics and support no advertising at all.

It’s your dollar. It’s your call.

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  1. Penelope says:

    I completely agree with you. I wish more people felt this way. It breaks my heart to think of all the high school girls who feel that they have to be a size 0 to be socially accepted. I feel that society should recognize and appreciate women of all shapes and sizes.

  2. Saravanan says:

    I really love ads. It is creativity at its best. I really don’t buy products based on ads. I do my research based on the products but I agree completely with you that ads do influence the mindset of people.

    @penelope: Size 0 is most happening thing in US I guess and it is catching up in India as well. I love Jennifer Aniston and I knew that most of the gals around the world wanted to have her figure. But honestly Size 0 is not a healthy thing to be practiced. Hope the girls do understand and think that it is not about the shape or the size that matters to be a woman. (In MHO)It is the substance that makes a woman.

  3. Ben Dinsmore says:

    Those dollars and sense commercials from Hyundai annoy me too! They are still not quite as bad as Suze Orman’s sellout to Ford Motor a couple of years ago when she was suggestion how smart it was to buy a new car because you could finance at 0%!

  4. Trent, you have a gift for seeing things at the basic level. This statement was particularly telling: “…the next time you see an ad that tries to play on your fears or on your self-esteem, don’t give that company your dollar.”

    I think we all know this subconsciously, but you made the covert…overt. Good insight, buddy. This post certainly makes us much more conscious of what is motivating us to buy a product. A simple, but effective strategy.

  5. A. Dawn says:

    I am glad that we fought off cigarettes ads and specially teen-agers are not bombarded heavily by those. The next thing we need is to stop junk food ads such as McDonald’s and first food restaurants.
    A Dawn Journal

  6. Bill in NC says:

    Watch less TV.

    Watch the broadcast TV via a DVR so you can easily skip commercials (but be aware of “product placement”)

    As for saving…at rates of 3% on money markets and house values at best keeping up with inflation (no more double-digit annual increase), there’s still little incentive to be a saver.

  7. Larry says:

    when you consider how much money is spent on advertising, it is a big part of the North American economy. When you consider how much money is spent because, you realize that our economy probably couldn’t live without advertising.

  8. what a great dove ad that is. i like the idea that insofar as we have to listen ads, we should support those that provide positive encouragement and a ethos of self-improvement rather than negative reinforcement. I will never forget this one ad- it was a woman and part of her (voluptuous) physique was a donut or something- and it was an ad for a breakfast bar of some kind, it said ‘respect yourself in the morning.” ugh. no wonder so many young girls suffer from negative body image.

  9. Simple Sapien says:

    This is a great article. I think most people believe that they are immune to advertisements and that they would never be affected by the ridiculous ones… but I think some are. I think it triggers something subconsciously in the brain that lets you think a certain lifestyle or product is ok or worthwhile. That Dove ad is trippy, I loved it. Thanks!

    – Jack Rugile
    Simple Sapien

  10. Melissa says:

    I agree with you and also love what dove is doing in their campaign. As a Kindergarten teacher I have heard 5 year olds complaining that they are fat! Insane! Watch out for the KFC commercial that tries to trick you into thinking that it costs more to cook at home. People do not readily factor in that most people have flour and spices already and the cost per serving for fixing chicken yourself. They are very clever.

  11. I’ve noticed that one of the online savings banks over here in New Zealand also takes the attitude of saving rather than spending. It’s all very refreshing.

  12. kristine says:

    I spent 20 years in advertising, and recently defected to become a school teacher. I was a creative director at the largest book club company in the world.

    I exchanged a 14 hour day for 7 hour day, and gladly gave up the money for precious limited time with my kids, now in their teens.

    Customers are categorized, sometimes unflatteringly, in meetings. The people who put put the Christian book club are the identical team for art and copy that does the porn club books. How’s that for disingenuous?

    In addition to watching advertising, read every compliance you get (the fine print). Art directors color and writers word them carefully, and make them as small as legally possible.

    Here’s a tip- let your book club membership elapse. You will be courted with another introductory deal. Do that again, and again, and again…indefinitely. The data system is not set up to expel repeat expirers- you’ll just get better re-enroll deals each time!

    My experience has left me ad-immune, and my kids have to hear me dissect why an ad for the latest doo-hickey is BS. I do, however, miss my free books!

  13. Battra92 says:

    Penelope, I agree 100%. Heck, I am one of those guys who HATES the size 0 mentality. I tend to date girls who are a bit on the fuller size. I mean there’s being healthy to consider but nothing wrong with a girl who’s a size 14. :)

    Anyway, to the topic at hand I love the fact that personal responsibility is being pushed in an ad. The other night during the VP debate I wanted to jump for joy when personal responsibility in loans and savings and living within our means was actually spoken by a politician. It shouldn’t have to be but we need to do this to make America a stronger economy.

  14. Jules says:

    As much as I appreciate what Dove is doing in their “real beauty” campaign, you can’t miss the fact that most of the models they use are on the thinner side of the body spectrum. No, they aren’t the clothes-hanger pixie sticks with pouf-y lips walking down the runways, but they still make me (short, neither fat nor thin) feel like I should be thinner.

  15. Gretchen says:

    Hate to say it but there actually are a lot of 5 year olds who are fat. Of course, they shouldn’t have that word in their lexicon and my own 6.5 year old doesn’t (she never hears me say it about myself and I’ve told her it is mean to call someone else fat). But, the parents of children who are fat need to realize this one thing: take away the junk food from the cupboards. A recent study on rats showed this: rats that are given all you can eat rat food plus all you can eat junk food (like marshmallows) eat 50% more calories than those who only have all you can eat rat food!!!

    So if the parents can’t keep junk food out of their own bodies, at least hide it somewhere so the kids don’t eat it and don’t know it is at home. Soda is a big culprit. People who drink more than one can of soda per week gradually increase their body weight over time. At one can per week or less they do not (there’s a great lecture on this from a pediatrician on youtube). Also, exercize for kids and adults has to be daily in order to decrease a body’s insulin resistance (which more people increasingly have). That’s because exercize only decreases the insulin resistance over a 24 hour period.

  16. Kevin says:

    Even if those ads only reach one person, they have worked. I applaud all three companies for putting positive messages into those ads. Even though they are ultimately to sell a product, they had the choice to put these ideas into the ads. Just as we have a choice whether or not to buy the products.

  17. Melissa says:

    I enjoy those Dove ads. It’s very refreshing to see those types of ads instead of the other “if only you looked like this, you would be happy” ads. I read an article this morning that said 14% of teenage girls are interested in science-related careers, while over 30% want to be models when they grow up. I thought that was really sad.

  18. Sarah says:

    The more I study advertising (I’m a sophomore advertising/public relations major), the more I want to be exposed to ads on my terms. I don’t have a TV, I have an ad blocker on Firefox, yet I search up commercials on YouTube. Ads aren’t inherently evil – you just have to be conscious of how the advertiser views you, whether you’re in the target demographic or not.

    On the Dove campaign – doesn’t make me respect a company whose products are still loaded with toxic chemicals (petrochemicals, parabens, etc.).

  19. CanadianKate says:

    Bill in NC said, “As for saving…at rates of 3% on money markets and house values at best keeping up with inflation (no more double-digit annual increase), there’s still little incentive to be a saver.”

    What’s the alternative Bill? Spend all my money on stuff? It depreciates in value. AND it costs me money to maintain, house, and even purchase (gas to get to the store, or shipping charges).

    Savings make me nimble and ready to tackle any curve life sends my way – be it a job opportunity in an area of the country with a lower cost of living, or to cover medical bills, or to protect an asset (such as repairs to my car) or to purchase an appreciate asset (such as an income property). Savings don’t cost much to store – with an ING account, they cost nothing to store, and they don’t require a larger house or extra insurance (the government provides that for free.)

    Savings accounts won’t let me make the ‘big score’ in life, but they protect me from the big crashes and have a place in everyone’s life – no matter their income or risk tolerance level.

  20. Zanne Baker says:

    Should you want to investigate the idea of advertising a little further, this


    will take you to 4 episodes from the BBC that will make you literally sick at your stomach over how “public relations” people manipulate “the public” to become “consumers” rather than “citizens.”

  21. Jen says:

    I used to like the Dove ads. Until about a year and a half ago:

    So it’s Monday morning and I’m dragging my reluctant behind to the office. As I turn the corner and the plaza in front of my office comes into view, I see it.

    It’s not unusual for this plaza to be rented out for public events or publicity stunts–for example, the cranberry bog erected by the Ocean Spray folks each fall. (Seriously. There are even people in hip waders sloshing around with rakes. It’s glorious.) Rapper Lupe Fiasco once did a short concert out there, and it hosts several annual art fairs. However, today’s happenings definitely take the, er, cake.

    There, in front of a most presentable office building, is a five-story inflatable bottle of Axe Clix Deodorant Spray. Nothing quite like an enormous phallus outside your workplace to kick off the week. And on the “cap” of the bottle is emblazoned–I kid you not–“Now With Added Bom-Chicka-Wah-Wah.”

    I roll my eyes and trudge into the building. Lunchtime rolls around, and I go downstairs to get something to eat. On my way back up I see the giant “deodorant” through the front windows and notice that there has been an addition to the display. Near the bottom of the black inflatable is an enclosed but visible hollow space, creating a bouncy little room much like those castles that kids jump around in at carnivals. Bouncing in this particular area, however, are young women wearing tight t-shirts and cheerleader skirts. Feminism in downtown Chicago has just been set back by about 15 years. And in front of my very own office!

    The Axe line of products is made by Unilever–the same folks who make Dove. I have not bought a Dove product since.

  22. shasha says:

    The problem with simply boycotting a company, though, is that the message doesn’t get through to them – at least not directly. How is Unilever to know why you’ve suddenly stopped buying Dove products – if they even noticed. Plus, you did like the message in the Dove ads, and would prefer to see more like that rather than the Axe approach, right?

    So I would suggest writing to Unilever. Tell them that story. Reinforce the positive message of the Dove ads, then show them that the Axe campaign not only negated that effect, but swung your opinion so far the other way that they actually LOST your business. Make sure to tell them you’re spreading the word, too.

    It might not make a difference…but then, it might. And the more consumers write letters, the more change we’ll create in advertising campaigns.

    As an aside, I’d like to say that the thing I liked best about the particular Dove ad Trent posted was the way it showed how the model’s picture was manipulated by computer. That, more than the cosmetic & hairstyle applications, really drove home just how artificial such images are.

  23. sara says:

    that BBC show that Zanne Baker referenced above was VERY interesting. They’re right about the mass manipulation making you sick to your stomach.

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