Positive and Negative Advertisements

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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