Thursday, August 28, 2008

Words influence people. Not us. Other people.

No one is affected by advertising. No one. Just walk up to anyone in the street and ask ’em:

You: See that Coca-Cola billboard right there? Does that make you more
inclined to buy Coke?

Random Stranger: No.

You: But what about the pretty girl in the billboard? Surely her wholesome, toothy smile is
giving you a warm fuzzy feeling that’s making you thirsty.

Random Stranger: Not at all. Advertising doesn’t affect me.

You: But it says right there, ‘Have a Coke and a smile.’ How can you resist such a persuasive imperative?

Random Stranger: I suppose I’m just smarter and stronger willed and more
independent and more savvy than everyone else in the country.

You: I see. Say, what about that 976-SLE-Z-GIRLS billboard over there? That one have any effect?

Random Stranger: (Grabbing pen and writing down number on own forearm.) None in the slightest.

I’ve always been baffled by advertising. Especially the mathematics of it. I remember being a little kid – old enough to know that TV commercials cost big money – and being unable reconcile the numbers.

I asked my mom something like: “So people see a commercial that says Windex is new and improved and millions run out and buy it and that more than makes up for the cost of the commercial? That many people who weren’t going to buy Windex go and buy it because it’s supposed to be a little better?” (Mom: "Go play in traffic under that Coca-Cola billboard.")

Then, sometime after, I started to think about all the advertising to sell advertising -- the television spots trying to get you to watch television shows, the billboards trying to get you to listen to radio programs. It’s like a pyramid:

  1. One hundred thousand motorists see a billboard for the KWZZ “Morning Zoo”
  2. For a fraction of them, one in sayten (a number I just made up because I have no idea what the real number is), the billboard is just what they needed to nudge them over the edge of deciding to listen to the radio station.
  3. Of those one in sayten, one in sayten hear a commercial for Hennessy’s.
  4. Of those, one in sayten run out and buy Hennessy’s.
  5. That’s about a hundred bottles of Hennessy’s, which, after manufacturing, distribution, overhead, lawyers, and advertising costs, Hennessy’s makes saytwo bucks a bottle (total $200).
  6. One in sayten of these dollars go to KWZZ (total $20).
  7. One in sayten of those dollars go to the billboard company ($2).

Yeah, yeah, I know: Those ad dollars also buy brand recognition, which has greater, longer-lasting value. And, yeah, yeah, I know: Clearly my math and logic demonstrate that I don’t know jack about how it really works. And, yeah, yeah, I know that if it didn’t work, nobody would do it. Still, I can’t wrap my head around it.

And if you think that’s stupid of me, consider this: Advertising has been my sole means of support for about ten of the last twelve years (much of which I spent working at newspapers). Advertising bought our house. My husband’s in the business, too – the most mathematically unlikely aspect of it. He’s an editor for a company that makes TV promos. Here’s his most famous:

(I’m very proud! A shorter version ran during the Super Bowl two years ago, and he won an award for it.)

Anyway, the reason all this advertising stuff is on my unable-to-grasp-it, bite-the-hand-that-feeds-me mind has to do with the presidential campaign and the convention. Specifically, I’m flabbergasted by the nature of punditry. We watch a convention speech and then the pundits “analyze” the speech and then we go to our little jobs and where we offer to co-workers our own brilliant analysis the speech and how it will affect others.

But none of us are affected ourselves.

We’re all above it. Too smart. We sit in judgment, but we’re above being judged. We analyze, but we’re too clever to be the subject of another’s analysis. It’s downright freaky.

Somewhere out there is person who saw an ad for “new and improved” Windex and immediately ran out to buy some, burning rubber and exceeding the speed limit and endangering countless squirrels and pedestrians in his red-hot haste to get his hands on this amazing new product.

Still, it’s smarter than listening to Joe Scarborough.

(Unrelated note: I chose to treat “one in ten” and some instances of “none” as plurals. It was a choice, not a boo-boo. So don’t yell at me. Have a Coke and a smile instead. Or, if you really think I deserve to be yelled out, go to Scarborough country.)

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dpm said...

About advertising: I once heard someone say that about 50% of advertising is effective, but nobody has figured out which half. Thanks for this post, it's very interesting how we think we're all above it, but yet we're all followers of something and derive our identity from the messages we get from advertising.

June Casagrande said...

Exactly! And wanna hear something really funny? After writing that, for the first time in quite a few days, I got a Coke with my lunch.

Didn't realize the possible connection until it was half gone!

kidicarus222 said...

Hi June. This is apropos of nothing, but I figured I'd mention to you that though I enjoy the name of your blog very much, every time I scroll down the list of word blogs on my sidebar, my eyes smash it all together and read it as "conjunctivitis." I think this is funny.

Just as a heads-up.

June Casagrande said...

That's hilarious. I was sure you were going to say that you worry that your girlfriend or your roommate would see the blog name and think it was something racy. But I like conjunctivitis much better. Nothing like hearing you remind people of eye pus.

Besides, it's one of the best itises there is -- so much better than appendic or tendon.
And don't get me started on gingiv.


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