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The Agnostic Pulpit: Toxic Advertising

 article about toxic advertising

This article belongs to BUSINESS MONTH: Advertising theme.

If you have a fantasy, daydream, or secret desire, there is someone out there ready to help, for a price. The most toxic and seductive advertisements play into our fantasies. When in comes to advertisements, we can be our own worst enemies.

A toxic advertisement is one that lifts you out of reality and promises impossible results, results your common sense knows are impossible. Do you long to recover that fresh, young face you had in youth? There is a magic bedtime face cream for sale that says you can do this. It may have a little chemical trickery that makes it look like it does the job, but when you wash your face the effect is gone.

Men, do you want to "be bigger" in that certain part of the male body? No gal ever said it mattered to her, but you want to be the biggest swinger in the neighborhood. If you buy the product you are playing with your blood pressure. Dangerous for the man, but it does make money for the advertiser.

If you have a fantasy, daydream, or secret desire, there is someone out there ready to help, for a price.
Do you fear that your colon is filling up with feces clinging to its walls? The human colon, of course, is designed to keep things moving along, and there is no evidence that toxins can collect in your digestive system under normal circumstances, so the ads for colon cleansers play into your morbid fears and your dreams of a healthy, clean body. What you probably are buying is an unnecessary laxative.

A few years ago mortgage companies were running ads back to back on American television coaxing people to apply for loans that looked so easy because the payments for the first few years could be seductively low. And so we developed a housing crisis when people who dreamed of owning a great home found they could not manage the balloon payments and then, as home prices fell, discovered they owed more than the house was worth.

And now we have intensive ad campaigns urging debtors to pay more money to get out of debt. That is another fantasy: if only I didn't have all this credit card debt and these high mortgage payments I would have a great life. The average person may want to think there is some easy way out of debt, but looking for the easy way out probably will only lead to more trouble.

There is no free lunch. We pay dearly when we fall for these seductive, fantasy-driven inducements. If you answer the get-out-of-debt ad you may end up talking to the credit card company itself or being led a high interest consolidation loan, or even to bankruptcy

There is no free lunch. We pay dearly when we fall for these seductive, fantasy-driven inducements.
If, one the other hand, you have something to sell and want to advertise, you had best understand the dreams of the common people. Try to find out what people really, really want; and then find a way to fill their fantasies. For example, people dream of being great cooks, so invent some silly kitchen appliance, and sell it on television.

People dream of finding the right soul mate: start a dating or a couples matching service for special groups or segments of the population. All it takes is a web site and a computer.

People want cheap and easy access to health products, so mix up some harmless chemicals, give the brew a fancy name, put it in bottles, and go out and sell it.

Toxic, as I used the word here, does not mean poison; we must not do harm. On the other hand, there is no law against selling useless, over-priced junk that appeals to irrational fantasy.

One of the most preposterous schemes I've heard of is selling the right to name a star. With billions of stars in the universe, they won't run out of stars. The astronomers have their own names and numbers for important stars, and that will not change. This scheme is an example of selling something you don't have to someone who only imagines he or she is getting something. And that brings me back to our preachers, priests, and profits of religion. These folks specialize in exploiting fantasy by selling nothing more than ancient lies and fantasies of their own.

So, dear reader, talk to people. Find out what they dream about. Sell to the dream if you have nothing practical to offer.

I do think most advertising does, in fact, let people know about useful products and services that they may need in the practical world to make life better. Just one example: most people don't like to read for long periods from a computer screen, but one major online merchant is making a new kind of book reader that is easy on the eyes, and it can carry a whole library of books. More books can be downloaded in seconds for a relatively small price. Every day I see kids going to school laden down with heavy back packs. In the future they may carry a book reader weighing only a few ounces.

My rule: if something is advertised repeatedly on television or radio, I don't buy it. That advertising is very expensive, and I don't want to end up helping them pay for it. Most of the time, such ads are trying to appeal to my fantasies more than to my needs.

I like ads that offer things that will make life easier, and I avoid feeding my own irrational fantasies with unnecessary junk.

By the way, is anybody in the market for a good used Salad Shooter?

(Julian I. Taber, Ph.D. is author of Addictions Anonymous: Outgrowing Addiction with a Universal, Secular Program of Self-Development.
ISBN 978-1-60145-647-2.
To view the Table of Contents, sample chapters, or to order, go to:

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