Monday, May 6, 2013

Sad Men

This has not been a good month for advertising.

In the past two weeks or so, the advertising folks for Hyundai somehow managed to convince someone that using a disturbingly realistic depiction of suicide was the perfect way to sling new cars. General Motors had to pull an ad after people realized the lyrics to an old song from the 1930’s used in the spot were raciallyinsensitive to Asians. And, finally, Pepsi had to pull an ad that somehow manages to make fun of both black people and domestic violence all in less than a minute. All in all, not a great time to be on Madison Avenue.

Or, of course, it is. The old adage, “bad publicity is still publicity,” still holds true. As is usual in these sorts of situations, Hyundai claims that the ad wasn’t approved by them and was just created as a potential ad (or some such nonsense), ignoring the fact that pretty much everyone was able to, you know, see it. A similar situation occurred by Ford, whose Indian subdivision a few months ago launched a print campaign that made fun of celebrities and public figures by showing cartoons of them bound and gagged in the back of their vehicle (it’s so much roomier, you see.) Given the state of India nowadays, even casual and incidental mentions of sexual assault probably isn’t the best idea, and trying to shield yourself from the allegedly satiric celebrity angle probably isn’t going to work. Ford, of course, claimed they didn’t “approve” it at HQ; it was just that pesky Indian division that they still somehow manage to take huge amounts of profits from. Ad agencies are very good at somehow allowing their work to be seen by the public and then claiming they weren’t responsible for it if the whole thing turns sour.

The other two examples given above, for General Motors and Pepsi, are at least a little bit more justifiable. The GM spot was just sloppy; it was an older tune that I’m sure everyone assumed was “safe” without actually listening to the lyrics. The Mountain Dew ad was created by Tyler the Creator and was also a continuation of a series of ads that make more sense in context (well, relatively speaking), but still, on its own, was pretty obnoxious. In both cases it seems like someone not involved in the ad needed to step back, look at the whole picture, and yell “Stop!”

This, of course, seems to be happening more and more often. A lot of it has been blamed on the “new” media landscape: ads need to be made in record time and have to be splashed all over social media, so the chance of misjudgment is significantly higher than normal. And, of course, trying to cater to the young Facebook-obsessed market means being edgier, which involves a lot of risks on its own. 

But I think it’s more than that. Quite frankly, advertising sucks in pretty much every format. Not that advertising has ever had this wonderful Golden Age of style and substance; ads have always been a pretty shallow business with a minimal shelf life. Most advertising is insipid and sad; the whole point is 1) to convince people to buy your product, not to make art, and 2) to lower everything to the lowest denominator to capture the most people to get the most out of your money. It makes sense. And, sure, times have changed; ads can be targeted in an almost creepily accurate manner. But the large money and large campaign are still about reaching the most number of people and tell them to buy your shitty product.

I realize it’s anecdotal, of course, but advertising is pretty rough across the board nowadays. Any time I watch live television—which is very rare in today’s age of DVRs and Netflix—the commercials just seem to be actively awful. Not necessarily boring or ineffective, but everyone is trying so hard to be “edgy” it is almost embarrassing, almost like Grandpa trying to rap or a dog sitting at the dinner table holding a knife and fork and licking his chops. (OK, I would pay to see both of those.) I have seen some ads lately that have actively wanted me to avoid their product.*
I am aware of the collapse of advertising; razor-thin margins for internet advertising, on-demand viewing, and the absolute collapse of print media have made getting eyeballs to ads the new white whale. And I’m fully aware that the days of commercial-free DVRs are numbered; I fully expect product placement to skyrocket and the bottom half of my TV screen devoted solely to a sliding crawl of car insurance mascots and greasy slogans for Burger King.. Still, the quality of advertising seems to have made a drastic collapse, and I’m not sure where the industry goes from here. My suspicion is nowhere good.

The Pledge: The modern advertising agency is a garbage dumpster filled with poorly executed mediocrity. Stop trying to use rap artists I’ve never heard of to sell me expensive cars I could never afford.

*In the advertising industry, this is generally seen to be a indicator of ineffective advertising.

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