Wednesday, April 14, 2010
When did ads and previews start taking up 30 minutes of good quality movie time? When I was a kid, cartoons preceded every movie on the silver screen. And while cartoons weren't the feature, at least they weren't advertising.
Not having kids myself, I have no idea if kid movies still get cartoons, or if, like the grown ups, production companies simply bombard children with coming attractions, along with the candy and drink ads.
When I was in marketing, I would never have wasted the opportunity of selling more of my product to a captive audience. A whole theater full of people waiting for "their" film to start is just too good a chance to sell more stuff. Never mind if it's relevant to the film they're waiting for, it only needs to fit the demographic--in a loose sort of way.
These days, I primarily sit on the consumer side of things, and I sincerely wish marketers and ad agencies would stop "marketing" on occasion and simply tell the truth about their products.
Fat chance, right?
In 1990, "Crazy People" starred Dudley Moore as an ad executive who suffers a nervous breakdown and takes some time recuperating at a sanitarium. There he discovers that being crazy--and telling the truth--is a plus. "Volvos: They're boxy, but they're safe," headlines one of his "new" ads, and contrary to what the other, slightly horrified ad execs think, the ads produce results.
In my little neck of the marketing woods, we had a name for advertising that didn't quite tell the truth about a product: We called it "painting the pig's toenails." It might still be a pig, but with a little lipstick and some nail polish, it could be a cute pig. Miss Piggy, that avatar of conspicuous consumption, would just be another porker without the wig and eyelashes, after all.
It's not that far to travel from advertising to the halls of political power. Rhetoric, like marketing, can either be language used effectively or language used to push an agenda. In the latter case, rhetoric, like marketing, can fall a good bit short of the truth. And the more clever politicians hone rhetoric to a razor thin edge; a nearly imperceptible tilt to the right or the left, and political rhetoric can become something totally unrecognizable.
My parents were teenagers under the iron fist of a master of rhetoric: Adolph Hitler. Hitler didn't invent anti-Semitism or anti-homosexual sympathies any more than he created fear of those with mental or physical disabilities. What he did, however, was exaggerate those fears, playing them like a pianist plays a symphony, blaming those unpopular groups for the troubles of the German people in the '30s, until, gradually, Hitler's rhetoric became the tool the regime used to murder millions of "undesirables." Ordinary, "good" people got sucked in until they believed the lies. After all, who wants to be on the destructive end of rhetoric? It's much better--and much safer--to be in with those in charge than to be wrong (or dead).
In the forward to his book "All Marketers are Story Tellers," Seth Godin says that we all believe things that aren't true. (He substituted "Story Tellers" for "Liars" in his 2009 edition.) "If you think that (more expensive) wine is better, then it is," he writes. "If you think your new boss is going to be more effective, then she will be. If you love the way a car handles, then you're going to enjoy driving it."
In the world of marketing and politics, lies have sold a lot of products and gotten a lot of politicians elected. Joe McCarthy was another master of political rhetoric, convincing Americans of a communist threat that, for the most part, didn't exist. Then there was Fen-Phen and Vioxx, those wonder drugs that gave people new illnesses and even killed a few with their side effects (whoops).
The Internet is one of the best tools ever created for separating spin from truth. Web sites like FactCheck.org and Politifact.com do the hard work of informing us who's embellishing and who's flat out telling lies in the political arena. As for those overblown marketing "cosmetics," plenty of sites focus on that area as well: Consumer Reports and the Better Business Bureau might be a couple of the oldest, independent groups working for consumers, but count the Environmental Working Group, too.
Of course, "independent" can be in the eye of the beholder, too, so you have to be careful. Even "truth" can be subjective. My sisters and I frequently remember incidents in our childhoods quite differently, for example, and years after an event, who's to say what "really" happened?
I'm not sure what would happen if ad agencies and politicians started telling the truth instead of treating us like dumbasses who don't have enough sense to come in out of the rain. The first result would probably be disbelief. After the shock wore off, though, we'd be grateful. Possibly the worst thing that could happen, however, would be for us to loose our healthy skepticism--because "truth" really is subjective, and power, well, you know, there's that whole corruption thing.
It's simply getting harder and harder to publicly lie, though, whether through "misrepresenting" a product or "spinning" politics to suit an agenda (or win an election). And that's a good thing. Because seen from one angle, we live a dangerous world. I know that's true, because we have bombs hundreds of times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 65 years ago.
Seen from a different viewpoint, however, the world is full of people who want to do the right thing, make a positive difference in the world, and create communities and products that work for everyone, not just a few.
Call it Pollyanna if you like. Against all the odds, though, we've managed not to blow ourselves to smithereens. Somehow, we're paying attention to the needs of a planet that we've just assumed would be around forever. And somehow, we've managed to create a rather noisy community of progressive-minded people in Jackson, Miss.
None of those things was predictable--in fact, they're all rather remarkable. Now, if we could just get cartoons back at the movies.
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