Fluffy Auto Ads and Stories Hinting at a Drop in Quality

I read the other day where an advertising agency was negotiating with some municipality for access to parking meters. That’s right -­advertisements on top of parking meters. Are there any boundaries beyond which the advertisers will not cross? A few years ago, they almost convinced the Postal Service to rent space on postage stamps for their ads.

What reminded me of this mercantile mania was the October 5th issue of Parade Magazine which virtually sold its entire magazine to the auto industry and erased even its blurred line between editorial copy and advertising copy. The cover of Parade pictured “The ’87 Cars!” The lead article inside by Elizabeth Gaynor gushes as if it was written by General Motors’ advertising firm. For page after page the same promotional mush uninterrupted by any criticism, insight or facts that would serve a reader who would rather be wary now than worried later with a lemon. Each of the major company executives is interviewed complete with picture. The copy drools with emphasis on styling, trivial electronic gadgetry and self-serving promotional lines. Another article dwelled on “Which Hue for You? Choose Carefully!” and described all the colors available for color-conscious motorists.

There is no article on safety, fuel efficiency, durability and maintenance; not even a feature on Ford offering air bags as options on its Tempo and Topaz models and other promising air bag developments.

Last month, Advertising Age had a special section on how auto companies are selling cars to women. It appeared to be the way Revlon sells cosmetics to women. The money and intensity which the car corporations are applying to probe the whims, psyches and emotions of women car buyers have little to do with product quality and much to do with new depths in commercial sexism.

The trouble with much of the advertising industry is the assumption that solid information about products and services ignore the emotions. Television and print ad producers like emotion because it holds infinite potential for manipulation and avoids having to tell the customers about what the product or service is really about. This avoidance gets the pressure off the manufacturer or seller just as would a screen of diversionary camouflage. Consumers exposed to these ads are less likely to think in a probing way about what is being offered for sale and more likely to be vulnerable to appeals that are essentially cosmetic or deceptive.

The consumer movement met this phenomenon head on in the Sixties with the auto companies. At that time, the ads were full of stylistic pornography (remember the fins and chrome strips) and hid year after year facts about the technical stagnation of these vehicles. Following the auto safety drive and federal legislation, people began to say to themselves: “what about safety, what about gas guzzlers, what about rusting and rattles and warranties?” These kinds of questions become the core of a more critical consumer demand that enriches the quality of competition and improves the performance of cars — on the road and in a crash.

Madison Avenue’s market psychology does not like to be restricted by the limits of facts about what they are selling. And so they are always looking for explanations that justify emotional, sheen or veneer ads bordering on the subliminal if not wallowing in fantasies. One such explanation is that, with both spouses working, heads of households are more tired, have less time to engage in smart shopping and are looking for flights of fancy and such advertising seductions.

Well, whatever rationales or pretexts are presented by ad firms to their clients, we would do well to remember that respecting the intelligence of shoppers means getting back a more intelligent feedback from them to keep sellers on their toes to improve their wares.

It is time to realize that the deteriorating and frenetic quality of advertising is like a canary bird in a coal mine. If the bird droops, changes are that methane gas is in the air. And if advertising degrades its information function, the economy’s quality is likely to be degrading as well.

We need more buyers to tune out or stare down these ads and tell the sellers just why. A growing chorus of consumers saying to Madison Avenue: just give us the facts, so we can wisely choose the best. And leave the parking meters alone.

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