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The Hidden Persuaders

Ask yourself when was the last time you saw any of those tiny ads on Google and Facebook and rushed to buy the products or services. For that matter, ask yourself whether any radio or television advertisements prompted you to go out and buy the product.

Sure the newspaper ads announcing short-term sales for clothes or household goods may get you to the market, along with the supermarket specials for foodstuffs. But generally speaking, you must wonder what the business community gets for its tens of billions of dollars annually pouring out of their advertising budgets.

I can almost hear the chuckles from Madison Avenue reacting to this skepticism about whether ads are worth their price. Such doubts are almost never publically discussed. One reason has its roots in the musing of pioneering department store magnate, John Wanamaker of Philadelphia. About a century ago, he said he thought that half the money he spent on advertising was effective, but didn’t know which half.

Another reason is that advertisements sell moods, feelings, self-exciting images about the product – selling the sizzle along with the steak, as the saying goes. These feelings connect to the corporate branding strategies and are hard to measure.

But they are believed by the “hidden persuaders,” to use Vance Packard’s famous phrase, to be very effective, precisely because they are emotional rather than rational. And never before has the technology of inducing these emotions – with visuals, colors, sounds and their synergies – been more hypnotic. It isn’t for nothing that trademarked slogans and names are expensively valued.

Recently however, it was General Motors, of all companies, that said very publically what many companies have been thinking for a long time. In May, stunning the advertising and internet industry, the world’s largest vehicle manufacturer announced that it would pull $10 million in ads from Facebook because they are not effective. A few days later, GM pulled out of the Super Bowl advertising frenzy – commercials for Super Bowl XVII are now going for $4 million per 30 seconds – on the grounds that it “simply could not justify the expense.” This is another way of saying the ads didn’t sell enough cars.

The mass media, which carries such exorbitant commercial messages, plays large corporate competitors, as in the auto and computer industries, against one another. “You don’t want to be left out of the Super Bowl, with its 111 million viewers, do you?” Of course, given the multiple distractions of family, dogs, cats, bathrooms, opening beer bottles, laughing at each other’s remarks, far fewer millions actually see the hyper-kinetic ads that bleed into one another before viewers even catch a logo.

Those managers arguing for ever larger ad budgets convey a “you gotta believe” mentality. It takes lots of myth, hope, gambling and reliance on the artistry and cleverness of the copywriters and ad designers to bring about the blockbuster breakthrough ad that arouses its beleaguered, saturated audience, enmeshed in a blizzard of sequential ads, and makes a memorable recollection of the product or service offered.

Most telling, of course, and most ignored in the experts’ evaluation of an ad’s excellence, is the prevailing absence of useful information for the consumer, including comparative information or information describing function, quality, reliable price, performance, safety and the like. Granted, on television and radio there is little time for a litany, but how about just one fact relating to usage or repair or disposal. Nah, say the faithful copywriters, that would break the emotional flow.

Some fifteen years ago, I discussed comparative pricing of auto insurance with my Princeton classmate, Progressive Insurance’s CEO, Peter Lewis. It wasn’t long before decisive Peter instituted the pioneering television ad that invited customers to submit their specifications to get the comparative price of equivalent policies by Progressive and its three or four competitors in a region. It seemed to work well for Progressive and certainly got people’s attention and generated word of mouth.

There is one organization that doesn’t lose any sleep over the question: “do advertising dollars work or are they largely wasted?” Consumers Union, through its monthly magazine Consumer Reports and its website services (www.consumerreports.org), gives you just the facts derived from its wide ranging honest testing programs. With over five million magazine print subscribers and three million online subscribers, more and more Americans are getting it the rational way.

By the way, Consumer Reports has never carried advertising in its seventy-five year history.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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