With apologies to all those working in advertising out there!
Over the weekend I was involved in a discussion about ‘who were the best communicators?’ We ruled out doctors and lawyers, as we decided that laymen should have at least a fighting chance at understanding them …and then someone proposed ‘advertising people’ – great communication skills as they need to use words very carefully to win support for their particular product; and everyone can understand them! So we gave our latté communication prize to the advertising industry.
But finding myself wandering down the supermarket aisles just a short while later, made me wonder if we had been a little hasty. “New and improved” and “helps to keep you looking younger” were just some of the advertising slogans that filled the aisles – and what does it all mean?
What makes a product ‘new’? What does the word ‘help’ really mean in this context? – and what are the rules of engagement? And does it all really matter?
Well, I wonder how much of our expectations for our life are a result of careful advertising. I never knew I wanted it until I was told I needed it – indeed I never knew it existed and my life was no less rich for that lack of knowledge. My grandmother (whose conversations consisted mainly of clichés) used to tell me that “Want and Need live in different houses” By which I gathered that just because I really, really wanted something, it didn’t follow that I needed it, and it usually meant I wasn’t going to get it either!
So, having a few hours to myself for a change, I decided to do some research into the type of communication that is used by advertisers. And it was quite surprising!
For a start – I think we are all realistic enough to realise that advertising uses exaggeration, it is so obvious that just about anyone is capable of recognising it. Words like ‘glamorous’ ‘exciting’ ‘exotic’ or ‘lavish’ set a scene for us verbally; and the insidious message of the glamorous people in the 30 second propaganda bite, only serves to emphasise the fact. But what really is the advert telling us about the product? No-one really believes that we will be whisked away to a glamorous paradise if only we buy Brand X – so how does it work for us? Perhaps we are so seduced by the scene depicted that it sets up a sense of pleasure which we recall when we see Brand X on the shelves.
But what are the differences between Brand X and Brand Y when it comes to toothpaste for instance? Well most toothpastes are made the same way with roughly the same basic formula, it’s just the add-on that changes. So there is essentially little difference among the dozens of brands laid out for our choice in the supermarket today. Thus, all toothpastes are equal, they have parity. And since all toothpastes are equal, no one brand can claim to be superior to another – and it follows (in advertising speak) that if all are equal, and all are good, all can claim to be the ‘best’ and because you don’t claim to be ‘better than’ another brand of toothpaste, you never have to prove a thing!
Check out the advertising for orange juice, they are all the ‘best’ so the promotions focus on the small changes such as ‘added fibre’ or ‘high in Vitamin C’. The other thing that amazed me was that while you cannot claim to be ‘better’ than another product in the parity class, the product can be said to be different from products in another parity class. So a brand of orange juice cannot claim to be better than another brand of orange juice, but it can (and does) claim to be ‘better than’ a vitamin pill for instance. I guess this is the reason behind the claims of “More Vitamin C’ than whatever else you can think of except orange juice!
Then I found the ‘weasel’ words. Words which appear to support a claim, but when carefully examined actually mean nothing at all – words like ‘real’. As in ‘real butter’ or ‘real mayonnaise’ But as the word means ‘actually existing, not counterfeit’ what does it say about the previous product? Does it suggest the previous product was not real, that it was counterfeit – and what does it imply about their competitor’s products?
And then there’s ‘new and improved’ Now I understand that regulations govern the use of the word ‘new‘, and advertisers cannot go slapping it on unless there has been a ‘material functioning change’ or words to that effect. So what constitutes a material change? If you change the colour of the product is that a material change? What about adding a different perfume to the product – does that make it new? If we add a peppermint flavour to our toothpaste or another vitamin to our orange juice, have we made a new product? And how can we ‘improve’ it? Does adding a new pouring spout improve it? Possibly it might. These are questions that the advertising industry have answers for, I do not.
However, whenever I see the words ‘New and improved’ on a product I am now tempted to ask myself ‘what was wrong with the old unimproved version’ which was touted so highly last week?
So going back to the latté communication awards – maybe we were right to award the prize to the advertising industry – they must have a really thankless task trying to sell those not-so-new and possibly not-so-improved products that I believe they deserve to win something.
Michele @ Trischel