Button Pushing on the Road to Shangri-La

The practice of making everyday people the focal point of an advertisement is based on a simple premise: Consumers are more likely to buy a product if it seems to be valued by people “like them.”

Trouble is, with the broad-spectrum approach used by general advertising, the images that stand in for average Americans evoke an idealized world too generic to have meaningful emotional impact. They’re the visual equivalent of “munchkin” donuts; they’re sweet to ingest but, let’s face it, they leave you feeling nauseated.

After a lifetime to watching a happy family with 2.3 children pile into some incarnation of what used to be called a “station wagon,” I’m here to attest to the deadening effect this has had on my psyche. Whether you go for humor or play it straight, I’m  completely indifferent to any sales pitch based on heartwarming schlock.

All the same, my response to such footage isn’t only about burnout or boredom. It’s about the complete disconnect between the imaginary life of a TV family and the reality I live, and into which you’re asking me to introduce your product.

Tokens of a separate reality.
And then there’s the element of the pure manipulation that seeps into such ads, accidentally on purpose.

Now, I’m the last person to say brands shouldn’t help consumers grasp how a product can improve their lives. But I do believe we’d make a more lasting impression if we stopped Disneyfying our depiction of everyday people. 

Of course, it’s a matter of striking the right balance but, as I see it, brands routinely opt for bland, emotionally-neutral imagery. Seen the one with the toddler perched on Daddy’s neck, the one with Mom baking a cake with Sis, or the one with the cute Senior couple out on their bikes?

Sure you have—applied to many different, unrelated brands. And considering the wide-spread use of these air-brushed visuals, I doubt the people who approved them have any idea what life is like for their customers.

I mean, it’s almost as if  highly compensated American CEOs lived in a world of effortless personal fulfillment—in which their every need is anticipated and no dark clouds ever loom on their horizons.

Oh, yeah, that’s right, they do.

No wonder  they think nothing of marketing their products with icons reflective of a separate reality.

Taking the car out for a phony spin.
In a different category of manipulation is the phony anthemic voiceover, in which an actor, welling up with faux-folksy wisdom, sermonizes about “the road to greatness” in the hope we’ll make the leap to believing “a great car is no accident.” The blatant association of a mass-produced machine with the greatest achievements of human history would be insulting if it weren’t so abjectly ludicrous.

“I’m Leonardo Da Vinci,” proclaims the top dog at Chrysler, “not to mention Gandhi, Charlie Parker and Joe DiMaggio. But really, I’m just like you…”

Trouble is, by resorting to manipulation, brands both dilute and pollute the communication stream with consumers. Not only are such ads offensive but, even if proffered ironically, they instill a festering cynicism in people’s minds.

That’s because, when trafficking in absurdly unrealistic expectations, all you’re selling is disappointment, once the car apparently designed to make you Super Mom rings with the latest argument about homework, cello lessons and how-come-you-never-call-when-you’re-working-late.

What you need to show instead is a product that weathers the full range of experience: a car that gets you to the church on time, but also gets you a moment of peace when life’s contradictions make living in your own skin kind of itchy.

Naturally a :60 spot featuring screaming kids or a stormy breakup isn’t anybody’s idea of a motivating narrative. In this sense, a tiny drop of reality goes a long way. But just acknowledging that a branded product exists in a world consumers can truly identify with helps keep expectations realistic. Better yet, it can help your customers retain your product’s real benefits.

Unless, of course, that’s the reason you’re depicting your brand as the gateway to Shangri-la—that it offers no discernible benefit. In that case, you’re guilty of pollution on a much grander scale, by selling us products that might actually undermine our faith in American business.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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