I’m kind of a nerd. I think just about anyone who finds themselves gravitating towards highly technical topics tends to be—at least at some level. As such, I tend to consume a fair amount of nerd-centered media, one of which is Cracked, an online publication that is known for “X insane things that Y” types of list-based articles, many of which have to do with marketing. Sure, their tone is a bit cynical, but I’ve been reading their articles for well over a decade, and have been following their video content off and on since it was first introduced.
That being said, a recent video of theirs didn’t seem to stick the landing with me. Usually when they have content about marketing, they’re presenting real absurdities, highlighting legitimate problems or concerns, or showcasing the worst-case-scenarios from well-intentioned but ill-thought-out marketing efforts.
In their recent 6 Bizarrely Specific Commercial Tropes that Need to Die, however, they seem to have stumbled from parody, and tapped into the realm of common superficial misconceptions about completely legitimate practices. It seems to be ‘b-roll’, not having the production value of much of their other work, but the opinions expressed are still commonly held and worth addressing.
So, as a professional with years of experience in the industry, I decided to dedicate an article to a response, addressing these “bizarrely specific commercial tropes” one at a time.
Car Commercials Assume Drivers Drive in Weird Places
Traffic isn’t sexy. However, an empty city is pretty creepy—something that director Danny Boyle managed to capture quite beautifully in the start of 28 Days Later. Most car ads that feature city driving will actually have cars on the streets (or at least parked on the side of the road), but simply have them out of frame or out of focus, or at angles where you can’t see the license; the only car that’s front-and-center is their product. (A great example of this is the Chrysler Imported from Detroit ad.)
More often, however, an advertiser will take the car out of the city by showing it in a more scenic backdrop, often tackling challenging terrain in adverse weather conditions. This not only places the product against a beautiful backdrop that conveys a sense of freedom (because, remember, as I mentioned in the Jingle Theory article, association is a powerful tool), but it also showcases the speed and handling of the product, even if on closed conditions by a professional driver.
Commercials Assume We Would Like It If We Excreted Blue
The narrator actually answered her own question here: Showing anything resembling actual bodily excretions will disgust the viewers, and the memory of the product will forever be linked with that disgust, regardless of the associated claim. (This again ties back with the Jingle Theory article.)
As for who though this would be a good idea? The ‘blue goo’ is a byproduct of an age-old marketing adage that I learned while still in school that essentially says “NEVER show the dirty toilet.” As with most things in marketing, there has been extensive testing that has shown that if you were to show two ads—one showing a toilet cleaner washing a severely soiled toilet bowl, the other washing away sterile blue goo meant to represent filth, the viewers will always choose the one associated with the sterile blue goo.
So why blue?
Simply put: Blue is the one colour that our body doesn’t naturally excrete. Brown, yellow, and red are self-explanatory, while black, green, white, pink, and purple are evocative of waste that is infectious, diluted, or concentrated.
Yogurt Commercials Assume Only Moms Eat Yogurt
This has both a simple and a complicated answer.
The simple answer:
Moms are targeted because of their enormous market share. Yes, men like yogurt. As do women without children. Yogurt is often a staple of a healthy diet. But moms are by far the largest percentage of the market.
The complicated answer:
Yogurt contains bacterial cultures which are absolutely necessary to your digestive system. These cultures are passed to the baby, both during pregnancy through the placenta, and after birth through breast milk. Consuming probiotic foods such as yogurt helps your body to keep your body fully stocked with ‘good bacteria’.
Births often require the administration of antibiotics to prevent infection in both the mother and the child, which can actually kill off your stomach flora (which is a fancy way of saying ‘digestive bacteria’). In this case, you’re not just topping up your body’s bacteria, but replenishing as well, making yogurt that much more important.
By the time they stop breastfeeding, yogurt will have often become a staple in the mother’s diet for the same reasons that anyone likes it: It’s healthy, it’s convenient, and it tastes good. The big difference is that ‘non-moms’ aren’t prescribed yogurt by their doctors.
Dog Food Commercials Appeal to People
This is an easy one: People buy food. Not dogs.
Pet food commercials—particularly for the higher-end lines—appeal to the pampering urge. People want to see their dogs happy, so marketers draw parallels between their products and what makes the owners (who buy the food) happy.
Chocolate is Shameful & Sexy for Women, and Energizing for Men
This one is technically two points mashed into one, for what are, from a marketing standpoint, two completely different products: Chocolates and candy bars. I’ll tackle each in turn:
Candy Bars are Energizing
While the clips they showed from candy bar commercials were all from one Snickers campaign, the notion of the ‘energizing candy bar’ is quite old. I grew up with the slogans “Recharge on Mars” and “Oh Hungry? Oh Henry!”, both of which affirmed the same claim.
Extensive research has been done (these are not ‘seat-of-your-pants’ companies) that show that candy bars are mostly consumed as between-meal pick-me-ups, largely by young adult men and students. The market share for this particular product has (or had, at the last time that I was privy to such research) been flagging due to increased concerns over the health risks of cramming a candy bar down your gullet whenever you start to feel peckish.
Chocolate is Opulent
I would argue that this is an unspoken angle that was lumped into the ‘sexy’ argument, but is worth distinguishing on its own. After all, chocolate has a long-standing association with opulence; it was considered to be a luxury item, and many more brands lean on this ‘opulent indulgence’ angle than ‘sexual indulgence’.
Just think of the old Ovation or After Eight ads, or the more recent Guylian or Lindt spots.
Chocolate is Sexy
There used to be an old myth that chocolate contained natural aphrodisiacs. While studies have shown that this isn’t entirely true, the image and its association have remained. Chocolate does release endorphins in your brain, which makes you feel happy while decreasing stress, which also likely keeps it closely tied to intimacy.
Chocolate is… Shameful?
This might be more a projection of sexually repressive morality on the more sexualized ads. No product in their right mind would advertise as something that you should be ashamed of. Should you feel cheeky? Absolutely. But shameful?
Moms are Always Tricking People Into Eating Food
This is one that I had a bit of an issue with. The rant was about mothers tricking children into eating food, but most of the advertising in this vein are more about tricking kids into eating healthy.
Again, this is one that had two prongs, both of which are… well, not the strongest arguments, leading me to believe this one might have been chosen for the sake of filling out the list.
The Great Deception
The picky eater is something that most parents can relate to. The message of these—ever since that famous old “Mikey” ad—has been ‘healthy food that picky kids will actually eat’. It’s not so much a deception as an assurance that their product is healthy food that your picky brat will actually eat.
Gender in ‘Mom Commercials’
This is one they solved even before the Mad Men era of advertising, and constant research and trend watching has continued to back it up: Women are more likely to do the household grocery shopping.
This post didn’t really have a practical application; it was more just a response. I don’t really write or produce TV ads (though I’ve written scripts for radio and pre-roll video ads), but the bulk of my practical expertise lies in long-copy content.
Still, if you have any questions about why advertisers do what they do, I can likely give you an explanation, so feel free to shoot me an email or comment below. And if you do have any copy, marketing, or advertising needs, contact me; if I can’t help you myself, I can most likely direct you to someone who can.
He is also unable to make a 'Penseur' pose without looking at least a bit ridiculous, as evidenced by his profile photo.