Monday, August 13, 2007

Advertising and the Seven Deadly Sins

Not long ago, I read an interesting news article in which a man who has worked for a long time in the advertising world analyzed television ads, and came up with seven different ad categories, seven different ways the ad designer wanted to feature the product or service and convince the viewer to buy it. I wanted to find the article to link to it for this post, but my searches have come up empty; if I find it later I'll add an update at the bottom.

I found the article interesting because in some ways it was like listening to a conjurer show how he works each remarkable feat of prestidigitation. The ad style that seemed most honest to me of the seven was the one which simply showed the features of the product; saying, in effect, "This is what I do. Do you want to buy me, or not?"

This caused me to begin pondering the whole concept of honesty and advertising--hardly an original train of thought, as people have been thinking about it since advertising began, and writing laws to keep people from making blatantly untrue claims about what they have to sell.

And that's probably a good thing. Many people have a tendency to believe that in a truly free market, such governmental oversight wouldn't be necessary; but given our fallen human nature I'd rather not trust huge companies to be honest with me about their products and services when they're hoping to make a profit.

Of course, all this thinking about advertising--something that permeates our lives, and yet something which we're scarcely even aware of most of the time--led me to a different sort of reflection. The article I read divided ads into seven categories; I remembered the scriptwriting class I took in college, and the discussion we had about the tendency of advertisers to incorporate images and thoughts which violate purity and modesty into their ads because these ads are proven to rivet attention, especially among the highly-coveted 18 to 35 year old male demographic. Since the school I attended was a very conservative Catholic school, we deplored this effect, pledged to avoid it completely in our own scriptwriting efforts, and moved on. But the thought of advertising which specifically appeals to lust made me wonder whether or not it would be possible to see all of the seven deadly sins show their ugly heads in the advertising that surrounds us.

Lust, of course, is everywhere in television advertising, so much so that the fathers of young children I know have to become adept at channel surfing when the commercials come on during the "game" (football, baseball, hockey--you name it). As my scriptwriting teacher pointed out to us, advertisers use these images on purpose, knowing they remain with the viewer whether the viewer wants them to or not, which makes the creation of such commercials even more morally problematic than viewing them.

What about gluttony? Not all food or restaurant advertisements can be said to be guilty of this, but I think some of them are--the ones that show close up pictures of inhumanly perfect burgers, or focus in on overfilled plates brimming with steaming fresh food. And considering that gluttony is the vice opposed to the virtue of temperance or abstinence, it's also true that some alcoholic beverage advertisements may cross this line.

And then there's greed. Some people would point to banking or credit card commercials, but I can't think of one that encourages consumers to become misers--it would be easier to accuse these commercials of encouraging people to add imprudently to their debt loads. But we've all seen commercials that suggest that you should "get your own" item, and imply that everyone will have "item X" and that no one will--or should--share it. So I don't think the advertising industry avoids appealing to greed, either.

Sloth? Easy. How about the millions of commercials for the latest, greatest household chemical or cleaning gadget that will save you impossibly large amounts of time? Now, there's nothing wrong with improving on the design of the broom, for instance, and making cleaning that much easier--drudgery isn't required in order for us to avoid sloth. But some of these ads try to appeal to the sense that we shouldn't really have to work in order to clean or cook or maintain our homes, and that's where the appeal to sloth comes in; because no matter how much time the latest gizmo can save you, there will always be plenty of work to be done. As God told Adam, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return." (Genesis 3:19) So if we are led to hoping that some widget or other really will end our toils, we're being led into sloth.

Now wrath is one deadly sin that doesn't seem to come up in an advertising context, at least not very often. Unfortunately, the next sin, envy, seems to be the underlying basis of quite a lot of advertising, doesn't it? Ads which subtly or even overtly hint that all your friends, neighbors, relatives etc. have Product Y and that they're all looking down on you for not having Product Y appeal to this sad tendency we have to be jealous of each other, to covet our neighbors' goods for our own, and to be willing to set aside reason and prudence in order to rush right out and restore our amore propre by purchasing Y immediately.

And finally, there is pride, the deadliest of deadly sins. Pride is appealed to by those ads that flatter us, that use words and phrases like, "The discriminating buyer...people with good taste...someone with style...someone like you." Ads that speak to our vanity, that tell us how wonderful we are, that hint that unlike all those low common people out there we will recognize the inherent value of the thing they are selling--these ads want us to have an inflated sense of ourselves, because the people who write them know how easily we can be flattered, how ready we are to hear good of ourselves, how much we long for recognition and respect, and how much we can be manipulated by the semblance of these things in a thirty-second television commercial.

It is possible for an ad to do none of these things, of course. It is possible for ad writers to present the product or service they are selling in a relatively honest and straightforward manner, without any attempt to appeal to our lesser natures. I think some of the best ads written do this; but it can't be denied that in a relatively short time of television watching, several of the ads we might see will try to become an occasion of sin to us.


Opal said...

It is frustrating when you are assaulted with this during prime time. I am upset with Hanes commericals right now.
I was surprised that Subway changed there O My G.. to O My Golly. But I am sure they did it AFTER people complained. We usually only watch the commercials if we can't find the remote.
Great observations. Maybe we will play a game next time...Can you name all the Deadly Sins?..

Anonymous said...

How about the really "clever" advertizers who try and pack in as many of the 7 deadlies as possible in a 30 second time slot? Good observations there, Red!