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February 20, 2015
Love and Death In The Advertising Business
When is an emotional sales appeal too raw and unwelcome?

Today, let’s talk about death.

Ah, the ol’ celestial dirt nap. Sooner or later, we’re all gonna die. It could even happen to one of your children if they’re not careful, you know.

Wait, wait. Don’t click away. I’m just trying to have a conversation.

Oh, you’re not in the mood to talk about death at this very moment? Good. Congratulations, you’re a normal human being.

Seems that a few weeks ago, a certain insurance company didn’t understand that starting a conversation about death during a Super Bowl party goes down about as smoothly as a bacon-wrapped fried habanero dunked in guacamole. And their excuse for trying it was a cheap ploy about wanting to “start a conversation.”

Yes, I’m talking about Nationwide. A brand that sponsored a funny ad with Mindy Kaling early in the game, then tried to force a conversation about death an hour later.

The ad may have been jarring, but it wasn’t unique. In our attempt to shift the focus away from the actual benefits of a product or service, many of us in advertising and marketing have tried to make our clients the focus or embodiment of larger issues, even if those issues are only tangentially related to whatever’s being sold.  

Why do some advertisers feel a commercial break is an appropriate venue to contemplate fear, death, or loss? Conversely, why do other marketers of mundane products deem themselves purveyors of love, happiness or salvation? Corporations aren’t exactly the beacons of enlightenment, so why should their brands be?

It’s easy to see why we in the industry keep trying to pursue ad concepts like these. Because advertising is a commercial art, we often strive to wrap our clients’ products and services in a cloak of human emotional appeals. We use themes of love, acceptance, fear, desire, and yes, loss and death. And we ascribe human values to non-living products: authenticity, honesty, genuineness, and other lofty aims.

The reality is that we mix and match these values to products as if we were ordering from a Chinese menu, usually starting in some brand “exploration” exercise. We’ll sit take one value from column A, one from column B, and ascribe them to product C. It’s why one type of sugar water is cloaked in “happiness” or a hamburger chain is wrapped in “love.” At the core, these values are fake, or at the very least a highly artificial construct. But when your brand can fake authenticity, you’ve got it made.

And as we saw with Nationwide, evoking positive feelings is certainly more palatable than forcing painful emotions to the surface in an attempt to provoke further contemplation.

Frankly, if Nationwide or any other brand wants to force a “conversation” with customers, they have a right to try. But brands shouldn’t have an expectation that it’ll go the way they want it to. Because it always starts as a one-sided conversation, and the consumer portion of that conversation can easily begin and end with a “Screw you, I don’t care what your brand has to say.”

With great power comes great responsibility. If you want to inject your advertising with deeper themes, you owe it to the audience not to be crass, cynical, or exploitive. Yet that’s simply too easy to do. Frankly, we in advertising have a license to screw with people’s emotions any time we want to. It’s only when consumers vociferously push back that we show any restraint.

Sure, advertising can and should be provocative and challenging. But we’re seeing too many brands adopt values they don’t really possess. On some level, they need to earn it. And even if brands do earn the values they tout, they’re still interrupting us with those messages.

It’s too easy to toy with emotions. It cheapens real love and loss to try to glom onto those feelings with a branding message. And as a result, it’s desensitizing us, both as marketers and consumers.

And if we continue to do it haphazardly, it’ll be death of us all.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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