Thursday, September 27, 2007

Advertising's Assault on Our Senses

Have you noticed that advertising is popping up everywhere? And I don't mean just on your computer screen.

We expect to find ads in our magazines, newspapers, on television and radio; we're not surprised to find flyers and brochures stuck on the doorknobs of our homes, laying on any table in any office waiting room, slipped under the windshield wipers of our cars. We've seen plenty of billboards, neon signs, and posters plastered on the sides of walls surrounding construction sites. On lawns we see real estate sales signs; sometimes we see signs supporting political candidates or, if there's remodeling going on, signs promoting the construction company. We tune out most of these ads because there are simply more "buy! use! buy!" messages than our poor brains can process in a single day.

But let's consider some other advertising "encounter spots" we face regularly:

At grocery stores we find ads on the child seats in the grocery cart; there are signs or devices holding coupons sticking out into the aisles; announcements are made telling us of specials of the day; the store's name is on the carrying bags, sometimes accompanied by an additional message from another advertiser ("Save on the price of admission to [insert name of your local amusement park here] for Jubilee Whatever Days!") Even that little plastic bar that you're supposed to use to separate your order from the next one is statistically proven, prime ad space.
Media Life Magazine reports:

"At a fraction of a billboard's 600 plus square feet, the messages carried on AdSticks, the plastic bars that separate your groceries from the next guy's in line, might be considered obscure. But with a 35 percent average sales lift and a reach into over 32 million households, advertisers are lining up to put their images on these mini-billboards."

My local stores must be behind the curve with their plain conveyor belts at the checkout lines because last year
Marketing Blurb informed us that:

". . . a company called EnVision Marketing Group is introducing a patented system to print digital photo-quality ads directly on grocery store checkout lane conveyor belts. This would certainly keep us entertained for several loops while we load the belt with branded goodies from the food aisles."

One of the most annoying ad assaults was installed, then removed, from one of my neighborhood stores: the constantly playing video monitor at the head of the checkout line. A September 7th post at
MediaInfoCenter brings us up to date on this phenomenon:

"As television networks seek a captive viewing audience online, CBS also is searching on actual lines: in doctors' offices, at car repair shops, and now, at the grocery store. That push was highlighted yesterday by CBS's agreement to buy SignStorey, which owns digital video displays in more than 1,400 supermarkets around the country. CBS will pay $71.5 million for the company, which it plans to rename CBS Outernet.

"CBS has had an exclusive distribution agreement with SignStorey since 2006, exposing the network's programming to 72 million shoppers a month at SuperValu, Pathmark, ShopRite, Price Chopper and other stores, including those in six of the top 10 markets. The network chops its programming – both news and entertainment – into 10- or 20-second chunks that shoppers can catch as they wander around the store."

Oh, boy. Catching chunks of programming while I shop – as if the shopping experience wasn't already sufficiently aggravating. But that isn't enough ad exposure as far as CBS is concerned. The article continues:

"'One of our mantras as we head forward is, 'We produce great content. We are now going to get paid for our great content in a million different ways,'" said CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves.

"The network, for example, has had a deal with AMR's American Airlines for almost a decade, which helps CBS both market its programs and generate ad revenue. American Airlines flights offer CBS programs, and the network sells ads that appear in the programs. Mr. Moonves credits that agreement with helping to build an early audience for 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' a comedy that became a monster hit for the network.

"Several weeks ago, CBS entered into an agreement with AVTV Networks that includes showing CBS programming in the waiting rooms of doctors' offices around the U.S. CBS says the program reaches 300,000 viewers monthly now but expects the service to reach as many as three million viewers per month in 2008. CBS also has distribution agreements with Royal Caribbean Cruises, the Mall of America, Simon Malls, and AutoNet TV and Salon Network Channel, networks that play in auto-body shops and a line of Midwestern beauty salons, respectively.

"I would love for somebody to be able to say, 'I'm really getting sick of seeing all this CBS stuff,'" says George Schweitzer, president of the CBS Marketing Group. 'That'd be a compliment.'"

Mr. Schweitzer, allow me to be the first to compliment you: I haven't even seen all of your CBS stuff and I'm already sick of it. And, Mr. Mooves, please stop gleefully rubbing your hands together and stifle that greedy "bwaaaaa-haaaa-haaaa-haaaa" laugh.

Is there nowhere to turn without being assaulted by an advertisement?

If you go to a movie, you can expect a half-hour of straight product advertising followed by movie trailers advertising more movies before the film you want to see begins. Of course, you could always choose to see movies on your cell phone (I'm admittedly unclear why anyone would make that choice) but, if you use Verizon as a service provider, you'd be treated to
ads there, too.

Think you'll just get out of town and get away from it all for awhile? At the airport, besides all the obvious spots, ads can now be found on the tray where you put your stuff while you go through the security scan; get seated on the plane and you're likely to see an ad on your tray table.

Face it: there's no escape.

Take a look at Business Week's fascinating
photo essay on some of the truly clever advertising techniques that are now in use, including temporary ads on long, skinny stickers that are placed over parking space stripes in parking lots; manhole covers in New York topped by ads for steaming cups of coffee; Cingular's name plastered on "I Love New York" pizza delivery boxes.

And to get back to that ad assault in the grocery store, CBS is
etching ads for its fall programs on eggs – yes, you read that correctly, etching ads on eggs. (If you don't click on any other link in this post, please click on that one!)

Well, I'm not buying it. Advertising may be assaulting our senses, but it doesn't have to make us senseless. I'm going to take a stand by remembering a favorite quote from 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal:

"All man's problems derive from not being able to sit quietly in an empty room."

I hope you'll join me in a moment of quiet protest against ubiquitous advertising. In fact, I think that's such a great idea, I'm going to try to figure out how to spread the word.

You know, advertise it.

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Teach Your Children Well

Graham Nash wrote the memorable song that lends its title to this essay. The lyrics are about the relationship between a parent and child. Released in 1970 on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album, "Déjà vu," the song has reached another generation through its use on television in "The Office" (the U.S. version) and "Six Feet Under." The message is certainly just as relevant as it was almost forty years ago. So what exactly are we teaching the next generation?

Apparently, we're teaching them to be obsessed with fashion and luxury. In a September LA Times article, Monica Corcoran reported:

"Designer labels make up about 15.3% of purchases by 13- to 17-year-olds, according to a recent study by New York-based marketing research firm NPD Group. Five years ago, that figure hovered at 9.6%. And increasingly, luxury brands are catering to younger customers."

I found the article depressing. Yes, it focused on a small group of girls at a swanky private school that caters to the outrageously wealthy denizens of L.A., but consider this:

"In this month's Teen Vogue, glossy ads for oversized fall handbags by Gucci, Chloé, and Louis Vuitton can be found in the first 10 pages of the mini-magazine with a cult following among teenagers. . . .And that's just the ads. The women's media website recently tallied the prices of the merchandise featured in the editorial content of the September issue of Teen Vogue to a total of $74,458. Per their research, Cosmopolitan -- not CosmoGirl, mind you -- rang in at just $27,636.64."

The pressure is on and it's not just the children of wealthy families that feel it. As James McNeal pointed out in an interesting Center for Media Literacy report that holds up quite well despite being dated 1987, there was a time, in the first half of the twentieth century, that children were not targeted as consumers. Those days are far, far behind us. Now the market for kids rakes in billions of dollars every year. Advertisers know just how to cash in, too. explains the simple process of conditioning through advertising. Please note that the article acknowledges that the technique applies to selling to adults, too [the brackets are mine]:

"From a very young age, the media teaches children how to be consumers in society. The media tells children about everything from what types of cereal to eat to what type of clothes to wear. They do this by using a creative technique that doesn't involve selling the product itself.

"Commercials aimed towards children (and pretty much everyone else also) don't sell products at all. Instead, commercials aim to sell an emotional response in regards to their products.

"This affects children [and adults] deeply, as children [and adults] are taught to base their purchases on emotional desires rather than actual need. One such desire is the need to be liked. Children often want to buy products that make them seem cool in the eyes of their peers. If one child wears designer jeans, and those designer jeans are seen as the thing to wear to be cool, other kids will want to wear those same jeans."

It's pretty straightforward. Anyone who came of age by the time television was commonplace in the home has been conditioned to buy what advertisers tell them to buy. But the most significant difference in selling to children in the last decade or so is total media saturation in our society.

Not only are children exposed to massive amounts of advertising in all media, including print, they also see thousands of hours of television, film, video and, significantly, on-line images annually that sell indirectly, often with more dramatic results than the ads produce. Product placement is a burgeoning business because simply seeing something under the "right" circumstances can generate sales. Even a glimpse of a favorite celebrity with or wearing an item can catapult the product to the top of the "must have" list for teens. Notice I said "celebrity," because fame itself is the primary marker, and sometimes the sole marker of status.

Of course, what children see and learn in the home still has enormous impact on their values. But what are they seeing there? Primarily, adults whose lives are ruled by consumption, often excessive consumption, motivated by the desire to have the "right" image -- just like their kids.

We're a society that is so completely image-saturated that image has become more significant than substance. This phenomenon has overtaken us to such a ludicrous extent that even the awards we give to our media stars (images as "role models," being given awards ostensibly based on their talents) are now overshadowed by the fashion show that precedes any awards ceremony and answers the burning question of "who" the stars are wearing. Their wardrobes are then later dissected with greater critical analysis than most of the visual entertainment in which they display their alleged abilities.

"Teach your children well," Graham Nash wrote, ". . . and feed them on your dreams." That's what's happening right now, just about everywhere we look. Dreams of the "right" image: fashionable, trendy, expensive.

What's a kid gonna do?

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Workshop, an Art Show, and a Thoughtful Survey

Workshop: I'm pleased that the Southern California Women's Caucus for Art has invited me to present a workshop entitled "Creativity and Clutter: Clear the Chaos and Make Room for Your Imagination." It's scheduled for Sunday afternoon, September 16th, and will be open to the public as well as to SCWCA members. More details are available here. The workshop is geared toward visual artists, but much of the material we'll be discussing applies to people who work in any creative field. If you'll be in Los Angeles and decide to attend, please introduce yourself to me as a reader of The Thoughtful Consumer blog.

Art Show: I'm also pleased to be participating in a special art show in Atlanta at 310Haustudio, the studio of fine artist Diane Hause. The Peace Postcard Show is in honor of the International Day of Peace, September 21st, with an opening reception scheduled that evening from 7 to 10 p.m. Diane has received postcards from artists all over the world, including some famous names you'd recognize, such as Yoko Ono and Sean Ono Lennon. Most of the artists have designated that proceeds from the sale of their art be donated to organizations dedicated to fostering peace throughout the world. I won't be able to attend the reception, but if you're in the area, please stop by and enjoy what should be a wonderful, uplifting show. If you purchase my postcard, you'll receive instructions to contact me so that I can make a donation in your name to the charitable peace organization of your choice.

A Thoughtful Survey: I recently received e-mail from a regular reader of this blog who is a doctoral student at a respected U.S. university. He's interested in how the structure of a city is related to the physical activity and health of its residents. To gather useful data on the topic, he's conducting a survey on transportation preferences to find why people use the form of transportation they do. If you'd like to participate in his survey, you must be at least eighteen years old and you must work outside your home. The survey takes about fifteen minutes and your responses are completely anonymous: no signing up for a website, no name or e-mail address required. Here's the link. I've requested to be informed when the study is complete so that I can share the conclusions with you.

I think this is a worthy project. Our reliance on private rather than public transportation is a significant factor that must be examined when considering our over-consumption of fossil fuels, but I particularly like the fact that this study is going to examine the relationship between transportation choices and our health as individuals. Obviously, if making use of public transportation became the norm, it could drastically reduce the effects of fossil fuels on the environment and completely transform our landscape. But transforming our cities so that walking and biking are encouraged could change us personally. And yet, in cases where these options are already available, why don't many of us choose them?

As a resident of Los Angeles, surviving without a car would be almost impossible for me. Almost. The reality is that it simply would dramatically restrict my options. However, my life is already restricted to some small extent because the traffic is so horrible that many areas of the city might as well be on the moon if I try to get there during rush hour.

And yet, how often do I hop in my car and drive a block to the grocery store? Too often, I'm embarrassed to say. How hard would it be to pull my little clattering rolling cart down the block and walk back home with all the groceries I need? Weather permitting, not hard at all. And I'm not alone when I make this kind of decision. Why don't many of us walk regularly to accessible places anymore?

Is it possible that our consumer mentality is so ingrained that it is making us reluctant to exert even minimal physical effort? Are we just used to the ease of taking in whatever we need without moving: watching TV; staring at our cell phones and reading text messages; sitting at the computer where we can work, communicate with friends and strangers, and get lost in all the content on the web. Have we disconnected from our bodies in a fundamental way? As a society, we're generally overweight, we're generally sedentary, and our social communities often exist primarily in cyberspace. How much of this is a result of technology, how much reflects larger societal changes, and how much is a function of the physical structures of our external environments, our cities and towns?

Okay, I'm willing to take personal responsibility for my choices, but does this city's design, which is on the whole unfriendly to pedestrians and only half-heartedly supports public transportation, contribute to my habit of driving everywhere? Probably. At least that would be the contention of the late William H. Whyte whose classic book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, I found revolutionary when I read it back in 1980. Several years ago, it was re-published and is now readily available. I recommend it highly as a thought-provoking read about the relationship between urban design and the people who inhabit urban areas.

But today, after hours of sitting at the computer, I think even the insightful Professor Whyte would suggest that I should just get up and move.

And so I shall.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob