Advertisements upset me. They seem designed to appeal to the misinformed, uninformed, or gullible; preying upon every emotional and logical weakness they can find. I often find myself insulted on behalf of humanity that the people behind these schemes think so little of humanity. And yet, ads persist, likely because they work on enough of the population to be sustainable (not unlike a virus). For a time I was happy knowing I was hopefully above the sort to be tricked by underhanded marketing, I recently reached a breaking point and wanted to push back against the nonsense. And thus this series was born. Welcome to…
A Regular Critique of Advertising Nonsense
Now the entire premise of this column is that I don’t like ads that are purposefully deceptive. This deception can come in many forms, but one that I hadn’t thought about much until brainstorming for this column were ads that were created honestly in their time, but in hindsight are in fact misleading. I think the classic example is this Lucky Strike cigarette ad from the early 1960s. Hopefully some among you are fans of the TV show Mad Men
and are familiar with their fictional presentation behind the creation of this particular piece of copy but for those who haven’t been lucky enough to see it I will explain.
The claim that 20,679 physicians agree that Luckies are less irritating than other cigarettes is probably true, or at least as true as the claims made by 5-Hour Energy as taken down in my first column
in this series. Although I will point out that there is an asterisk and some fine print, I could not find an image of the ad with high enough resolution to read what it said; so for better or worse I’m taking the number at face value.
This ad is from the era before the surgeon’s general had issued their now ubiquitous warning about the dangers of smoking cigarettes and maybe doctors did (and still do, shockingly) smoke. And Lucky Strike was far from the only company to call upon medical authority to hock their wares so I'll save that for another column entirely. Suffice it to say that while we now know how bad cigarettes can be for you, and even though the cigarette companies likely knew back then, it’s possible many doctors didn’t consider smoking any worse for you than any other recreational drug such as alcohol.
The scummy part of this ad is actually the second quote, “It’s toasted.” Yes, it’s true, but it’s completely irrelevant. The ad is implying that Lukcy Strike brand cigarettes are lessirritatingbecause they’re toasted, when in fact all cigarette tobacco is toasted. The line from Mad Men
actually sums up the logic behind the deceit pretty well (and yes, I get that it's a fictional show, but just go with it).
Lee Garner, Jr.: But everybody's else's tobacco is toasted.
Don Draper: No. Everybody else's tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strikes'... is toasted.
By using language to artfully invoke some pleasant, you associate your brand with something nice, and the other brand with something sinister, even when the language being used applies to the product as a whole rather than your specific brand. It would be like saying “Coca-Cola… is carbonated.”
I’ve been trying to think of a good example of this technique in use today, but the entire point of the technique is it’s supposed to be subtle enough for you not to explicitly make the association being hinted at, some I’m coming up a bit short. It’s also possible that like a lot of trends in advertising, this one has run its course and the agencies have new ways of creating positive associations.
Ironically, the whole point of Mad Men
is to glorify the ad-making process. Making the whole endeavor seem creative, artful, and clever even though the characters really are kind of despicable beneath their charming wit and excellent outfits. In that case, it’s possibly the best meta-commentary to be made about ads themselves. I may need to devote an entire post to how Mad Men
portrays ads, but for now I’ll just stick with what I had to say about Lucky Strike, and all I’ll say for Mad Men is… it’s a TV show.