November 29, 2014

There's a radio show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called "Under the Influence".  It's a show about all things advertising and marketing: brands and branding, ad wars, the lengths companies will go to to make a buck, laws protecting the consumers, and everything else under the advertising sun.  I find the industry interesting - and revolting at the same time - because the more I learn about the tactics it utilizes, the goals it has and the billions of dollars it generates on the backs of hard-working people, the more it disgusts me.  So in silent protest, sometimes I will close my eyes and cover my ears when commercials come on (and I don't even see them often because we don't have cable).  When I'm on youtube, I mute ads and click away for a few minutes.  When there are billboards or commercials on tv screens in restaurants, I do my best to focus my attention on the living people around me.  But I know I'm not immune.  We humans are bombarded with advertising just about every waking minute because we live in the noise of the world.  Unless we're conscious about silence, there's usually a radio or tv blaring, a billboard or ad we're passing, or the internet's there, constantly beckoning us to brainless surfing.  It all just makes me angry and defensive, and makes me want to live off-grid, in a small cave somewhere in Denmark (because there can't possibly be advertising there, can there?!).

Advertising is wily and subtle.  It wants to tell you what to think, how to think it and where to put your money.  The industry manipulates you, desiring to sell you things you don't need so that you can buy more things you don't need.  It wants to tell you you'll be happy only when you buy this or that, and then it's goal is to make you unhappy with this or that so that you trade up, or buy four more, until you're finally debt-laden and growing in unneeded stuff.  Then it gives you the kiss off, says "sorry about your luck" and moves on to the next poor schmuck.  (Something to think about the day after "Black Friday", eh?  The day when people die every year from being trampled at Walmart.)

My husband and I aren't necessarily "brand" people.  Normally when we need something we will buy whatever's on sale until we hit on something we really like, and then buy that, despite what brand it is.  So it happens that we usually end up testing several different brands until we hit on one that suits our needs best - toilet paper that doesn't clog up our septic system, shampoo that smells nice and cleans hair, tea that tastes good, cereal that's gluten free and doesn't taste like cardboard with sugar on top.  You get my drift.  While I'm careful to choose products that may suit our needs, it's pretty rare that I'd pick a product based on the words on the side of the containers, especially unneeded descriptives like "All Natural" or "Good tasting" or "Fresh".  Yes, I already know that I like plain yogurt, that it's all natural.  And who sells un-fresh stuff anyways?  If it's not fresh, I will know as soon as I open/taste it, and then if it's not fresh, it will go back to the store/company.

I think it's the brands that are trying to tell me what to think that annoy me most - advertising that isn't merely describing what the product is, but rather passing off subjective assumptions as truths. Take for example one of our shampoo bottles which had this to say:

“You want a moisturizer and can’t wait to go straight.  And then it hits you.  A shot of lush conditioning in a light clean formula fused with extracts of honeyed pear and silk.  My hydrators will go straight to your head to help you go flat out.  Say when, for sleek, silky, shiny hair.  Take the straight path; add Dangerously Straight Conditioner."   
Yes, I get it (and you probably did too).  This shampoo has something to do with straightening your hair.  The words are witty, but how exactly does "honeyed pear and silk" help straighten, clean or moisturize my hair?  They sound nice and luxurious for sure, but does anyone know if honeyed pear is actually good for one's hair?  They could totally be making it up and we'd have no idea.

Here's a game for you.  Can you guess what this product is?  It's advertised to be "more nuanced and flavourful than your typical” (similar) product.  The box goes on to say that “Shamans also believe it to be useful in remembering what “nuanced” means first thing in the morning” and that this product is “an enticing source of wonder, inspiration and optimism.”

It's tea.  Who knew that tea could be an enticing source of wonder, inspiration and optimism?   And how in the world do the people behind this specific tea brand know that it is more flavourful than other typical tea brands?  Have they tried every single one, all around the world?  Even if they have, I don't think they can say that definitively, because everyone's tastes are different.

What about this one?  This product “ignites skin’s natural glow” and leaves your skin “feeling healthy and glowing”.

I know that doesn't give you much to go on, but it's plain old hand lotion.  I haven't tried it yet but I'm curious to see what igniting one's natural glow looks like, and what healthy skin or glowing skin feels like.  How do I know my skin is glowing?  Or healthy?  What if I suffer with eczema or psoriasis?  The bottle doesn't say it will heal my skin only make my skin feel healthy. The words are meaningless and are meant to give us an impression of goodness and health that will make us open our wallets.

Remind you of something?

I suppose my point is to encourage you to cultivate silence in your life - to be as free as possible of the influence of advertising.  It's not necessarily a bad thing to be aware of the products and services available to you, but it's also not the best thing to be blindly led by anybody, especially the advertising industry, who makes it their business to convince you to buy, buy, buy.


  1. One of my favourites is shampoos that promise 'healthy looking hair'. It can't actually give you healthy hair... but at least you'll have the appearance of healthy hair. And what a thing looks like is more important than what a thing actually is, right?

    I'm 100% behind your suggestion to cultivate silence and most especially to ward off the harmful, predacious influences of advertising. That is getting harder and harder to do these days as ads appear every time you logon, click over, scan the dial, or turn the page. All those ads create a jumble of noise we may not even be aware of... so silence is harder to find and all the more precious for it. Golden, indeed!

    1. Ha, I wonder what the difference is between hair that is healthy and hair that appears healthy? And why would you want healthy-appearing hair and not healthy hair? It's all so jumbling, isn't it, until you have a bit of silence and stillness and realize the health of your hair doesn't really matter in the light of eternity.

  2. When I think of this topic I make sure to see what and how advertising effects my children. Like you, we don't have cable, but I almost feel like that is going to make them extra easy prey to advertising 'out there.' I make sure to talk to them about stuff like this and deride it - my father always did with us. I think that helps. It's sad when you see kids manipulated. It all came into focus for me about a decade ago when two kids walked by me and I heard one ask the other what his favourite kind of ice tea was. ICE TEA! Since when do kids even drink ice tea? Since they started aiming ads at kids, that's when. But again, it's not just kids - ever meet a hipster? Gee, what kind of laptop and cell phone you got there, hipster? Just let me guess.

    1. Good call Colin. That's probably the best thing to do, debunk all these "claims" that ad companies make. I think it was my mom, after going through a logic class with my siblings, started really questioning the things commercials were subtly or not-so-subtly saying. Those conversations made a big impression on me, and now I try and carefully think through the logic behind the ads.

  3. Colin, are you calling dave a hipster? 'Cause that's funny in too many ways!
    Sarah, the ad on the conditioner bottle didn't even really make sense. It just sounded like a bunch of florid writing. Advertisers should take Ben franklin's advice: if I'd had more time, I would have written a shorter letter. I think that I would probably buy shampoo that just said, Works Well.

    1. Yeah right…"Gets hair clean" could work for me too.



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