Ad-proofing tips from The Ad Guy

Bruce Chambers, as Canadian radio listeners know, is The Ad Guy. After a 30-year career working as an advertising copywriter, Bruce claims he has now seen the light. And since 2003, as The Ad Guy on our national broadcaster, CBC Radio, he’s been helping listeners clue in to advertising that makes us feel inadequate, spend and borrow too much, make unhealthy choices, or act irresponsibly toward the environment.

By deconstructing current ad campaigns, exposing exaggeration, and pointing out unscrupulous techniques, he empowers listeners to say: “NO!”

And aside from his popular weekly radio features, Bruce has created an impressive yet simple list of Ad-Proofing Tips for savvy consumers so we can recognize and resist the techniques that marketers use to influence us. To help you develop critical thinking skills around advertising, here is just a sampling of my favourite ad-proofing tips from Bruce:

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* You’re not as bad as the ads say you are.

Watch enough ads, and you’ll start feeling ugly, smelly, fat, unpopular or unsuccessful. Marketers are in the business of destroying our self-esteem – either by pointing out our inadequacies or comparing us to impossibly idealized people. The goal is to make us feel bad about ourselves so when they show us how to start feeling better, we jump at the chance. Of course, feeling better always involves buying hair colour, mouthwash, a sports car or a dating service. The best way to resist this strategy is to keep in mind that the world shown in ads is totally fake. Nobody’s that good looking, happy, rich or successful. Stop and rationally consider whether there’s really anything wrong with you. Chances are, you’re fine the way you are, without buying a single product!

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* Don’t “Ask your Doctor”.

In Canada, commercials that mention prescription drugs by name aren’t allowed to say what the drug is for. So we get intriguing, vague ads that end with the line, “Ask your doctor if DRUG X is right for you.” Instead of letting your doctor diagnose your condition and prescribe a drug if necessary, pharmaceutical companies recommend a drug, then encourage you to make a medical appointment to see if your doctor thinks you might need it. This is marketing out of control! If you see a drug commercial and have no idea what the drug is for, ignore it. Don’t ask your doctor. Trust the health care system to do its job, without the manipulation of drug marketers.

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* Try not to be a semi-ethical consumer.

Some ads talk about how much good a company does, rather than promoting the product. A coffee brand focuses on the money it spends on guide dogs and medical airlifts. A tea brand focuses on how sustainable its production is and the benefits to local growers. With no mention of taste or other product features, you’d think sales might drop. But not in the age of the “semi-ethical consumer”. From research, marketers know that a large proportion of today’s consumers want to do the right thing. But only if it’s not inconvenient or expensive. So marketers dress up their sometimes environmentally- and ethically-suspect products in socially-responsible clothes—so consumers can indulge themselves without feeling guilty. Next time you see a marketer focused on all the good it does, ask yourself if it’s trying to distract you from some aspect of its product that it doesn’t want you to think about.

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* Cold and flu marketing can be hazardous to your health.

Throughout the winter, there’s a virtual epidemic of ads for cold and flu products. Since we all occasionally get sick and long for relief, we’re highly susceptible to such marketing. But even in our weakened state, it’s necessary to stay alert for irresponsible messages such as:

  • medication ads that promise to reduce cold and flu symptoms so we can go back to work sooner – what they’re not saying is that even though symptoms are relieved, we may still be contagious
  • ads that show cheery cold sufferers passing around the tissue box, potentially spreading cold germs from user to user
  • ads that encourage replacing soap and water with anti-bacterial hand-wash, which may lead to reduced resistance to bacteria.

Rather than listening to marketers who are anxious to sell us stuff, seek out and follow the advice of health professionals.

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* Be skeptical about advocacy advertising.

While advertising gets us to buy a product, advocacy ads try to buy us. These are ads run by industries to get us to agree with their point of view. Instead of buying something, we’re supposed to feel more positive about an issue so the next time governments have to make a decision about it, we’ll vote in favour. We frequently see advocacy ads for oil, pharmaceuticals, unions, coal, renewable fuels, nuclear energy and more. Unfortunately, in helping us form a more “enlightened” opinion, advocacy ads are sometimes selective about the truth. And while industries can afford to run ads promoting their views, consumer groups often don’t have the money to advertise the other side of the truth. So we end up being bought and paid for by the folks with the deepest pockets. (Of course, you should also be equally skeptical about the advocacy ads run by non-commercial, less-well-funded organizations like environmental groups, animal rights activists, etc.)

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* Nutraceuticals can be harmful for your budget.

As Baby Boomers age, they want foods that help them stay younger, more active and healthier. So marketers are busy introducing nutraceuticals, foods that are thought to prevent disease, reduce aging and promote better health. Such foods are advertised almost like medicine, with no mention of taste (or lack of taste!). Examples are low-cholesterol margarine, high-fibre cereal and probiotic yogurt. Manufacturers can advertise that these products are good for us, as long as they can cite research that supports their claims. The problem is some manufacturers commission their own research that lets them make new health claims about existing products. So suddenly almost every packaged food out there is healthy and age-defying. Rather than simply believing the ads and studies, consult a doctor or nutritionist. Chances are you can eat healthier AND save money by simply buying fresh foods and simple ingredients.

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* Be suspicious of pharmaceutical industry ads that tout their R&D.

Pharmaceutical companies typically spend substantially more on marketing than they do on research and development. The result is that the market gets flooded with “me too” drugs that are very similar to products already being sold. That’s why we see so many ads for erectile dysfunction drugs that all seem to do the same thing. But the money spent on ads is nothing compared to what pharmaceutical companies spend marketing their products directly to doctors through samples and sales visits. And to add insult to injury, these same companies run TV commercials promoting their commitment to research and development. You have to wonder how much more R&D they could do if they stopped investing in ads telling us about R&D. Next time you get a prescription, ask yourself whether it was driven by good medicine or aggressive promotion.

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* Avoid cosmetics that promise to cure fake conditions.

Sometimes, a product is so similar to competitors that it has no real advantages to promote. This is especially true in the cosmetic industry, so marketers come up with new “conditions” their products “cure”. One skin product claims it cures “in-between skin” (skin that’s too old for acne but too young for wrinkles). A lotion promises to treat “shy legs” (legs that aren’t pretty enough to show off). A foundation is named “Beyond Natural”, implying it can make you look even better than “naturally beautiful”. Why do we fall for these simple-minded ploys? Because we want so desperately to stop feeling inadequate compared to the perfect, desirable people in ads. We’re therefore willing to spend big bucks hoping that we too will eventually achieve the digitally-enhanced perfection shown in ads. Instead, maybe we should trust that we’re beautiful the way we are, and spend nothing on cosmetics.

© 2013 Bruce Chambers – The Ad Guy

For more of Bruce Chambers’ Ad-Proofing Tips, you can subscribe free to his weekly tip emails.

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See also:

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2 thoughts on “Ad-proofing tips from The Ad Guy

  1. Good stuff! And certainly at least a few of these tips apply to that most personally infuriating merchandising campaign, Pinktober & so-called breast cancer awareness. Oy. But don’t get me started…

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