Hart: Help kids wise up to advertising

Metro-West Daily News/February 12, 2011

Though personally I loved the spot featuring the little "Darth Vader" fellow, this Super Bowl didn't win high marks for advertising hits.

Maybe our expectations for Super Bowl commercials show us just what a powerful medium advertising is in our culture. In fact, recently, I've found myself following and talking about clever ad campaigns with my kids. That's because car-insurance commercials, in particular, have really had my kids and me howling. And the ETrade baby? Can't get enough of him.

Advertising sometimes works on me. I fully admit that if the words "clinical trials" and "wrinkles" are used in the same sentence, I'm particularly vulnerable.

But that's the point. Do we understand how the advertising industry seeks to manipulate our emotions and decisions? Do our children? I'm not blaming the industry - that's its job. But as parents, it's great to know a little more about what we are dealing with.

The fascinating special "The Persuaders," a PBS "Frontline" show, looked at how advertising radically changed toward the end of the last century. It debuted in 2004, but its message fully resonates today. You can find it online.

Advertising executive Douglas Atkin explained that it used to be a brand manager who oversaw developing a product, its packaging and so on. Ads demonstrated that one detergent got clothes whiter than another. But now all detergents get clothes clean. So what to do?

"Emotional branding." In the early 1990s, there was a shift to the "pseudo-spiritual," one expert explained. Creating a sense that the product was about "a way of life."

Atkin said that the brand manager and the advertising agency now have a new calling - to "create and maintain a whole meaning system for people through which they get identity and understanding of the world." Think Benetton, Starbucks, Nike or Apple products. Atkin said he started hearing people in industry focus groups talk about products in a way that sounded cultish. He got the brainstorm to actually study cults to better understand what made advertising effective.

In a fascinating segment of the program, we go back and forth between groups of devotees of various cults and various products. The rapturous, evangelical language is indistinguishable. What did the groups of Mac users and Falun Gong have in common? The same core desires. They "need to belong and want to make meaning" of their lives, said Atkin. Wow.

Another advertising guru, Kevin Roberts, is revered because, as he put it, he understands how to turn an outstanding brand into an "object of devotion" leading to "loyalty beyond reason."

Again, wow.

This is where parents need to be alert: What might be shaping our children's consumer decision-making, and what do we want influencing it? The answer is not to keep advertising out of our homes - which we can't do, in any event. Besides, Apple products really have changed people's lives for the better, and I have to admit I think Disney World is a pretty magical place. Good for them.

But I do think it is important to talk about what's going on with our kids. Consider asking them, "What do you think the creators of that ad want to do with our emotions right here?" Or: "What are they trying to convince you this product will do for you other than that it will 'work'?" - that it won't just clear your skin, for example, but will also make you popular and successful with the opposite sex. That kind of thing. Or: "Why do you want to buy this product instead of that one?" Be aware of advertising messages embedded into programming itself, too. Help kids think it all through.

I think we should enjoy great Super Bowl ads the years they are great. And I don't believe we have to fear that advertising will somehow control us. Ad agencies clearly don't have that formula. Ultimately, we can't stop our emotional responses to advertising. But working to help our children become wise consumers and wise consumers of advertising? I'm sold!

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