Looking at Advertising

Hot and humid weather meant I did my walking indoors last week, at the local shopping mall. While it doesn’t have an organized early-morning mall-walking club as some do, its doors open at 6:30 a.m. due to the presence of a fitness club on the lower level, and people are free to walk the enclosed and air-conditioned space any time after that.

I entertained myself during my walks by thinking about the advertising that is, of course, splashed everywhere – it is the job of stores to get you to spend money, after all. And at one level I don’t have a problem with it – I can’t, given that I do it myself with regard to advertising my young-adult novel (which you can currently download for free as a promotion – details here). But it’s still interesting and instructive to look at how it’s done.

The advertising fell into one of three broad categories: the straightforward: e.g., 50% off all summer styles; the not-quite straightforward: BOGOs (buy one get one for x% off) fall into that category, in my opinion, and the ‘lifestyle’ inducers (We Sell Adventure). Straightforward descriptive advertising I have little problem with, and I’ve taken advantage of many of those sales myself in the past. BOGOs need a little more analysis.  Buy one, get one for 50% off seems to be the most common now. And it’s fine too, as long as you went shopping meaning to buy two of something, but if it induces you to spend half again as much as you had planned, or, to buy two of something when you only needed one, then you’ve fallen for their advertising. Even more insidious was this one: “Buy more save more.”  Think about it.  You cannot save money by spending it. Deconstruct that ad carefully. If you really need three new backpacks for the kids for school, and the deal is 50% off the second one if you buy two, and 70% off the third one if you buy three, then it’s worth considering. But only in that type of situation. It’s not worth it when it induces you to buy three skirts when you went to get one, and the other two don’t match anything in your wardrobe.

One store had an interesting twist on this. Inside the display windows was the banner for the BOGO – 50% off the second item. Painted on the display window itself, and overlaying the banner, was the “70% off selected items” ad. With all the other visual clutter in stores, to me this looked as if it was purposely designed to confuse, so that the consumer doesn’t remember which offer was which. Interestingly, this advertising belonged to a store whose clientele are more likely to be middle-aged or older (my age), and potentially less able to sort through the multiple, confusing ads. (I realize that’s a generalization, but it’s based on my own experience – the older I get, the more I can’t handle visual clutter.)

The ‘lifestyle’ ads are telling you that buying something will make your life more exciting or you more interesting. Alcohol ads are very good at this, and I’m old enough to remember that these were the primary means of selling cigarettes, so we know they work. But here in my urban shopping mall, these two caught my eye: “We sell adventure,” and “Amazing is in your hands.” The first one was on the window of a clothing store that sells casual clothing with a bit of a ‘northern’ flavour (whatever that means). They are not an outfitter for outdoor sports.  They are telling you, subtly, two things: one, the ‘right’ clothes make you more adventurous; two: that you need these clothes to fit in at the cottage or resort you’re heading to (or would like to look as if you were.)  Ask yourself how true either of these messages are.

Amazing is in your hands,” was – you guessed it – at an electronics store, pushing the newest phone or tablet. Now, I’m a techie person, and this house has two laptops, two iPADs, two iPhones, and one iPOD. But we also still use a VCR, not a PVR, and a DVD player, because they ‘ain’t broke’. The iPADs are a case in point: they are iPAD-2s, and they serve us well. Why would I buy a new one? – the one I have does everything I need it to, including being my primary writing tool when I’m travelling, and it’s considerably sturdier than the newer models. Some of what the newer technology does is amazing – but is it an amazing you need, want, or will use?  Much of what technology does is driven by the gaming market, and unless you’re a serious gamer, you probably don’t need it.

What I’m really saying is this: be conscious of how advertising is trying to get you to buy things you don’t need or actually even want, and, be very mindful of what it is you do need/want when you go shopping. Then use specials to their maximum.  When my health issues last fall meant BD and I needed a way to be in touch quickly, easily, and unobtrusively (he was still a classroom teacher at the time) I knew our new phones would have to be iPhones. BD had just learned the basics of using an iPAD, and he needed the phone to be effectively the same, or he’d abandon it; he is very easily frustrated by technology. I bought the phones Labour Day weekend in the university town, filled with specials aimed at returning university students, and knowing full well the newest iPhone model was due out shortly. The result was I got the phones – the soon-to-be discontinued model- for free along with the cell-phone plans I was going to buy anyway (having done my research, which had told me that bundling our new phones with our existing wireless and home-phone service was going to give us the best price.) So our iPhones aren’t the latest, but, honestly…do I know the difference? I can call, text, Google stuff, take photos and play Scrabble on it, and it reminds me to take my blood pressure pill. That’s more than enough.

I haven’t even touched on the even more subtle messages – the size and colour of the mannequins clothes are shown on; the overt sexualization of small girls in children’s clothing store ads; the co-opting of social justice messages to sell tween/teen clothing that may well still be made in a sweatshop. But if you’re looking for entertainment on a wet or cold or humid day, go to the mall….not to shop, but to deconstruct the advertising.  It’s quite a bit of fun..and educational.

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