Monday, November 27, 2006

Pushing the limits in advertising

The following is my column today, November 27, at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

I am not a prude. In fact, I fancy myself as a liberal. If I were a woman, I would most likely qualify as a feminist. If I were an American, I would definitely be a democrat. You get the drift.
Having said these, let me express my discomfiture over the way certain advertisements are pushing the limits. For quite some time now, I have been seeing ads that tend to raise eyebrows and make one wonder whether the people behind them are aware of the other messages they convey other than “buy this product.”

The ads are on the cutting edge of creativity. To my mind, however, they are a few notches away from being offensive. Before anyone reacts violently, let me clarify what I just said: the ads in question come very close to being offensive, which means they are not yet offensive. They alarm me nonetheless because their existence may be a clue on the types of advertisements bound to follow.

Take for instance the print ad of this group that says there’s more to print. It features a man inside the toilet holding a television set. Okay, let’s drop the attempt to be delicate and start all over—the ad shows a man taking a crap, his underwear around his ankles. He is holding a television set in front of him. This ad announces, “print can reach places TV can’t.” This is quite an ingenious idea, except that it pushes the limits of good taste.

(I read the papers over breakfast, so you can imagine my reaction when I came across that particular ad. And I am not squeamish.)

The obviously left-brain reaction is why anyone who wants to watch television in the bathroom cannot go out of his way to mount the TV on the wall. Many five-star hotels and homes do have television sets in their bathrooms, and these sets are strategically mounted on the wall. So, in response to the ads’ tagline, I say yes, TV can be brought to the bathroom. You just have to mount it on a wall or put it on top of a cabinet. But that is not my point.

My point is that it’s a picture of a man taking a crap, for crying out loud. You can sanitize it, you can justify it, you can invoke creative license, but it is still a picture of a man with his underwear around his ankles, sitting on the toilet, taking a crap. I am not sure everyone is okay with having to see that picture while nibbling on a tuna sandwich or eating a banana.

Or take one television ad pushing a brand of sanitary napkin that supposedly solves a woman’s problem of messing up linens or clothes while sleeping. I presume there’s practical value in buying that product and that it brings value to women. The ad is creative—it pushes its point without actually showing a woman’s anatomy. But it does show, in a very graphic way, just exactly how the particular napkin—uhm—melds, attaches and bends to adjust to a woman’s anatomy while sleeping. Watching that ad makes me uncomfortable; I don’t think everyone needs to know the details of how exactly a sanitary napkin fits into a woman’s lower body parts while she sleeps. There must be a better way to show the benefits of using that product without showing how it works, exactly.

I understand that competition is pushing creativity to the extreme in terms of product development and consequently, marketing of sanitary napkins. There’s a product now that answers a woman’s every specific need—not only are there wings, special adhesives, contours, scents, etc. Since I am not a woman, I know these things only from watching television—and I don’t even watch television that often. I wonder what kids who spend the whole day in front of the television set while their parents are at work and their nannies are washing or ironing clothes do know on account of those ads.

Actually, this column was prompted by a real incident involving a five-year-old niece. One day, she was caught playing with her older sister’s sanitary napkins— one whole pack of them. She peed on each individual napkin on the pack. She probably wanted to test the products and you can guess what she must have been thinking and where she got the idea. The upside was that it presented a great opportunity to discuss with her certain facts—appropriate to her age—about women’s body functions; but how many parents are aware about the need to clarify and the misconceptions that are formed on the minds of little kids from watching these ads?

My point is that there seems to be this unchecked effort to push the envelope in terms of advertising personal hygiene products.

Let’s take another example—there is a television ad selling scented sanitary napkins, showing adolescent girls squeezing through tight places (such as inside a cinema, or inside a small car) with their lower bodies just inches away from a boy’s face. The message is: Thanks to this particular sanitary napkin, you can’t smell her.

I am not really sure that’s a good message to send out there. I mean, I may just be thinking like an old fogey and could be wrong on this one, but surely no adolescent male actually makes distinctions about girls on the basis of how she smells down there. Hello! I get the hygiene message to girls. But what message are we sending to the boys? Are we teaching adolescent boys to be consciously aware of female body odors and to learn to attribute certain scents to certain body functions?

And pray tell, what is with this overriding preoccupation with feminine scent? There’s another ad showing a woman swishing her skirt in front of a man doing yoga. Her “scent” supposedly catches his attention. I wonder what subliminal ideas are being pushed here—that women smell unless they use that product?

There are more examples. Many of us have seen ads selling a particular body spray for men by showing women pursuing a man inside a bathroom on account of how good that man supposedly smells. I know scent is a powerful aphrodisiac and that sex sells, but do we really need to hammer the sexual message into people’s heads?

I think there are more effective and subtle ways to sell a product. This is why I like those ads for diarrhea that focus on the situation rather than the specific body function. Good examples would be those television ads showing a diarrhea-suffering witness at a trial looking every bit uncomfortable (mukhang guilty!), or that man running towards a toilet grabbing someone’s newspaper along the way. They do not show body parts or indulge in dirty humor to bring home the point.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

i love your opinion. i'm making a study regarding it. will you give me some references on my topic about the overuse of ambiguity in advertising, just in case you do have. thanks!

-charles

jamie_claire86 said...

Hi,

Im a student from England and I'm currently writing my dissertation on Pushing the boundaries of advertising. I think your opinions are really interesting. If you have anymore opinions about ads that push boundaries that i can use as primary reasearch that would be great. Also if you have the names of the adverts that you mentioned in your blag as I am struggling t

jamie_claire86 said...

Hi,

Im a student from England and I'm currently writing my dissertation on Pushing the boundaries of advertising. I think your opinions are really interesting. If you have anymore opinions about ads that push boundaries that i can use as primary reasearch that would be great. Also if you have the names of the adverts that you mentioned in your blag as I am struggling t