Ads that Hurt

In some earlier posts I talked about the idea that advertisements can be privately profitable for firms but still be socially harmful due to uninternalized negative effects on their targets.  In the comments, Glen Raphael asked me for an example.  Here are a few of my favorites.

1. JIF peanut butter.  The slogan "choosy moms choose JIF" is famous in marketing circles for having been extremely effective.  The reason, of course, is that the implied corrolary to the slogan is "crappy negligent moms who don’t care about their kids give other brands of peanut butter."  The harm here is that it gets moms into the habit of thinking that the place to concentrate their efforts to be better moms involve choice of peanut butter, instead of things that might actually work.

2. Disney.  One could write a whole book about how horrifying Disney is (I think maybe someone even has).  But my specific example is a commercial for Disneyland where the camera is in real tight on the face of an ecstatic awestruck looking kid.  After a few seconds, the parents chuckle knowingly and say something like "Timmy, this is just the entrance, let’s go inside the park."  The idea is that Disneyland isn’t just a fun place to eat junk food and go on roller coasters and stuff, it’s a source of wonder; the very essence of childhood.  The harm here is obvious.

3. Any one of a million beer commercials.  Beer commercials overwhelmingly involve attractive women.  This is either because the advertisers want you to believe that drinking their beer will actually improve your chances with attractive women, or at least they want you to associate drinking their beer with being as attractive to them as you wish you were.  I think it’s pretty clear that encouraging young men to think of women as ornaments that go nicely with getting loaded is not a recipe for subsequent success in matters of the heart, not for the men and certainly not for the women.

I could go on.

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  • michael vassar

    Wow!
    I can’t even begin to express how negligible those harms seem to me compared to having had over a decade of my life wasted by public school!
    I assume that you could go on. For a very long time. But then again, you are counting individual commercials, and emphasizing the worst of them at that.

    I could go on for quite a while too if I individually recounted every single brain destroying exercise repeating math concepts that I had mastered by the end of the first quarter of first grade over the course of my first 8 years of school (not to mention Kindergarten)! And this is from someone who went to what is supposedly an award winning suburban American public school. Don’t even get started with inner city schools, like the one in Ohio where I once worked, where literally only the superintendent’s daughter had ever graduated.

    This may be a values gap. If so, I think it’s probably too big to be bridged by discussion, but it’s at least valuable for us each to recognize the existence out there of values so very unlike our own.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    David, for me as a child Disneyland was in fact a source of joy and wonder. Perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy, but true nonetheless. Maybe you didn’t enjoy Disneyland, but I did. I can accept that you really like teachers and school and really hate the stuff ads sell. But you won’t accept that we just like different things; you think I must have been fooled while you were told true. So you want the government to make us all get more of the stuff you like and less of the stuff you do not like. Why isn’t this just the standard bias psychologists study of people assuming others are like them?

  • Rob Spear

    The difference between advertising and public schools is that advertisers do not have any authority. Nobody – or almost nobody – is going to take any of the above messages seriously when they are pointed out. And even if the messages form an unexamined backdrop to your life, this is nothing at all compared to the horror of sitting out day after day listening to uninspiring and unintelligent teachers in a government school.

  • http://videogameworkout.com Glen Raphael

    1. As a young budding contrarian, the Jif ads raised my self-esteem by periodically reminding me how smart I was to see through such a transparent marketing ploy. The Skippy ads did the same with their slogan “Ounce for ounce, Skippy has more protein!” I noticed they would compare “a Skippy peanut-butter” sandwich lunch to some entirely different food, never to a rival’s peanut-butter sandwich that would have an indistinguishably similar amount of protein. (My preferred peanut butter had just peanuts and salt without any sugar or preservatives, so was something a “choosy mom” should have preferred over Jif.)

    But suppose I were a mom, I took the message seriously, and I chose Jif from a dozen nearly-identical cheap peanut butters on the shelf. What’s the harm? This commercial reassures me that I am a “choosy mom”. Isn’t that a positive thing? At a minimum, it makes a stressed-out mom feel a little better about herself, to have control over this one choice and be reassured about having made the right one. Keep reminding a mom that she’s choosy and has her kid’s best interest at heart, and I suspect she’ll become a better mom in other ways besides peanut-butter choice.

    Commercials for peanut butter and Sunny Delight and Ovaltine and every other product parents buy for their kids have an important subtext in addition to the main text: they provide a model of happy, healthy home life. They convey a vision of childhood in which parents do nice things for their kids because they care about them and kids are nice to their parents because they know that they are loved. The people in these commercials smile and say “please” and “thank you” and “I love you” much more than in real life. If we absorb and emulate these messages, that might be an excellent thing.

    2. Like Robin, for me Disneyland was in fact a source of childhood joy and wonder. I appreciated being reminded of its existence and evolution from time to time.

    3. Apple’s commercials make me feel better about owning a Mac by reassuring me that I must be hip and fashionable. Beer commercials do something similar for people who drink beer when they associate “I drink beer” with “I am sexy and/or socially successful.” Again, I think this may have net-positive social implications. As for the more ludicrous ads, these are “meta”, sustaining interest by making fun of or exceeding previous ads to a degree that nobody takes seriously. It’s just good fun. Anybody who thinks men or women are much impacted by “swedish bikini team” or “mud-wrestling” subplots seems to me lacking in a sense of humor.

    (I miss Joe Camel. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life and probably never will, but I found those commercials clever and colorful and fun.)

  • http://videogameworkout.com Glen Raphael

    Speaking of commercials that make non-buyers feel smarter for seeing through them while buyers are reassured in the wisdom of their choices, I liked this one best:

    “Anacin: contains the pain reliever doctors recommend most!”

    The pain reliever doctors recommended most at that time was aspirin, so the slogan translates as “Anacin contains aspirin.” (Which you could buy cheaper as a generic.)

    Then there was “Excedrine: the maximum amount of pain reliever available in a single pill without a prescription!” (Yeah, or you could just take /two/ Bayer, which were smaller.)

  • Matthew

    Me three on the joys of Disneyland. Although I admit my favorite place was hanging out on Tom Sawyer’s Island rather than any of the rides. . .

  • http://yootles.com Daniel Reeves

    Glen, don’t forget:

    “Studies prove: no other brand is more effective than Snazzofratz.”

    Translation: “Studies prove no brand to be more effective than any other.”

  • Dagon

    I’m with the first few comments. Ads that mislead and play on emotions of poor, susceptible innocent consumers are mildly annoying. Ads that outright lie are somewhat more annoying.

    But that’s so far a cry from a state-sponsored authority controlling what can be called “truth” for the first 17 years of someone’s life that it doesn’t even register.

  • Paul Gowder

    Isn’t the simple fact that ads increase sales, while providing no information that a sane individual would use to make their decisions, enough to indicate that ads are harmful? Surely inducing people to act based on nonsensical motivations is an injury to the people who incur the costs of so acting?

    (And it’s obvious that many ads are designed only to induce people to act based on nonsensical motivations — consider ads for major soft drinks. Everyone knows coke and pepsi exist, and the advertisements provide no actual information — their only concievable purpose is to exploit salience biases.)

  • http://videogameworkout.com Glen Raphael

    Paul: one way to think of an expensive Pepsi ad is as a performance bond. When Pepsi spends a million dollars on an ad, they are expressing confidence in the quality and safety of their product in a highly visible way. Pepsi can only make back the money they’ve spent on the ad if those who buy Pepsi continue to feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth. If the product were bad, they’d go out of business. Thus, it’s perfectly rational for a consumer to feel safer and more secure buying a heavily-advertised product than a no-name brand.

    Pepsi pays for Superbowl ads for much the same reason that banks pay for marble floors. The subtext in both cases is the message “we expect to stay in business a long time.” In which case it doesn’t matter what explicit info the ad provides; the cost of the medium is the message.

  • Paul Gowder

    Glen: that’s a plausible story for mid-level advertisers, but is there really any imaginable (even unconscious) consumer perception that a company the size of Pepsi is going to suddenly put turpentine in the soda?

    (And then how do you explain product placements, e.g., in movies and TV shows, which are designed to be unobtrusive?)

  • http://videogameworkout.com Glen Raphael

    Pepsi wouldn’t deliberately poison the customers, but they might choose to scrimp on any number of ingredients or processes such that the end result – even by accident – had a chance of being less healthy /or/ less tasty than the consumer expects. We need assurances that they haven’t done that and don’t /plan/ to do so; performance bonds help provide that assurance.

    Another role of ads is informational. Even if I’ve tried a product in the past and liked it, I might forget about it. An occasional reminder that I used to really like, say, Nestle Crunch bars makes me more likely to try them again and see if I /still/ like them. This is especially useful in the case of new product introductions, but old brands need “we’re still around” ads too.

    Lastly, a good ad can create positive mental associations such that having seen the ad makes me enjoy the product more than I otherwise would, because there are positive feelings associated with it. Like music videos help sell albums, commercials can associate a story, an idea, or a feeling with the experience of using a product.

    In all these cases, advertising makes consumers better off.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Glen is right, there are lots of plausible reasons why Pepsi would have ads that do not appear to give much info about Pepsi, and yet do not require irrational consumers. Of course this does not mean that Pepsi consumers are rational.

  • Paul Gowder

    I don’t buy it. At a certain point, one has to apply occam’s razor. We can imagine all sorts of fantastical functions for anything — perhaps coke’s polar bear ads remind consumers of their committment to stop global warming, and consumers want to give their money to coke in gratitude for that reminder. But we already know of a psychological mechanism (salience) that seems almost tailored to respond to this sort of behavior — surely the better hypothesis is that said mechanism is doing the work rather than all these just so stories. (This is really the sort of thing that qualitative research would be great at revealing, I think. If pepsi’s advertisers don’t even mention those stories as a reason for their advertising choices, I’m not sure what a large-n consumer survey or a lab experiment could say to the contrary.)

    Also, Glen, why are the last two of those things ok? The Nestle Crunch bar reminder strikes me as potentially harmful in the sense that by activating (alleged) latent past preferences for a single product, it might bump aside other preferences. For example, if a consumer is reminded that they like Nestle Crunch, it may lead them to forget that they also like weight loss, and that they actually prefer weight loss to Nestle Crunch. In other words, it directly taps into the salience problem I’ve been repeating.

    The positive mental association thing is definitely a problem. Here’s an easy example: for most products, the purchase period is much, much shorter than the use period. (When you buy a car, it takes a few hours. You use it for years.) If the positive association doesn’t linger very long, what this amounts to is inducing people to buy a product for a benefit that goes away. You buy the Hummer because it makes you feel manly, but then that feeling wears off and you’re stuck with a car whose fuel efficiency ought to be measured in gallons per mile rather than miles per gallon. Also, it’s not clear that it’s welfare-enhancing to modify preferences — I think there’s arguments to be made on both sides, but it’s far from obvious either way.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I don’t buy it either. Never mind Occam’s Razor; what happened to common sense? Pepsi advertisements are performance bonds? Leaving aside the problems in the supposed reasoning – the notion of a costly signal of confidence in ability to sell products could be applied to *any* expense no matter how absurd, like a giant gold statue of a fourteen-legged locust – such deliberate and counterintuitive reasoning would have to take place explicitly in the mind of the consumer and of advertisers; it would be openly acknowledged and broadcast.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    There are other theories besides performance bonds. Marketing folks talk in terms of people buying an image; they want other people to see them a certain way because of the products they use. The ads serve to make clear the image that is supposed to be associated with a product, and to make clear that people continue to use this association.

  • http://blogjack.net Glen Raphael

    Companies like Goodyear often pay for the construction and operation of a racing car which costs more than its weight in gold. So sure, why not a giant gold locust statue? The trick would be making sure sure people know about it and connect it to your product in a positive way. Which is easier with some symbols than others and would in any case require lots of advertisement. (Is there a logical connection between insurance and the TransAmerica building? Between a television display and ten thousand superballs?)

    Regarding the Nestle Crunch example, quite a lot of advertising is essentially a zero-sum game for the advertisers. Consider the Burger Wars or the Soda Wars: when Pepsi gains me as a customer, Coke loses me as a customer. When Nestle gains, Hershey loses and vice-versa. I might get tired of one product and switch to another for a while, then switch back. Most of the time when ads remind me of a latent preference and cause a change it’s at the expense of a different consumer product.

    But if an ad grows the relevant market and convinces me to buy more Crunch bars at the expense of healthier foods or less food, there are both negative and positive externalities associated with that. If I start buying them I presumably enjoy the taste of Crunch bars more than they cost (including health costs as well as monetary costs) so my purchase should produce a net consumer surplus for me.

    “If the positive association doesn’t linger very long, what this amounts to is inducing people to buy a product for a benefit that goes away.”
    That seems like an argument that advertisers should continue to advertise to you even after you’ve bought the product, in order to strengthen and extend the positive association. And, in fact, they do that. Is that what you meant to imply?

    (Incidentally, Hummers get 17 mpg.)

  • Paul Gowder

    Glen, “If I start buying them I presumably enjoy the taste of Crunch bars more than they cost (including health costs as well as monetary costs)” is exactly what I’m trying to deny here. There’s simply no good reason to believe that consumer choices work that way, not with the host of well-documented psychological glitches and departures from rationality. In fact, given the role of information costs in things like health effects, even a perfectly rational consumer might lose welfare from advertising. (Consumer’s latent preference for candy bars is activated, consumer has insufficient information about the health costs of the candy bars [perhaps because consumer is a child], that information is very costly [ditto, child], and so consumer over-spends on candy.)

    It’s so obvious that these effects are real that it takes almost a wilful refusal to acknowledge reality to deny it — to suggest that someone, somewhere, is making a rational decision to purchase candy bars at age 7 (or allow their child to do the same), or to purchase lottery tickets as an adult, or to become an alcoholic, or to become addicted to cigarettes. A lot of people purchase products, every single day, that predictably make their lives a misery, that cause a loss of welfare under any set of preference orderings that any sane person can be expected to endorse. And appealing to some kind of intuition about people’s utility functions being readable off their behavior to state the opposite is nothing more than a reductio of that intuition.

  • http://fashion-incubator.com/mt Kathleen Fasanella

    Re: someone who’s written a book about the dangers of Disney

    Most notably, this would be Ariel Dorfman; chilean exile (Pinochet tried to have him killed, thought he had and gleefully announced his “death” prematurely). Dorfman wrote How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1984) ISBN 0-88477-023-0. The subject of your post is ironic considering Dorfman’s essay. Also strongly recommended is The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds (1983, 1996) ISBN: 978-0140256376, which further discourses on the effect of US imported media functioning as an agent of imperialism. Quite an eye opener.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Paul has essentially summarized my viewpoint.

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    “it takes almost a wilful refusal to acknowledge reality to deny … that someone, somewhere, is making a rational decision to … become an alcoholic, or to become addicted to cigarettes”

    Inconsistent time preferences are arguably not irrational. Is there any evidence that this effect also happens with probability judgments, as opposed to simple preferences?

  • TGGP

    “to suggest that someone, somewhere, is making a rational decision to purchase candy bars at age 7 (or allow their child to do the same)…”

    I remember purchasing candy numerous times when I was 7, and I still consider those decisions to be no less rational than any others I have made.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Ooh – I have one!

    One of the ads I saw before watching 2 movies last month was one about “Little Deviants”. It tries to sell a very boring-looking car (the Scion) by showing society as divided into 2 classes: the Sheeple, who look like sheep; and the Little Deviants, who gleefully kill and eat the Sheeples. The end of the commercial shows a Sheeple desperately running away from one of the Little Deviants, who has just killed all his companions, and looks to rescue to a Scion that just pulled up at the curb. The window opens, and another Little Deviant leans out the window, and eats most of the Sheeple, flinging his dismembered head out onto the front of the car to become a hood ornament.

    Toyota also has a video game to go along with the commercial, which explains further that the “Sheeple” have “spread their gray disease” throughout the world, and that your task is to kill as many of them as possible (although they don’t seem to be doing anybody any harm). Then you use their body parts as equipment. Eventually, you use their blood to produce new Scions.

    I know that comparing somebody to Hitler is considered bad form, but really – they’re begging for it.

    Toyota says, in response to questions, that “People that find it offensive are not our target.”

    I googled for comments on this ad just now, and the only people I found who were upset about it were, sadly, right-wing conservatives:
    http://www.rightwingnews.com/mt331/2007/07/murder_demons_death_camps_toyo.php?comments=show

  • http://google. Rebecca lynn

    I hate summer school. it sucks beyond all reason. Thank you for understanding me.