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Reading The Ads

United States

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Reading the ads
How to interpret promotional promises that fill newspaper pages.
The advertising industry spends billions of dollars and employs some
very creative minds to mould our behaviour. Some 1,600 messages
are aimed at us each day. Through a series of associations of
objects and feelings we are encouraged not only to buy but to
think about things in particular ways. Here is a decoding of
some of the most common advertising messages.

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. The celebrity scam
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A British ad to sell Aynsley china.

If it’s good enough for a movie star, sports hero or royalty it must be the right thing for us, too. By buying it we can enter their magical world and leave far behind our own pedestrian concerns about how much it costs and whether it might break.

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. The nostalgia come-on
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A US ad to raise money for the peace movement.

Such ads remind us of the good old days and propose we can go back to them by buying a product. This example is an alternative ad that appeals to our activist past and to nostalgia for the radical Sixties.

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. The sexual lure

A Canadian ad designed to sell Pontiac cars.

The object for sale takes on a sensuality. The implicit promise is sexual success for the buyer. Women become confused with objects. Sex and a feeling of power ‘behind the wheel’ get mixed up together. Ads like this shape our sense of what it’s like to be a ‘real’ man or woman.

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. The eye catcher
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An ad from the Harvey Winston Co. to sell diamonds.

The picture or graphic dominates in this type of ad. Copy is minimized. Particularly good for selling ‘status’ goods like furs, diamonds and sports cars. The appeal is simple hedonism - we should stop resisting and embrace the world of luxury to which we all supposedly aspire.

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. The special person
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A Nigerian ad to sell Mercedes cigarettes.

One of the most common of advertising appeals. By using a particular product we enter a select company - more successful, more exciting, more decisive, more attractive. Smoking Mercedes cigarettes sets some Nigerians apart from others - and may even give them the right to tell those ‘others’ what to do.

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. The detour
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An ad from the South African government to gain greater international respectability.

This school of public relations ads arouses our sense of justice and fair play. What’s wrong with Johannesburg anyway? What is notable is what isn’t there. Our sense of justice is detoured around the systematic victimization of black.

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. The 'let's be realistic' con
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An ad by the American Louisianna-Pacific Paper Company to pressure government to allow the company to use protected wilderness areas.

The ‘Let’s face the hard facts’ school of corporation issue’ advertising. We just can’t afford this concern for ecology/human rights! the welfare of the poor. ‘Hard facts’ ads appeal to a dollars and sense logic and reduce issues to either/or.

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. The hostile world

A UK ad to attract customers to the Abbey National building society.

 This type of ad proposes a dog-eat-dog society. The business of life is a risky one and we can use all the help we can get - deodorants to give us ‘protection’ or banks and insurance companies that promise to look after us.

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. The snappy slogan
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A famous US ad for Marlboro cigarettes.

 This type of ad uses the slogan or product name (often introduced by a musical jingle) so it will stand-out in the consumer’s mind. This ad is used in beer or soap commercials where there are many products to choose from. Constant repetition gets the buyer to ‘brandidentify’ when the time to choose comes.

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. The emotional symbol
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An ad from the Insurance Bureau of Canada to oppose the regulation of insurance companies by the Canadian government.

This school of corporate profile ads uses emotional, evocative symbols that speak to our core values - liberty, freedom, our sense of justice. To get its message across it presents a world of clear rights and wrongs with no shadings of grey. But can the right of large insurance companies to do what they like be equated with the right of a caged dove to flight?

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. The natural pitch

An American ad from the Continental Group encouraging other companies to use their packaging.

Perhaps the most seductive of all ads, it speaks to our deep longing to abandon the artificial - to touch something that is real. But how ‘natural’ can aftershave, perfume or hair spray - let along packaging - actually be?

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. Get with it!

A Canadian ad for the aperitif - daiquiri.

The appeal of this type of ad is to be modern and up-to-date. It is often used to introduce a consumer revolution in technology - computers and VTRs, or to appeal to enlightened attitudes such as women’s rights. But what Is the connection between women’s rights and the making of a good daiquiri? Might not daiquiris be a substitute for progress?

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New Internationalist issue 146 magazine cover This article is from the April 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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