Walking On Glass

segaAs we come up on the the most expensive television commerical weekend of the year, it’s a good time to take a look at visual advertising and how things have changed – and perhaps not so changed.

It used to be that one company endorsed a television show. “Proctor and Gamble presents,” that sort of thing. Over time, television shows elected to not have a single sponsor but to allow “spots” to be sold to multiple advertisers. Until a couple of decades ago, companies still felt a close connection with the shows with which they elected to place their ads.

Over time, we’ve not only allowed for the sale of ad spots, but also for the less expensive yet possibly more visible method of product placement. The added image of a celebrity holding an item as a prop or a television show showing certain programs on the TV in the background allows for the viewing public to feel as if the item was endorsed. Japanese advertising does this a lot – they hire American celebrities and pay them millions of dollars to endorse their product in blatant advertising campaigns (remember “Lost in Translation”?)

Regardless of how a product is advertised, though, the format is still the same – a lot of American companies still shy away from placing ads on even remotely adult-themed programs, or creating ads that are suggestive. It’s not even about the popularity of a show – take for instance E! Entertainment’s show, “The Girls Next Door”. An extremely popular show, it still had the hardest time selling ads only because of the suggestion of promiscuity and sexuality. It wasn’t a xxx show, but a lot of companies still shied away from placing their ads with the show. Hence, the network used the time to plug their other shows during a lot of the commercial breaks instead.

To make matters even more puritanical, the FDA recently put a stop to the kind of drug advertising made popular by brands like Viagra (such as their “Viva Viagra” campaign). They asked drug manufacturers to stop using clever advertising because it might be distracting and instead focus more on the risks involved with the use of the drug.

I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea to not share medication risks with the public. But I think that there’s got to be a way to be memorable for both its clever marketing and the facts about the use of the product.

Is it an American concept to stay away from fun, provocative, memorable commercial content? Or is it an American concept to overthink things, be overprotective, worry about potential lawsuits, live in constant fear of public scrutiny and walk on glass when it comes to their brand recognition in the public eye?

We live in a society where politicians are caught having affairs, stock advisors and CEOs are caught embezzling and masterminding giant Ponzi schemes, and religious leaders are caught being less than respectable. Why, then, do we continue to pretend that our adult consumer base doesn’t watch certain shows, adult entertainment, or have an adult sense of humor about things? If the government went as far as to add ratings systems to television shows, then wouldn’t it make sense that products marketed with an adult sensibility be allowed to be on those shows, much like alcohol and condom ads are after a certain hour?

Something that I have always noticed is that when you tell children “NO” they tend to want to do it more. It’s why the US has such a high minor pregnancy and minor alcohol/drug abuse problem. As someone who was born and raised in a country that sold beer and liquor in vending machines (as well as other bizarre items, haha), I saw how a country behaves when its children are not overprotected. The stigma of something not being able to be attained until a certain physical age (and not emotional age) allows for many in the US to try to beat the system. Isn’t that the “American way”? If so, then why set up those boundaries?

I know that this post has wandered off from advertising to sociology. However, I think that it’s important to consider the possibility of trying to market your product to different demographics – a PG rated ad for the minor set, and a more open ad geared towards the adult crowd.

Every year we watch shows in the US that are “special programs” that show us what advertising is like in other countries (The Craziest Commercials Ever! or something like that). It’s done with tongue firmly in cheek, and no one in the American populace seems to complain. If we were really a country made up of people who thought that sort of advertising was offensive, then why are those shows on year after year? The fact is that Americans are smarter and more savvy than the American advertising community seems to give it credit for, and the vast majority seems to understand adult humor (which is why Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim and other adult-oriented shows such as Family Guy and Archer do so amazingly well). It’s a shame that ad agencies are too fearful of branching out and trying different tactics for a single product geared towards different age groups.

Next, I’ll write about where we are in visual advertising, and how that’s changed. But in the meantime, what do you think? Have television ads become dumbed down too much for us? What’s the last clever ad campaign on television that you remember weeks, months, even years later?