I have a history of being duped by advertising and I’m on a mission to put an end to it. Based on how often it has happened in my life, it appears that I’m powerless against the forces of a well-conceived ad campaign. Maybe it’s hereditary.
From age five until I was almost thirteen I lived in a mansion. Not just any mansion, but an “Imperial Mansion,” which just happened to be manufactured by the Spartan Aircraft Company and measured 43 feet long and 8 feet wide. The advertising brochure proclaimed, “Spartan homes are designed for luxurious year-round living.” That was good to know since we planned to be in it during all four seasons. By mobile home standards of the day, Spartan was one of the best. They used the same standards to build their trailers as they did their planes. Sturdy and well designed definitely. Luxurious might be a stretch. Our quarters were a bit cramped at times. Those times were when all three of us were in the trailer together. I might have been ten or eleven when it dawned on me that “mansion” was not associated with living in a mobile home. This is when I became concerned that a fancy brochure and a slick-talking salesman might have taken in my folks. This is also where my advertising addiction got started.
After a bad experience with my first car, my folks decided I was worthy of something a bit nicer and more dependable. I had my heart set on a ‘65 Mercury Comet Cyclone. The ad said it was the “Whirlwind heir to Comet’s high performance spirit of Daytona." It was black, with white bucket seats, four-speed, and Ford’s high performance 289 engine. Yowzah! My Dad clearly saw all the liabilities of a hot car and me. He thought that a ’65 Ford Fairlane with a smaller engine was a much better match. The ad for the Fairlane proclaimed, “Fresh, Fine…and Fashionable.” I thought they should have added another “F” word: Farmer. It looked like something my grandfather would drive to town. No whirlwind performance for me…yet.
After graduating college, landing a couple of jobs, and buying sensible cars, I was ready for something sporty. The ad for the 1975 Volkswagen Scirocco had me after the first commercial. “Scirocco. A hot new car from Volkswagen. As fast and powerful as the desert wind it's named after." Dad wasn’t around to keep me from buying this little speedster, though I wish he had been. Absolutely the worst vehicle I ever owned. The only similarity that car shared with the desert wind it was named after is that they both blew. Duped again!
From there it’s been a downward spiral of ad-driven purchasing misadventures. Taken in by Crest’s “Look ma, no cavities” campaign, I switched from Colgate and promptly had three cavities at my next check-up. I never drank enough beer to get on one side of the “Tastes Great / Less Filling” debate over Miller Lite, so I was seen as being wishy-washy. Being a part of the “Pepsi Generation” sounded appealing, but I never figured out who they were, so I don’t drink Pepsi to this day. I think all my relationship problems with women are due to Clairol’s “Does she…or doesn’t she” campaign for their hair color products. I became obsessed about real color versus dyed and some (all) women found that to be off-putting. To my embarrassment, I found that Burger King’s “Have it your way” slogan only covered food products. Campbell’s soup is “Mmmm…good” but not for all three meals for thirty days in a row. I bought Nike gear so I could “Just do it,” which I discovered to mean that my mediocre athletic performance would cost a lot more, but I would look better doing it.
Now, restaurants are getting into the act. A few years back, you could go into most eateries and find a two to four page menu. Whether it’s fast food, family restaurant chain, or upscale dining establishment, you will find more choices and longer descriptions of their offerings. Menus are larger and have more pages than ever before. Here’s one item from a popular restaurant’s menu:
Smothered Smoked Chicken Burrito - House-smoked chicken, 3-cheese blend, house-made pico de gallo, smoky pasilla-honey chile sauce & citrus-chile rice wrapped in a warm flour tortilla. Smothered with sour cream sauce & melted cheese. Topped with pasilla-honey chile sauce & chopped cilantro. Served with black beans.
Multiply that many words times the typical 40 - 50 menu items and you have a book. If I had wanted to read "Crime and Punishment," I would have gone to the library. The crime is that someone believes the flowery entree description will make you think you’re having an outstanding dining experience instead of having a chicken burrito with pico de gallo and black beans. The punishment is that you'll pay 50% more for it here than at a decent Mexican place because you have to cover the cost of hiring that many writers and putting more pages in the menu.
Despite the sales brochure that said “Imperial Mansion” and the sign that said “Trailer Resort,” I was no more than 11 when I figured out I lived in a mobile home sitting on concrete blocks inside a trailer park. Why do marketing people insist on overstating or obfuscating what products really are? Ad agencies, do everyone a favor. Use fewer words and more transparency. Provide an accurate, unadorned, description of the product you’re marketing. We’ll all be better off.