This is “Two Kinds of Advertising”, section 12.1 from the book Business Ethics (v. 1.0).
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One reason guys like to have the controller when couples are watching TV is so they can flip the channel fast when ads like this come on:
Viewed from the waist up, you see a perfectly bodied man wrapped in a low-slung towel. With gleaming eyes locked on the camera he intones, “Hello, ladies, look at your man, now back to me, now back at your man, now back to me.” While guys at home cringe, he comes to an indisputable conclusion, “Sadly, he isn’t me.” After letting the reality sink in, he soothes his female viewers with the information that “He could at least smell like me if he switched to Old Spice body wash.” Next, he asks us to “Look down,” and while everyone’s eyes drop to his towel, some green screen magic allows him to seamlessly appear on a romantic sailboat in the Caribbean. His hand overflows with diamonds, then a bottle of Old Spice arises along with them, and we learn that, “Anything is possible when your man smells like Old Spice.”
Old Spice: The Man Your Man Could Smell Like(click to see video)
Advertising is about enticing consumers. It comes in many forms, but the two central strategies are (1) informational and (2) branding.
There are more and less sophisticated ways of enticing consumers. At the lowest level, there are product-touting ads and comparisons giving straight information. When Old Spice set aside some money to sell their body wash, they could have gone that route, they could’ve dabbed some product on a shirt and asked random women to stop, take a sniff, and report on the scent. Then magazine spreads could be produced announcing that “three out of four women like the Old Spice scent!” A bit more aggressively, women could be given a blind sniff test featuring Old Spice and Axe products, or Old Spice and some “leading brand,” one probably chosen because it fares particularly poorly in the comparison test. In any of its forms, this is informational advertisingCommercials and advertisements presenting facts to influence consumers.. It presents facts and hopes that reasonable consumers buying body wash will choose Old Spice.
Other kinds of informational advertising include price comparisons (Old Spice costs less than Axe) and quality comparisons (the Old Spice scent lingers eight hours after showering, and Axe is gone after only six). Naturally, different kinds of products will lend themselves to different kinds of factual and informational claims. Sometimes, finally, this kind of advertising is called transactionalAdvertising directly about the exchange of money for a good or service. because it’s directly about the exchange of money for a good or service.
Moving toward more sophisticated—or at least less rational and direct—advertising, there’s branding, which is the attempt to convert a product into a brand. In the advertising and marketing world, the word brand has a very specific meaning. It’s not the name of the company making the product, not the words Old Spice or Kleenex. Instead, a brandIn the field of marketing, the consumer disposition toward a specific good or service. is a product or company’s reputation; it’s what you think of when you hear the name and it’s the feelings (good or bad) accompanying the name. Technically, a brand is what a product or company is left with when you take everything away. Exemplifying this in the case of Old Spice, imagine that tomorrow all their production factories burn down, their warehouses flood, and their merchandise sells out at every store. Basically, the company has nothing left, no factories to make product, no stock to ship out, and no items left to sell on any shelf. Now, if you were a wealthy investor, would you buy this company that has nothing? You might.
You might because it still has its brand, it still has a reputation in people’s minds, and that can be worth quite a bit. Frequently, when we visit a store and stand in front of shelves packed with different versions of a single kind of item, we don’t have time or the patience to carefully go through and compare price per ounce or to Tweet questions to friends about what they recommend. We choose one body wash—or one style of underwear or Eveready batteries instead of Duracell—because of an idea about that product planted in our mind. Maybe we don’t know exactly where the idea came from, or exactly what it is, but it’s there and guides us to one choice instead of another. It makes a product seem like it’s our kind of product (if it’s the one we end up buying) or not our kind of product.
The Old Spice commercial is an exercise in branding. It’s funny, sexy, embarrassing, and extremely sophisticated. Looking at the commercial, the first question to ask is “in the most literal terms, what’s the message?” Is it that Old Spice is a good value? No, there’s no talk about price. Is it that Old Spice smells good? No, the only claim is that it can make you smell like an attractive actor. Is it that the actor (and former pro football player) Isaiah Mustafa uses Old Spice? No, he says he does, but that’s not the message. If anything, his message to potential consumers is that, if he wanted to, he could steal their girlfriends. This is not the kind of information that wins market share.
Fortunately for Old Spice, branding isn’t about facts or truths; it’s about producing an attitude and connecting with a specific sense of humor and outlook on life. Like a style of clothes or a preference for a certain kind of music, Old Spice is conveying a personality that you appreciate and like or, just as easily, dislike. That’s why the whole commercial comes off as a kind of joke about a certain vision of attraction and romance and sex. Do you enjoy the joke? If you don’t, then Old Spice is going to have to find a different way to get into your (or your boyfriend’s) wallet. If you do like it, if the whole thing seems zany and funny and you wouldn’t mind pulling it up on YouTube to watch again, then you’ve been branded. Old Spice has found a way to get past all the defenses we usually set up when we see advertising, all the skepticism and cynicism, and gotten us to feel like we’re part of something that includes that company’s products.
In broad strokes, finally, there are two kinds of advertising, two strategies for influencing consumption choices. One works by appealing to facts and provides information; the other appeals to emotions and creates a lifestyle. Both kinds of advertising raise ethical questions.