The latest examples of this degenerative trend are TV commercials run by Cadillac and Pepsi-Cola.
I don't mean to pick on poor old Cadillac (I have written unfavorably about the Catera ads), but I must speak out against a TV spot for Seville, featuring "In Living Color" star Damon Wayans.
Mr. Wayans portrays a Seville STS driver who happens upon a lost Lexus driver at a roadside stand in the desert. The STS is equipped with an "innovative" communications and customer-service system that plots the best route to the driver's destination. The Cadillac press release says Mr. Wayans "lends sympathy" to the Lexus guy because the Lexus doesn't have such a system, but what it doesn't say is that Mr. Wayans won't let the Lexus driver-who, remember, is lost in the desert-follow him since they are both going to the same place. "No can do," replies Mr. Wayans.
That's rude, but the Lexus guy is dumb because he can follow Mr. Wayans whether Mr. Wayans wants him to or not. Unless, of course, the Seville STS is so powerful it can leave the Lexus in the dust.
The other commercial I take exception to stars that ex-Orlando Magic goliath Shaquille O'Neal. The ad shows Shaq enjoying all the accoutrements of fame-appearing on a late-night talk show, putting his hands in cement for posterity, riding in a swanky car-but something is missing.
While he's playing basketball, a shot hangs on the rim until the sound of a Pepsi can opening causes the ball to drop through the hoop. That's what is missing, says Shaq, as we see Michael J. Fox drinking the can of Pepsi. "Can I have some?" Shaq asks. "No way," says Mr. Fox.
Again, that's pretty rude of Mr. Fox not to allow Shaq a sip or two. But Shaq, for his part, doesn't show much prowess in the upstairs department. Doesn't he know he can easily obtain a Pepsi all his own?
Is this the message we want advertisers imparting to our impressionable youth? That it is acceptable behavior to reject a person's plea for help or to share a can of soda (in fairness, maybe Michael J. Fox had a cold and didn't want to give Shaq any germs-or maybe he didn't want to get Shaq's germs. Either way, he should have explained his position).
But even more important than the abject denial of civil behavior inherent in the commercials is the very likely chance that they won't work.
A new book by researcher Eric Marder, "The Laws of Choice," documents that as many as 30% of the ads he's measured produce negative effects, actually damaging the advertised brand. "Since I haven't measured the Cadillac or Pepsi ads I don't know what effects they had, but if the ads conveyed the idea that Cadillac owners and Pepsi drinkers are rude people, some members of the audience may not want to join their ranks," Mr. Marder told me.
But maybe, in today's stressful society, more and more people are rude and proud of it. Maybe Cadillac and Pepsi are playing to the rude and thoughtless generation.
Either way, what's really scary about this premise is what Mr. Marder considers his most surprising and dramatic finding-which he has formulated as his Third Law. To wit, that the effect produced by ad messages last indefinitely. What this means, he says, is that both the positive and negative effects of advertising will continue to work in the marketplace, long after the ads themselves may be forgotten.