The New Commandments

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"Be proud," "Be fearless," "Control your own destiny." Is that Tony Robbins offering encouragement? No, it's a cabal of advertisers trying to sell you coffee beans and lottery tickets. In an article adapted and excerpted from his new book, Advertising Today, Warren Berger explores why advertisers are suddenly barking motivational commands at us. Read this now!

It may have all started with the groundbreaking Nike slogan "Just Do It" back in the late 1980s. And it's possible the trend kicked into high gear a decade later, when Apple Computer advised us to "Think Diffferent." Whatever the case, by the late 1990s, it suddenly seemed that most advertisers were selling not so much a product as a philosophy, an attitude, or a way of life, conveyed via slogans which often consisted of two-word commands: Live better, go farther, do more, be bullish.

Why has so much advertising stopped telling consumers what to buy, opting instead to tell them how to live their lives? Blame it in part on product parity. As Luke Sullivan, CD at Atlanta's WestWayne, points out, "It has become more difficult to find and promote a unique benefit to a particular product." Consequently, many advertisers and agency creatives have turned away from the product itself. Sullivan observes that advertisers have elevated the conversation -- "laddering up," to use his phrase -- from mundane product benefits to higher emotional benefits. Hence, an ad for a camera now is less likely to claim that the device takes better pictures, and more likely to urge you (or to gently order you) to get the most out of your sorry life by documenting and savoring experiences. And do it now, before it's too late!

Advertising's new commandments are relentlessly upbeat, even with the economy having lost much of its luster. It seems like a distant memory now, but ads once upon a time tried to undermine confidence by issuing warnings ("Don't leave home without it"). Then, somewhere along the line, empowering messages took over, becoming the language of contemporary ads. According to the research firm Iconoculture, which studies trends and consumer attitudes, contemporary advertisers in the 1980s and particularly in the 90s gradually realized they were dealing with a much more self-assured consumer, and "so it made more sense to sell through positive empowerment, rather than through fear and insecurity," says Iconoculture's co-founder Larry Samuel. In fact, if anyone had reason to feel insecure in the new marketplace, it was the advertiser -- because increasingly, the customer was in control, with endless options and brands to choose from. Observes Mark Waites, CD at the British ad agency Mother: "In the 80s, an ad might ask, are you cool enough to drink our beer? Now if you say something like that, people will tell you to screw off." If this newfound consumer confidence was true of the contemporary male, it was even more true of the modern woman -- who, by the 1990s, was clearly rejecting old-fashioned ad messages that in any way suggested women could not be as outgoing, adventurous, aggressive, or successful as men.

Advertising's new commandments were also tapping into a lifestyle shift in America, Europe and elsewhere. Buoyed by the economic prosperity of the 90s, consumers no longer worried about fitting in and getting by, according to Iconoculture and other attitudinal researchers. The objective now was to have adventures, live well and fully, and to make a mark as an individual. All of which has made it a good time to be an advertiser, since this more adventurous lifestyle dovetailed well with the selling of everything from athletic gear to sport-utility vehicles.

Responding to this new culture, ads in recent years have done their best to reinforce the spirit of rugged individualism, the desire for complete self-fulfillment, and the hunger for experiences. And in so doing, advertisers have taken on the combined role of therapist and cheerleader. Or, as Amster Yard CD Jeff Weiss puts it: "Today, the great brands are our new philosophers, telling us how to think about life."

As advertising's new commandments increasingly reflected and fostered the confident `can-do' spirit of the times, the messages have been largely aspirational -- and in that regard, they can be viewed as a positive evolution from older ads that played on insecurities and fostered conformity. Of course, the new "can-do" ads are guilty of their own sins: appealing to vanity; encouraging a false sense of confidence bordering on arrogance; applauding behavior and attitudes that can be self-absorbed and anti-social. More than ever before, ad writers have resorted to flattery ("you are strong, you are special, you are one-of-a-kind," is the mantra of the sycophantic modern ad).

From a creative standpoint, however, perhaps the worst thing about is the sameness that has crept into taglines and slogans -- which used to differ somewhat as you moved from a car ad to bank ad. Now, advertisers across categories are using numbingly similar empowering commands.

It's quite possible the trend will die soon, for a couple of reasons: "Go for it" commands don't seem quite as appropriate now that the Nasdaq is down and the dot-com dreamers have tanked. Moreover, empowering commands now become a lowest common denominator approach among advertisers; when Procter & Gamble picks up on the advertising trend, it's probably not long for this world. But for the time being, are still ubiquitous. And the following six seem to be particularly hard to avoid these days.

1) Break the Rules

It's perhaps the single most dominant message of contemporary advertising, running through ads for cars, computers, financial services, sneakers. No matter how generic and unoriginal their own products may be, advertisers are urging consumers to be different -- to become rebels and nonconformists. Of course, the dropping of the other shoe comes with the suggestion, implied or stated outright, that the advertiser's products can somehow play a role in helping people to blaze their own trails.

Advertising's rebel yell can be traced all the way back to the 1960s and DDB's `Think Small' campaign for Volkswagen -- which began to advance the proposition that a purchasing choice could be a bold statement of individuality and independent thinking, a chance to break from the pack. But nowhere did this philosophy hold greater sway than in the ads coming from late-90s, pre-crash Silicon Valley, a culture rooted in the notion of breaking away from the established way of doing things. The technology revolution in the 1990s certainly fueled the current wave of `break the rules' advertising, but old-economy businesses like fast-food hamburger chains were quick to pick up the rallying cry. In fact, to some extent the more traditional a company is, the more its advertising now screams about rule-breaking. In an age of too many lookalike products, advertisers are desperate to say: "We're not like everyone else. We're different. We break the rules." (How? By cooking the French fries longer!)

Of course, it isn't just the advertiser who is desperate to be different; it's the customer, too. The `think different' entrepreneurial spirit "is all around us these days," says Tom Julian, a trend analyst with Fallon. "People now believe: `I have to think out-of-the-box in order to be successful, and I must live my whole life that way.' " Cognizant that the voices in our heads are urging us to be more bold, advertisers are echoing back that command, again and again -- sometimes verbally, sometimes through imagery of quirky, off-center behavior. Wearing a Mohawk hairdo to the office or painting one's face blue all becomes a shorthand for `distinctive' -- a quality that every brand, no matter how nondescript, must somehow claim for itself.

2) Have No Fear

Of course, it's not enough just to decide to break the rules; you must have the courage to act on your impulse. And so `have no fear' is a partner-command to `break the rules,' though it also extends beyond taking entrepreneurial chances or dressing differently, and encompasses a whole lifestyle of risk-taking. Jumping off cliffs, braving storms, riding an SUV into untamed territories: These are the challenges that today's advertisers lay before us, like a dare. The big question: Do you have the guts? (After which comes the follow-up question: If you have the guts, do you have the right tires?)

This relatively new strain of kamikaze advertising is partly an outgrowth of the adventure-seeking culture of recent years. Fallon's Julian says today's thrill-seekers "want to experience something so pure that they're much more willing to take risks." And each adventure or experience they live through becomes a social "badge of accomplishment" that can be proudly shown off to others, he notes. Meanwhile, ads are offering the encouragement and the roadmap to adventure. New-millennium advertising has been filled with scenes of people skydiving or jumping off cliffs -- and the participants aren't just wild teenagers. A commercial for the Best Western hotel chain featured an older woman gleefully throwing herself from atop a waterfall because, the ad explained, "you always promised yourself you would."

3) Re-invent Yourself

This is, according to Syracuse University television professor Robert Thompson, "the first commandment of advertising, and always has been -- the notion that you can change your life by way of a particular purchase." True, this message is not new. But it may be more effective now than ever before -- because many of today's consumers are predisposed to believe they can change their lives, and their identities, on an almost-daily basis. Fallon's Tom Julian points out that in today's culture of job-hopping, adventure-seeking, and Internet chat rooms, "people assume more identities than in the past." According to Iconoculture's research, many people today are refusing to be defined or limited by boundaries -- whether physical, geographic, or age-related. "The popular thinking is that you can change your whole look with cosmetic surgery, or become a new person by taking kickboxing lessons," says Iconoculture's Larry Samuel. Advertising has helped foster this new mindset, consistently reassuring us that anyone can be anything. A soccer mom can re-invent herself as a hip woman of style, according to a Nordstrom campaign from Fallon; an aging Baby Boomer can feel like a kid with a rubber duck again, just by buying a Mercedes-Benz.

Some ads promise re-invention through the acquisition of instant wealth, by way of savvy investment or dumb luck. In the classic commercial "Boardroom," created for the New York State Lottery by DDB Needham, we are introduced to Chuck, the mailroom clerk -- who, after winning the lottery, turns the tables on his stodgy bosses and begins barking orders at them. Meanwhile, another lottery ad, by Hunt Adkins for Minnesota's Mystic Lake Casinos, boils the whole re-invention fantasy down to one clever headline, which says simply: "Walk in a Democrat, walk out a Republican."

4) Be Proud

Faced with an increasingly multicultural society, advertisers have become adept at targeting consumers according to race, gender, age, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. What has emerged is a new `tribal advertising' -- which not only acknowledges diversity but celebrates it, urging consumers to identify with their own particular groups and take pride in them. Advertisers who tout this message are playing catch-up with social trends; group identity politics have been gaining momentum on university campuses and in workplaces for years. "In society at large, the movement has been away from assimilation, and toward feeling proud of our own group's heritage and identity," says Iconoculture's Samuel. Still, for advertising to move in this direction took some daring on the part of marketers -- who were always more comfortable showing Hallmark images of a homogenized society in which everyone played on the same team. The old approach was designed to appeal to the mainstream of society -- the essence of mass marketing. The problem was, by the new millennium, there wasn't much of a `mass' to market to anymore, so advertisers had to begin to speak the language of each group.

Ads did this with some trepidation, because, as New York Times columnist Stuart Elliott noted, "sometimes members of minority groups appreciate it if an advertiser speaks to them in their own vernacular, but other times they may feel that it's pandering." McDonald's was among the first to use African-American vernacular in commercials whose characters referred to the restaurant as "Mickey D's" -- slang that was first heard on the street, then incorporated into the ads. But in the past couple of years, Budweiser has achieved a cultural breakthrough with its `Whassup?' campaign -- which started out featuring African-American and other `ethnic' characters and vernacular, but became a phenomenon with white audiences, too. While the Whassup commercials themselves aren't too deep, they may end up having a profound effect by demonstrating that `ethnic advertising' can have wide, across-the-board appeal.

It's hard to find fault with advertising's long-overdue acknowledgment of the rich diversity in our midst, but `group pride advertising' can have its downside; at its worst, it can take on a divisive us-against-them tone. Recent ads targeted to blue-collar types have tended to sneer at Yuppies, while upscale ads have tended to revel in the `greed is good' philosophy. But the real battleground seems to be in gender-targeted advertising. The past few years have seen a spate of ads that might be themed, `It's good to be a guy,' as in the Miller High Life campaign shot by director Errol Morris, with its droll celebration of beer bellies, greasy hamburgers, duct tape, and other macho signifiers. The ads are stylish, self-aware, and funny, but still seem to have an edge of defensiveness. Other recent beer ads have shown men finding ways to trick women so they can avoid shopping or so they can watch football games without being nagged. Meanwhile, ads to women can be just as guilty of male-bashing; as Elliott notes, there has been a rash of them in which women belittle men, and occasionally even whack them upside the head. "It is becoming adversarial," Elliott writes. The newly-aggressive "pride" message has even filtered down to little girls and Barbie, whose recent campaign declared: "Girls rule!"

5) Prioritize Your Life

There's a problem with being so empowered and adventurous -- you may become overwhelmed by your own life. Addressing this potential hazard is a series of ads that encourage us to always remember what's important: family, friends, helping the poor, relaxing with a cup of Maxwell House International Blend coffee. For those who have trouble sorting out what's really important and what isn't, the award-winning `Priceless' campaign for MasterCard helpfully offered a kind of valuation chart; in the ads, everyday activities like going to a ballgame with the kids are deconstructed, with price tags flashed onscreen for each part of the experience (buying the tickets, the hot dog), followed by the reminder that what really matters is seeing your son enjoy his first ball game.

One of the curious aspects of prioritize-your-life ads is that they seem to be advocating a return to simplicity -- but at the same time, they add to our collective stress-overload by reminding us there are so many important things we should be doing. Some ads have even taken to printing `to-do' lists for us. A recent Maxwell House ad features an Everywoman character who is shown thinking to herself: "I will forgive my husband for snoring. I will stop finishing other people's sentences. I will send my parents on an Alaskan cruise. I will read everything ever written." She'd better put down that coffee and get started.

6) Control Your Own Destiny

In today's every-man-for-himself world, you can't count on anyone or anything except yourself (and also on the product being advertised). This is another variation of the `go your own way' theme, but it specifically plays to growing concerns that we can no longer expect employers or government programs to take care of us or guide us -- we must look after ourselves. Iconoculture's Samuel calls this the "free agent mentality," and one of its preoccupations is the building of a nest egg that will provide for the individual when all else fails. Cheering on the free agent is today's advertiser, with slogans like the Ameritrade line "Believe in yourself." Another online brokerage, E*Trade, created an ad campaign that told people to "fire your broker." (The logic in E*Trade's thinking seemed pretty sound: "If your broker's so good," the ads wondered, "how come he still has to go to work?") And an award-winning campaign from Black Rocket for Discover Brokerage featured the headline: "You are the C.E.O. of your own life." The copy reads: "Your life is like a business. It makes sense that you're the one in charge." And it concludes with the words, "Be your own boss."

That was an appropriate message for the roaring late 90s, but does it still hold up in 2001? If the market continues to get battered and we head into a recession, you have to wonder how will be altered. Here are a few possibilities: "Think Safety." "Don't Blow It." "Just Watch It."

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