Ads Subtract, Multiply and Divide

I’m the only person between the ages of 22 and 90 who doesn’t watch Mad Men, so I know even less about the world of advertising than people who live in the woods.

I can sum up what I know about advertising in less than 100 words:

1. Subliminal seduction is real and was used flagrantly in the ‘70s. I know this because the Herbal Essence girl would never hold two real penises in her hands in that field of flowers.

2. I love the e-Trade baby.

3. Advertising must work because a lot of money and effort is spent on it. What else could get so many people to watch the Super Bowl on a school night?

The world of advertising is mysterious to me. It has always been the quirky-yet-slightly-genius cousin of journalism. In college, the advertising majors walked around like they were better than everyone else and that they had a secret. What were they teaching them in there?

I’ll tell you what they were teaching them: How to get us to buy stuff by appealing to our basest emotions. That and how to hide skulls-and-crossbones and the letters S-E-X in ice cubes without anyone noticing.

You might think that years of experience and thousands of magazine subscriptions would have given me at least a little bit more insight into the world of advertising and marketing. Not so. I still look at the Gap ads of a shirtless guy and a girl up to her neck in water and can’t figure out what I’m supposed to buy when I go there. (The Gap does still sell jeans and tops, does it not?)

As for TV advertising, the commercials are so slick and edgy - the acting is better than the show I’m watching - I might not be able to distinguish between an ad and an Emmy award winning show, except that the volume doubles in decibels during commercial breaks.

Internet advertising is another animal altogether. Because I used to be an Internet writer, I know just enough about Web advertising to confuse me. On one of my blogs, I had advertising for Married Name Change, Danny’s Pianos, “Send a Live Gift Tree,” an exclusive Yamaha dealer, and Men Wearing Bras. Somehow, at some level, I know there was a very good, very intricate reason for each of these ads, but I’ll be damned if I know what it was.

I am a sucker for good ads. Write a catchy jingle, I’ll be humming it for years. Create a company mascot, I’ll think only good thoughts about you and your product. I can still sing the Cooksey’s Culligan theme song from a commercial I last heard in the early 1970s. (“When you call 792-6581! Call them today!”) and Haber’s Furniture store’s jingle is outlasting it 40 years and counting. (“Tell your neighbor, it came from Haber - Haber Furniture Store - Tell your neighbor, it came from Haber, the store with so much more!”) How many of you Youngstowners remember the Schwebel bread commercial? ("We want Schwebel, We want Schwebel, no other label will do! We want Schwebel on our lunch table, no other label will do!")

So my purchasing is probably all driven by advertising and I don’t even know it.  If I knew the first thing about advertising and what makes it tick, I might be able to stop it from manipulating me so much. I would work on this a little more, but who has time? I’m getting a strong urge to go shopping now for water softeners, Gap clothes, live gift trees and man bras.

Diane can be reached via advertising-free email at

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