Anxiety advertisers; how they changed the world for the worse


Advertising was largely built on the fine, opportunistic strategy of trading in human weakness. For almost 100 years, advertisers have honoured the tradition a) pinpoint a problem, perhaps one consumers didn’t even know they had; b) exacerbate anxiety around the problem; c) sell the cure.

Whether it’s being laughed at because you have small muscles or can’t play the piano, not being respected because your car isn’t prestigious enough, not being desired because you have hairy armpits, not being cool because your phone isn’t the latest,  or not being a good mother for oh-so-many reasons, and let’s not even mention menstruation…advertisers sure know which button to push.

Hell, they do it without even trying. Apple’s famous (and brilliant) 1984 campaign – which put them on the map – was meant to inspire. But if you were happy just being you, wouldn’t this (edited) ad copy make you second guess your happiness?…

“Here’s to … The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. … Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Oh boy, I’m clearly not aiming high enough! But not all advertisers require quite so much of us. Dove (about whom I have blogged in approval) simply suggests women need to shave their armpits in order to attain enlightenment. No, Dove say, it’s not them creating the problem, it’s them solving it: according to research cited on Dove’s website, 93% of women think their underarms are unattractive and thus may refuse to wear sleeveless clothing. So if the desire for un-natural armpits hasn’t been caused by images published by beauty advertisers like Dove, then where does it come from?

Advertisers, through this use of shame (which is of course a kind of anxiety), have changed our views, and our world. Before Listerine figured out it could sell more of its anti-septic as a cure for bad breath, there simply was no social stigma attached to it. How many billion dollars has this strategic breakthrough yielded? How has this improved our lot as a race? And in case you think the classic approach to anxiety went out with the advent of colour TV, look at the current ad for Oslo Subway.

Research has refined the use of anxiety as leverage to encourage purchase. A study of commercials for the Danonino kid-food brand found no fewer than five kinds of anxieties being prodded: anxieties linked to the responsibility for providing healthy food to support a child’s physical growth; anxieties associated with the responsibility for providing appropriate nutrients to foster a child’s intellectual development; anxieties linked to the social exclusion of a child from his/her peer group; anxieties raised due to repeated conflicts about food intake that may threaten family bonding relationships and mothers’ anxiety for not being present enough for the child due to their own busy schedules.

Rich pickings for these ‘negative’ ads, for sure. The multi-billion dollar question is: do they work better the positive ads…is the carrot or the stick more effective? Entire books and literally mountains of ad research has been done into this vexed question (eg…), and the answer, like that to many complex questions, is probably ‘it depends’.

For me, this dilemma cuts to the socio-cultural responsibilities that advertisers and marketers have, but so rarely acknowledge. Anxiety disorders are are the most prevalent mental disorders in the United States with an annual societal costs of over $42 billion dollars (source Psychology Today).

Think about it: if all those fear-inducing ads has instead used more positive messaging, would we as a global community, have amassed such an overwhelming state of anxiety? And if we hadn’t, how different would our world look to us? Has the wealth reaped by Listerine and tens of thousands of marketers like them been worth the problems now so prevalent in society?

Before we leave the topic, as ever with advertising, a strategy can work in different ways.  In this ad you literally get rid of your old head:

And, wonderfully, the ad industry can, itself exhibit obvious anxiety. Take this sugar industry response to the ‘problem’ of dieting:

The classic is this response to people’s anxieties about smoking:

For a general discussion on specifically status anxiety I highly recommend Alain de Boton’s book of the same name, or if you prefer there is a spin-off series of videos here.

Do you think anxiety advertising has changed the world?

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