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On television advertising

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 2 October 2020


Over the past few months I have become more and more aware of, interested even, in what passes for advertising on our commercial TV channels, and on the SBS as well. I don't watch the ABC much, and have nothing to offer there. I look after my wife in the afternoons, and she will watch TV if there's nothing else happening, and she likes a set of programs that I am happy to watch as well. I need to declare an interest. Some of my family are involved in commercial TV, and point out to me that my criticisms of its content need to be moderated because my family does quite well out of it. What follows is an almost random set of observations and puzzles.

First, so much of what I see would have no effect on me whatever were I to be thinking about buying this or that. The intellectual and emotional appeal of so many advertisements seems to me abysmal, and I will say to my girl occasionally, 'Would that ad. push you to buy that product?' She almost always says No. The best ads I have seen, from that perspective, are some NSW Government road-safety advertisements. Again, I ought to declare an interest: I was in the road-safety domain for twenty years, so such ads appeal to me anyway. In general, I can't imagine anyone being so turned on by what they see and hear that they would go out and buy the thing or the process.

Second, there is an endless and grinding repetition of these ads, and even of their order. The ad for X will be followed by the one for Y and then by the one for Z. As soon as one starts I can name the product or service. The repetition puts me off. Would I be alone in this reaction? I would have thought not. I assume that the advertising companies have done their homework on all this. I am simply puzzled.

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Third, there is an almost hysterical tone of urgency in some of the ads, and some presenters speak so quickly that what comes out is a gabble. Try the ad for Kingsley's Chicken. Or the warnings. 'This offer cannot be extended!' Or 'This offer is not available in stores!' Or 'This offer must end soon/quickly'. Why? I ask myself, or anyone else present. How long an offer remains available is surely up to the company producing the product or service. I take it that the urgency is to persuade us that we will miss out if we don't act AT ONCE.

Fourth, connected to the urgency is the 'sale' and what goes with it. I wonder if Harvey Norman or Nick Scali ever sells anything that is not part of the current sale, with its adjectival descriptor - mid-year, EOFY, Spring, whatever. As for Nick Scali, I had never heard of the entity until it began to provide ads on television. It was a family company until 2004 (I think I'm right), and its distinctive message comes with leggy young ladies moving at half speed after having left or being about to sit down on a large sofa. But it is always having a sale. Harvey Norman's sales seem to come at the end of the week and will conclude on Sunday night. What happens if you go there on Monday?

Fifth, there is what I want to call 'positional' advertising. It's like the Shell sign, or that for the Commonwealth Bank, or the one for McDonald's. When you see the sign you know what is there. Television ads for these enterprises don't have to have much content. The point is to remind the viewer of the company and what it actually does. There's a gentle one from NRMA Insurance, in which a nice boy seems to have rescued a koala and takes him to a tree, which the koala climbs, stops, appears almost to wave to the boy, and disappears further upwards. What's all that got to do with NRMA Insurance? Well, the message is that NRMA Insurance looks after you, as the boy did the koala. That's a good ad., and I enjoy it even after twenty or so appearances. We are surrounded by positional signs, even in the bush, and television is simply another means of reminding us.

Sixth, contrived messages that don't work at all for me seem to abound. There is one from Vodaphone suggesting that you 'rule' if you switch to that carrier. What does it mean? It has several imitations, or at least there are several ads that carry such a contorted message. Why would I switch so that I could rule? Rule whom?

Seventh, and connected to the last one, there are mildly deceitful messages. One is a toothpaste ad. in which a nice, reassuringly professional man tells us why this toothpaste is so good for you. He looks like an independent consultant, but if you look at the fine print you will see that he actually works for the toothpaste company. A car insurance ad looks like a way of finding out the best deal for you, but again the fine print tells you that the entity is actually an approved insurance consultant for one large company only.

Eighth, I am deeply puzzled by the ads for Choosi and its counterparts. Is it really so difficult to work out your own best strategy in insurance or anything else? Why do I need a team of young people in blue T-shirts to tell me my best option? Yes, you don't pay anything more, so why not let someone else do the work? I guess it's my feeling that work of this kind is actually good for our minds, and we should do the work for that reason. Oh, and Choosi's fine print tells you that Choosi does not cover the whole insurance market. How many insurance companies does it cover? Might you get a better deal by doing it yourself?

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Ninth, hyperbole and exaggeration seem to be part of some advertising. The emotional ads asking us to look after the koala, whose habitat is threatened by 'reckless' bulldozers (I kid you not - has any reader ever encountered such a sentient machine?) are good examples, as to a lesser extent are the trembling-voiced appeals to help refugees whose camps are threatened by Covid-19, or children who might die, at the rate of one in every six seconds. There are several competitors here.

Tenth, and finally, Real Insurance gets to me. It offers straightforward ads, with good actors and realistic mini-stories. But what is missing is the key point. You don't need this insurance unless you have a business of some kind. Then you should benefit from some kind of protective life insurance. Those who have a salary will usually have some kind of life insurance as (part of) their superannuation. Maybe there are exceptions, but that's the way it seems to me. The notion that you can receive a payout of $800,000 or thereabouts without a really substantial premium seems quite unlikely to me, and the cost of the premium is never mentioned. People without real money, the poor, cannot enter this game at all.

So there it is. I am not at all opposed to commercial television or even to advertisements. We live in a society where the private sector is alive and well. I wouldn't have it any other way. But, in summary, do these advertisements actually work in getting people to buy products and services? They don't seem at all powerful to me. Do they actually work? Perhaps I am just too old to respond properly.

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This article was first pubilshed on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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