I Never Knew Soap Made You Taller

I know advertising isn’t the Devil. By itself, removed from cultural context and its own long, insidious history, it is in fact a pretty good thing. It’s a solid economic model that performs well in a healthy Capitalist society, and it alone is responsible for the continuing existence of television, magazines, newspapers, and very close to everything else. Without advertising, our culture would look very different—in some ways for the better, but mostly to our detriment.

So, why do I still feel like advertising is the enemy? Why do I still feel like a mark when I chuckle at a TV commercial, make a mental note of an ad in a magazine, or slow my car to finish reading a billboard? Why do I feel like a complete fool when I finish a conversation with someone about “that commercial we just love!”?

It’s a fact that not all advertising is fear-based, but it’s certainly a fact that most of it is.  Granted, I can’t think of a (reasonable) explanation for how this adorable camel hump-day Geico commercial is trying to use my fear to get me to buy a product, but exceptions like this are few.  Long, long, long ago, the folks in charge of creating advertising realized the purchasing public responded with their wallets and pocketbooks the most when you scared the shit out of them.  And that is why I feel like a schmo for responding to their wiles.  I’ve let them scare me.

Here is a famous early print advertisement for Pears soap, from England, circa 1900:


Pears soap (which was named after its founder and had nothing to do with pears) was one of (if not THE, depending on who you ask) the first mass produced and mass marketed soaps, not to mention the world’s first registered brand, of any product.

So how did this early ad play on Britisher’s fears?  This ad, one of a series of similar paintings, depicts Britain’s upper-middle class at the time (a class that had only just started to exist).  Ads like this mostly ran in publications read by the lower classes (who were nonetheless, obviously, literate, and therefore upwardly mobile, meaning they had money to buy things).  By associating products with classes or lifestyles we could possibly (although rarely easily or practically) obtain, companies consistently prey on our fears that the lives we are living are not good enough, are not as good as everyone else’s.  The ultimate fear: we are not as good as everyone else.  But guess what?  Pears soap can help you get there!

If you don’t have a Swiffer, you’re wasting time.  If you don’t use Axe body spray, you aren’t sleeping with enough women.  If you don’t have Aflac, you will get hurt at work and not be able to pay your bills.  If you don’t use Purex, your clothes aren’t as bright as your neighbors’.

Often, the fear of inadequacy is not as blatantly stated in the ad’s content, but in the unrealistic idealized world created by them.  Watch this seemingly innocuous ad for Johnsonville Bratwurst, but watch it now as a skeptic.  How does the ad create, in a short space of time, an idealized world that the product’s target audience wishes they lived in, but which is an unrealistic world?  How does the ad play on a fear of inadequacy to sell its product?

This is just a short primer on the subject, which I intend to return to shortly.  I am far from the first person to make these observations; folks much smarter than I have written full books on the topic.  The rabbit hole, in fact, goes much deeper than this.  Does advertising, in fact, manipulate the wants and needs of the consumers so badly and on such a grand scale as to change our cultural desires and tastes to a point of unbalance (one can never write off the importance of personal responsibility in our choices, but did enough fear play a role in our nation’s current obesity epidemic, our dependence on credit, and even the recent housing bubble?  I think you can guess where I stand)?

I thought I’d get the conversation rolling.  Your thoughts are appreciated.

9 Responses to “I Never Knew Soap Made You Taller”

  1. Kyle Sundgren Says:

    I never would have guessed that about the Pears ad. Obviously it isn’t something that would be effective in today’s market. I would just assume it was a nice piece of art tied in with the logo of the company and the advertisers hoped you associated nice art with their soap. Now I find myself terrified that people who makes less money than me might be using the same soap as me. I’m gonna buy some Pears just to play it safe.

    I’m of two minds with the new Google ad style of advertising. On the one hand it’s like, if you’re going to advertise to me at least tailor it to something that I like. I don’t give a shit about a new Nissan. But, the way they get that info is pretty creepy.

    I have all ads blocked on my home computer so I never see the extent to which online ads have gone. When I go to my parents house or get on anyone else’s computer I’m always tickled then disgusted at the ads directed at me.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      That style of online ad is a different beast altogether. The initial advertising is really just fishing…trying to get you to click on something, but once they get you on their page, it will be right in again with scaring the shit out of you.

      Are you aware the title of this entry is a Pearl Jam lyric?

      • Kyle Sundgren Says:

        Is it from Hey, Foxymophandlemama, that’s me? It’s not one I have on my Zune haha.

      • sethdellinger Says:

        One of the more under-appreciated tunes. I used to belt out the final few lines…very evocative: “It doesn’t hurt when I bleed, but memories they eat me. I’ve seen it all before. Bring it on cause I’m no victim!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cME1p-avIzE

        • Kyle Sundgren Says:

          Ah, another one I don’t have on the player. I always found the main guitar riff kinda corny.

        • sethdellinger Says:

          “The TV, she talks to me, breaking news and building walls. Selling me what I don’t need. I never knew soap made you taller. So I’m riding away, hiding away. So much talk, it makes no sense at all. My sense have gone! (awol)

        • I didn’t recognize the title/lyrics, either. but I do really love that album.

  2. i’m with you on all of this advert stuff. though if I like a commercial, that’s okay. I like it. people got paid money to make sure that I liked it. I like to think that i’m self-aware enough to know when i’m being manipulated, but that’s probably not always accurate.

    also, Johnsonville. vomit. for so many reasons. none of which have to do with their advertisements. they support WI’s d-bag governor, and they’re ‘the official’ brat of the green bay packers. so screw Johnsonville. I’m a pilgrim in an unholy land, I say.

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