Truth in Advertising

If you are a visitor from another planet and you want to find out about real life on Earth, what do you watch on television to give the most-accurate picture: the news, the shows or the commercials? Think about it realistically. We are seeking here an accurate window into what human beings are really like, the things they do, the stuff they really care about, the decisions they face on a daily basis. I would suggest that advertising is, by far, the best teller of the truth.

The news is mostly the “fake news,” as Saturday Night Live many years ago put it. What matters and what doesn’t matter is designed for certain effect that doesn’t reflect anything really going on in your life at all. The North Star of the network news is the state and the political theater that serves as a kind of glossy finish on the top of the structure. The reporters prioritize their stories and values based on the state’s own stories and values, and the rest of us mostly just pretend to care.

The television shows are unapologetic fabrications of life, with idealized actors and preset plots that do not and cannot really exist in real life. People don’t do the normal things the rest of us do. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is not reality. Even “reality” shows are this way. If you are starring in an episode of Bridezillas, for example, you are going to go out of your way to be as witchy and horrible as possible.

Ah, but with advertising, you get the real story, the unvarnished presentation of real-life problems that affect everyone. One I just saw for the Neat scanner points out that our problems with paper have gotten worse, rather than better, since the advent of digital media. Unless we are making a concerted effort to de-physicalize things, we are going to be snowed under with 8.5×11 sheets piled to the ceiling. The Neat scanner shows us a way out of this problem, and it is a good way out. This is a serious problem that all of us have to deal with every day.

Another ad begins with a lady shopping for adult diapers in the grocery store while feeling profound humiliation as she checks out and others look on. Ouch. But now comes the solution. There is a website called that provides every manner of undergarment that you can order online at good prices. The goods arrive at your house in an unmarked package so that you don’t have to feel that sense of humiliation.

In the daytime, there is a constant stream of products to deal with aging, which, we might point out, is a ubiquitous feature of the human condition. The normal problems people have hardly ever appear on the shows or the news, but the commercials are not even slightly squeamish in dealing with balding, bankruptcy, sexual dysfunction, weight gain, energy loss, depression and every bodily function and real-life malady one can imagine.

This is the real stuff of daily life that consumes people. Am I too fat? Why do I have to get up three times in the night to go to the bathroom? Why do my feet hurt at the end of the day? What should I do about my sky-high credit card debt? These questions are way more important to people than the latest political poll or Middle Eastern flare-up.

Maintaining a household turns out to be another center of people’s real lives, and the advertisements fail us not. They deal with the problems of greasy meatloaf, knives that don’t cut properly, silver that is tarnished, vacuums that don’t stay plugged in, leftovers that do not store well — and in each case, the advertiser proposes what turns out to be an ingenious solution at a surprisingly low price.

Yes, of course, the advertiser wants us to buy the product, but it is your choice to do it or not. You are invited, not coerced. And even if you do not buy, you have to admit feeling a sense of inspiration to solve the problem in some other way, an element of collegiality with your fellow human beings just to know that you are not alone in your problem and a sense of empowerment just to know that all is not lost and that there is some hope.

It is beyond comprehension to me why advertising has been the target of brutal attacks ever since television came into existence. The top criticism is that advertising is somehow socially inefficient. Instead of giving price cuts to consumers or spending money on research and development. We can dispense with this nonsense quickly: If it weren’t efficient for the company, the company would not do it. Every ad is tested against profitability insofar as this is possible.

Recall, too, that the major reason for advertising is to overcome the core problem that every enterprise faces, which is its obscurity. You have to get yourself known to people. But knowledge alone is not enough. You have to to ascend the value scale of their preference rankings. You have to persuade people that what you have to offer is going to make enough of a difference in their lives to get them to cough up the money.

You might complain that these advertisers are only after your money. I don’t see why this is a criticism. After all, the consumer is only after the product. The consumer gives the money, and the producer gives the product. It’s called mutually beneficial exchange. And you might say that the advertiser only wants ever more of your money. Well, so too for the consumer: You want ever more of the product, which is why we are constantly told on ads to wait because “there’s more!”

Another criticism of advertising is that it generates “false wants.” The people who say such things imagine that they alone are the arbiters of what is a legitimate want. In other words, they want to rule your choices and tell you what you can and can’t want. Down with those types, I say.

A final criticism is that what the ad says is often false or exaggerated. No kidding. Compare the content of advertising with the content of the average human conversation, of which lies and exaggerations are an integral part. We can’t expect of advertising what we don’t even expect of regular human interactions. At least there is accountability and a profitability test on advertising that tend to select out the liars over time. I’m not sure you can say the same with casual human interactions on a day-to-day basis.

I see that several infomercial makers have been prosecuted for making false claims, such as the guy who promoted a calcium product he said would reduce cancer risk. He was charged $150,000 and banned from television for life. I don’t get this. Why should the government be policing what people can and cannot claim on television? Buyer beware. Besides, if the state is to rid the TV of all false claims, the State of the Union address should never again be aired.

You know those ads from the government that you see at airports? They are announcing their policy. They tell you what you must believe or else. No private-sector ads are this way. They invite you to believe something. They seek to change your values. Then they want to bring something new and special to your life. It is up to you to go along or not. This is the way all human interaction ought to take place.

It is for this reason that advertising gives such a gritty, down-to-earth, truth-telling look at the human condition. It is a window into who we are, what we do, what makes us tick. And better than that, advertising seeks to improve the human condition and give us a better life. In this sense, it does for us what no state can ever really do.