Monday, May 16, 2011

Demystifying Advertising

By Natalie Knoth

Though advertising is vital for the livelihood of (most) media outlets, often the aims of advertising differ significantly from that of media. The former utilizes persuasion to make money, and while the means are not deceitful in essence, the intentional highlighting of the good of a product or service while downplaying the bad is integral to the success of a marketing campaign. News media, on the other hand, strive to report accurate, relevant, and timely information to benefit the public good. The inherent problem is that media depend on advertising to fuel the industry, and as a result, media companies sometimes compromise their integrity to keep the profits rolling in.

Is advertising ever really truthful?

As the article “Ethics in Advertising” states, downright lying in advertising is not permissible, as companies must abide by the restrictions imposed by the FDA and FTC. But that doesn’t mean that ads are entirely transparent either. Often, the claims purported in ads are hyperboles at best, and ambiguous or somewhat phony at worst. “Saturday Night Live,” while admittedly not a vital source of accurate news, is the expert in exposing the downsides of many products shown in hyperbolic, melodramatic ads. SNL achieves this through hilarious spoofs. While these spoofs are intended to be entertaining, they also make consumers think. A few personal favorites include Activia Yogurt, which exposes the downsides to consuming active bacteria, and Annuale, which depicts the emotional instability women may experience when taking particular oral contraceptives.

Do social-cause campaigns really have our best interests in mind?

To boost their image, some companies align themselves with social causes by donating a percentage of sales to a cancer organization or charity, for example. While it may sound cynical, it’s unlikely that companies hop on a social-issue campaign purely to help out a good cause. These advertising agencies recognize that consumers want to feel satisfied by their purchases, and that by purchasing a product that benefits a social cause, consumers are buying something they enjoy while also expunging some of the guilt of dropping a few bucks on items that are likely not necessities.

Perhaps one of the strangest collaborations in recent years was between Kentucky Fried Chicken and Susan G. Komen for the Cure (an organization working to fight breast cancer) with the "Buckets for the Cure" campaign last spring. KFC sold chicken in pink buckets and donated a portion of sales to Komen. Hungry Howie’s launched a similar campaign last fall, utilizing pink pizza boxes instead of yellow and donating $100,000 to the National Breast Cancer Foundation Inc.

The collaborations seem a bit odd considering many doctors and reputable sources have asserted that unhealthy eating can lead to cancer. An ABC News story about the KFC collaboration quoted Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, as stating, “They are raising money for women’s health by selling a product that’s bad for your health…it’s hypocrisy…post menopausal weight gain increases risk for breast cancer, Koman has this on their website, they know this, and yet they’re tied to a company that’s feeding he obesity habit in this country.” Because KFC was fundraising for a cancer organization, consumers could falsely believe that eating fatty, high-calorie foods will in no way affect their cancer risk, and paradoxically, that purchasing such foods actually aids in the fight against cancer. Consumers' knowledge of the link between unhealthy foods and cancer could be tested by this campaign, and their fears of developing cancer could be assuaged.

And this is where good journalism comes in...

As previously mentioned, media outlets depend on advertising for revenue. The problem arises when a media company runs advertisements for a product/service that are not entirely truthful. Especially troubling is when the product/service has been criticized in other media outlets. What is said media company to do? The role of journalists is to maintain a safe distance from the influence of advertising and utilize their unbiased, watchdog skills when necessary.

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