Marketing to Your Ego

In the post below, I wrote about Seth Stevenson's Ad Report Card column and stated his Super Bowl recap piece "explains why I prefer Coke to Pepsi, and it's not because of taste."

Commenter DonMiller (who I'm assuming is this fine gentlemen), made the following comment about my statement:
"...why in the world would you chose one drink over another for any other reason than taste. this is fascinating to me, [not] because you do it but because we are all pawns to the association/disassociation phenomenon that advertisers play upon."
And I think it's fascinating, too, primarily because I like to pretend I'm unique and advertising doesn't affect me. But, of course, it does.

First of all, I overstated a bit. I do like Coca-Cola more based on taste. It's a little less syrupy in my mind. But I've also noticed the vessel matters...I can't stand pop in plastic bottles, Coke tastes best in cans, RC is really good out of a fountain, etc.

But to explore choosing products based on marketing, let's compare two fast food companies: Sonic and McDonald's.

In McDonald's ads, cool faux-urbanites breakdance around, nibbling on cheeseburgers and generally enjoying each other's company. They wear fedoras, a hat usually reserved for the manic, skinny guy in high school movies set in the 90's. They get married with cakes fashioned from McNuggets. They bother me. A lot.

Sonic ads, on the other hand, feature a series of improv comics acting as regular people, having a discussion at the Sonic drive-in. They're witty, sure, but they also convey the unique Sonic experience: a drive-in burger stand with a diverse menu where you can eat with your friends.

Since many of the finest creative minds in America are toiling away at ad agencies, ads can be viewed as an art medium. The canvas is a 30-second video, wherein the artist must convey a certain message, appeal to a potential customer and entertain the viewer.

When I watch the Nuggnuts spots, I want to punish McDonald's for making bad art, for appealing to a dumbed-down, fake version of young adulthood. No one is actually making wedding cakes out of McNuggets, and if they are, they should be institutionalized. So not only is McDonald's lying to me, they're also assuming I'm stupid enough to believe these sorts of people exist, and are downing Big Macs by the truckload.

When I watch a Sonic commercial, I laugh. I want to reward Sonic for appealing to community and good comedy, for stripping down their production and letting real people make the pitch.

Of course, both McDonald's and Sonic are publicly-traded corporations, only concerned with the bottom line. Both sell products exceedingly bad for you. In fact, since Sonic heavily promotes it's desserts and syupy drink combinations, it's probably less healthy overall.

Sonic's ads are intended to appeal to a specific marketing demographic, likely the same demographic lampooned by Christian Lander's Stuff White People Like.

It's frightening to discover you've become the target audience, that companies are going after your money and not 10 year-old girl or 20 year-old body builder. But at the same time, doesn't better, smarter advertising reflect a more thoughtful populace? Watching The Wire and raving about international cuisine may be painfully cliche, but aren't these pursuits more laudable than watching Rock of Love and guzzling Monster energy drinks?

Let's go back to those two ads during the Super Bowl, one for Pepsi and one for Coke:

One espouses innovation, a natural world where various species work together in harmony to obtain an end goal (in this case, delicious cola). The other draws a parallel between the greatest songwriter of the last 50 years and a guy who "wrote 'My Humps' in 5 minutes when he saw a pretty lady when he was having something to eat." If you're voting with your dollars, which ideology would you support?

Of course, I'm 100% positive we should fall outside this simple choice of paradigms, each a lie since both are sugary, carbonated drinks. But we're in this world already. Why not pick a side? Right?


  1. Ok, so here's the kicker: my three favorite TV advertisers are Geico, Sonic and Apple. I've eaten at Sonic once in the last two years. I've never had insurance with Geico. I consume Apple products when I can afford to, which is to say, not often. I'm sure advertising affects me, but apparently the ads I appreciate the most don't drive me to purchase products or services any more than the others.

    In another note, while you're buying that Paul Kirk BBQ book, buy this: http://www.amazon.com/Buying-Secret-Dialogue-Between-What/dp/1400063914

  2. I drink tap water.

    Then again, we live in an area where there's no network TV, which means no cable = no TV = no commercials.

    As for Coke vs. Pepsi: go to the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta, and watch their horrifying propaganda video about Coke being all over the world and hear third-worlders singing "Coca Cola is Life!" and tell me that you want to support that.

  3. jordan, first off, your writing is getting so good and so clear. you write about "nothing" and keep my interest, which, for me, means you are a good writer. i just feel right when i read your stuff. very cool.

    as for content: i think the reason your like sonic over mcdonalds isn't because mcdonalds has bad commercials, but because their commercials are aimed at children. associating their nuggets with a wedding cake is great for tween girls who only dream about weddings. associating burgers with witty, cynical comedians appeals to you for the same reason. it's not better, it's just that they aimed their bullet at you. and hit you.

    apple is the perfect example of playing on our insecurities. in my mind, they do have a superior product (in terms of ease of use, which i understand is a demographic of computer users) but they also market "cool" and even define cool. they play on our insecurities. if I don't think i am cool enough, I will get an apple computer or i-phone (i have both)...it's subtle, but the combination of playing on our insecurities and quality product will win every time.

    apples most recent campaign pits fat, older geek (i am all three) against hip, young and smooth cuts right to the point. we don't even notice it anymore. they are essentially saying you are not cool if you don't use our product. and we all fall for it.

    perhaps we should stop thinking about the quality of a commercial based on it's ability to manipulate us, and start asking why it is we are so easily manipulated in the first place. once we understood that, we might be able to have some grace on ourselves, be okay with a sunset instead of a new widget, and we'd save some money along the way.

  4. Thanks, Don!

    Interesting you brought up the Mac v. PC ads, since Seth Stevenson critiqued that ad a while ago.

    Seth Stevenson's article on Apple's Mac v. PC ads.

    Which, again, only discusses the quality of manipulation, not why we are being manipulated.

    In regards to the "Stuff White People Like demographic", which I suspect many of our readers (including myself) fall into, what's especially eye-opening is how we might view ourselves as anti-consumer and self-aware of our decisions, but the fact we're being marketed to means we're lying to ourselves, that we've become one of the most powerful and high-consumption demographics.

    As for WHY we are so easily manipulated, I can't think of much outside the traditional "filling a God-shaped Hole" explanation. My question is, why are we choosing to fill that hole in this particular manner? What are we, as a demographic, especially yearning for from God? Quality? Uniqueness? The underdog?

  5. Jordan,

    It would be more profitable to direct your attention to this: How can we brand this "God-shaped Hole" to prey on the insecurities of our audience?

    Money could be had. Money could be had.

  6. the "heist" commercial was my favorite superbowl commercial this year, but i'd drink coke over pepsi if neither advertised. i drink water at least 90% of the time, but when i do drink soda it's either coke, root beer, or mountain dew. and i tend to hate mountain dew commercials.
    as for the whole mac ad thing... most of the people i know prefer john hodgman.

  7. also, will.i.am is the greatest songwriter of our lifetime. have you heard "let's get retarded"? are you kidding me?

  8. i haven't read his article on mac vs pc, but i wrote a quick one this afternoon. i probably say what he said but not as well.

    i think a lot of advertising plays on animal instinct for reproduction. but also on the desire for redemption, which i am starting to believe we have mistaken for what our "squirrel brains" experienced in the womb, that is an immediate connection between needs and having our needs met.

  9. Just wanted to say that I enjoy reading all the blogs on here and I think it's pretty cool that DonMiller chimes in. This is like a secret society or something...

    I also feel a new sense of pride over not owning any apple products. Haha! Take that all you Apple snobs! (With those lines, maybe commericals aimed at Middle-Schoolers would be most appealing to me.)

  10. I must admit, the Coke ad made me feel sleepy when it first aired. Watching it again on this site did not improve my impression. I liked the Pepsi ad even not knowing who the second singer was, because it appealed to some sense of history, of revolution, of meaning. I did not really analyze either ad intellectually, but they both evoked an emotional response. Ever read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell?

    I know billions of dollars are spent annually on advertising, so it must be effective, but I agree with pBerry--my favorite ads are not necessarily associated with where my money goes. I have considered trying Geico, but I have a relationship with my Farmer's agent, which I won't abandon. Maybe advertisers are going after "swing voters," knowing that the core is not really going to change anyway.