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"Advertising is a ten billion dollar a year misunderstanding with the public."
- Chester L. Posey, Senior V.P. & Creative Director, McCann Erickson
Page last modified Friday, 13-Jun-2003 10:58:54 PDT
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Source: Stay Free! http://ibiblio.org/stayfree/ ; Issue 13

In a 1963 tie-in with the Walt Disney movie Son of Flubber, Hasbro developed a product called Flubber, a substance made of rubber and mineral oil that could bounce like a ball and take imprints (similar to Silly Putty). After it had been on the market for several months, the company began receiving reports that Flubber was causing a rash. The Flubber formula had passed all the regular tests, but the company began testing again, this time on volunteer prisoners. One prisoner developed a rash on his head, and the company learned that the product irritated hair follicles of a small percentage of the population.

Hasbro recalled Flubber--thousands and thousands of balls--and consigned it to the city dump. The next day Hasbro execs received a call from the mayor of Providence, who informed them that a black cloud hovered over the dump; the rubber would not burn properly. Merrill Hassenfeld of Hasbro called the Coast Guard for permission to weight the Flubber and dump it at sea. Permission was granted. However, the next day the Coast Guard called to complain that Flubber was floating all over Narrangansett Bay. After paying the Coast Guard to sweep the ocean, Hassenfeld took the mess and buried it in his backyard. (adapted from Toyland)

barbie vs. the misfits

Source: Stay Free! http://ibiblio.org/stayfree/ ; Issue 13

Introduced in 1958 as "anatomically perfect," Barbie was modeled after a German doll/cartoon prostitute named Lilli. Unlike other dolls at the time, Barbie dolls resembled full-grown women (as opposed to babies, dwarves, or animals), enabling young girls to act out their fantasies of the adult world: shopping, buying clothes, wearing makeup and jewelry.

From the start, clothes and accessories were central to Barbie's success. While the doll retailed for $3 in the mid-sixties (a $6 version with various wigs was also available), the complete wardrobe cost 45 times as much: $136. More profitable than the dolls themselves, fashion accessories encouraged year-round spending to constantly update Barbie's image. The ageless doll (was she sixteen? thirty?) was the blank slate--and the clothes and accessories, the signifiers of choice--upon which girls could project themselves and situations they imagined. As Barbie's 1987 slogan put it, "Girls can be anything" (as long as they had the right clothes).

After twenty years as a top seller, Barbie's sales started to wane in the mid-eighties, largely due to the lack of a comprehensive promotional strategy. Her creators, Ruth and Elliot Handler of Mattel, didn't want to specify Barbie's personality, because this might limit the imagination of girls who play with the dolls. Without a comprehensive TV marketing plan, her own show, and hundreds of coordinated licensing arrangements, Barbie was losing market share, mostly to a new character doll named Jem.

Jem--Barbie's first serious rival in a market flooded with imitators--was launched in 1986, complete with a television show, books, posters, T-shirts, and tape recorders. Every detail related to her character, every bit of narrative, was carefully calculated, targeted, screened, and analyzed. After extensive market research and planning, Jem was born: crusader for orphaned girls by day, rock star by night. As Jerrica Benton, she ran the Starlight Home for Girls (inherited from her father) and communicated with a special computer via her earring . . . which somehow would transform Jerrica and her friends into Jem and the Holograms, pink rock band, forever to battle rival rockers the Misfits and their greedy punk rock manager (I'm not making this up). A typical commercial for Jem went like this:

Chorus: (over animation from the series) Jem.

Female voice: Battling the Misfits, battling, battling the Misfits.

Girl 1: (watching Gem) Your clothes are outrageous.

Girl 2: Truly outrageous.

Misfits: We are the Misfits, we are better. Our music is better, and we are taking it all. Taking it, taking it, taking it all.

Girl 2: It's Jem and the Holograms.

Girl 1: The Misfits are better.

Girl 2: We'll let our fans decide.

Female Voice: Flash 'n' sizzle Jem, the Holograms, and the Misfits, each sold separately with cassette.

Chorus: Jem!

The Mattel camp responded to all this by fighting fire with fire. Come 1987, Barbie had both a rock band and a TV show. Apparently, Mattel's fantasies were more effective at moving dolls than little girls' fantasies: Barbie sales went back up and Jem bit the dust.

Not that Mattel's financial woes were limited to Barbie's sales. Ruth Handler pleaded no contest and was found guilty in 1978 for conspiracy, mail fraud, and falsifying statements to the SEC. Handler received a 41-year suspended sentence, $57,000 suspended fine, and 2,500-hour community service. Upon leaving Mattel, she quit the toy industry for good and started a new business: manufacturing artificial breasts for cancer victims. Her new product, Nearly Me, became "the Cadillac of the business," generating several million dollars a year. --CM (Sources: Out of the Garden; Toyland; Fashion and Merchandising Fads)


Source: Stay Free! http://ibiblio.org/stayfree/ ; Issue 13

G.I. Joe made his debut as the first ever action figure (doll for boys) in 1964. Based on a comic book soldier, G.I. Joe kept a relatively low profile in the late sixties and seventies, when the Vietnam war helped spark national concern over war toys. However, in 1982, Hasbro re-introduced him as an American Hero, a 3.75-inch poseable figure with a full line of futuristic accessories (weapons and vehicles), his own TV show, and an extensive licensing program with Marvel Comics. The new G.I. Joe came with an assortment of team players, including "real life" people such as wrestler Sgt. Slaughter and William "the Refrigerator" Perry of the Chicago Bears.

With the new team came new duties: G.I. Joe defended the environment with his Eco-Warriors; fought drugs via an in-school program sponsored by Hasbro and the Drug Elimination Force (D.E.F.); and conducted the "G.I. Joe Search for Real American Heroes" to honor heroic American kids. Such do-gooderisms helped legitimize and reinforce G.I. Joe's animated television show, where Joe and his futuristic squad used as many weapons to kill as many enemies and blow up as many things as possible, all so good could triumph over evil. This defended G.I. Joe against charges of catering to mindless violence (it wasn't mindless). As Stephen Kline writes:

If there is one striking common feature that came to define character narrative as a genre it is the presence of rather heavy-handed moralizing. The producers of children's television began to morally circumscribe the action sequence so the struggles of their heroes could be explained away as parables rather than wanton violence. . . . Unlike the amoral and anarchic tales of classic cartoons (was Bugs Bunny really a good guy?), the newer animations clearly situated characters within a moral universe--where good and bad are clearly denoted by more than the color of hats. To ban G.I. Joe would be to censor democracy itself. . . . Unlike the literary efforts of the 18th century moralizers, these parables of good and evil arise from the pragmatism of the toy merchandisers, who found that the use of mythology was a successful means of promoting toys.

In the past two years, two new G.I. Joe product lines have been introduced: (1) G.I. Extreme, featuring a larger (five-and-one-half inch), ultra-buffed body and (2) the G.I. Joe Classic Collection, twelve-inch figures "authentically dressed to represent today's military" and designed to appeal to the collector's market.

advertising invented illnesses

Source: Stay Free! http://ibiblio.org/stayfree/ ; Issue 16, Carrie McLaren

One of the most successful advertising campaigns this century sold perhaps the most unlikely product: yeast. Once a household staple, yeast sales had been dying in the 1910s due to the decline of home baking. Yeast leader Fleischmann’s responded by attempting to transform the "Soul of Bread" into a more lucrative form of edible dust. A new advertising campaign pitched yeast as a source of vitamins to be eaten straight from the pack.

When the vitamin idea didn’t go so well, the ads turned to trumpeting Fleishman’s as a cure for constipation. A cake and a half three times a day were said to combat "intestinal fatigue."

Yeast had no proven laxative effect, and "intestinal fatigue" was pure invention, but sales more than doubled. As one ad exec explained, "Fatigue is universal; we simply have to credit it to the intestines."

In the 1920s, advertising for Lysol disinfectant started subtly suggesting that it could be used as a contraceptive. Lysol offered booklets explaining "What feminine hygiene really is" for those not astute enough to realize that the repeated claims to "kill germs" were meant to be read as "kill sperm." (R. Marchand, Advertising the American Dream p.344) Click image for larger version.

Fleischmann’s hardly invented the bogus medical claim, but, unlike most corporate advertisers at the time, they weren’t ashamed to adopt the tactics of patent medicine salesmen. Said peddlers established just about every key advertising strategy in the 1800s. Gratuitous use of statistics, claims to science, "used by doctors," testimonials, celebrity endorsements, appeals to patriotism, nature, and politics: all were honed on cure-alls.

Why medicine and not, say, breath mints? Medicine was essentially the first product where supply exceeded demand. Formulas were cheap and practically interchangeable (unless one developed a strong preference for the opium or cocaine in some). People bought potions not for what they contained but for what they treated. Thus, salesmen were limited only by the number of ills they could find, which is to say they weren’t limited. If one pitch didn’t work, they could always reposition.

When Fleishmann’s started using the old sales tactics, other corporate advertisers did, too. Listerine, formerly a surgical antiseptic, a dandruff cleanser, sore throat treatment, and a guard against Asian flu, became a cure for bad breath when its ad agency decided one was needed. The ad campaign launched halitosis–the disease of bad breath–and sales skyrocketed. What Listerine did for halitosis, Absorbine Jr. did for athlete’s foot. (Absorbine Jr. previously treated sore muscles and insect bites.) And the list goes on. Lifebuoy soap gave the world "B.O."; Phillips Milk of Magnesia, "acid indigestion"; and the discovery of vitamins popularized scurvy and led many advertisers to refer to ever-rampant "vitamin-starvation."

The scare tactics common then have for the most part disappeared. Ads now purport to make people feel good rather than anxious; the incessant chirping of pharmaceutical commercials nearly manages to make even "nausea," "headache," and "certain sexual side effects" sound upbeat. Yet a classic conflict of interest remains: Advertising sells both ills and their cures, giddily blurring the lines between medicine, nutrition, and hygiene.

In a sense, health is like everything else associated with the needs or wants purchaseable through advertising. Like the amounts of food, clothing, and shelter deemed necessary, "good health" is fluid, varying across cultures and over time. Toothpaste was considered a luxury item in the 1920s. Body fat can be a sign of either health of sickness, depending on the era.

Coca-cola was originally sold as a patent medicine, a brain tonic.

Given the central role of the market in American culture, it’s no surprise that the market has a great deal to do with what we consider healthy and not. Fifteen years ago, depression meant sadness: getting dumped or losing your job. Now it’s something you’re born with. The availability of a drug changed how we defined the problem.

Just as it did back in the day, advertising still aims to define both ill and cure–only the drugs are no longer inert. And thanks to ever-receding FDA regulations, drug marketers have a powerful new tool in direct-to-consumer advertising, particularly TV commercials. Drug commercials, so the reasoning goes, are needed to educate consumers of available options–a curious argument considering that, even when given the chance, drug advertisers do just about everything they can to avoid discussing the problem and the product. A quick run through the dial shows most drug ads going for the educational punch of an old Hallmark commercial.

As drug companies continue to push the envelope on what’s permissible, advertising is likely to have an even greater role in shaping cultural notions of illness. For example, when it comes to advertising, the more symptons–and the more noticeable, painful, and embarrasing the symptoms–the better, because the easier it is to sell to consumers; that is, the more likely the illness will be self-diagnosed. And drugs for self-diagnosed ills–allergies, weight-reduction rather than cholesterol or blood pressure–are those seeing the greatest boost from commercials. Eskimos may have 14 words for snow, but we’ve now got just as many for allergy symptoms. In the same way that the availability of a drug such as Prozac can define an illness, televisibility now figures in.

As fluid as good health is, there is a constant that spans time and culture: the placebo effect. Believing in a treatment helps. Needs and wants are fluid precisely because physical health is intricately tied with the emotional. Headache remedies provide temporary relief from agonizing coworkers; baldness drugs combat low self-esteem. It’s no real shocker, then, that a new batch of prescription drug ads could just as well be ads for cars, jeans, or carbonated beverages. Pills, like goods, aren’t sold for their physical properties–obscure chemical names and compounds–any more than jeans are sold for rivets, or colas for carbonation. Coke adds life, Think Different, etc. Just mentioning something as mundane as hemlines in an ad can be a real downer; people are more interested in turning work into play, developing satisfying relationships, and getting laid.

A 1970 ad for Valium directed to doctors treating "unmarrieds with low self-esteem." Click image for larger version.

To cash in on the success of tranquilizers, over-the-counter pain relievers such as Anacin started promoting their analgesics as mood changers and antidepressants.

It is, in other words, eerily fitting for drugs to be sold as consumer products, for products–whether cookies, diet drinks, or cigarettes–have long been sold as drugs, as magical cures. One would be hard-pressed to find a more glaring example of this in action than Snackwells' commercials ("At Snackwell’s we like to think that snacking shouldn’t be about feeding yourself, but feeding your self-esteem."). The jaw-dropping inanity of its claim is matched only by the fact that the same basic strategies for selling health have managed to survive for centuries.

Just like knowledge, art, music, and love, health is packaged to be consumed. Hyper kids once needed strict parents (and perhaps a severe beating), now they get a dose of Ritalin. Seeing the doctor doesn’t really count unless you come away with medicine. Even when feeling good, credit goes to pre-emptive dosing, the stuff you take to avoid getting sick.

Consuming, in other words, is our placebo. Consuming and advertising provide easy temporary solutions to whatever ails. While any true understanding of health should include ways of dealing with and accepting illness, to every problem is promised an ad-like quick fix.

There is another way of looking at placebos, however. Once you can glimpse some company making ridiculous claims about yeast and intestines, or cookies and self-esteem, once you realize that something that’s just sugar, flour, and water can make you feel better, it’s clear that the solution to many ills, however mysterious, already resides within us.

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