Lies and manipulation, that's what. But that's old news. Why is the author grumbling now?
"A truth told with bad intent
Beats all the lies we can invent"
- William Blake
We sell or else
Credit cards, when first introduced in India, were aptly described by a satirist as 'that magical plastic card people use to buy stuff that they don't need, with the money that they don't have.'
Well, that pretty much sums up what we do in advertising, with our marketing counterparts as our partners-in-crime. We use all possible psychological and physiological tricks in the trade to make people buy more and more of our products and services. And most of the time, it is stuff that they don't really need. By the time they realise this, we sell them another option called Olx.
We first lure people into getting fat, by selling them unhealthy food, colas and what not, only to later sell gym memberships, exercise bikes, aerobic classes and power yoga to help get them back in shape.
Thank God, our consumers are a bunch of extremely emotional beings. It is due to this trait that we can nudge them from time to time and meticulously construct appropriate 'framing contexts' so as to capitalise on their fears and insecurities. And that's when things get really nasty.
FOMO - Fear of missing out
It's no coincidence that every time we add an item to our online shopping cart; it comes with a tag - 'last piece left.' Now, creating a false sense of urgency is still harmless and perhaps more acceptable. It involves only economic/monetary loss. In pure economic terms, an opportunity cost lost, which could have been better utilised for something else.
Manipulating emotions, fears and insecurities
If consumers have a less-than-fully-rational belief, brands often have more incentives to cater to that belief than eradicate it. Long ago, when people were still afraid of flying, it was common to sell them flight insurance at exorbitant prices. Come monsoon, and we start playing on the fear psychosis of mosquito-related diseases (malaria/dengue) and start pushing all sorts of mosquito repellents.
For long, cosmetic brands have been cashing in on the insecurities of women and mercilessly used societal prejudices, all in their bid to sell their beauty products. (Maybe she's born with it. Maybe its Maybelline.)
This is not just regressive; it's actually dangerous, as it can have long-term psychological effects. Noted dancer and entrepreneur Chen Lizra made a very interesting point about how the US economic embargo imposed on Cuba had actually helped build the confidence of thousands of young Cuban girls. There weren't any Maybellines or Revlons of the world or their regressive advertising, leading to a whole generation of young girls who grew up with a supreme sense of confidence and comfort about their own looks and body types.
But this is something we all know. It's something we've made peace with when we signed up for a career in advertising. Why am I cribbing now? I recently came across a product that, even to a thick-skinned guy like me, is not ethical and therefore not acceptable.
To my mind, SBI Life, with its new 'Sampoorn Cancer Suraksha' policy, has pushed the envelope way too far. It's a new medical insurance policy that gives fabulous schemes to people in case they ever suffer from the deadly disease.
Here's the catch: Unlike certain medical policies specifically made for diabetic patients or for senior citizens, this one is a 'future focused', non-linked health insurance product; it's not a rider or an add-on. It's a separate product that can be purchased by anyone between 5-65 years.
To my mind, it's absolutely inhuman and unethical to plant a seed of doubt in a healthy person's mind, saying, 'You know what...even if you don't smoke, even if you are not exposed to harmful radiations, even if you wake up in the morning and go for a run, even if you have just finished a rigorous trip to Ladakh... even then... you are not safe. So buy a cancer protection policy today.' In their bid to create line extensions, the brand is actually creating an indelible scar in the psyche of the viewer.
In an increasingly uncertain and fearful world with political unrest, religious fanaticism and global terrorism, people expect brands to show them hope and optimism. Is it right for brands to make them fearful, instead? Are we stooping too low to increase our top lines?
The sad part of being an ad man
Now thankfully, I don't work for the agency that handles the brand nor am I the planner on the account. So I can voice my disgust. But tomorrow, I might be forced to work on the project and come up with an evocative communication plan. And that's what I hate the most about being an ad-man. At times, even if we are not convinced ourselves, we still go ahead and convince millions of unsuspecting people, simply because we have the power to rule over their emotions because we are gifted with the creativity and imagination to manipulate them.
The pity is that while the marketing and advertising fraternity is being strengthened by the best creative and imaginative brains, we're being drained of a very basic human trait - sensitivity.
(The author is head, brand strategy, Cheil India)