OK, we are all pretty up on the concept of advertising at this point. Not to say that ads don’t have an effect on us (they do), but when it comes to the reasoning behind most ad campaigns, we savvy media consumers are hip to what’s going on. They’re trying to sell us something. We get it. So what do we do with ads that let us “in” on the joke?
Take this Kotex U ad, for example. The woman featured in the ad makes fun of typical tampon advertising, and by doing so she’s saying, “We know you’re too smart for this stuff, so we won’t insult you by employing the usual tactics here.” The catch is, this is still an advertisement. The point of the ad is to gain our respect so that we’ll spend money on Kotex tampons instead of those other tampons that insult us by using blue liquid to represent period blood. We know this, because the Kotex ad also uses blue liquid to represent period blood, but in an ironic way. Get it?
I am throwing this concept, which I am calling self-aware advertising, out here on the Mad World discussion blog because I kind of don’t know what to do with it. Should we be glad that organizations who want to sell us stuff are attempting to be funny and “get it”, or should we be extra pissed off because we’re getting double-hoodwinked? Because the truth here, IMHO, is that companies that use these too-cool-for-school ads are not, as they’d like us to think, pushing any sort of envelope or throwing off the shackles of conventional advertising norms. In fact, they are simply reinforcing them by using tried and true persuasive tactics disguised as edginess. If you get it, then you are cool enough to spend money on the product. Advertising Mission: Accomplished.
Another example (or actually, tons of examples, because this happens just about every other episode of this show) of this inside joke-y tactic can be seen on 30 Rock. Behold:
Get it? It’s like, Tina Fey knows we’re too smart to fall for simple product placements, so she writes them into the script and lets us in on the joke, making the butt of the joke that evil corporate villain Verizon Wireless who is forcing these creative types to shill cell phones. But who’s really the butt of the joke here? Two of the three players in this scenario (Verizon, 30 Rock, and us) are laughing all the way to the bank. And guess what? We’re not a part of that bank-visiting, gut-busting group. The writers at 30 Rock know that by using this self-aware technique they can get paid by Verizon and still appear to be subversive. By doing that, they’re endearing both themselves (for being so subversive) and Verizon (for being a part of the subversive joke) to us as consumers. So the “subversive” ad results in two gigantic corporations making money by selling a lifestyle concept (the shrewd consumer who “gets it”) to a mass audience. How not at all groundbreaking!
The first time I remember seeing this tactic used (and I’d love to hear your examples because I’m just going on memory here) was in this Sprite campaign:
Here, Sprite uses a celebrity spokesperson (Grant Hill) to make fun of the concept of celebrity spokespeople. Again, while masquerading as a refreshingly honest commercial that rejects conventional industry tropes, this ad reinforces the value of a celebrity spokesperson by acting too cool for it while actually just partaking in it (notice how Sprite is the “official drink of the NBA”). The joke is for us, but it is also on us. It’s like that friend you have that dresses like a homeless person but lives in a $3,000/month loft in Williamsburg – the authenticity just isn’t there.
Still, our foreseeable media future contains a shitload of advertising (not all media outlets are independent like your pal Bitch Media! Booyah!) and so instead of rejecting all advertising messages we are charged with the task of thinking critically about them. Is this style of self-aware advertising better or worse than ads that don’t try (or pretend to try) to let consumers behind the scenes? Oh, and be sure to add your own examples of self-aware advertising in the comments section!
This project was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH’s grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.