Fighting Cynicism

I often want to be hip and in the know.  I don’t think I’m the only one.  And frequently this urge manifests itself in sarcasm, cynicism or being snide.

Are we living in a time where this urge is perhaps more prevalent than others? So much so that we’re beginning to see a backlash?

Some see the Obama phenoma as evidence of such a backlash.  I’ll abstain from that debate.  Besides, I’ve got a better piece of evidence.

In Advertising Age —‘of all places,’ I’m tempted to say—we find Snide Advertising is Bad for Business and Society,  by Richard Rapaport. He dissects some of the snarkier, hipper ads on TV today—ads by FedEx, Budweiser,

I don’t think of advertising as a bastion of expansive social thinking; much less of a philosophy linking social well-being and business profits. I think of it as a center of cynicism, actually. And yet, read these few snippets (and remember, this writing appears in Advertising Age):

There are few barometers so reflective of modern life as TV advertising. It makes sense. Take the culture’s most facile minds, challenge them to pry cash from an increasingly tapped-out audience, and what do you get? Commercials built on sadism, on derision, on one-upsmanship — in a word, "snide."

If you look up "snide," you find synonyms such as "sarcastic" and "malicious." Snide advertising possesses a governing syntax that demands, to begin with, sacrificial victims…

Another building block of snide advertising is physical aggression…

Snideness is the leitmotif of sexy slapstick that predominates in ads for domestic beer bottlers, the bottom feeders of American advertising…

The bottom line of snide advertising is a kind of Darwinian "survival of the snappiest," requiring that you get the last word in any exchange and that it be a "gotcha."

… the crux of snide advertising [is] the ability to communicate that you and your product are too hip to so much as work up a spit to actually sell the merch; that the very process of making the ad, like most other human endeavors these days, is barely worth the effort.

…It behooves marketing professionals to understand the difference between subtle irony and idiot snideness and aim for an advertising denominator cognizant of the maxim that expansive, confident consumers part with their cash far more readily than do angry, fearful ones.

When the purveyors of pitch are telling us not to foul the nest—maybe there’s something going on?

3 replies
  1. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    My complaint against commercials is not about cynicism per se so much as about lack of effectiveness.

    The first rule of advertising is: make the product the hero.

    And yet, the narrative and subtext of so many commercials on American tv amount to: our product is used by losers and petty sadists; if you choose to associate with our product, you are flagging yourself as one of them.

    The ads may impress the rest of the hip in-group around the agency water cooler with their ironic statements about society, but they don’t make me want to buy the product (or be associated with it in any way), which means they don’t serve the agency client.

    I can forgive talented people for a lot of things. I wouldn’t mind cynical ads so much at all if they were good or if they worked. 

  2. BobG
    BobG says:

    Never thought about it until this moment. Perhaps, part of the reason Apple doesn’t have any of  my $$$  – the "smarter, hipper than stupid pc users" angle. Then again, people who have them – love ’em. Nice thought-provoking post, Charles –  the more advertising changes, the more it stays the same. Success comes with building trust and sarcasm rarely does it.

  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Bob, your comment strikes a timely chord with me.  I succumbed to the Mac Mystique once again (the MacBook Air) and am discovering that the limitations of Macs from ten years ago (last time I did this) are still here–in spades.

    Outlook?  Don’t believe for a minute that Entourage is a substitute.   Run Windows programs on the Mac?  Not if you want your blackberry to sync with them.   And the Mac addicts some oddly oblivious to these feature-limited applications.

    You’re right, the holier than thou ad campaign makes it sting far worse than if it were just a software deficiency.


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