When I decided to major in English, everyone and their mother (and father, sister, brother, dog) was quick to tell me there is no work out there for anyone studying literature. A common suggestion I’ve gotten is advertising, although to be fair, it’s still not really the line of work I’m interested in. Advertisers don’t sell products; they sell a lifestyle, a sentiment. What who better to fabricate this campaign than a storyteller? The product itself long ago ceased to matter. What people buy now is something bigger than themselves, something to be a part of. That’s just the truth.
Or rather, that’s what I thought. The commercials I always remembered from my childhood were drenched in contrived sentimentality. A coffee commercial featuring a beautiful white family reunited around the coffee pot at Christmas. A jewelry commercial, featuring two impossibly beautiful people, committing to a fairy tale-like engagement. These kinds of commercials weave fantasies that were impossible to actually believe, but were still irresistible.
More recently, though, it seems there’s been a shift in consumer tastes. Has the market narrative become oversaturated with so many unattainable fantasies that the consumer base burned out? Are people tired of seeing a lifestyle they know to be fake and fabricated to be fed to them? Does the old ‘razzle dazzle’, as it were, no longer shine? Because what I’ve seen more recently in advertising is a bit more sneaky, and very effective.
If the consumers want the truth, they’ll get it. Because now, advertisers are trying to sell ‘reality’, and it’s selling well. But as advertisers are taking a hard tack towards portraying what is “real” and cutting out the phony, what kind of reality are they selling us?
First, think of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which in 2006 released their “Evolution” ad, which featured a behind the scenes look at all the styling, makeup and photoshop it took for a model to land on a billboard. The film ends with the text “no wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.” At no point in the video is Dove’s product ever showcased; instead, the advertisers chose to expose the beauty industry for their lies. This makes Dove seem authentic and trustworthy as a brand, because we’re lead to believe Dove is not selling us fantasies but the truth.
Last year, Reebok chose to run an ad that is frankly perplexing. The ad featured a group of diverse men and women working out under grueling conditions, the description explaining that this ad was dedicated to those who work “not for bright lights or money, but to simply be the best version of themselves,” ending with the tagline “Be More Human.” What does this imply, that Reebok will sell us back our own humanity, after we gave it up pursuing the glitz of professional sports stars selling athletic equipment? It’s a bizarre and bold claim for an ad to make, but with over 13 million views on Youtube, there’s clearly plenty of us ready to buy back reality.