You know you want it

In modern city living, you can’t go very far without coming across some form of advertising. The back cover of a magazine sitting on your coffee table advertises the latest designer watch. At the train station, glossy promotional flyers are thrust into your hands. Walking down Orchard Road, you try in vain to shield your ears from the deafening blare of the latest roadshow promoting some perfume or other.

By Daphne Ong

Advertising goes back a very long way in the history of human civilisation. The first and most common form of advertising in old times must have been by word of mouth, and wall and rock paintings were also common advertising media. The Egyptians were known to have used papyrus sales messages and posters, as were the Greeks and Romans.

As far back as the 17th century, advertisements began appearing in newspapers in England. Since then, it has been evolving and morphing into the forms that we are familiar with today.

Every shape and size
Advertising comes in every shape and form imaginable. The amount of creativity and innovation that has gone into advertising over millennia is not surprising. The very purpose of a particular brand of soda would be strategically placed during a movie? Ever took note of a brand logo placed squarely in the middle of a screen for no apparent reason? That’s product placement for you, craftily woven into entertainment.
Hitting where it matters

Advertising is one of the driving forces behind the retail industry. The bulk of the retail industry does not sell what people need. Hence, to sustain itself, it has to create wants. To do that, it has to shape the perceptions of consumers brand decides to target young, working females.

Next to strategically placed ads where the target audience will surely spot them. Sassy, polished ads of attractive models wearing the clothing make their appearance in women’s magazines, on the sides of buses that pass through the central business district, and on huge posters glaring down at you on Orchard Road.

A young woman walks past a life-size poster, and the sultry model posing in a trendy outfit catches her eye. “She looks really good in that,” she thinks. “Maybe I’ll look good in that too.” The next thing advertising is to capture consumers’ attention, and consumers can be capricious, making constant innovation necessary.

We’re all familiar with the common types of advertisements: print, television, radio, flyers, bus stop ads, billboards and so on. Advertisers are getting more creative as well. Anyone who noticed strange cardboard cows sporadically littered across the island or who can remember the tiger tails attached to the rear end of cars some years ago will understand how a radical approach can grab attention.

A far more subtle but no less widespread form of advertising is incidental exposure in movies and television shows. Ever noticed how and make them believe that they want a particular product or service. Hence, the eye-catching advertisements that assault consumers from countless angles.

And not just any angle. Advertising has practically become a precise science in many ways, and advertisers know exactly who they want to target and the most cost-effective way to do it.

Consider women’s fashion retail. Not many people can say they really need to buy a new outfit every month from their favourite clothing brand. Yet, this is exactly what they do. How does that happen?

It all begins in the mind of the advertiser. The maker of a clothing she does is scan the advertisement for store locations. As she makes a mental note to visit the store at the next opportunity, it barely occurs to her that she already owns a similar looking outfit.
Mission accomplished.

Is that what you really want?
Or are you made to think you want it? Our lifestyles are so saturated with advertising that we hardly give it a second thought, let alone consider the impact it makes on our lives. Singapore is very much a consumerist city, thanks to our growing prosperity, and no thanks to the pervasiveness of advertising. One can almost say that we’ve so grown used to living this way that we’ve been “programmed” to accept advertising and let it persuade us to spend, spend, spend.

Does this make advertising a bad thing? Like many other things in life, the answer is both “yes” and “no”.

Yes, we are being manipulated by advertising. Yes, retailers use it to persuade us to stuff our money into their pockets. Yes, we are made to think that we need these non-essential products and services to fulfil various aspects of our lives.

However, consider the fundamental reason for the existence of advertising in the first place – to increase awareness. If we didn’t have these myriad advertisements, we might never know about the things being advertised. Good consumer decisions are well-informed ones, which is, ironically, often made possible through promotional activities.

The good, the bad and the angry
Many ads make lofty claims and promises, and, with current standards in the country, most are valid. However, every now and then, we hear of consumers writing angry letters to the newspapers or calling retailers and accusing them of not living up to the promises in the advertisements. Once in a while, someone even gets sued.

In failing to live up to expectations, advertisers risk more than a lawsuit. They risk sullying their own reputations by making consumers feel cheated. Instead of attracting more sales as advertising should do, such “false advertising” can do the organisation more harm than good.

Here is where a good balance has to be struck between making ads attractive enough to muscle out competition and not going over the top with overly ambitious claims.

However, in reality, it is tricky to find such a balance. Advertising campaigns can sometimes start with good intentions but veer into an unexpected direction. Regardless of the experience of and market research done by the advertiser, it is not always possible to predict the outcome of a campaign as it is ultimately an experiment in shaping consumer perception.

For the greater good
Advertising is not always about self-serving profit grubbing. It can also be used to perform services for the community.

The public sector is certainly an active participant in world of advertising. Recognising the power of public service advertising, national agencies regularly churn out campaigns to educate the public on various policies or values.

For example, the famous (or infamous) Courtesy Campaign is one that has had many people rolling their eyes, but the fact that it is memorable means that it has already made its impact on the populace.

The next time you see an advertisement on television, on a billboard or in a magazine, don’t just put it out of your mind. Instead, take a second look and think about where it came from, what it’s trying to achieve, and how it impacts you.

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