Modern ads tells us we are not smart enough or attractive enough and the product or service being sold has the answer to a better life. A recent article about advertising principles mentioned Phrasee, an agency that advocates not targeting these inadequacies of buyers in advertising, which seems to go against the grain of what ads are traditionally thought to do.
There are psychological principles, or neuromarketing, used in ads, that entice people to buy. And neuromarketing does have a dark side, influencing people to buy out of FOMO (fear of missing out), making claims that a product or service will bring happiness, and using high pressure tactics to induce anxiety until a purchase is made.
Do advertisers have an ethical responsibility to not promote products or services promising a ‘better life’ to the people who buy them? Is it the role of brands to consider how their messaging may have a negative impact on someone’s mental health?
Alan LaFrance, a Marketing Strategy Manager believes marketers “absolutely need to be aware of our messaging impact.” With digital ads, everyone competes globally now and advertisers are aggressive for fear of not being seen. LaFrance describes the advertising landscape as “an environment that is ripe for winning business at any cost and the first victim of that will be ethics. “
LaFrance believes ethics are a must regardless of sales figures. “Marketing leadership needs to define those ethical boundaries and make sure that they are upheld… and review and prune out campaigns that don't adhere to these standards. Once that is done, measure the projected impact, adjust the forecasts, and communicate to the company on the new direction we are taking and what that means to them. “
It sounds like a good idea, but is it realistic? In many scenarios, an ad even may promote a solution to an existing mental health issue, when it only exacerbates existing problems.
“As a psychotherapist,” says Patrick Davey Tully, “ I can say the role of advertising has been very instrumental for many clients who have anxiety, as buying products is often a coping skill used by those who have anxiety to lessen worry for the short-term.”
Tully references his clients, some of whom are “gay men buying into the Los Angeles ideal of a wealthy lifestyle. He notes their focus on “looking good to demonstrate one's status as a way to cover up shame about feeling different than people who are straight. It's an unfortunate reality that many gay men overspend to compensate for their anxieties and depression and toxic shame. “
When people buy to feel better, to treat uncomfortable emotions, it becomes a vicious cycle where the problem only continues as debt grows and people feel they need even more.
Katie Ziskind is a therapist also working with many LGBT clients, “who don't fit into this norm of society, masculinity, and femininity” depicted in many of today’s ads. “Watching ads [for something like an SUV] over and over can lead to low self esteem, depression, and shame for not being this cultural stereotype. The ad creates a fantasy desirable life, saying, if you buy this truck, you'll finally be happy, have a beautiful wife and a great life. However, a car is a major purchase, so playing into these cultural insecurities is essential to get a customer's purchase. And, it is important to remember when watching these ads that many people live wonderful lives and have loving relationships driving used cars”
Although some mental health practitioners do address the impact of modern ads on their clients, there is a need to talk to clients about where they receive messages about how their lives should be. Since research indicates people binge shop to alleviate negative emotions, clinicians have extra work to do in the therapy process, while we hope other advertising agencies follow in the footsteps of Phrasee and do their marketing ethically.
Tina Arnoldi, MA is a marketing consultant and freelance writer in Charleston SC. Learn more about her and connect at TinaArnoldi.com