Ad folk, help the suffering rich

"According to a study from Information Resources, Inc., the lagging economy is driving a dramatic move back to basics and a reversal of decades-long trends for convenient and healthier foods. Roughly half of all consumers with incomes less than $55,000 per year say they have trouble affording the groceries they need, while nearly a quarter of those earning between $55,000 and $99,000 also say so. Among those with incomes over $100,000, 16% report having trouble."

Center for Media Research and the IRI Economic Trend Database/AttitudeLink, May 2008

Help me to understand this. I work for a non-profit, and with the monthly donations that support my work I barely exceed the poverty level for a family of four in the U.S. I also do the grocery shopping, which means I know exactly what we eat and how much it costs.

We don't live on boxed and canned goods. And though I don't always make it to the organic section, we buy fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy cereals, dark chocolate and good teas. I buy real vanilla extract and maple syrup, too, because I don't like artificial anything (I posted about "faux" several times in April. See this one for starters.)

Certainly I worry about losing financial supporters when the economy wavers like it is, and if that did happen I would change some of my shopping habits. But 16% of people making more than $100,000 per year "have trouble affording the groceries they need"?! Are you serious?

When I talk about my own situation, I'm not pulling the poor card. We have a nice car and put our girls in dance. We take vacations and have money in savings. So I just can't wrap my head around thinking that these folks are having trouble.

Questions to consider:
1. How has the culture-saturating presence of advertising facilitated some of this distortion?

2. As an advertiser, how might your work improve the way people view need and want? If your boss gave you the audacious goal of decreasing this statistic from 16% to 10%, how would you do it through advertising?


Mark Goodyear June 27, 2008 at 1:27 PM  

Man, your first question hits home.

Before father's day I was looking at the newspaper special ads and joking with my wife: "Look, some father's get riding lawn mowers for Father's Day."

Then I realized what I'd done. I let the ads suggestion that someone COULD buy a riding lawn mower turn into my own personal assumption that someone WOULD.

Not sure how this relates to groceries. We're about at the same income level as you--and we eat ok.

Sam Van Eman June 27, 2008 at 1:54 PM  

Great personal insight, Mark. I always find those to be helpful, and thought-provoking since they're so unexpected and telling.

Matt Reffie June 30, 2008 at 6:35 PM  

Merely as an observer, I find that advertising often greatly influences our spending priorities.

It is most noticeable when observing someone else's spending habits. Like a friend well below the poverty line who purchases CDs & jewelry before groceries, or a relative that will go out for dinner and a movie regularly before saving up to fix their car.

There seems to be a definite 'your life should look like this advertisement' pitch that tends to influence us more than much else.

Sam Van Eman July 1, 2008 at 2:24 PM  

Hey, Matt. Thanks for joining in.

Whatever advertising does or doesn't do, the Mr. Hyde version of it certainly doesn't condone contentment and "fasting" from unnecessary purchases. I'm not actually convinced that it creates needs, but it rarely convinces us to go without meeting current needs. And like you said, that's often fairly easy to see in others (and in ourselves).

L.L. Barkat July 2, 2008 at 10:18 AM  

Sam, hmmm.... for some reason I thought you were in advertising, but you say here that you work for a non-profit. I'm clearly confused! :)

If people making $100,000 are having trouble buying groceries, I think this must be related to overspending in other areas and maybe carrying too much debt. As a consumer, I pretty much have chosen to ignore advertising. I canceled all my catalogs and I don't watch TV (mostly because I don't enjoy TV).

Yesterday, I went clothes shopping for the first time in a long time. I felt overwhelmed by the experience. So much stuff, and pictures of gorgeous people on banners everywhere. It felt unrelated to the real life I live.

By night time, I was feeling down and unlovely. It amazed me that one day out could have such an effect! (This morning I was thinking that on-line shopping might be a better bet.) I don't know that I could blame advertisers for my experience, though it would be awfully comforting to locate the blame outside myself. :)

Sam Van Eman July 2, 2008 at 12:31 PM  

Yes, it's always nice to blame someone else. (I'd even like to blame someone else for confusing you about where I work. Alas, there is no one in the room but me.)

I work for the CCO, a non-profit organization that partners with colleges, churches and other organizations to develop men and women who live out their Christian faith in every area of life ( One of those areas is advertising.

I've been interested in ad critique for most of the past decade and wrote a book on it in 2005. One of the work items I enjoy most is visiting marketing-related classrooms to encourage students toward faithfulness and change in the industry.

I hope that helps you with the connection.

Yvonne July 2, 2008 at 2:47 PM  

I can appreciate your critique of advertising as it is connected to American spending. It really is a shock that those in the $100k bracket even struggle with groceries.

Perhaps it depends on what kind of groceries they are buying, or where their spending priorities are?

I often feel isolated from most commercials and advertisements, or at least I attempt to be isolated from it. It creates too much noise (literally and visually on TV or otherwise).

I wonder if the reverse of spending superfluously is not only not spending on things you don't need but also not allowing yourself to spend on things you really do need. I feel like I fall into this a lot.

Sam Van Eman July 2, 2008 at 3:54 PM  

Yvonne, I'm curious about the last paragraph in your comment:

"...not spending on things you don't need but also not allowing yourself to spend on things you really do need. I feel like I fall into this a lot."

Do say more.

Second, I know you're an artist. What do you think of the art in advertising? Is it valuable? valid? muted by the products it carries?

Thanks for chiming in!

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