The value of babies and stuff

I received a New Baby announcement in the mail this week. It came from good friends and I was happy to hear the news. In crude terms, the card was a simple advertisement. The family told us about their product: a beautiful child, a boy; and inferred the benefits of welcoming him into our lives: happiness, hope, reminder of new life...

Of course, I don't see their child as a product, and the card did not strike me as advertising in any of the disordered ways we may be influenced to consume. In fact, the following thoughts came to mind only after it sat on my desk for several days in a moment when I was reflecting on two general characteristics of advertising:

1) Declaration of value.
2) Invitation to enjoy this value.

I'm pretty sure all advertising performs these two basic functions. In a similar way, so does the baby card. What perplexed me was why advertising doesn't work more often like the card, or, more clearly said, why the card doesn't feel like an advertisement at all, even if it (generally) acts like one.

Here's a partial reason for the difference. Actually two. Advertising veers away from the beauty of my friends' announcement when it commits either or both of these offenses: 1) The declaration of value fails to match the delivery of value. 2) The values we are invited to enjoy fail at being valuable.

In the first, I'm mislead; in the second, mistreated.

Years ago, I bought a camping tent that promised durability. I expected this value to come with the declaration. It didn't. I'm quite particular with my belongings and have made this tent work - without failure - for many years. However, sans meticulous care, it would have failed soon after we got it, and I think about this point every time I set it up and tear it down. I was mislead because of the conflict between declaration and delivery. The declaration of value failed to match the delivery of value.

It's true that, in a sense, my poor tent value is a form of customer mistreatment. But I wasn't completely mistreated because I wasn't completely mislead. Do you follow? It has been a great tent and, though I've had to be extra gentle, it still does what a tent is supposed to do. I was only mislead on the one point about durability. So a more poignant example of mistreatment can be seen in this Nissan advertisement:

They're being partly facetious, but no copy editor would choose to write "Envy. Terrible to feel. Wonderful to provoke." if a significant percentage of car buyers wasn't actually motivated by insecurity. I've whined about bullying before and I'll do it again now. Companies have control over customer treatment, especially when it comes to the messages they use to declare and invite via advertising. Bullying always mistreats. It may, in a roundabout way, state a deliverable value, but the end doesn't justify the means.

In the case of this magazine ad, I'm mistreated as a customer because the value - making others jealous - is all chaff and no wheat. My insecurity may perceive this promise as worthwhile, but it really isn't. The value we're invited to enjoy fails at being valuable.

Obviously tents and sedans can't be compared with children, but a truth remains. We admire companies that exceed our value expectations and treat us with human dignity, which is exactly what my friends' New Baby card did. It pointed to value I can't possibly estimate and made me enjoy being human.

What if all advertising did this?


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