Bullying in Advertising

by Sam Van Eman

Transcript of this recording:

My daughter just entered middle school. It's the age of bullying, the life spell when kids find their way, sort each other out, make decisions about what fits and what doesn't.

Image by Chesi. Used with permission via Flickr.
Anti-bullying education has been a primary social focus in these first few months of her year. Videos, assemblies with outside speakers, a poster campaign, all of it to postpone the inevitable. Bullying seems to exist as an unavoidable rite of passage, a gauntlet for punishers and those who run between them. Both parties could use the extra help.

I'd like to think we grow out of this painful activity, but election year competition proves we don't. Stand-up comedy sarcasm proves we don't. Prime Time elimination shows prove we don't, especially when nationally televised audiences inflict flagrant disapproval upon the serious souls who risk self-esteem to stand before them.

And what of advertising? One print ad for Nike lacrosse cleats reads, "Made with absolutely positively no regard for your opponent's feelings." Blatancy looks more like exaggerated humor than bullying. I knew a lacrosse player who beat his head against the wall before games to stimulate adrenaline. If he thinks a shoe will boost his dominance over competitors (who wear the same laced promise), who can reason with him? He's a bully who feeds on being bullied.

Advertising works more often in subtleties. Though not regarded as a chief perpetrator of meanness, advertising—the sort we criticize for doing harm in the world—leaves its mark, whittling with a slow and consistent stroke. Consider the following example.

A magazine advertisement for the 2013 Lexus ES states, "May cause technolust." Creatively poignant, this phrase, though it is unclear who it marks as the target. Let's say it's you, the buyer on the lot. Lust is a longing for something you haven't got. You haven't got the all-new, tech-loaded Lexus ES. Lexus makes a light pass at your current status, and insecurity stirs beneath the surface. The seemingly benign expression resembles little of real bullying, perhaps confirming why the insult earns our pardon, if we have caught on to its malice at all.

Lexus 1, Consumer 0.

Now let's say it's your friend, not you, with the technolust. You converted $40,000 into magnificent wheels, and the showroom still lingers in the seat leather and bamboo trim around you. Your friend slides in and sins a little.

Lexus 2, Consumer 1, Friend 0.

Lexus gives you permission to do this stirring. You're nice about it, of course. Your friend is your friend. But condescension is never kind. Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn, we're told. Instead, Lexus says, Rejoice when others mourn, mourn when others rejoice. 

Causing technolust isn't giving someone a swirly; it is a pricking we tolerate because it feels mild, clever even.

The call to become good neighbors requires abstinence, a willingness to set aside predictable factors that aggravate others' weaknesses. I can't stop advertisers from bullying. But I can refuse to play the accomplice; the bully who feeds on bullying. And maybe, if I employ some of the tools my daughter and her friends are learning in middle school this year, I can learn to ignore the pricking. Enough of us doing the same might even make the bullies go away.         

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Live with Flair December 3, 2012 at 8:14 PM  

This is smart, and I've never before noticed the obvious "bullying" in advertising before. Wow. You wonder where we learn it from.

David R December 4, 2012 at 12:12 PM  

I would have never thought of it this way, but how much of advertising is about dominance? The people who use a product are smarter, savvier, wiser. And yes, Sam, that's a bully.

Sam Van Eman December 4, 2012 at 12:18 PM  

Such a powerful tool/weapon, Heather.

David, that's an accurate word. Eden is at the center and we're all trying to break through the next concentric circle to reach it. Advertising has made a fortune on entrance tickets.

Anonymous,  December 6, 2012 at 6:13 AM  

Sam, it's clear that advertisers feed on our deepest fears and longings, which unfortunately encompass the darker side of humanity: lust, greed, status, power, attraction, etc. This is how advertising flourishes. The "non-bullying" advertising I've seen takes us down a more inspirational path - do good, find a bigger purpose in life, etc. But those are rare.

Loren Pinilis December 29, 2012 at 1:11 PM  

Bullying occurs because we think bringing someone else down brings us up. So I can see that same mindset carrying over into advertising. We don't want to just keep up with the Joneses, we want to be better than them. It's ultimately not about belongings or comfort - it's about status.

Sam Van Eman January 2, 2013 at 10:42 AM  

Brad, I wish they weren't so rare.

Loren, thanks for stopping by. You are right about the dual action of bringing down and bringing up. We are so insecure, aren't we? Willing to hurt others--even our friends--to feed the hunger for fulfillment.

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