Kindness in Advertising: “A little dab’ll do ya”

“If you want to be a rebel, be kind.” (Pancho Ramos Stierle)

Attribution: Donna CameronDuring my career in the nonprofit world, I was privileged for a time to work with a trade association representing the floral industry in the U.S. and Canada. These were tremendous people who grew flowers and plants, and who sold them at the wholesale and retail levels. They were artists, farmers, business-people, and were extremely generous with their time, their product, and their talent. It’s an industry without a large profit margin and one very dependent on weather and growing conditions. Holidays are also an essential element of the industry’s success.

Invariably, as we approached a major floral holiday, such as Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, the airwaves would be filled with negative advertising wherein one industry would promote itself by putting down another. Jewelry stores often encouraged sales of necklaces, bracelets, and rings by saying things like “Flowers wilt, diamonds are forever.” Or a posh resort would advertise that “Chocolates will be forgotten in a week, but memories of a romantic weekend at Lavish Lodge will last a lifetime.” Or “Give Mom something that won’t die in a week; give her {fill in any product eager for sales, from appliances to footwear}.”

As an industry, we were frustrated to be the target of negative advertising, but we were also committed to not perpetuating it. So, whenever we started to see ads that criticized our members’ products to promote alternative gifts, we countered with kindness.

We usually sent a letter saying something along the lines of: “We were sorry to see that you are promoting jewelry sales for Valentine’s Day by disparaging flowers for their impermanence. This is disappointing. Your jewelry is so lovely that you should have no need to elevate it by criticizing another product. We encourage you to reconsider your advertising strategy and focus on the beauty and desirability of your own product, not the perceived shortcomings of something outside your industry. We love jewelry and hope people will buy jewelry, as well as flowers, to express their love.”

Since many of these advertisers were local businesses, we would often accompany our letter with a beautiful plant or floral arrangement from a florist in the same city.

Often our efforts had no effect, but many times we’d see those ads pulled from TV or radio and replaced by an ad which just focused on the positive aspects of the seller’s product, not the perceived deficits of a potential competitor. We frequently received messages of thanks, also stating that henceforth advertising would take a positive, rather than negative, approach.

So What?

Why am I thinking of this, when it’s been 20 years since I worked with this fine industry? Well, Valentine’s Day is just days away and we’re already seeing and hearing advertisers who still think the best way to promote their product is by demeaning another. Often it’s not the advertiser, but an ad agency that has bought into the zero sum game philosophy that one can only win by making someone else lose.

Perhaps in the scheme of things this is a “small potatoes” issue. Who really cares what one advertiser says about another, especially in a society where choosing among jewelry, flowers, or fashionable electronics is what we might call a “first world problem”? But it’s not just in advertising that we see this pervasive attitude. Sadly, it reflects the times we’re living in. Think about much of the political speech that bombards us: are politicians making a well-reasoned and well-supported case for their position, or are they using divisive rhetoric to tear down an opposing position?

There seems to be a certain laziness involved here. It may be easier to attack and vilify than to take the time to examine information and then communicate it in a constructive manner. More and more, it seems that the media, and even our own daily conversations, are filled with choosing negative over positive, choosing to attack rather than engage or advocate.

We see it when politicians respond to questions about their policies or proposals by attacking either the questioner or another public figure with different views. I always want to say, “If you can’t defend your position logically and civilly, then maybe it’s indefensible.” I also wonder if individuals who are incapable of reasoning and formulating coherent and logical statements belong in positions of great responsibility. Whether we are voting for people to serve on a school board, town council, U.S. Senate, or President, we owe it to our nation to advance candidates who are committed to building rather than destroying, to cooperating rather than blaming.

We are living in a time when many people seem to find it easier to negate, mock, accuse, or criticize, rather than elevate, engage, discuss, or even think. Perhaps if we can listen with more discernment—whether to advertising, pundits, politicians, or our own friends and acquaintances—we might be more apt to recognize when rhetoric is weak and substance is absent.

Interestingly, there exists an Advertising Slogan Hall of Fame. It currently recognizes 125 advertising catchphrases for their memorability and effectiveness in promoting a product or service. These include such familiar lines as: Snap! Crackle! Pop! … Finger lickin’ good … Say it with flowers … Good to the last drop … Cats ask for it by name. None, you will notice, are slogans that demean or degrade another product. There’s a lesson here.

As we approach Valentine’s Day and other gift-giving holidays, pay attention to how advertisers promote their products. And as we approach another election season (sigh), pay attention to how politicians promote their positions. It takes practice, but honing our skills as astute and discerning listeners is an important step in restoring and preserving our civil society.

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” (Paulo Coelho)

17 thoughts on “Kindness in Advertising: “A little dab’ll do ya”

  1. What a nice message. I think it’s lazy writing, rather than acrimony that leads to those types of advertising headlines, but I agree that there is no reason to go negative. As far as politicians go, I won’t give them the same benefit of the doubt. They go negative because they are often lazy, acrimonious, liers, weak, hateful, etc. (yes, I know I just went negative there 🙂 ).

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think you’re right about the advertisers just looking for an easy angle, Janis. And also right that malice is generally at the root of the politician’s motive for going negative. Sadly, they’ve seen it work, so they follow suit and perpetuate the practice.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you, Donna! Such a timely message… Your post reminds me of the trap of scarcity mindset, fear-based decision making, and the drawbacks of competition. Such a nice reminder that we can only go where we are looking, and if we are only ever looking at what we oppose, we don’t make much progress toward what we aspire to. Have a wonderful weekend, my friend! 😊

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yes, Cathy, it is fear-based decision making, isn’t it? Along with the belief that winning isn’t winning unless the other guy also loses. I’m hopeful that with more women in politics and leadership that dynamic will change. Unless the dynamic changes the women…. Let’s hope not. Time will tell. Hope you have a great weekend, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. We humans have a ‘negative bias’; it kept us alive when we were cave people; seems like the habit lingers in our cells, even the ones belonging to advertisers and politicians! Thoughtful, kind post, thank you, G

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, interesting! I hadn’t thought about an inborn negative bias that once may have served us. Something like the fight-or-flight response that was essential to survival when we were chased by mastodons, but can be toned down in the 21st century. Thanks so much, that’s something to mull over….

      Liked by 2 people

  4. After another long week of bleak and darkening news, I’m afraid my own negativity runneth over. Today is Super Bowl Sunday, the Mount Everest of advertising, and the perfect metaphor for the zero-sum game mindset of too many politicians: corporate owned, bazillion$ spent to bedazzle the masses in order to rake in bazillion$ more; the clueless quarterback casually tossing the nuclear football around, all of them brain damaged, jacked up on destroying The Other. Good thing there’s plenty of hot dogs and beer!

    Your positive perspective is much needed and appreciated, Donna, and I agree with your reasonable thoughts and suggestions. Our “civil society” seems to be threadbare and shredding fast. We desperately need a better-educated populace, many of whom have NO critical thinking (or listening or dialoguing) skills to begin with, let alone to hone. Those who do have the skills, of course, by all means, use ’em!

    (My apologies to football fans for the rather disparaging analogy. I’m not anti-sports, just sick of politics. The world will look much brighter, I’m sure, after I’ve watched my own favorite sport spectacular later today: the Puppy Bowl.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I wrote this, Kris, I didn’t even think about the Super Bowl and the advertising circus that surrounds it. I confess, I’ve yet to watch a Super Bowl, and probably never will. I heard that a 1-minute spot cost something like $6 million. Think how many people that much money could help if the companies earmarked those advertising dollars to the homeless, or feeding the hungry, or rebuilding Puerto Rico, or . . . ? The Puppy Bowl does sound a whole lot more entertaining and fun. I’m sick of politics, too, my friend. Never imagined that greed, intolerance, and lies would become acceptable among so many—or that countering them would lead to controversy. Maybe we need daily Puppy Bowls to regain our perspective and restore our values. Thanks, as always, for your very thoughtful words and outlook.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post!! I love that you sent them letters and THEY CHANGED! Letters are gold. I really think we can change the world — the pen really is mightier than the sword—It may take time, but I love hearing stories like that! Total non-sequitur, but I bought three varieties of small potatoes at the farmers market this weekend, so I laughed when you said small potatoes. I’m very excited to eat my small potatoes. Hahaha.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. If I hear or read a negative ad, I will do everything in my power to avoid supporting that advertiser. One of the worst offenders is trial attorneys advertising on TV. It’s a real turnoff. If you can’t promote your company with positivity, what does that say about it or you?

    Liked by 1 person

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