This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the debate we had on this site a couple of weeks ago about the Ford advert, and Ciaran’s challenge in one of the comments: that, because intrinsic values (such as those used to help sell cars in the advert) are antagonistic to extrinsic values, there is little danger of confusing people into thinking that intrinsic values can be pursued through buying a car.

Ciaran Mundy wrote:

"If the thesis is that eliciting intrinsic values leads to more pro-environmental behaviors, transcendent view of self etc. then Ford are doing us all a favour with the ad. Is it possible to co-opt such deeper values for such ends in the the long run? One could argue that if most advertising were like this, rather than appealing to the usual aspects of our fears and insecurities, status, immediate physical desires etc. then overall, people would be less interested in buying new cars, or anything else for that matter."

To which Tim Kasser replied:

“I’d like to comment on the question about whether Ford is “doing us a favor” by even mentioning intrinsic values. My sense is that they are not doing us a favor, for, as others have pointed out, they link intrinsic values (primarily for community feeling and probably affiliation as well) with the act of consumption.”

Thinking about this point of difference led me to think about various aspects of a marketing campaign - the impact of the physical product (or service) it sells, the values it helps to promulgate (often these are unrelated to the product), and the conjunction of these two things (the perception that certain desirable goals/values are to be pursued through the acquisition of a product or service - a perception that will exacerbate materialism).

Trying to unpack these things led me to wonder whether we can begin to develop a decision-tree for responsible advertising? Here are some initial thoughts. I know at one level, the response to this might be 'no advertising's good advertising', but bear with me a moment. If that is our ultimate conclusion, I still want to go through the thought process!

Setting aside for a moment concerns about how sustainable a product is, I see two probable cognitive effects of advertisements:

  1. They may serve to legitimise and reinforce certain values, irrespective of any product link. (In the case of the Ford advert, the advert may have served to support the emergence of a set of intrinsic values; other adverts serve to activate a set of extrinsic values).
  2. They probably serve to link these values to a particular product. That, I guess, is the definition of materialism - the desire to pursue aims in one's life through the acquisition of material things? So to the extent that advertisements link desirable goals to products they fuel materialism. And many studies show that materialism is antagonistic to social and environmental concern.

I want to consider these two effects in relation to a few different advertisements.

Exhibit A: An advertisement that appeals to a set of extrinsic values

lynx-greed-is-good

It's an advert for Lynx deodorant in which women in underwear are spelling out 'Greed is Good'. The strap-line is 'Spray more, get more: The Lynx Effect'. But some culture jammers have been at it, too.

So what about this advert? In respect of the first effect, these values are unhelpful (to say the least). So the advertisement scores negatively here.

In regard to the second effect, the advertisement suggests that something some people may want to pursue (an extrinsic goal – power over women in this case) can be pursued through buying an object (a type of deodorant). This reinforces a set of materialistic values. Materialism, we know, is counterproductive in the emergence of social and environmental concern. So the advert scores negatively here, too.

Conclusion for Exhibit A:
Leaving aside the ‘material’ impacts of an advertisement (whether what it seeks to sell is socially or environmentally positive), advertisements appealing to extrinsic values are cognitively unhelpful. (Note that this is recognised in some advertising guidelines – voluntary or enforced – that discourage advertisers from using some extrinsic values: for example, the Portman group demands that drinks manufacturers don’t appeal to sexual success to sell alcoholic beverages).

Exhibit B: Intrinsic values (e.g. that Ford ad)

How does this fare in terms of our two cognitive effects?

In respect of the first effect, it scores positively – it makes a set of positive intrinsic values more salient.

In respect of the second effect, to the extent that the advertisement successfully creates the impression that these intrinsic goals can be pursued through the purchase of a car, the advertisement is likely to accentuate materialism and is therefore undesirable. This is where Tim’s point (see the quote above) comes in.

So we need to ask whether the negative impact of the second effect here more than outweighs the positive impact of the first effect. That’s not obvious, it seems to me.

So much for the 'cognitive' impacts of marketing. What about the 'material' impacts?

What about the environmental or social impact of the product – the ‘material’ effects that the advertisement has if it leads to more units of the product being sold? We might ask: “Does the product (or service) embody intrinsic values?”

Selling an organic box scheme through appeal to intrinsic values (perhaps, an increased sense of community) seems honest, if we accept that organic box schemes do genuinely build social capital. Does such an advertisement still risk fuelling materialism? Maybe. I don't know.

And if we admit intrinsic advertising of a box-scheme, on the grounds that the scheme is socially and environmentally beneficial, then where do we draw the line? Sale of organic food in a supermarket? Sale of locally produced furniture made from unsustainably sourced wood?

Exhibit C: 'Wedge' advertising

ikea_less

Here is my last exhibit. I call this ‘wedge’ marketing. It is selling a kitchen through appeal to intrinsic values (quality of family life) but its not suggesting that the product embodies these values. Its strapline is "have a life outside work - you can afford to". The proposition is not that your new IKEA kitchen embodies the intrinsic goal of a high quality family life (which would have been attempted by showing a happy family sharing a meal around an IKEA kitchen). The proposition is that you should spend less money, earn less, and spend more time with your family. It drives a wedge between the product and the intrinsic values. There is no attempt to directly embody the values in the product.

Does this advertisement have a positive cognitive impact? Or is it just a more subtle and perhaps dangerous appeal to intrinsic values?

Maybe you can help think these issues through? Then we can jointly develop a decision tree, to raise some of the pertinent questions for marketers-with-a-conscience to think through when faced with a new brief – before we dismiss all advertising as inherently bad.