Commercial Identity

Commercial Identity

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Commercial Identity

This is one of the best essays I ever wrote. It was also the easiest and quickest to write because I had fun doing it. It was amazing how much my writing improved when I decided to have fun with it. "Forced" writing never turns out well no matter how skilled the writer is.

Although girls may tell you they don't judge a guy based on the brand of beer he drinks, they are lying! Bud Light's new spot shows two guys fail miserably when they offer two good looking (surprise, surprise) ladies the wrong beer. The music stops, the pool ball that was about to fall in the corner pocket comes to rest on the edge. "On second thought, how about a Bud Light," says the more studly one. The music is rockin' again. The eight ball catches a drift and falls into the pocket, and those lucky ladies have found some happenin' guys who drink the coolest beer.

The moral of the story is "buy a Bud and be a stud." However, that is not the only message in this commercial. The mere fact that commercials like this are successful indicates that they influence people's identity in society. That is a pretty deep and somewhat abstract statement to make about a commercial with a one sentence plot: "Guy gets girl because guy drinks a really cool beer." However, the statement is true and can easily be supported. Advertising today plays an unusual role in society in that it both reflects and effects our identities.

That 30 second spot told me that I want to be just like those cooler-than-cool-Bud-Light-drinkin' guys. What did they look like? How did they dress? Those 30 seconds leave the viewer a mental picture of what cool is and what they want to be like. Just turn the T.V. on to Sunday afternoon football and you will see a dozen other commercials that support this definition of cool. Cool is being handsome. Cool is having a chick at your side and, most importantly, a beer in hand. (Bud Light, Coors, Miller--It doesn't matter, they all get the ladies.)

Advertisers have certain expectations about their target audience. That is, they assume they know exactly who they are and who they want to be. Commercials try to reflect this on television to greater appeal to a their target audience. For example, football fans like beer, women, and tough cars (not necessarily in that order).

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Is this stereo-typing or simply reflecting the identity of television viewers? There is no blanket answer to that question but I do think it is more than just coincidence that my dad always watches the big game with a beer in hand, a wife in the kitchen, and a Toyota 4-Runner (the yuppie-off-road-mobile) parked in the driveway.

While these ads are reflecting the identity of one man they are establishing that or another. Commercials in general can not tell us what to think but do tell us what to think about. Even the young sports fans are thinking a lot about beer, women, and cars. These commercial messages will be ground into a young boy's head for the rest of his life. Although we would like to believe otherwise, young people today are building their identities by watching commercials.

Advertising is working to strengthen stereotypes. While the "ideal" sports fan is worried about which beer to buy and which babe he can pick up, the "ideal" soap-opera follower is wondering which bleach can get the stain out of her husband's white shirt. Such are the problems of life as seen through commercials. How many ads have there been where guys get dishwater hands? To my knowledge there are none and one has to wonder why. Maybe its because only women buy dish soap. Maybe its because consumers are more likely to trust a woman about dish soap. Perhaps it's because fewer women write commercials. No matter what the cause, the impression is that dish washing is a woman's job. Our society uses commercials as evidence that women should be doing laundry and other jobs that are too "femimine" for men. Commercials can strengthen our stereotypes and, like it or not, stereotypes are part of our identities.

Commercials do not have many positive social effects. Not only do they reinforce stereotypes by sex, they also stereotype by race. Ads that feature a white collar business class person almost always portray the character with a white actor. McDonald's commercials, on the other hand, show a minority based staff smile as they flip burgers. How satisfying it is to work an honest day under the golden arches! The question must be asked whether stereotyping ads such as these will become a thing of the past.

Unfortunately, because of the purpose of television, stereotyping ads will be around for a long time. What exactly is the purpose of television? That's a rather broad subject that should be broken down. What is the purpose of Sunday morning cartoons? Is it to entertain little kids? Not a chance. What is the purpose of the evening news? Is it to exercise journalistic rights given by the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights and to keep the public informed at all costs? That's a good joke but still not the right answer. Every program on television has one driving motivation, and that is to make money. A program makes money by selling air time for commercials. As long as networks are dependent on advertising revenue, they will not censure commercials that reinforce stereotypes. Unfortunately it seems they are here to stay.

It seems that in many ways that we, the viewers, are fortunate for advertising. We watch television for free while advertisers pay for the programs we watch. However, it is easy to forget that advertisers do not spend upwards of a million dollars on a thirty-second commercial for our benefit. In the long run we pay for it by purchasing the advertised products. Granted, when I walk into a store I don't turn into some sort of zombie and say, "Just do it--I must buy a pair of Nike shoes. Can't beat the real thing--I will buy a Coke. It's the right beer now--I will drink a Coors Light." Although our consumer behavior is not influenced that directly by advertisements, we are manipulated and companies do profit.

Today advertisements offer us opportunities to strengthen and change our identities by buying their products. You don't just have to buy a product, you can buy a personality. For example, allow me to describe the feeling I get from a Coca-Cola Classic. When I drink a Coke, I am doing more than just swallowing a brown liquid with bubbles in it. No sir, I am shouting out to the world that I am a young, wild and crazy, fun yet sensitive, good-looking, good-humored, good-natured guy who has a hot date with his Coke-drinking counterpart, Paula Abdul. I'm no Pepsi-drinking loser! I'm no generic cola-drinking miser! No way, I'm hip, I'm here, I'm now. The only word that describes how cool I am is "Coke." When I buy the drink I buy the attitude. At only fifty cents a can, you can't beat the real thing!

Though the people we see in most Coke commercials are not celebrities, they are still role models. They are something we can strive to be. We would like to lead the happy joyful lives they have on the commercials. We would like to be as spontaneous, as fun, and as good looking as they are. We are affected by the ads as we strive to be our role models, and the ads reflect who we want to be. (Consider reading that last sentence again slowly.)

Although Coke commercials influence our identities in the above manners, we fight the entire manipulation process. We do not want to fall prey to an advertiser's every command. We want to have control over our own actions. When we watch the commercial, we are conscious of the fact that we are being told, "Coke is the coolest thing since the invention of the wheel," so that we buy it. Even more direct is the actual slogan, "Be like Mike (Jordan)--Drink Gatorade." However, we are on our guard not to be influenced and we try to reject the messages. Sometimes our guard is successful and a commercial has no effect on our identity.

However, advertisers have found ways to sell their products without our realizing it. For example, no one was on their guard when they saw Tom Cruise drink a Budweiser in the movie Top Gun. Still, the mental association is present between Tom Cruise (perhaps the coolest man in history next to James Dean and Pee-Wee Herman) and Budweiser. If you want to be like Tom, drink a Bud. This scene inTop Gun is a good example of how advertising affects our values. The Budweiser scene in Top Gun presents a definite attitude toward alcohol. Tom Cruise, the Navy hero and conqueror of all evil would not do something bad. Therefore drinking beer is not bad. That message reached people of ALL ages.

Perhaps the best example of this type of advertising was in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. After the movie had ended, did you remember what candy E.T., the extraterrestrial, liked to eat? Every kid in the country remembered and they raided 7-11s in droves to buy E.T.'s favorite candy. What a nice little creature he was. In case you still don't remember, he ate Reese's Pieces and, in doing so, put Reese's on the candy map. This shows that advertising is most effective when the audience does not realize that a product is being advertised. This relates to regular television commercials too. Although viewers may realize that they are being told to buy a certain product, they do not consciously see the other messages that affect their identity.

Advertising is constantly affecting us whether we are conscious of it or not. It affects our values, our stereotypes, and in the long run, our identities. There is no sign of change on the horizon so we must take it upon ourselves to help the situation. Marie Winn, author of "Television Addiction" proposed a good idea. She believes, as do I, that television should be taught in school along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Perhaps if children were trained to view television as critically as I do, then they wouldn't need to get their culture and identity from a television set. Now if you will excuse me, I'm going to enjoy a nice, cool, refreshing, thirst quenching, Coca-Cola. "You can't beat the real thing!"
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