A couple days ago, I was sitting downstairs with my wife and mother in law and they were comparing car commercials.
You probably know exactly which ones I’m talking about – the Christmas-y luxury car commercials with families all in sweaters in fake snow marveling the giant bow attached to a bland looking silver sedan.
This year, though, the commercials seem a little different – as in meaner. One showed a family coming out of their home with gifts in hand, big smiles on their faces, then, as a flashy new car drove by, they turned and glared at their father before going back into the house.
Another commercial showed a couple with a new car he had just bought for her. Just as she’s thanking him with a big hug, the car she really wanted drives by and she pulls away.
Message: don’t be a jerk, buy a $40,000 car for the people you love.
I probably don’t need to explain how awful this is – it’s right up there with jewelry commercials and credit card commercials. The tactic being to make people feel like anything they buy that isn’t a brand new car or diamond ring is a failure – that it will fall short.
I’m sure it’s effective, but I also know how poorly it sits with a lot of people – including every member of my family. It’s fear mongering – if you don’t buy this product, you’ll ruin your family’s Christmas. Not just manipulative, but frankly, a little lazy.
It got me thinking about advertising and the way we sell things. The art of the sale, and really of any kind of persuasion – whether in writing or in a TV commercial – is all about helping someone imagine themselves in a particular situation.
It’s why we write about the benefits of a product instead of its features – readers are going to ask “how does this affect me?”
It goes deeper too. People respond strongly to social proof – to the “man I wish that was me” vibe that a lot of ads give off. But, at a certain point, I think it goes too far.
If successful advertising creates an avatar and speaks only to that person, the avatar for luxury cars, credit cards and jewelry must be a very sad, depressed person in the eyes of these companies, because their ads are loaded with negativity.
The formula is something like this:

  1. Point Out Problem
  2. Exacerbate Problem through Fear Tactics
  3. Present a Solution
  4. Make the Viewer Feel Stupid if they Ignore Solution

It’s not just “hey, we understand your problem and can fix it.” It’s “wow that sucks, but if you don’t buy this it’s your own fault…and you don’t want that.”
Positivity Sells
So, here’s my plea.
Car companies, credit card banks, and especially jewelers – stop making people feel bad.
No one should ever feel like, if they don’t spend a month’s salary on a Christmas gift, they are somehow a bad husband or a cruddy parent.
Instead, let’s focus on the positive aspects of Christmas. And I don’t mean we should ban all ads and stay away from the mall. Even if I thought that was a good idea, it would never happen – gift giving is a part of Christmas and always will be.
But even just a simple change to how people are convinced to buy would go a long way towards brightening the spirit of many overworked, indebted men and women this time of year.
Less guilty dads and more rejoicing children. Show the benefits of a product and the effectiveness of imagination.
The human mind is a powerful tool – it can imagine a lot. The pull of a smile after receiving a meaningful gift from someone you love, the warmth of everyone gathered together on Christmas morning – heck, even just sitting down and having a cup of coffee with you spouse. These are powerful, evocative images that use positivity to express what someone can get from your product.
One of the ads I remember best from this time of year as a child is for Folger’s Coffee. A young man comes home early and brews a pot of coffee on Christmas morning. His family, snug in their beds, wake to the smell and drift down the stairs, surprised and overjoyed to see him. The message is cute and not far from the mark – coffee brings people together.
Cheesy? Yes. But come on, it’s the holidays – that’s what this time of year is all about and, frankly, I like it.