Twelve Ways Advertisers Insult Consumers


Advertising sells products. Yet, for all the time advertisers spend trying to make their products stand out, many ads don’t seem to be very well thought out. In fact, many of them have the opposite of the intended effect on me. More often than I would expect, I see an advertisement that either insults my intelligence or makes false assumptions about me. In those cases, the advertisers have done more harm than good by decreasing the likelihood I will by their product. Here are twelve such approaches:

“Everyone needs one of these – it’s a ‘must-have.'” This lie is so common that it’s almost cliché. I have never seen a specific product that everyone needs, even in the category of necessities. Everyone needs clothing; not everyone needs a pair of this season’s hottest XYZ brand jeans. Not everyone even needs a winter coat.

“Our product is the most popular.” Not only do these advertisers assume that I care what is popular (I don’t), they are also committing a logical fallacy. To quote an old song by my favorite artist, “So they loved Jerry Lewis in France – does that make him funny?” (Are there any other Steve Taylor fans out there?) Just because many people buy something doesn’t mean it’s the best product. Maybe it’s simply the most readily available, or maybe everyone is buying it simply because they’ve been told that everyone else is buying it. However, sorting items by popularity does occasionally help me when I search online – for example, if I’m trying to find a newly released book or video that shares a title with several earlier versions.

“You are one of a select few” Appeals to personal prestige interest me even less than appeals to popularity. I especially hate those that give no indication of why I was selected. (I might believe the line if the message included a personal detail of something I had done to earn the honor.) And if I am really one of a select few, why am I receiving a direct mail piece with bulk mail postage instead of a personal call or visit?

“You deserve it.” Coming from a friend, I might be tempted to believe this statement. Coming from an advertiser who never met me, forget it. How do they know what I deserve? I could be a hardened criminal who deserves nothing more than a long prison sentence.

“Our product is more convenient than the others.” When I see “convenient,” I automatically think, “overpriced.” Convenience is sometimes worth the extra price, but the label of “convenient” is often used to cover up the fact that the product doesn’t have much else to offer for its higher price.

“Our product will help you save money.” Having a coupon or special that allows me to save on a particular product makes sense. Implying that buying the product will actually help me put money in the bank does not. I like to save on (spend less for) things I was planning to buy, but buying something I wouldn’t normally buy will not save me money. If I want to save money, I can do it by not buying the product.

“Free gift with purchase.” If I buy something and receive something else with it, that something else is not free – it’s included in the price. While I’m on the subject, “free gift” in itself bothers me – if it’s a gift, it’s free by definition. “Free gift” makes me feel like the advertisers think I wouldn’t understand what the word “gift” means.

“Priced to sell.” Anything with a price on it is priced to sell. If it weren’t for sale, it wouldn’t have a price on it. “Priced for a quick sale” makes sense to me; the shortened form does not.

Self-proclaimed “great deals” When sellers say that their products are a great deal, I think, “A great deal for you or for me?” I also hate to see “best deal on the Internet” and similar claims because I know the seller can’t possibly verify the truth of that statement, and sometimes the best deal for one person is not the best deal for another.

“Urgent” on the outside of an envelope. When I open an envelope marked “urgent” to find an offer for yet another credit card, I don’t bother to read any of it. This ploy is a bit like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, though admittedly less dangerous. Short-dated bills, warnings of impending doom, and certain legal documents may qualify as urgent; unsolicited offers of “great deals” are not.

Credit card courtesy checks I frequently receive courtesy checks, proclaiming that I can now pay my bills with a “convenient” check. How kind of the credit card company to provide such a convenience (at such a low rate)! I never would have thought of writing a check (for free) to draw on the money I have in the bank. (I wonder if they would accept one of their own checks as payment on their bills?)

Offer for a home equity loan presented to people signing mortgage papers. I only encountered this marketing ploy once, but I was offended by the timing. I thought, “We just took out the biggest loan I ever want to see, probably stretching us financially a bit too much, and you think we want to go further into debt? We saved a long time to pay for a small portion of this house – why would we want to give up even that portion?”

I know that advertisers need to constantly find new ways to get consumers’ attention, and many of these advertising approaches are just slight modifications of tried and true methods, but I wonder whether some of the advertisers consider the underlying messages they send. If I believed everything they tell me, not only would I be broke, but I would see myself as unintelligent, unable to evaluate my own needs or the quality of an offer, overly concerned about gaining popularity and prestige, and willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money to save a little time even when I have nothing more important to do than read “urgent” offers that come in the mail.

Image courtesy of Todd Ehlers

16 thoughts on “Twelve Ways Advertisers Insult Consumers

  1. You forgot the most offensive advertising ploy – Releasing advertising directed at a specific demographic, which is insulting to other demographics, on a wide-demographic media. The most blatent examples of this are on television.

  2. While it might seem like good blog material to rail against advertisers, they are only doing what has been proven most effective. All the “insulting ploys” you listed are methods of propaganda and persuasion that work. Sure some people see though them, but many others are effected by them enough to be properly (according to the advertiser) persuaded.

    By the way, the same underlying propaganda methods are used by politicians, religious leaders, and dictators worldwide. As evil as he was, Hilter was a master of using propaganda like this to further his methods. Of course the same can be said for our current administration.

  3. I hope some folk read this and reconsider how they respond to some of these popular tactics…

    My personal hated is the ‘urgent’ or ‘last notice’..especially nerve wracking back in the day when I had to snail mail payments, what if a check got lost in the mail? all that worry for an ad, ugh.

  4. I agree–these techniques don’t work on me, either. I particularly dislike gifts with purchase, because they’re always crappy.

  5. Great post. I particularly hate all the tv commercials that portray men/fathers/husands as totally incompetent and unable to handle even the simplest of household tasks or child care duties. Surely I’m not the only man who changed diapers, bathed my child, does laundry or knows how to operate the vacuum cleaner. If the only way a company can sell its product is by insulting me, I’ll take my business elsewhere.

  6. How about always having to explain every statement they make with far more fine print than for a credit card contract.

    Is it just me, or does everyone else view a * on any ad or statement as meaning “The statement we just made is a lie.”

  7. Oh, yes, an article after my own heart.

    The advertising industry operates with a single minded focus, ..get us to open our wallets and spend….useful or not, it does not matter at all.

    I like the term coined by Punny Money…Advertising Terrorism. Seems so apt, does’t it.

  8. Traciatim: not just you. Or sometimes I interpret an asterisk as meaning: “by which we mean the exact opposite of what you’d expect” or “with the following popular exceptions.”

    The worst is when there are asterisks and superscripts that are never explained anywhere on any of the pages.

  9. I agree with Jason (#2). Everyone in the world seems to feel personally exempt from advertizing, and yet it obviously works, or else these companies would not be doing it. Just because the advertizing insults you personally does not meant that it does not work generally.

    A general rule of thumb in advertizing is that for every dollar you spend, you are wasting fifty cents of it. It’s just figuring out which 50% you should cut that is difficult. So they know that they are being ignored by 50% of their target audience, but that still fiscally makes sense.

    I think it is funny that so many people feel unaffected by advertizing. Whether or not you believe it, your entire consumer life is shaped by these companies. It might not be in the direct advertizing techniques you described, but rather the more subtle ones (like creating an image) that you’ve failed to mention, probably because like most people, you are persuaded by them.

  10. To me, all adds are irritating in one sense or another. Generally they prey on or create some kind of insecurity that only product A purportedly can fix. However, them MOST vile and irritating adds, generally happen around Christmas. They are the ones hawking superexpensive products like new cars or extremely expensive jewlery. “What’s the matter Mr. Consumer isn’t your wife or girlfriend (or both) worth this new Mercedes? Conveniently priced at just $60,000 to show her how much you love her.” “Or how about this diamond necklace for just $6,000?” GIVE ME A BREAK. Are these idiots for real?

  11. Eden hit the nail on the head about television advertising. Has anyone seen the GE Profile commercials with the snobby director and his family fixing dinner. I think the ad is very pretensious and seems to convey the idea that only snobby ultra-rich people can afford GE Profile products. Talk about specific demographic.

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  13. Ummmm….it’s “…decreasing the likelihood I will buy their product” NOT “…decreasing the likelihood I will by their product”. Although I agree with you, your dumb ass mistake made me laugh and reduced the impact of your comments. Sad. But American!!!

  14. I find it amazing that there are so many articles on the net about “how advertisers insult men” (or women) but this is the only one I found that touches on how advertisers insult EVERYBODY. Yes, the man=boorish oaf who can’t perform simple tasks is annoying, as is the “women will take off their clothes if you wear our crappy drugstore cologne” “our yogurt is essential for ‘regularity'” and “your husband/boyfriend doesn’t love you unless he buys you our diamond”. I remember when I was a kid and cereal/toy commercials came with the heavy implication that their product was “not for grown-ups” or “Grown-ups don’t get it.” Like they forget who is actually BUYING these things. It never ends!!!!

    These days I don’t watch tv at all unless I can fast-forward through commercials. I’m tired of having my intelligence insulted every 10 minutes.

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