“Oddvertising” has long history across media

Illustration by John Paul Schafer.

Sunday, millions of people around the world will gather in front of television sets, eagerly anticipating the event of the year.

In other news, a football game will be broadcast that same day.

We’re talking ads, people. Super Sunday is advertising’s zenith. The audience never is more captive, the rates never higher. Thus, unconventional ads are often unveiled on Super Sunday—think Betty White getting lit up playing football in the park—but they are born throughout the year and seemingly live forever, either on the air or on YouTube.

You’re probably quite familiar with Burger King and his Herky-sized fiberglass head; a talking gecko hawking affordable car insurance; his (its?) rival, Flo the Progressive Lady, wielding her pricing gun; and the diapered-yet-savvy stock market players who use E*Trade.

Though it might seem odd to see two older lovers sitting in cliffside bathtubs or a sock monkey living it up in Vegas, today’s television ads seem downright conventional when compared with some print ads from yesteryear.

A sample of some old ads was found in a blog post on weirdomatic.com. Some of them were a bit shocking to the 21st-century system, so we asked a few members of the faculty in the Tippie College of Business to break them down.

Safety, senility, and “smoking is believing!”

“Ads are a reflection of our culture,” says Dave Collins, who specializes in marketing. “The process of developing an ad is taking a marketing idea and encoding it with symbols that fit into the context of that culture.”

Lesson No. 1 from the wierdomatic.com sample of ads: our culture has changed.

But not so much, says Alice Wang, assistant professor of marketing, when comparing two ads for shaving razors made more than 50 years apart.

“You see the same concept,” she says. “Different production technology. It looks better now, but the same concept.”

Images from weirdomatic.com and funnycollection.org

The two ads, one for Gillette and one for BIC, both feature babies and are attempting to deliver a message of safety and a smooth shave. Both do, and both probably worked, Wang says.

The Gillette ad, however, was on the normal end of the spectrum in the bizarre sample provided by weirdomatic.com.

There was one for Thorazine, which claimed “prompt control of senile agitation,” featuring an image of an old man wielding a cane in a threatening manner.

Another pushed bottled heroin as a painkiller, while a cigarette ad carried the tagline “Smoking is believing!” with an image of an attractive young woman lighting up.

Fear factor

One that caught Wang’s eye—and ours, for that matter—was a billboard sponsored by the Citizens Traffic Safety Board. The large print reads, “Parents … for safety’s sake teach children …” The imagery shows a young child lying in a pool of blood in the middle of the street as a man runs from his car to see if the child is OK.

Old ad encouraging parents to tell their children to look for traffic before crossing street

Photo from weirdomatic.com.

The message is painfully clear: tell your kids to be careful when crossing the street. Look both ways, wait for the “walky man,” that sort of thing.

“It does get your attention, right?” Wang says. “The use of the color red, representing blood—it’s very alarming. It gets your attention and delivers the point: tell your kids, and be a responsible parent. This is the typical use of fear, and it’s a very good example.

“To the extent that people feel good about it is another issue.”

feminine hygiene ad by lysol

Image from weirdomatic.com

Another campaign capitalizing on fear was one touting Lysol as a feminine hygiene product that was sure to cure marital issues.

“This ad wanted to talk to women,” Wang says. “So, how do they relate to women? Women are scared of marriage problems, the guy locking them out. This is exactly what they’re showing in the picture. It talks about the fear.

“But think about the logic. It’s a bit of a stretch. There are so many dimensions to marriage that would work, other than this specific dimension.”

Taking chances on Super Sunday

Advertising agencies have been pushing the limits and stretching the truth since… well, since they began working. That’s what they do. That’s how they keep themselves relevant and the products they’re selling fresh in the mind’s eye.

Sunday’s Super Bowl broadcast is a playground for eager advertisers trying to make a splash. The audience is massive and captive. They’re not going to lose the viewer.

“People have a lot more patience for Super Bowl ads than everyday advertising,” Wang says. “If they’re just watching a normal show and there is an ad popping up that doesn’t tell you what it is for 25 seconds, people are gone. For the Super Bowl, people sit there and watch the commercials. They don’t get mad. It doesn’t bother them if it takes until the last second to say, ‘Oh, that’s cute.’”

“Most ads are attempting to sell something,” Collins adds. “The Super Bowl ads are trying to entertain. That’s it. They’re more for the egos of the people putting them out there.”

And the enjoyment of the people taking them in.

Visit www.facebook.com/universityofiowa on Monday, Feb. 7, and let us know which were your favorite Super Bowl ads.