Persuasion, propaganda and truth in advertising

I’ve recently had the pleasure of driving around with the prototype of the RazerLift on my vehicle. It’s received a lot of attention just about everywhere I go. I stopped at the Honda dealership for some minor and unrelated work on my Pilot, and by the time I left, a small crowd of technicians had gathered around and one of them wanted to take a video of the RazerLift on his phone.

Interestingly, I’ve never had that experience with my bottled water. Why not? There is plenty of advertising for bottled water, and I haven’t really started advertising for the RazerLift, yet it gets the attention and bottled water does not. Hmm…

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around advertising for the RazerLift, and asking questions relating to what message we want to convey, what facts we want to tell people, how we tell it, and where does “truth” become “fiction?” To what extent are we engaged in persuasion and to what extent are we engaged in propaganda?

We’ve started collecting some pictures of the RazerLift, but the pictures we’ve taken are taken from specific angles to present the RazerLift in the best possible light. The prototype has some less-than-aesthetic parts to it (we haven’t finished the design process yet) so pictures are taken that show the more aesthetic parts and downplay the less aesthetic parts.

Is that deceptive? Is there a real difference between – on the one hand – adjusting the lighting on the prototype, adjusting the photo angle, or doing a staged “interview” with the inventor (forthcoming), and – on the other hand – excessive retouching of a photo of a human model for some fashion product? When I gave my son specific instructions about where to move and what to do in the following video, those actions were not “true” actions; they were staged. Is that truth in advertising? Was I being deceptive?

The way I’ve begun thinking about this is to ask what the focus of the advertising is. To what is the audience’s attention drawn? The RazerLift is a piece of equipment that will lower vehicle roof-top cargo (bikes, ladders, etc) to a much more accessible height for easy loading and unloading. When people watch the video they don’t really care who that kid is in the video, they are looking at the RazerLift itself and watching how it works.

I saw a bus-stop poster ad recently with actress Jennifer Aniston advertising some kind of bottled water. I have no idea how much they paid Aniston to represent their product, but I imagine the price tag is fairly steep. So why would a company that produces bottled water hire Aniston to represent them?

Perhaps the more pressing issue, though, is why I didn’t remember the brand of the bottled water until I looked it up. I remember seeing Aniston, but I don’t remember which brand of bottled water she was helping advertise. How different that is with the short video I made with my son. Most people are likely to pay attention to the RazerLift and forget about my son in the process.

Why would a product that really hasn’t been advertised at all (the RazerLift) gather more attention than a product for which, I assume, millions of dollars has been spent on advertising? I believe the answer lies in the fact that when people see the RazerLift in action they immediately recognize two things:

  1. There is no other product that does this (unique)
  2. This product fixes a real problem (beneficial)

I recall the story of a man – a fairly mediocre sales person as the story goes – who was hired to sell shampoo. But this shampoo was different, it was one of the first kinds of shampoo that wasn’t painful if you got it in your eyes. His sales tactic was simple, he would show up to a meeting with a potential sales channel, pour a little of the shampoo into his hand and smear it into his eye.

Demonstration over. Any questions?

Then he would start taking orders. And, oh, would he get a lot of orders, because his product was both unique and beneficial. Like that shampoo, the RazerLift kind of sells itself; it is both unique and beneficial.

But bottled water needs a lot of help through intense branding. Water clearly does fix a very real problem – thirst – but this or that brand of bottled water is not particularly unique relative to any other brand. Bottled water is all pretty much the same, really; at least that’s the impression of the general public on the matter. Because the product itself is difficult to differentiate from any other brand on the market, advertisers need to use something other than the product in order to differentiate their company. Here’s where “branding” shifts into overdrive, by drawing attention to something other than the product in order to sell the product.

And that’s where the difference lies between persuasion and propaganda. If your product is inherently unique and obviously beneficial for people, then your advertising will serve the purpose of simply making a good first impression and then letting the benefits of the product take over. Think of a first date. When you go on a first date you dress up and make sure you don’t have anything stuck in your teeth because you want to make a good first impression. But if you are confident in yourself then you’ll quickly move past the superficial and get into real conversations on a personal level. The good first impression – your “personal branding” if you will – merely serves the purpose of opening the door to who you really are. After that the focus shifts away from how you comb your hair.

Persuasion uses branding to attract people to the content. Propaganda uses branding to attract people to the branding itself because there is very little in the way of content. As the saying goes, “what you attract them with is what you attract them to.” Nobody wants to buy the RazerLift because my son is in the video, but because the RazerLift is a unique and beneficial product. And if my son was used to sell bottled water I’d wager a guess that the sales figures wouldn’t budge even slightly after the advertising campaign was launched.

Now if I could just get Aniston to help sell the RazerLift…