Pretty Lies

TV tells us what we need: How advertisers sell us their products by preying on our emotions and insecurities.

by Trisha Gustave

One Sunday afternoon, after a very tiring morning, my aunt, my cousin, and I sat on the couch watching TV. We enjoyed a movie and a few shows, but the programming was interrupted by frequent advertisements. There was one ad in particular that caught my attention: a woman dressed in black, walking seductively through a humongous house. She was moving amongst costly diamonds, pearls, and other rare jewels, posing and standing in different ways that might seem appealing to viewers. Not one word was uttered in the advertisement; there was just a little music coming from what sounded like a violin.

None of us had a clue what the advertisement was for, so we all gave our opinions. I said that it must be for jewelry. My cousin said maybe it’s a perfume, and my aunt said it might be for an expensive watch. Suddenly, at the end of the ad, a picture of a car and its name came up. All of us were wrong: This was a car commercial.

I started asking myself, “What did the whole portrayal of the woman with the seductive look, the humongous house, and all the jewelry have to do with the car?” I didn’t see the link between the images and the product being promoted. I continued asking myself what all those different scenes said about the value of the car, but it seemed that the answer was: nothing. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just me who was missing something, so I asked my cousin what she thought about the advertisement. “It was captivating,” she said, “but I would never have figured out what it was for.”

Misleading Fantasies

From that moment on, I started observing different advertisements closely to see if they conveyed useful messages to their viewers. I noticed that most didn’t, and quite a few were misleading. For example, there was one ad with a man drinking expensive wine, and he gets attention from women. The ad seemed to suggest that the attention came because he was drinking this wine.

I think most people recognize drinking a certain brand of alcohol does not literally get anyone attention from the opposite sex. However, ads like this do subconsciously influence people. By presenting attractive or captivating images, advertisements get viewers’ attention; then, advertisers hope that viewers will associate whatever happiness and pleasure they see in those ads with the product being sold.

The ads never explain what exactly the benefits of their products are, because the actual benefits will always be less appealing than the idea of a whole lifestyle full of exquisite moments and total success. The advertisers hope that viewers won’t question the real-life benefits of their products. They would prefer that viewers be seduced by the dreamlike images and simply desire what they see.

If you fall into this trap, these ads can heavily influence your decision-making. They can lead you to buy things you don’t need, or even behave in ways you wouldn’t otherwise. For example, a car ad that portrays a young man racing along a road with a blue sky and perfect surroundings might inspire young men to buy this car; it also might cause them to speed and cause accidents.

In fact, the most attractive part of the ad may be the clear sky and beautiful landscape, which you can’t buy or get through your actions. So people are chasing something unattainable when they are influenced by these ads.

Thinking about this makes me feel sorry for consumers. They buy into ads that have little to do with the actual products they are selling. When this happens, disappointment is inevitable.

Preying on Our Insecurities

I remember once, when I was very young, I cried uncontrollably for an expensive doll that I saw on TV. She looked awesome and was able to sing, dance, and sit up. She had various types of clothing and actually sparkled on the screen. I was determined to get her and so cried my heart out until my parents bought her for me.

But to my surprise, she was not as beautiful and strong as she looked in the ad. She didn’t dance as well and her shoes didn’t fit as well as they did on TV. I only had her for a few weeks before I grew tired of her.

Adults are bound to be just as unhappy with the things they crave based on advertising. Companies convince people to purchase things for no reasonable purpose at all.

I believe that individuals should have their eyes open about the products they see in ads. We should recognize the difference between things we need and things we want because we have been manipulated to want them. We should see that buying too many products will only make us dissatisfied, and might even hurt our financial stability and keep us from saving money.

It’s human to be a little unsatisfied, and advertisements have taken that weakness as an opportunity to make people believe that they should purchase certain products to achieve happiness. So next time you feel the urge to buy something you see in an ad, stop for a minute and ask yourself, “Do I really need those dresses, cars, or shoes?”

This story is part of the media/news literacy series, which is generously supported by the McCormick Foundation.

For example, there was one ad with a man drinking expensive wine, and he gets attention from women. The ad seemed to suggest that the attention came because he was drinking this wine.
Explore All Topics