Deconstructing Advertisements

Ian Ayres wrote a really interesting blog post on deconstructing advertisements on the Freakonomics blog yesterday. Having taken a course on Consumer Behaviour (with Brian Gibbs) at Melbourne Business School last term, reading Ayres' post was a lot of fun because, as we learnt in quite a bit of detail in that course, marketing tactics do play a significant role in influencing consumer behaviour.

Danger = Cool

The kind of influence being used in the Silk Cut ad, as Ayres rightly points out, is of this kind:
[...] Silk Cut may even intend for viewers to think (subconsciously) that it is cool to smoke because you do it knowing its risk; smokers are courageous, risk takers who are willing to try to cheat death.

The ad agency may be trying to take the biggest product defect and re-spin it as a positive attribute. Sun-screen is for wimps, smoking is for the intrepid.

Which is pretty much standard operating procedure for advertising stuff that has the potential to be harmful to you, particularly if used in excess; such as alcohol, carbonated beverages, or energy drinks.

The rest of the blog post, which is about an earlier Silk Cut ad, goes into the fascinating area of semiotics and talks about the difference between metaphors and metonymies.

Style = Cool

All of this is, of course, a shift from the old "come for the style, stay for the taste" type of ads that tobacco companies used to run in developed countries and still do run in developing ones [1]. That particular line, for example, is from a campaign that Red & White ran in Pakistan for a number of years [2]. Pakistan has done quite a bit to limit tobacco advertising since then but, as always, it's more an issue of enforcement than of simply formulating legislation [3]. Still, it's a big step in the right direction.

Freakonomics, The Book

By the way, if you haven't already read Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, you must. It is quite awesome. And once you do, make sure you subscribe to the Freakonomics blog as well.


Funnily enough, I have a long history with Silk Cut since both my parents smoked that brand for about fifteen years. Apparently, it is 'smoother' than most cigarettes though, of course, not any less deadly: both of my parents stopped smoking it thanks to health scares and strong recommendations from doctors. My mother switched to a 'lighter' brand before dying of cancer in 2005 (she'd been smoking since she was in college) while my father now smokes the Dunhill brand despite an incident of heart failure in 2004.

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[1] Though one can argue that, thanks to Hollywood, developing countries still strongly associate smoking with style, the successful completion of a difficult task, and stress relief.

[2] For more on tobacco advertising in Pakistan, read 'Why Tobacco Promotion Should be Banned in Pakistan' by the Tobacco Free Initiative's Ehsan Latif.

[3] See the article on 'New Restrictions on Tobacco Ads'.