Packaging and selling personal insecurity

One in four women misreads her pregnancy test, the television ad tells me.  Every time that advertisement shows in a room full of people, the response is the same:

“Well, I guess one in four women is a complete idiot then.”

(Sometimes, if the room has a brave enough male in it, or simply no women, that response will then be followed by, “Only one in four?”)

And, that seems like an appropriate response (um… the first one, I mean).  A pregnancy test simply isn’t that hard to read.  If women are actually struggling to understand these things, then they must not be very clever.  Fortunately, if you happen to be not very clever, Clearblue offers a pregnancy test that should be idiot-proof, spelling out that you are either “pregnant” or “not pregnant” in fairly unambiguous terms.  What a relief.  There are, of course, some problems with the logic here, not the least of which being that a person who would benefit from an idiot-proof test is probably not going to be clever enough to pick up an idiot-proof test.

The bigger issue, though, is the culture of acceptance that surrounds the ad, and ads like it.  One in four women can’t tell a plus from a minus, or one stripe from two stripes.  Never mind that there are legitimate mechanical (and, admittedly, psychological) issues surrounding the interpretation of pregnancy test results, as a quick Google of evaporation lines demonstrates.  The ad asserts, and the audience accepts, that one in four women is, basically, pretty damned stupid.

Now, first, why would the advertisement do that?  It’s a bit like saying, “Only idiots need our product!  Hey, dummies, come buy this!”  Is that really going to encourage women to buy the product?  Apparently, it is.  The ad could just as easily have said, “One in four pregnancy tests has a hard-to-read result.”  Instead, though, the advertising campaign lays the weight of the error on the women taking the test, and not on mechanical concerns surrounding the product.

This implies that Clearblue considers it more effective to sell the product on the doubt and uncertainty of perhaps-pregnant women than to sell it on the unreliability of their competitors’ testing kits.  The continuation of this ad campaign certainly suggests that it’s working.  Our cynical responses to the ad (“Hah!  Those women are dumb”) also suggests that, in general, the idea that some people aren’t very clever sits just fine with most of us.

I have a problem with this kind of message, because it basically trains us to think that people are stupid.  It doesn’t even train us to think that other people are stupid — it apparently works well enough at making women insecure that it sells pregnancy kits.  The ad actually makes people uncertain about whether they are clever enough to use a normal pregnancy test.

And, yes, the simple fact is that some people are stupid.  I meet them all the time; I know that they’re out there.  But, the thing is, the actual stupid people almost never realise that they’re stupid.  That ignorance is, I assume, part of being stupid.

(time for an awkward pause while I wonder whether that last sentence was tragically ironic)

Almost by definition, if you’re clever enough to wonder whether you might be stupid enough to need a product marketed towards stupid people, then you’re not stupid.  But, a perhaps-pregnant woman (a demographic that is probably not feeling enormously confident and secure in general) nonetheless accepts the possibility and buys the product, and the rest of us accept that one in four women needs it.  We just cheerfully buy into the idea that we, as people, aren’t very capable.  And, that almost seems self-fulfilling — once we’re convinced that we aren’t very clever, then… well, then we aren’t very clever.  As a direction for advertising, it’s brilliant way to create your own target audience.

“Do you find that you unexpectedly think about elephants?  Are you thinking about an elephant right now?  Are you thinking about an elephant, and even if you tried right now, you couldn’t stop thinking about an elephant?  Then you have a problem, and this pill can help!”

Western society isn’t getting dumber; it’s getting lazier.  The television tells us that we’re stupid, and we accept it because it’s easier than fighting it.  Don’t get me wrong — I love TV.  I watch an awful lot of cartoons, and in general I’m a complete sucker for advertising.  Wow, I want a new iPod so much it hurts.  But, I know (or, at least, I think I know) what’s going on, and I try to evaluate advertising — in all its forms — as much on my own terms as I can, and not on the terms that the advertisers try to make me assume and accept.

Maybe it’s ironic that I think that (or think I think it), because in general I’m the consummate consumer, and so the capitalist machine is clearly in fine form when it comes to encouraging me to buy the dream.  But, there is a line.  Sell us cars.  Sell us music players.  Sell us clothes.  But, don’t sell us our own stupidity.  At least have the good grace to leave our own gullibility as a transparent part of the process; packaging it and selling it to us really adds insult to injury.  I think people need to be more sensitive to advertisements that tell us who we are, because of course all they really do is tell us who the advertisers want us to be.

That really shouldn’t be so hard to figure out.  Even a caveman could do it.

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