One Weird Trick, or What Makes You Think I’m an Idiot?

4 10 2013

I just wrote a letter to the editor. That’s it, I’m officially old. Maybe my oldness is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the letter was an email, and that the publication in question was Cracked.com. Probably not mitigated by much. The letter was about ads. In particular, it was about those bottom-of-the-barrel ads that fill in banner slots when there isn’t a bigger campaign to show, the ones that are usually characterized by the following:

  1. Photos of women with prominent cleavage that have essentially nothing to do with the product being offered, like Spanish language instruction.
  2. Utterly pointless animation, very frequently just the entire body of the ad shifting five pixels or so to the right, then shifting back, with no point beyond drawing the eye.
  3. (and this is the big one) Some variation of “One weird trick.” Area mom finds secret trick for fighting wrinkles. Power companies hate this one weird trick. My favorite is probably “47-year-old patriot discovers ‘weird’ trick to slash power bill and end slavery to Obama’s electricity monopoly. Discover how he did it… before they shut him down.”

I hate these ads, and I reserve the word “hate” for times when I really mean it. I don’t hate Mondays. I don’t hate people who don’t share my political beliefs. I don’t hate the Kardashians. Do I like these things? Certainly not, but I don’t hate them. The word “hate” has a specific meaning, and it should be respected. That said, I hate these ads. For one, they are precision engineered to be extremely difficult to ignore. Whether it’s that five-pixel kick that taps directly into our visual system’s motion detection features, or the way they’re situated to seem like part of the page’s editorial content, or the prominent display of cleavage, they’re eye magnets. When my eyes land on them, I try to just look away without parsing them, but more often than not, I can’t. And the captions are either ridiculously unrelated to the content (see Spanish Cleavage above) or are “one weird trick” and even slimier variations thereof. “The End of Obama? This Looming Scandal Could Ruin the 44th President…” No, there’s no scandal. It’s an ad for an investment newsletter from a guy with a penchant for pseudoapocalyptic anti-government hysteria. “This Buffett Rule Can Fast-Track Your Wealth.” No, it can’t, and it almost certainly has nothing to do with Warren Buffett. Or Jimmy Buffett. Maybe an all-you-can-eat buffet. “Five celebrity slips that made us gasp” (usually accompanied by Katy Perry’s cleavage, this one). Guess what? You’re not going to see any more of Katy Perry’s tits than you already have. If she had a “wardrobe malfunction” (how I hate that term), you wouldn’t have to find out about it via a tiny ad running next to a 47-year-old patriot’s trick for avoiding electrical enslavement. It would be all over every social network and celebrity news site. In all likelihood, the article that ad links to is about celebrities slipping and falling down. “Stores struggle to keep new fat burner in stock” and “1 Superfood that Burns Stored Fat Like a Furnace – Women’s Health.” That one’s fun because it doesn’t link to Women’s Health, but rather to a site that was clearly all about selling Garcinia Cambogia, which can cause hepatotoxicity and (wait for it) destruction of the testicles if overused. “Do these 7 things and you’ll get Alzheimer’s.” Hm. I’m pretty sure no causative links have been established between Alzheimer’s Disease and… well, anything, really. There have been some hints, sure, things like aluminum cookware, but those have all fallen apart on further study. That link goes to NewsMax health, and the article follows the standard “one weird trick” pitch setup. And here I thought NewsMax was awful only for ill-informed political nonsense. Turns out their fear-mongering knows no bounds. While you’re at it, buy gold! “3 Telltale Signs of Fibromyalgia.” Wait, let me  guess – 1> You’re tired a lot. 2> You’re irritable. 3> You have various aches and pains. Will there be links where I can buy a homeopathic remedy?

Advertising is pervasive, and it usually sucks. See Subway’s recent awful, awful “hashtag” ad for a quick tour of what’s wrong with mainstream ads. The thing is, these are different. These aren’t poorly executed pitches for a product that’s not particularly objectionable. These are carefully crafted misinformation designed to sell a product that, in all likelihood, even the producer/manufacturer has no faith in. Maybe some of the homeopathy ads are from people who genuinely believe in the efficacy of St. John’s Wort despite its failure to do anything significant in controlled studies, but the people selling you a way  out of “Obama’s electricity monopoly?” They know their product doesn’t work. They know Obama doesn’t have an electricity monopoly. They know they’re tapping into ill-informed fears and making a buck off of people’s gullibility. They’re perfectly happy to collect money while contributing absolutely nothing of value to the world. And that’s disgusting. What’s even more disgusting is the fact that it works. These ads wouldn’t be running if it didn’t. “One weird trick” has become the go-to because it gets results, and it gets results because slick scumbags are happy to exploit ignorance and trust. Scumbags like Kevin Trudeau, who has made millions milking people’s fear of diseases and giving false hope to the seriously ill.

I know I’m tilting at windmills, and I know that there are tools, like AdBlock, that will remove the offensive ads from my sight, but this is just another one of those little uglinesses of the modern world that accumulate to make life that much less pleasant. Ads don’t have to suck, and sites don’t have to run garbage designed to trick people into buying useless crap. The assholes don’t have to win.

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19 07 2014
Verizon’s Dumb Ad, or You Too Can Be a Goat | Who let you in here?

[…] without skin contact. It’s rare that I’m genuinely bothered by anything other than the advertiser’s assumption that I’m an idiot, but Verizon managed to pull it off with their most recent […]

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