It’s fairly standard marketing practice to point out a customer’s need and show how your product or service can fill that need. But sometimes a marketing campaign backfires … and it shifts from pointing out a customer’s needs to pointing out a customer’s flaws. At that point, you’re talking down to your customers and making them feel inferior.
What follows are nine commercials (some of which have since been pulled due to complaints) that, for one reason or another, either condescend or outright insult their target markets.
1. He Went to Jared’s… and I hate you.
You love your wife. And maybe it’s an anniversary or her birthday or just a day when you decide to remind her how special she is to you.
You’re cheap and clueless. Your wife sees all of her friends wearing beautiful jewelry and she wonders why she married such an insensitive jerk. She’s going to throw a drink in your face at some party and you’ll totally deserve it. Maybe she’ll even divorce you because she needs expensive jewelry to prove that you love her. You married a shallow woman who only cares about the things you can buy for her. But it’s not your fault, because ALL WOMEN are this way, since they do nothing but compare jewelry when they get together at parties.
It’s hard to say whether these ads are more patronizing towards the jewelry-obsessed women or the clueless men who marry them. But the fact is that these ads have been popular for years, even though they pretty much tell any man who isn’t already shopping at their stores that his wife resents him.
2. Verizon… is useless to stupid dads like you.
Your children use the Internet for a lot more than playing games. The Internet has replaced the local library, encyclopedia set, and pretty much every other research source. So you want to make sure that you provide your family with the fastest and most reliable Internet connection.
We know that you’re far too stupid to understand how websites work. And the concept of an online encyclopedia is basically a Star Trek level of amazing to you. Your kid knows you’re too stupid to understand modern technology. Your wife knows you’re too stupid to understand modern technology. So just shut up and walk the dog.
Verizon actually pulled this commercial after multiple complaints of how it portrayed fathers as being stupid. Of course, if you think only men are portrayed as incompetent in regards to computers… hoo boy, take a look at this one:
3. Samsung… wants to re-assure us that their new drive is so easy that even a woman can use it.
Three people are sitting in a restaurant at lunchtime, each talking about the problems that come with slow computer speed and how it affects their respective businesses. They’re looking for a new drive that is easy to install and use, but also gets work done faster.
A male student, a male executive, and a housewife each talk about their problems with slow computer speeds. The men clearly articulate their needs, while the woman seems baffled and a little frightened by the computer sitting in her kitchen. What do the men use computers for? Sharing files with co-workers, running multiple programs at the office, and gaming. What does the woman use her computer for? Sharing pictures of her kids when she’s not “doing chores.”
The most condescending part of the commercial? When each of them is handed the Samsung 840 EVO Series Solid State Drive. The men are excited. The woman stares at it like an alien device and asks, “What?” She appears to have no idea what she’s holding. When asked to install it, the two men respond simply, “Okay,” while the woman responds, “I don’t know how to.” And when she does install it, she’s amazed that even someone of her limited intelligence can figure it out. “I feel like an expert.”
It’s amazing to think that anyone ever thought this would be an effective way to market their product to any woman. Leaving aside the stereotypic gender roles, implying that housewives are technologically ignorant, if not outright technophobic, is both outdated and a sure way to alienate a key market you’re trying to reach.
4. Fed Ex… knows that educated people are stupid.
We see several office workers struggling to set up a shipping order. They’re smart people, but the online forms are so needlessly complicated that it takes forever. One mistake forces them to re-type everything all over again. Eventually, they discover Fed Ex, with its easy-to-use system that lets them get entire rooms full of boxes shipped out quickly.
A new employee is asked to take over the shipping and he’s reluctant to do it. Not because it’s a new task and he’s unsure if he can handle it, but because he has “an MBA” and feels the work is beneath him. His supervisor responds that, since he has an MBA, she’ll have to walk him through it.
Did you get the joke? People with MBAs are arrogant, but they’re also stupid and don’t understand anything important. They just have all those book smarts that are useless in the real world of office work. I’m sure a lot of people laughed when they saw that ad. It’s a good thing that no one with a business degree ever has to make the decision of which shipping service to use.
While professional experience provides its own unique skill set, implying that having an MBA somehow makes you dumber than NOT having an MBA just seems like a baffling marketing strategy.
5. Mac… thinks you’re a nerd, but won’t tell you to your face.
A human version of a Mac computer approaches various individuals, young, old, male, female, in various lines of work, and asks what they need their computers to do. Whether it’s running office software, making movies, managing a website, or just playing games, the Mac is the best choice for the job.
OK, this is a tricky one. We’re all familiar with the “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” ads. Justin Long plays the anthropomorphized version of a Mac: young, laid-back, “cool.” And John Hodgman plays the anthropomorphized PC: middle-aged, uptight, “square.” Of course, the commercials are for Mac computers, showing how they’re better at “life stuff” like making movies and designing websites. While PCs are for spreadsheets and all the boring “office stuff.” I’m sure many people don’t find it condescending at all …
Unless they happen to look more like John Hodgman than Justin Long. Curiously, Long is only seven years younger than Hodgman, so the portrayal of Hodgman as being old, set in his ways, and basically resentful of the young upstart is mostly in his performance. And it is a great performance because I always feel bad for the PC. It’s a Mac ad and I know it’s always going to be a Mac ad, but I keep hoping that, just this once, PC shows up that smirking Mac. Not the best emotion to engender in your target market.
6. Apple… hires a genius to help its stupid customers.
There are a lot of sleazy sales people out there who are trying to sell you an inferior product and calling it a Mac. Fortunately, you know the right questions to ask so that you’re sure you’re getting a Mac and not “basically a Mac.” Perhaps a Mac genius even appears to show up the unethical sales person who was trying to sell you a bad product.
You bought a computer that isn’t really a Mac. You’re feeling pretty good about yourself until the Mac genius points out that you’re gullible and stupid. He doesn’t help you out of this predicament or even seem to feel particularly bad that his brand has been misrepresented by an inferior product. He just points out your mistake and then goes on with his life.
Now, I don’t want it to look like I’m picking on Apple specifically. But there’s no reason for the company to insult my intelligence if I don’t already own one of their computers.
Also, they chose a know-it-all IT guy as the spokesperson for this series of ads. Ask pretty much any non-IT worker to name his or her least-favorite co-worker, and the know-it-all IT guy will probably be mentioned. Over the last decade or so, we’re seeing less of this smug attitude as more people gain the IT skill set and employers have the option of choosing between the IT expert with interpersonal skills and the IT expert without interpersonal skills. (Hint: the one WITH interpersonal skills gets the job.)
Carfax has a similar set-up in its ads with a talking fox that knows everything about the used car you’re about to buy … except that the fox is standing next to you. Check out the ad and see if you can spot the tonal difference. This is an ad that says, “We’re in this together, buddy. I got your back.” As opposed to, “You paid for THAT thing? Sorry, stupid, you’re on your own.”
7. Gatorade… just told you not to buy Gatorade.
Maybe you’re a professional athlete. Maybe you’re out of shape and just starting a gym membership. Maybe you’re planning to participate in a 5K marathon for your favorite charity. Whatever your reason for getting some exercise, you want to do it responsibly and replenish the nutrients that you’ll be sweating out. So drink Gatorade.
You’re out of shape, deserving derision if you even try to buy our product. And your favorite football player will humiliate you if you object to this degrading treatment.
It’s a little unbelievable that Gatorade would green-light a series of ads where convenience store clerks refuse to sell Gatorade to people who don’t exercise enough. The first thing I thought was, “He’s probably heading to the gym and wants to have his power drink ready for after he’s finished.” The same way we tend to buy most products BEFORE we need them.
My second thought, of course, was, “It’s none of your business WHY he wants to buy that Gatorade, jerk! And to hell with you, random celebrity athlete, for humiliating him in public!”
Obviously, this doesn’t make me want to buy a Gatorade.
8. Target… thinks you sound stupid.
Black Friday can be a nightmare. Come to Target and we’ll do everything we can to help you buy everything you need at the lowest price, with a minimum of stress.
Heh heh, hold on. You want to hear something really funny? This is you. This is what you sound like to us. I know. Annoying, isn’t it. You are so annoying and vapid. Now come shop at our store.
It’s hard to say who was the intended audience for this ad. But it looks like it’s the two friends texting each other … whom the Target spokespeople are relentlessly mocking.
9. Cadillac… if you can’t afford one, it’s because you’re lazy… and un-American.
Cadillac produces the finest automobile on the market. If you can buy the best… why wouldn’t you?
French people are lazy. America is the best country in the world. You’re rich because you’re an American and Americans just work harder.
This one-minute commercial essentially insults everyone who can’t afford a Cadillac by implying they’re just too lazy to work for it. It also implies only Americans are worthy of owning Cadillac automobiles. And it would all work a lot better if these commercials weren’t readily available on the Internet, meaning that anyone in the world (including the French) can view them. It’s just difficult to imagine any company trying to tap into an international market with this sort of commercial on the air.
And in case you’re wondering about the fallout from this sort of smug “members only” style of commercial, here’s the Ford response ad. That’s right, the Cadillac commercial was so widely despised that it launched an ad campaign for a rival company.
Does It Matter?
I’ve purposefully left off political ads, since I don’t want to denigrate anyone’s party affiliation. But I will say that, as far as fear-mongering and appealing to humanity’s lowest instincts goes, political advertisers set the bar so low that you essentially have to start digging if you want to go any lower (and that’s not the only reason you might want a shovel when reviewing those “vote for me OR YOU’LL DIE” ads).
Of course, several of these commercials (like the “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” ads) actually launched multi-year campaigns, meaning that many customers either didn’t see these ads as condescending or simply didn’t care. Because many of us make our purchasing decisions based on something other than the commercials.
But if you saw one of these commercials with no prior knowledge of the products, if these commercials were your first exposure to these brands, how likely would you be to give them a try? After watching computer commercials that insult your intelligence, how much help do you think you’d get when you called that system’s support hotline? After watching commercials that insult your national heritage, will you be more or less likely to invest in a car manufactured in your own country? And are you more likely to buy your wife or girlfriend jewelry when a commercial tells you that she’ll dump you if you don’t?
While it’s true that we often make changes in our lives after recognizing a deficiency of some sort in ourselves; it’s also true that we become very defensive when others point out those same deficiencies. As long as potential customers are approached as outsiders rather than allies, these sorts of commercials will continue to be made and will continue to elicit (sometimes disastrous) backlash.
Or simply: Don’t insult the people while asking for their money.
Which of these commercials did you feel was the most condescending? Any that you would add to the list?
Michael is still amazed that he can get paid to complain about pop culture, since he'd spent years doing it for free. In the past, he's worked as a librarian, a typesetter, and an editor. His interests include films and comics from the '70s and '80s. He's also written numerous ghost stories and a mystery novel (which you should read). You can connect with him on Google+.
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