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November 6, 2009

Stereotypes and selling the sizzle

In this post Andrea explores stereotyping, assumptions or cliches in advertising and marketing…

Andrea WisdorfEvery month, I anxiously await the arrival of the latest issue of Marie Claire in my mailbox.

(Yes. My actual mail box. You know-that funny thing with the aluminum flag just outside the door? No, really, it’s not just for decoration. I know this because I am one of exactly eight people left in the world that pays for magazine subscriptions and still gets paper mail. But that’s not what this post is about.)

Anyway, I came home the other day to find that it had arrived. Barely in the door, I immediately threw off my jacket, kicked off my shoes and plopped on the couch to dive into the December issue.

As I read, I was introduced to a clever and hilarious woman by the name of Sarah Haskins. Ms. Haskins hosts a series on Current TV called Target Women that pokes fun at the ridiculous (albeit hilarious) gender stereotypes of modern advertising.

Apparently her videos have been making the rounds on the interwebs in recent months, but this was the first I had heard. I decided to check them out, and I must say the girl’s got a point.

While I find it annoying that the commercials in the above video make me as a female appear to be a ravenous Countess Chocula freak, I’d be lying if I said I have never made those faces or squealed for chocolate like that. Don’t judge. As I watched a few others, I started to wonder which came first-the stereotype or the ad? Perception or reality?

Usually, I find stereotypes in marketing and advertising to be caricatures of harmless heightened reality. Many appear to be based on the old advertising adage that says ‘Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.’ This traditional advertising and marketing view often can aim to tap in to the stereotypes and perceptions of target audiences in order to get at the feelings that motivate, entice and even entertain in hopes of positioning a product or service at the top of consumers’ minds and shopping lists.

This view can either succeed in forging connections with consumers, or it can fail and end up alienating them. I’ve seen how some ads that are steeped in stereotypes or false assumptions end up backfiring on a brand, like the recent backlash of the Motrin Moms ad campaign, or end up upsetting consumers at the entire advertising and media industries over things like racism, sexism, body image and self esteem. And rightfully so. But…sometimes failure can still be success–controversy and visibility are a package deal–I guess it just depends one’s relativity of the term ‘success.’

What’s more, I think this view (sans the use of stereotypes) is still what great advertising and marketing is all about. But increasingly so, the message is becoming less effective from traditional advertising channels like television and print. Instead, this view has become more about fostering a strong brand and then engaging advocates of the brand to sell the sizzle on the brand’s behalf.

As word-of-mouth and social media marketing and advertising prevails, I’m interested to see if the stereotypes of adland prevail with it.

I predict they won’t. At least, I hope they won’t.

But…what do I know? I still get paper mail.