by Duong Trong Hue
The power of advertising has been well recognised, but it's not every day that advertising causes family conflict. I wouldn't know it could, had I not myself experienced this with my mother.
My mom has chronic rheumatoid arthritis. After years of sinking her bare feet into muddy fields while farming, she developed knee problems. Over the time the pain got worse.
She has visited both western and eastern doctors for medicines and acupuncture. To her disappointment, the doctors could only bring about some periodic relief. They said her knees were like cogwheels without oil, and even if the kneecap was to be replaced, there was just no production of cartilage to facilitate the knee joint's movement. As we did not really understand medical terms, all it meant to us was that my mom would have to live the rest of her life with aching knees.
My mom, however, did not give up. She utilised both interpersonal channels and mass media. She watched health programmes on TV, listened to radio news about success stories of people combatting rheumatoid arthritis and talked to people in her social network. But the most influential source was newspaper infomercials.
My mom and her friends did not read newspapers very often because of their eyesight problems. They also preferred gossiping about things happening in the town to spending time with their eyes glued to long articles with tiny letters. As a result, a few who were willing to read newspapers sometimes became opinion leaders in my mom's social circle.
They read mostly about health issues. One of my mom's friends found a news story about a successful treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and started sharing the article. It was in fact an ad that used a news-feature style to promote a health product. It was written in a way that manipulated readers' perception of the objectivity of the writer's viewpoint.
Of course, my mom didn't know much about public relations, or PR. She wouldn't know the techniques used pervasively in commercial marketing, such as testimonials, legitimate scarcity and calls to action. She instantly believed in the article.
When she brought the article home and asked us to buy the product, we had a serious debate about it. She trusted her friend and the article's content all the same, and it was hard to separate the information from its messenger.
She said we had underestimated her friend's willingness to help and her intellectual ability by assuming she was too susceptible to media. After a while, the veneer of reason wore pretty thin. The conversation got emotionally tense and her arguments coalesced into a rejection of my advice as solid as a diamond. At that point it would be common sense to leave her alone.
But not even a rock as hard as a diamond is immune to advertising. What makes an otherwise very ordinary stone so precious, garnering such exorbitant prices? Journalistic investigations long ago revealed that a massive, sophisticated advertising campaign was behind the idea that diamonds were rare and treasured.
In the 1870s, the market was flooded with diamonds, as huge diamond mines were discovered in South Africa. Fearing that the gem would lose its intrinsic value, the multinational behemoth De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd, which controlled all aspects of the world diamond trade, contracted a leading advertising agency in New York, N. W. Ayer, to launch a well-orchestrated advertising campaign.
Ayer's advertising messages romanticised diamonds with stories of ideal courtships. Celebrities and royal family members were used constantly to endorse diamonds' expressiveness and long-lasting, romantic allure. Product placement tactics in movies further instilled a perception by the public that diamonds represent eternal wealth and a lifetime of desire. And so came the saying "diamonds are forever", which became the title of a James Bond movie, despite the fact that diamonds can be shattered and burned to ash like anything else.
Such advertising techniques, coupled with global trading strategies by multinational companies, have made the gem both a dream and avarice of our time.
The story of diamonds resonates perfectly with that of my mom. It gradually eased my nettlesome feeling after the conversation with her. After all, the whole world has been brainwashed about a useless stone, so why should my mom's assumptions about ads be regarded as ignorance?
Perhaps her belief in advertising should deserve the benefit of the doubt. — VNS