Public Relations Ad
An oddity in the world of commercials — an ad for something that neither consumers nor even most businesses would have any reason to buy (if they could afford it in the first place), or for a company that primarily makes such products. Frequently seen on cable news channels.
A cynical interpretation is that they're a form of propaganda. Large corporations in general don't have a good image with the public
, so they put adverts on the air, aimed at people who normally don't actually purchase said company's product, with the sole intention of smoothing over their public image.
Alternatively, such commercials may be intended to show off the success of the company, to induce people — including perfectly ordinary people — to invest in the company and buy stock. So, no, you can't buy your own, personal jumbo jet, but you can
buy a little piece of Boeing.
Another possibility is that the goal of such adverts is to reach those viewers who are in the position to be customers of the company running the ad. CEOs and Purchasing Managers are people too, people who watch TV and might be influenced by adverts when making decisions on behalf of their employer. This may be why such adverts are often on news channels, because it's plausibly the kind of thing that the target demographic (people with decision-making power for potential business customers) might watch. Somehow, that seems like the least insidious of the possibilities.
Arguably the most chilling is the possibility that purchasing such ads with a news organization might function as a kind of protection money to prevent them from running negative stories about the company. Unfortunately, it seems as plausible as the other explanations, since Sunday morning talk shows don't seem to do hard hitting stories or interviews on, say, farm policy or energy policy. At best, they might have the CEOs of two competing companies on to discuss why the latest tax break for CEOs of energy companies is a great idea.
Of course, those possibilities are not mutually exclusive. They might all
be true to a lesser or greater extent.
See also We Don't Suck Anymore
and We Care
- Cable news in general. Commercials for Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Archer Daniels Midland, etc. pervade CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC.
- Helsingin Sanomat, the largest newspaper in Finland, had a full-page ad for a nuclear reactor in the 1990s. It is possible that the intention was to turn public opinion to favor nuclear power.
- The General Electric "We bring good things to life" campaign is somewhere between a stock pitch and an ad for the appliances that the company makes. Advertising GE washing machines and microwave ovens is one thing, but who's going to buy a locomotive or jet engine?
- During the extended period when GE owned the network, it seemed like they used to just throw these on NBC when they couldn't sell the airtime to someone else so they don't get suspiciously heavy on PSAs and program announcements (since even the business wonks and 30 Rock fans don't generally make an immediate association between NBC and GE, and the rest of the population had no clue). These ads have been seriously reduced in number ever since Comcast completed its buyout of the Peacock Network in 2013, so it's likely this is what was going on.
- Fictional example: In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Time Chasers, the villain, a Corrupt Corporate Executive, pitches his company GenCor: "Innovators. We really can't do without them... and neither can you." The Designated Hero views this ad and the plot is set in, er, motion.
- Several oil companies (BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil) have recently been running ads noting their innovation in alternative sources of energy. Of course, the vast majority of consumers don't buy anything besides oil (well, gasoline, an oil product) from them.
- Not now, anyway. But, when they start selling natural gas or hydrogen - Shell has a service station in Washington, D.C. that sells hydrogen - they're going to want you to know that they're not just oil. Sort of like how cigarette companies advertised to kids so they'd be aware when they hit 12 or 13 what brand of cigarette to beg someone to buy for them.
- They were also running ads saying "Don't complain that gas prices are too high. If you own stock in a mutual fund you probably own stock in an oil company, so it's good for your investment portfolio for us to make gobs of money." Until the price of gas plummeted, and the ads promptly became "Gas is cheap, be sure to buy some!"
- Yet another fictional example: Babylon 5 had a fake documentary episode which featured an extremely creepy ad for the "Psi Corps", who encourage you to submit your children to them for testing. It also features a subliminal message telling us to "Trust the Corps".
- The Washington Post and the Washington Metro get a number of ads from the defense industries. There's good reason for this: anyone who has any kind of say in the approval of defense contracts in DC reads the Post, and many of them—including some Congressmen!—ride the Metro to work every day.
- In point of fact, the Metro often gets a large number of this sort of ad, since so many riders are in some way connected to the government. Advertisers range from pro-Israel lobby groups to the freight train industry association to medical organizations—not to mention virtually every single country that can afford advertising on the Metro, and not just the usual "Visit Our Country!" stuff you'll find everywhere but also "Invest In Our Country!" as well.
- BASF, We don't make the things you buy, we make the things you buy BETTER!
- In the UK Powergen (now swallowed up by Eon) started sponsoring the ITV National Weather some time before they actually offered any services to the consumer (originally they just owned power stations).
- Mobil ran a large number of political awareness ads in newspapers, and they also ran commercials emphasizing - of all things - how to drive safer. Usually it's car companies that do that. Their tagline was, "We want you to live," which, in a way might make sense, since if people live longer they'd buy more gasoline. But it could be a Xanatos Gambit in which even if no one ends up driving safer (and spending money over a longer life time) they figure if people think of them as concerned about customers, first they'll be less likely to support politicians wanting to impose more taxes on oil companies, and second, they'll buy our product over competitors.
- Perhaps the most bizarre versions of this trope are the ads for non-branded products, usually put together by non-profit marketing boards.
- "Beef. It's what's for dinner." and "Got Milk?" You have to wonder why a marketing executive thinks that an ad like this would be necessary or valuable. I mean, sure, it might make somebody consider buying cattle flesh and bovine secretions to use in their next meal, but the major consumers of cow byproducts aren't individuals, but large corporations that use those byproducts in their own branded items (pet food, frozen meals, cheese, pastries, the list goes on and on).
- "Got Milk?" is especially strange, because that was a U.S.-wide ad campaign that was funded by the dairy processors of only one state (California). Though, to be fair, California produces more milk than any other state—although on the other hand, most Americans can't buy California milk (milk spoils very quickly, and if a state can support dairy farms, or is near one that does, all the milk will come from there).
- "Plastics make it possible." Yeah. How am I going to boycott plastics anyway? It's not like I can get rid of them. As the ad points out, things made of plastics are generally not possible to make with any other material— oh, you've convinced me, I won't buy that wooden laptop now.
- "Cotton, the fabric of our lives." Thank goodness that some fabric conglomerate put together this ad campaign; from now on, I'll check the material of every piece of cloth I purchase to make sure that there's SOME cotton in there, at least. Seriously, though, is there a marketing executive out there that seriously thinks some fifteen second song about touching and feeling somebody's clothing is going to change anyone's behavior?
- DOW tells us that they need Hu, the Human Element.
- In the Washington, DC area you get weird radio commercials for very specific defense industry proposals to the government which make little sense to 99.9% of the population ("General Defense's BARGLE-X system meets all 613 Air Force mission requirements!"). Since government contractors have strict rules on how they can communicate to the government with proposals, this is a legally-acceptable extra way to talk to the dozen or so people on the selection committee: broadcast it to 4 million people in the DC area. In fact, WFED, a Washington radio station consisting of nothing but dull news about government activities which only government employees might find interesting, exists solely for this very reason. Additionally, ads of this general kind are pretty common on the Washington Metro—particularly ads bought by lobby groups and foreign countries to drum up support in the nation's capital, probably hoping that the commuting bureaucrat(s) and/or staffers handling some deal or other benefiting them will see it and have them in the back of their minds.
- Toyota's been running a lot of these since their accelerator issues. A major feature is that they're heavy on footage of older Toyotas (with all-mechanical throttle linkages...). One wonders why: GM's been featuring footage of their decades-old greatest hits since The '80s, and look at where its' gotten them...
- German energy provider RWE ran an ad featuring a “Green Giant” to show off all the great things they did for renewable energy. The intertubes were quick to point out that RWE's main assets are (and will remain) fossil and nuclear energy. Cue the spoof ads.
- ADL. Supermarket to the world.
- Advertisements by the railroad company CSX that tells you about how great rail transportation is. Fun to watch and pretend that you're a powerful CEO who might be swayed into shipping out the next fiscal quarter's goods by rail.
- Parodied on The Simpsons, with a Super Bowl ad for the Catholic Church. A guy drives down a lonely stretch of rural desert road, and goes to a gas station, where 3 sexy, scantily-clad women come up and wash his car, with a close-up of the bustiest woman's...cross necklace. A voiceover comes on and says, "The Catholic Church: we've made a few...changes."
- Better Off Ted had parody ads for Veridian Dynamics, the fictional company the show is set in, appearing Once an Episode. Despite the feel-good images and soothing music and narration, the ads don't do that good a job at helping the company's image.
- IBM used to run adverts for servers and other such expensive technological arcana that the vast majority of the population would never want, understand or need. That said, many small-to-medium-sized business owners would have an interest, and there are a lot more of those than you might think. (One might live on your block, or in your apartment building.)
- Presumably this is the reason Philips ran ads for high-end medical equipment all over British TV in the noughties.
- The 30-second commercial "Sounds" shows a montage of the products of U.S. defense contractor Northrop Grumman being assembled and used rhythmically building up over the course of the commercial until 22 seconds in it cuts to an innocent little girl playing the company's jingle on a piano. The moral (rephrased): "We make products that help men kill each other in order to make it safe for little children to play the jingle of a company that makes products that help men kill each other." That's the value of performance. (View on YouTube or Vimeo)
- BASF's recent talks of their "green" innovations, and how that's made possible by chemicals. (Which, considering how frequently "All-Natural" is used as a buzzword, means that chemicals (and by extension chemical companies like BASF, Dow, and Du Pont) have a bad image that they want to smooth over.