Last week, I wrote about how some recent commercials have been pushing the boundaries of good taste, and in an entirely different way than they used to. Rather than using sexism and other easy gimmicks as a way to sell products like they did in the days of yore, advertisers are increasingly trying to appeal to people with heart-warming, feel-good pap that’s about as genuine and real as the chemicals that make up their goods.
That’s worse because, rather than just being cheap and lazy, it’s dishonest and manipulative.
The chief offender right now is Becel margarine, from Unilever Canada. The company’s current “love letters” campaign, created by DDB Canada, drips with insincerity. From the ad’s press release:
With moms more likely to listen to their children than a marketing message, Becel® enlisted the help of elementary school students of an Ottawa public school to surprise their moms by reading aloud heartfelt letters explaining, in their own words, how well their mothers take care of them. The emotional live event created in partnership with the Heart and Stroke Foundation, was filmed for the campaign.
The contradiction in that paragraph is so obvious it’s painful, and it’s probably why the whole ad is so contemptuous. Mothers are indeed more likely to listen to their children than marketing, which is why Unilever has turned the children into the marketing. I wonder how the kids in that commercial are going to feel about Becel when they’re older, when they figure out and understand how they and their mothers were used and manipulated.
There’s also the issue at the heart of the campaign, no pun intended, where Becel is supposedly good for you. Not only is the science out on whether margarine is better for you than butter, Becel was also given an “award” last year for misleading advertising by a Dutch food watchdog. The group, Foodwatch, said that if the margarine really does help prevent heart and coronary disease, as Unilever says it does, it should only be available with a doctor’s prescription. “The organization says there is no evidence that it prevents these illnesses and if it were on prescription it would, like other medicines, be subject to more stringent controls,” according to Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
Wouldn’t you know it, I was at the grocery store the other day and I needed margarine. I instinctively reached for Becel, but then caught myself. “Oh no, not in my house,” I thought. Instead, I picked up a tub of Imperial margarine, only to discover that it, too, is made by Unilever.
It turns out Unilever has a bunch of different margarine brands. Why one company is selling competing brands of margarine in competing grocery store chains that are actually owned by the same company is itself an intriguing story, but we’ll leave that for another day.
In the meantime, I ended up going with President’s Choice Celeb brand, hoping that it’s not actually secretly made by Unilever. Truth be told, I mostly use butter when I cook, but I do like softer margarine when it comes to spreading on toast. If I was running things, that’s the focus I would take with any advertising.
The moral of the story is, while I’m obviously not in the target market of supposedly health-conscious mothers, the Becel ad has—at least in my case—backfired in its effort. I’m just one person who never really cared about margarine before, yet that one phoney ad was enough to get me interested.