Taking ADvantage
I Want It, I Want It Now: Greed and Advertising


Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since 28 May 1996.

For further readings, I suggest going to the Media and Communications Studies website.

This chapter examines how advertising takes advantage of human biological and social evolution to use greed to sell products.

Chapter Seven

The spokesman stands before a picture of a book cover and says that silver is at an all-time low. He says the book contains information on how to take advantage of this fact in order to make money when the price of silver rises. He then explains how to get the book.


The ad shows a credit card. If you use it, the company will donate 5% of the amount you charge on the card to a fund you can use to buy one of their cars. In this way, you can save a lot of money when you buy your next car -- from them.


The headline reads, "10,000 RED HOT PRIZES!" The rest of the American Dairy Farmers' ad explains how to win one of 10,000 barbeque grills during Double Cheese Cheeseburger Days.


The above ads have something in common: they appeal to greed, the desire to get more of what consumers need or want with the minimum of effort.


Greed, no matter what anybody says, is a part of the human psychological make-up. Everybody wants more. Thus, as an advertising tool, greed, (or acquisition of property, to make it sound better), works well. If an ad can make a product, or more usually a service, appear that it will help the individual get a bigger piece of the pie, then it will attract attention and generate sales. Bank, financial service and broker, franchiser, magazine subscription service, state lottery, etc. ads, and memory improvement, grade improvement, and "make a fortune in real estate" infomercials all depend on convincing people that what they sell will make possible the purchaser getting more.

How does advertising convince people that they can get more if the customer buys the product? By making vague promises. Please note that the ads never state unequivocally that the purchase of the product or service will result in an increase in material goods. What the ad promises is a chance, a possibility.

The most common approach is the testimonial. In this type of ad, someone who has purchased the product or service tells the audience how rich they have gotten. They will often explain how they were in dead end or low paying jobs (the better to relate to the target audience of these products). They then give paeans of praise for the product or service that showed them how to get out of their ruts and into their Rolls Royces.

They also emphasize how easy it was to get so rich using the product. The acquisition of property, unless you inherit it, is often extremely hard work. The examination of problems and solutions, the discovery and evaluation of new and effective approaches and techniques, the "wheeling and dealing" involved requires 26 hours a day and gallons of skull sweat (ask any successful executive). However, personal enjoyment (in this case, read laziness) (see Chapter 10, PERSONAL ENJOYMENT) is a factor that often comes into play as people decide what they want to do: how much effort do I want to expend to accomplish something? The easier something is to do, the more likely someone will be willing to do it: watching TV is easier than reading a book, driving your own car is easier than taking mass transit, going home and relaxing at the end of an 8- or 9-hour day is easier than working 16 to 20 hours a day. Thus, the ads emphasize the ease with which it is possible( 1) for someone to amass a fortune using the product.

Other ads, such as those for business machines, computers, and phone systems, show how their products provide greater speed, convenience, and/or savings than their competitors' products. Although these ads have a reduced emphasis on the individual a massing property, they still show the possible effects on the individual who doesn't take advantage of the offers. The so-called "slice of death" commercials(2) use this approach: they show how a person may possibly be demoted or even lose rher job if rhe chooses the wrong product -- that produced by a competitor of the commercial's sponsor.

Note that all these ads depend on the concept, not of taking resources from another individual, but of providing a "competitive edge": the products are available to all -- you were simply smart enough to take advantage of the offer. This approach can increase sales by making potential purchasers wish to get their "edge" before someone else can beat them to it. It also reduces the dissonance some people may feel when the greedy impulse runs up against the social disapproval of greed. By making it appear that the product purchaser wins, but no individual loses (wiping out your corporate competition is socially acceptable), then there is no social stigma to acquiring a larger piece of the pie.

The thing to bear in mind is that "greed is good." That is, it's good for the individual, but perhaps not for the society in which that individual lives. Unrestrained greed in an individual can lead to callousness, arrogance, and even megalomania. A person dominated by greed will often ignore the harm their actions can cause others. Sweat shops, unsafe working conditions and destruction of livelihoods are all consequences of people whose personal greed overcame their social consciences.

However, even a society that bans individual greed can suffer. It is greed that makes people want to do things since they will be rewarded for their efforts. Remove that reward, and you remove the incentive to work. The Soviet Union provided an example of this: the collective farms provided no individual incentive to strive, and thus produced an insufficient supply of food. The individual-owned and run truck farms, however, with the possibility of selling their produce and keeping the proceeds, grew a far greater harvest per acre than the collective farms. The "greed" of American farmers has allowed them to grow food for the world, since the more they produce the more money they make.

Unrestrained greed is detrimental to society; unrestrained disapproval of greed is detrimental to society. Advertising that takes advantage of this biologically favorable impulse in people attempts to avoid both.


1 Please note the phrase in the above sentence: "it is possible". Note the ads don't say it is definite, or even probable, that using their product or service will gain a fortune for the purchaser. The only thing the ad says is that it worked for the person giving the testimonial, which is only anecdotal, not empirical, evidence.

2 A slice of death commercial is a special case of the slice of life commercial, one in which actors perform a little dramatic playlet, showing people interacting, the product the central focus of that interaction. For example, a woman may complain to her mother that her dishes just aren't clean. Ever-wise Mom advises using a certain dishwashing detergent. When the woman does use it, the dishes are clean and there is a happy ending. This is a slice of life.

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