Nationwide really is on your side. That seems to be the conclusion of a recent study by YouGov that found that three quarters of American adults think that advertisements are generally honest. That’s up sixteen points from three years ago.
We are constantly told that Americans have become increasingly skeptical of and cynical about all of our institutions. We don’t trust Congress or the president. We don’t trust journalists or bankers. We don’t trust the police or organized religion. So why in the name of all that is holy do Americans believe people who they know are trying to sell them something?
One reason, I suspect, is that they assume everyone is trying to sell them something. Their doctors, they believe, want them to buy more medicine or have more expensive procedures. Their representatives in Washington want more money and more power. Their religious leaders are all hucksters selling entry to heaven. At least business, the logic goes, is being honest.
But there is also the advertising itself, which has become clever to the point of hilarity. When my eight-year-old son walks around singing, “Nationwide is on your side,” or any of the multiple variations on the tune that Peyton Manning sings during his commercial (“Chicken Parm, you taste so good.” “That’s a first-rate queso dip.”), he is not thinking about buying insurance. He is just enjoying a good ditty. But his familiarity with the Nationwide brand is such that when he has to buy insurance in a decade or so, they may be at the top of his list. (Though Geico’s commercials have probably made as much of an impression at this point.)
Of course there are still old-fashioned commercials on—people screaming on the radio about used cars or hawking furniture on television. I suspect younger people pay much less attention to them. And on the occasions my children see them they are clearly puzzled. “Mom, why is he yelling?” “Mom, why would you buy a car to get money back?”
But so much of advertising these days seems to involve the advertisers being in on the joke. Think about “the most interesting man in the world,” commercials for Dos Equis beer. In addition to the funny voiceovers about him (“His only regret is not knowing what regret feels like”), the tagline is perfect. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.”
In other words, it would be preposterous for a really cool person to pretend for an audience that he only drinks beer. No one would believe that. But this is a much smaller—and more interesting—claim. The advertisers have managed to stay one step ahead of their audiences by going merely for name recognition or selling much more indirectly.
There may be a temptation to assume that this new trust in advertisers is a form of postmodern ironic posturing. After all, if truth is relative then why give any less credence to someone trying to sell you something? Four out of five dentists may recommend Trident. Or they may not. But that’s our narrative and we’re sticking to it.