When the 'soft sell' becomes a smokescreen

An advertising industry memo, devoted to analyzing the "soft sell," concluded that humor does not peddle products. This view, generously quoted in the New York Times, ought to come as a shock to the wits responsible for the latest Wheaties ad.

"Before I put on my cleaties, I get the eaties for my Wheaties," sings the ferocious San Diego Charger Ed White, coyly expressing more "camp" than training camp.

This conversion of athletes into "flakes" -- and soggy flakes at that -- is an indignity in vain, according to the anonymous author of the soft-sell memo. For healthier sales, "The Breakfast of Champions" should be trusted again to the solemn endorsement of those old-time jocks with square jaws and level eyes who shoveled in their Wheaties reverently, as if they were eating Mom's apple pie while listening to the "star-Spangled Banner."

The "homorous/exaggerated" school of soft sell, the memo-writer argues, simply does not move the goods off the shelf like the "mood/emotional" school of soft sell. Or as he sums up: "Tapping into reservoirs of patriotism, nostalgia, a wholesomer past, bedrock Americana, etc. will often prove effective in conjuring up the desired strong emotions."

If a reader of this memo senses a Reaganish mood to the "mood/emotional" school, he or she may not be wrong. The advertising industry, like everybody else, picks up on the style of a winner.

Even IBM is selling its hardware softly, with mood and emotion. One TV commercial stages an office scene with all the vibrance of a senior prom. A very young woman is timidly reporting to her first day at work. A kindly, smiling supervisor escorts her to her word processor, performing a human-to-machine introductions as if Cinderella were meeting Prince Charming. At the end of a radiant day Cinderella gives her new friend a shy but definitely romantic pat on his metal head.

This kind of soft sell is designed to make the computer seem "warm and friendly," an IBM executive has explained.

Norman Rockwell among the robots!

Are we complaining about the soft sell -- "mood/emotional" or even "humorous/exaggerated"? Not at all. We favor any approach that doesn't involve a screaming used-car dealer seizing a sledge-hammer and smashing windshields into our TV screen.

But Philip Morris has carried the soft sell too far -- so far, in fact, that it has all the aggressiveness of a hard sell. The tobacco company is financing a public opinion poll bearing the name of one of its cigarettes -- "The Merit Report." Americans will be asked by telephone pollsters what they think of abortion, nuclear energy, the arms race, and so on. Then the results will be tallied for the press and nightly news broadcasters to disseminate, just like the Daniel Yankelovich and Louis Harris polls. Only instead of the reputation of a pollster, a cigarette will be very softly sold.

The problem is not that Philip Morris has found a way to get "free" advertising. Advertisers have always craved "editorial support" above and beyond the space or time they purchase. And they are by no means the only ones to sneak across the borders into editorial content. Politicians attempt to "manage" the news to their advantage. "Special interest" groups try to persuade journalists to favor one cause or another. The more skillful techniques of public relations have had the effect of blurring the distinction between a "news story" and a "press release."

The point is, there are more than enough doubts already about the truth of what gets printed or broadcast -- and why. The minds of those who consume information are also buzzing with information -- and suspicions -- about the process itself.

The soft sell may be fine for Wheaties and computers. But when the soft sell is practiced on the body that hosts it, everybody gets confused.

It doesn't matter if "The Merit Report"is gathered as scrupulously as any other poll. What matters is that a contract of faith guaranteeing some degree of editorial independence -- of voice separation -- has been breached. The journalist who is communicating with you may suffer from limits in competence, flaws of character, and, always, too little time. But at least the simpler ulterior motives ought to be devotedly guarded against.

In a year when both journalists and public seem to be singing a roundelay of "Whom can we trust?" -- in a year when Walter cronkite retired and Janet Cooke didn't -- who needs the smokescreen of "The Merit Report"?

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