Ethos train wrecks are pretty entertaining.
I’ve been delivering a lot of training and talks over the last few weeks that involve the rhetorical appeals (those are Logos, Ethos, and Pathos, for the uninitiated)*. These are three different ways your argument will appeal to someone’s sensibilities. There’s no perfect translation, but roughly it’s this:
- Logos = logic
- Ethos = an alchemical mash-up of reputation, credibility, and your ability to gel with your audience.
- Pathos = emotion
Good ethos is what gets an audience to like and trust you. Marketer’s bread and butter depends on getting audiences to like and trust them. They are in the ethos business. This makes their missteps utterly baffling, and provokes swift audience backlash to tone deaf advertisements.
It’s always fun coming across a good ethos blunder in advertising, so when this post from Today’s Parent popped up on my Twitter feed:
I immediately thought two things:
- There’s no way she’s a day over 18, and
- Time to watch the fireworks!
Thought #1 was completely wrong – the woman in question is Valeria Lipovetsky, model and YouTuber, 28 years old with 2 sons at the time of this writing, and graced by god with the sort of genes that will probably keep her looking in her early 40’s when she’s pushing 80**.
Thought #2, however, rang true. While it was far from a tweetstorm, several people did reply to this Tweet (which was sponsored by makeup company Nude by Nature), and the replies were predictable.
Here are a few:
There were also a couple of respondents who shot back at the irritated comments, bringing up the fact that the model is 28, and we shouldn’t judge people just because they’re young looking (don’t ‘cha know):
So now that we have both sides of the argument, let’s dissect this ethos problem.
First, you must understand that ethos is relative. It’s presence or lack thereof depends on the audience’s interpretations and the audience’s values.
Let’s look at the ageism issue brought up in a few of the above tweets. Here you’re seeing two groups of people experiencing ageism from completely different angles. Those criticizing the advertiser for using a model that looks like a teenager are seeing ageism this way: looking as young and fresh-faced as possible is an important part of motherhood – a marker of being a “good” mom, embodied by an impossible-to-achieve image of beauty.
Those criticizing the critics are seeing a totally different ageism: that the critics believe there’s something wrong with being a young, pretty mom, and that young pretty moms shouldn’t be celebrated or paraded around.
For the latter group, the advertisers got the ethos right. They identify with the pretty young mom model, being young pretty moms themselves. They relate to her, they admire her, they aspire to that look and will try to recreate it.
But despite some people defending the ad, the advertisers still got it wrong. The atypically young, fresh-faced mom isn’t the target audience for this magazine.
According to the Today’s Parent About Page , the magazine’s target demographic are parents who “have children from birth to ages 9+”.
Magazine advertising always targets the magazine’s average reader, attempting to appeal to the largest number of readers possible.
If the “Who We Are” section said “parents between the age of 24 and 35,” this would be a very different article, and the ad may have been more appealing to readers. But they didn’t specify the age range of the parent, they specified the age range of the children, thus making the target market the average parent of infant to pre-teen age children.
And what, pray tell, is that age? According to Stats Canada, the average age that a Canadian woman has her first child is 30.2 years (data collected in 2011). There’s your bottom age range for this magazine.
Let’s get a little more forensic with the age thing:
This ad narrows the target audience even further: it specifically mentions school drop-off. So this ad is targeted at parents with school-aged children. So let’s say that includes kindergarten, which in many provinces means 5 years old. Now the youngest average age for which this ad has been created jumps up to 35.
How about the oldest average age of targeting for this ad? Let’s assume that parent-escorted school drop-off gets capped at upper elementary – junior high kids can fend for themselves. Grade 6 kids typically average to be 11 years old. That places the upper target age of this advert to be 41 years old (and possibly a couple years older).
The model looks like a teenager.
Now this model isn’t a teenager, and she does have two school age sons. But audiences don’t respond to advertisements by saying “I wonder who that person actually is? Let me reserve judgement until I find out her name, age, and family status.”
It doesn’t matter that the model is 28. Because the model LOOKS like a teenager.
The average person in the target audience hasn’t looked like a teenager in some time, resents the fact that she’s being told to look like one, and can’t in any way relate to the person on the screen. What’s more, this audience is well aware that most models in the ads targeting her are far younger than she, and is therefore doubly sensitive to ads that try to persuade her with models who look impossibly young.
With ethos, the messenger matters…a LOT. If you have the wrong person trying to appeal to the wrong audience, they can be rejected on crummy ethos the instance the audience lays eyeballs on them. Much of ethos is an instant, visceral, sub-conscious response. Ethos is the Judge McJudgerson of persuasion.
The ad digs it’s ethos hole with another point: making it about school drop-off.
The implication now becomes that the mother is getting ready to look great FOR school drop-off. Now there are places where this really is a thing (read Primates of Park Avenue for a hilarious look at this phenomenon), but again, this is a misstep for the magazine’s average reader. The target for this ad is probably less concerned about looking fresh for the other mommies at drop-off than they are about looking presentable for work.
When your audience is made up largely of reasonably educated, harried, exhausted mothers who probably feel like they’re toting twenty pounds of baggage under their eyes, implying that dropping kids off at school is an occasion warranting a full face of make-up isn’t a smart move. The people clapping back at this sponsored Tweet certainly didn’t seem to appreciate it. If you want good ethos, it’s important to reflect and align with the target audience’s values, offering them something that jives with their reality instead of chirpily wagging your finger at it.
As with any other advertising blunder, this one makes me wonder how on earth could the ad creators have missed this? Any good rhetorician – and all good marketers are rhetoricians – seeks to fully understand and speak to their audience at all points in their argument. Even when they’re seeking to piss off or alienate a certain audience segment, they’re still intimately targeting the audience they actually want (think Nike’s Kaepernick ad – do you think Nike is surprised that they offended old school conservatives?). But this one – like the Pepsi-Jenner ad, or the Dove colour changing ads – is such a straight up brain fart that it makes me want to do the Picard facepalm.
Whenever you’re crafting an argument, or a presentation, or a message, always look at it through your target audience’s glasses. Really make that effort – get someone who fits your audience description to give you feedback on it if needs be. It’s easy to overlook this step – we get wrapped up in our own ideas of what should convince others or get run away with our own ‘vision’ or cleverness. But getting this ethos thing wrong can screw up all your efforts. It’s not that you won’t ever make a mistake, but you’ll improve the likelihood of getting it right.
Now excuse me, I need to make my skin look even more sallow and tired and get those bags under my eyes to really pop. I’m taking the kids out to dinner and can use all the sympathy I can get.
What are your thoughts on the matter? Ever see an advertisement or a tweet (sponsored or otherwise) that left you wondering what were they thinking? Share it in the comments below, or brave the social media route and share it over on Twitter via @lsergy or over here on Facebook!
P.S. In case you were wondering what the model’s appearance was before doing the 5 minute make-up routine, here it is:
I see no discernible difference.
Disclaimer: none of the Tweets above were from me. While I’m often sorely tempted to enter into snarky Twitter fights, it profits no one and only results in my blood pressure spiking. Better to stay well out of it.
*hat tip to Aristotle
**And good on you, Valeria – people would give a mint for genes like yours!