The Lure Of Random, Smiling Faces

If you look at any advertising flier you get in the mail, chances are you’ll see an array of happy faces, a business name, and not much else.  It doesn’t really make any difference what the ad is for — a bank, a grocery store, or any other consumer service business — the focus is on smiling human faces.

There will be random photos of people of every demographic group, looking directly at the camera with wide grins.  There will be carefully staged, faux candid shots of a boy being carried on his father’s shoulders, or an older woman gardening in a wide straw hat, or three teenage girls laughing.  None of the photos will have any logical connection to the business that is sending the ad.  Instead, these people apparently are just thrilled to be alive and enjoying existence to the fullest, thanks to their credit card, their haircut, or their choice of cell phone service provider.

Compare these ads to the ads of long ago, where the focus was always on the cost, quality, and capabilities of the product being sold.  Back then, ad agencies thought consumers would make rational judgments about what they were buying — even if it was avoiding dreaded yellow wax build-up or ring around the collar — not pure impulse decisions based on generic, content-free, feel-good faces.

It’s hard for me to believe that anybody responds to these fliers — or thinks that people could ever be that delighted by their choice of a bank — but the smiling face ads must work, because they are everywhere.   How do the people who fall for them feel when they eventually come to realize that the people they are dealing with aren’t the crinkly-eyed, carefree types on the ad, but instead a sullen call center worker who is making minimum wage at a job she despises?