Inspiring or Insulting?

Context is king when it comes to communication, and the meaning a viewer attaches to a message dramatically impacts how it is interpreted. Here is a Serious, Rebellious, Mastery, Self advertisement, from General Motors (GM), released in the midst of its 2009 bankruptcy restructuring. Do you find it inspiring or insulting? Watch it, and then read the Reversal Theory perspective below.

Sign of Strength?

This advertisement fell in the “love it or hate it” category when it was released. Supporters described it as focused, bold, and forward-looking; a company acknowledging its place as an underdog as it struggles to redefine itself. “It made me want to buy a car from them, just for the vote of confidence,” one said. Mastery-oriented imagery abounds, shifting from losing imagery to winning imagery as the ad progresses. With fast streaming images, we see the disabled runner racing despite the artificial limb, the hockey player toppled by the opponent, the American flag tattered in the storm; all quickly changing to images of strength and victory, technological innovation, the flower pushing itself through dirt to greet the sun. Success, against all odds. The messaging is clear: we are focused on the goal (Serious), rethinking everything (Rebellious), getting our act together and demonstrating our power (Mastery Self) as the sun rises again.

Not all were so kind in their reviews. Many found the patriotic imagery insulting, given the role of the U.S. taxpayer in saving the company. If the American flag is tattered, some noted, it is tattered in part because of you, GM. Others voiced skepticism that the images of technological innovation sprinkled through the latter half of the ad were innovations that the competition adopted long ago; the signs of strength and change somewhat discounted as “following the crowd” (in essence, something framed as new and Rebellious being seen as following and Conforming).

When they work, advertisements evoke positive emotions and the desire to take the action that the sponsor wants.  When they don’t work, advertisements can actually drive target buyers away. This emotion is shaped by the meaning that the viewer connects to the ad, and can be dramatically impacted by other factors. Reversal Theory offers a systematic structure for evaluating these impacts, and asking tough questions about how a message deemed positive by the creators may actually be seen by those outside the gates.Want to see an ad that draws in the opposite states as this one (Playful, Conforming, Sympathy, Other)? Visit Care and Compassion: MasterCard.

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