Mark Mayer: Advertising for a Better Society

How could they get it so wrong?

That question perplexed Ball State’s Dr. Mark Mayer, an assistant professor of marketing in the Miller College of Business, after he first saw an aggressive ad campaign by a Georgia health care provider. The 2012 ads were designed to confront childhood obesity, but they were, well, mean.

The posters and TV spots of obese children with despondent expressions included accompanying messages such as: “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid,” and “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.”

The ads were attention grabbing. But health and marketing professionals roundly criticized them for further stigmatizing overweight kids. Mayer himself doubted the negative tone would be effective in moving kids and their parents towards healthier decision-making. And as a father of three, Mayer recoils at the thought of scaring children into changing their behaviors.

“One of my biggest responsibilities is training the next generation of advertisers and marketers not just to craft effective messages, but to do it ethically and do it in a way that benefits society.”

Before he pursued an academic career, Mayer was a brand manager at Kraft Foods and at Wyeth Healthcare, managing brands such as Planters Nuts and Advil pain reliever. After earning his PhD from the University of Georgia, he continued to research advertising “from the corporate side,” probing what types of messages help businesses sell. Part of that was understanding audience responses to ad elements like humor, threat, and sex.

But the Georgia anti-obesity ad campaign changed his research direction. He began to explore how powers of persuasion can be used to improve the lives of consumers. Furthermore, he felt that campaigns aimed at kids needed to be positive.

His most recent experiments with co-authors explore best practices in designing health communications. His focus is on finding that “sweet spot” where an ad both grabs your attention while also delivering an uplifting message.

In addition to presenting his research in academic journals and at national academic conferences, Mayer has led consulting projects for several Indiana-based corporations, small businesses and non-profits.

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