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I was in the supermarket the other week and overheard a couple in the next isle. She was saying of a product they were looking at, “Don’t you remember Danny, that’s the one we saw advertised the other night on TV”.
How the generations have changed. When I watched television (it was some time ago) ads meant a toilet break. Those not in the bathroom were making tea or coffee in the kitchen, or getting a beer from the fridge. We had it down to a fine art. Never missed a second of our show; never had the faintest idea who the sponsor was.
That got me thinking about advertising. There’s been a lot of negative talk about advertising. It makes us buy things we don’t want, it promotes false values, it talks down to us. George Carlin gives a list of words describing the product on the label none of which really means anything, and it’s a long list. Environmentalists point out that the most expensive part of the product is the packaging, which we throw away and which is sometimes not bio degradable. We sometimes hear hints about subliminal advertising that might influence our buying choice. All these things may be, probably are, true.
But has anyone got anything to say in favour of advertising (aside from those in the industry)?
Advertising paints a picture of a world very like the one inhabited by Truman Burbank. In Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives in a false world: but it’s a safe world. Every choice he has to make is a simple one. People always behave in the way he expects them to. Everyone is nice, everyone has a nice day. It’s a life like a TV commercial, reality television that is not real, it’s perfect. And its creator Christof believes it’s better than reality.
It’s a vision shared by the Guatemalian peasants in Gregory Nava’s 1983 film El Norte. Nourished by full colour advertisements of luxurious living in North American fashion magazines, the peasants think of ‘the North’ as a little bit like Heaven, and endure a horrifying journey as clandestine emigrants, only to end up as LA bottle washers on a pittance and living in a slum not that different to the one they left.
This gives a clue to the appeal of advertising. It presents a safe world, with limited, easy choices. Whiter sheets or teeth, a clean hygienic kitchen or bathroom, more miles to the gallon, sexy stockings or underwear, popularity for the men with super models: or not. It’s a cinch, a no-brainer.
Then what? Why, choose a product. Not any brand, certainly not those inferior brands alluded to in commercials that produce yellow sheets (or teeth), fly covered bench tops, stockings that make you look short legged, or a man scorned by attractive women. Once you buy (brand) you’ll never look back, and as you go off with your spouse into the sunset you’ll be so glad you did.
Now the best people at advertising are Americans. From the 50s onward they showed a hygienic, clean world that reached its apogee in McDonalds restaurants. The French might be good at machismo images like scruffy men in black leather in need of a shave, on a Harley-Davidson, but we know what they’re selling.
The crime writer Georges Simenon lived in America in the 50s. In one of his letters he comments ironically on how much alcohol Americans drank compared to the French (he himself was a heavy drinker). He concluded that it was the daily necessity of being nice. He thought everybody tried to be too nice. No abuse when upset, no yelling at idiots behind the wheel, always the “have a nice day” approach. Then the cocktails after work, a manhattan or two before dinner, wine with the meal and whiskey after. Then the violence. That routine gave him quite a few ideas for his books.
The pursuit of “niceness” is a large part of American life, and they have generously spread it across the planet. Disney, Toy Story, Marvel Comics heroes, and all kinds of homestyle traditional values in films like Forrest Gump, political groups like “the moral majority”, so-called “Christians”, George Bush I and II (not a movie but almost a TV series, who went out alone). The choice is inevitable. Good always triumphs, love prevails, evil will be punished, everyone will be happy. It’s a no-brainer.
Perhaps that’s why people get angry with the maladjusted, the drug addicts, the poor, the people who want their money now not at retirement age. All those who perversely don’t have a nice day. What’s the matter with these folk, don’t they watch television? It’s a problem, might have to think about it. Unfortunately the way most folk think about it is by voting for those who want to shoot the problem, drop bombs on it, put it in a home or feed it tranquillisers. And that involves voting (sigh).
Over half a trillion dollars a year get spent on advertising (says Wikipedia). Is it worth it? Could we direct some of this outlay to fighting poverty or disease, or more education subsidies or cancer research?
Some of this outlay on advertising is questionable. Do we need built in obsolescence in order to be persuaded to rebuy things we have that break or wear out as part of their design and manufacture? What about corrective purchases? Buying a new fridge instead of repairing the old one (can’t afford a repairman’s fees)? Replacing the audiotapes with the CDs, the videotape with DVDs with Blu-ray with Netflix? Buying products that make us fat then buying products or regimens that make us thin? Should advertisers be spending money to make us do such wasteful buying?
That’s the trouble with capitalism. It’s free enterprise. It doesn’t look back, see the big picture, or follow trends to their logical conclusion (it’s a little like politics there). The consumers are left to do that kind of assessment. But advertising erodes their discrimination and perhaps their self confidence. Maybe that’s why everyone has a PC then an Apple product, a briefcase then a backpack, why everyone who walks clutches a water bottle and has white cords hanging from their ears. We all want to do the right thing. But should it be advertisers who tell us what’s right? It involves buying their product after all.
One of the ideas behind advertising is that the product does not sell itself. It used to. But now there’s an advertising industry in between product and customer. In Japan you can go on an advertising channel and use it as a buying guide when looking for a product, but American advertisers think that products need image. Products need to be labelled as hip or with it, showing their purchasers are cutting edge and in the know; be frankly sexual, and so honest and above board; be reliable and in a way traditional; or be easily available and cheap. That is about the order of appeal. After image comes name, then logo, then typical images/graphics, then special offers: and only then, the product itself.
Back in the 1920s advertising was new, and it was associated with stimulating the economy. Mechanisation meant more product. So advertising was needed to shift that extra product from the shelves. Advertising now persuades people to buy to stimulate the economy, which might otherwise stagnate, and leads to products being produced to meet that artificial demand. It’s the cart before the horse.
Advertising owed its biggest development in the 1920s to tobacco companies, who persuaded consumers that inhaling smoke into your lungs (with their product) made you sexy, trendy, and sophisticated or on occasion, tough. In the 1930s it was the Nazi Party under Goebbels who pioneered many techniques and did so with stupendous success, so that the Führer could perform miracles. In the 1990s Google introduced personalised advertising, involving tracking internet users everywhere they went on the web to do so (but Big Brother loves you). In social media advertising people can be part of the advertising campaign through texting, how liberated is that?
Sexually based advertising poses a quandary, especially for media with strong regulatory codes like TV. You can’t advertise a brassiere by showing a woman with large breasts having a fitting, though that might be more relevant to the buyers. You can’t advertise condoms by having a man speaking of how it doesn’t impede his pleasure, even though that might be most relevant to buyers.
Then there’s the grey area which depends on personal taste. I don’t like a product being recommended by a celebrity. What do I know about their tastes? Besides, I’m all too aware they’re just doing it for the money. But I’m a sucker for sweepstakes entry if I buy a product, or loyalty discounts and that kind of thing. I think I’ll get something back for my purchase (although I have a sneaking suspicion I’m paying more so as to fund the offer). I hate roadside hoardings; and I wish I could send spam back to spammers wherever I find it, in email, post mail, SMS, Flash animations or anywhere else, preferably with a bomb attached (does that make me a terrorist?)
Spam currently dominates email traffic, and makes the internet a slower place to be. All advertising has the potential to saturate its media (it’s the same process as property managers inflating housing until its too expensive to buy and live in). One day we could be too busy reading advertisements to go buy anything.
Broadly speaking, I think the want should come first, then the purchase. In other words, advertising should be there to help me buy. I think it wrong if the ad creates the demand. I see that as the advertiser playing mind games, and taking from me part of my personal freedom. “Squeeze the consumer and watch him buy”.
That leaves services, such as government and religion. Who doesn’t advertise? Education. They can’t afford it. The main thing to remember about services like government and religion is that we learn about them through advertising. I’m not speaking about government administration, nor faith, but about organisations that offer these services. Political parties and churches. Like any other business, they advertise. And like advertisers who offer goods, these service industries offer the same inducements to consumers: simple choices, peace of mind, a nice and friendly world to live in. Perhaps just a trifle unreal. And you pay, sometimes quite a lot, for these services.
At the end of the day advertising is just another layer between the buyer and the product. Goods, packaging, distribution, advertising agency, advertising, sales, shop rental. Each takes a cut and the price has to be adjusted accordingly. And each tends to see their own activity as self sufficient, as all there is.
But advertising poses a danger these other layers don’t. It tries to make up your mind, and so attacks your personal freedom. You have to learn how to deal with it, to evaluate it, just as you do with propaganda and censorship. Don’t let the other guy take the responsibility or make the choices. You decide. You have to live in the world that choice makes, after all.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.