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Why I Will Never ‘Love That Advert’

June 15, 2011

Whilst out driving last week a familiar event occurred, one which most of us experience several times each day. On the rear shelf of the car in front sat a nodding dog. My brain raided its memory banks and immediately associated this object with an insurance company, Churchill. The car’s owner had evidently enjoyed this advert so much, they chose to purchase their own nodding dog, from the company’s very own dog shop.

The evolution of Churchill’s nodding dog follows the discourse of corporate advertising from the 1950s onwards and we frequently accept it as a normal part of life. However, when you take a step back and analyse this event, it becomes obvious just how utterly absurd it is.

Selling a brand – and it’s associated lifestyle – is now the most powerful tactic at the disposal of modern consumer capitalism. The end objective of which being to sell products which increasingly we do not require. It’s a false economy which I believe affects our society and culture in increasingly negative ways.

From ‘Features’ to ‘Lifestyles’

Early advertisements were generally focused on extolling the benefits and features of the product itself, but this soon shifted into promoting a lifestyle and a brand identity. Automobile advertising is a great example of the seismic shift in method. Early automobile advertisements frequently limited themselves to listing the car’s features: the races the car had won, the sound systems that would put home systems to shame and the carpet so thick your feet disappear.

So why has this now changed? In the case of cars, as technology has improved and the different brands had less and less to differentiate each other in terms of features and quality, selling the brand name and its associated lifestyle then became the priority of those in corporate marketing departments.

As this idea evolved, the adman ceased to see himself as a pitchman and instead saw himself as “the philosopher-king of commercial culture,” in the words of ad critic Randall Rothberg. The search for the true meaning of brands – or the “brand essence,” as it is often called – gradually took the agencies away from individual products and their attributes and toward a psychological/anthropological examination of what brands mean to the culture and to people’s lives. This was seen to be of crucial importance, since corporations may manufacture products, but what consumers buy are brands.

Naomi Klein – No Logo

Contemporary automobile manufacturers therefore have to rely on promoting an attractive image of ownership to their customers, in an effort to convince the buyer that they will feel infinitely better about themselves just as soon as they’ve signed the credit agreement. Increasingly, the company which produces the slickest, most aspirational advertising becomes the most successful, regardless of what actually resides under the bonnet.

As consumer capitalism took root and as disposable income increased during the baby boomer generations, the products being sold generally became less essential, with a greater number of luxury goods being unleashed into the marketplace. As Edward Bernays commented in his remarkable – and still deeply relevant – 1928 book on public relations, this shift to lifestyle advertising also brought with it a new focus on selling the need for a product, rather than the product itself.


Today, advertising has penetrated far deeper into our culture than ever before, with some arguing that it is almost out of control. It’s almost as though advertising has now been assimilated into popular culture. Perhaps it may even be the opposite way around.

Whether it’s squealing at cats with thumbs or laughing at the little boy who believes he has the force, adverts now provoke such strong reactions and affection from people that it verges on disturbing. Water cooler talk has shifted from discussing soap operas to discussing the newest and funniest advertisements.

However, my deeply cynical brain and I see things slightly differently, especially since these adverts aren’t supposed to exist for entertainment, they’re designed solely to convince us to buy items we don’t need and to give tacit approval to the never-ending quest for increased corporate profit.

By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising…kill yourself.
You are Satan’s spawn filling the world with bile and garbage.
You are fucked and you are fucking us.

– Bill Hicks

There are numerous ways in which advertising’s stranglehold on popular culture has been strengthened over the past three decades. One of these methods involves exploiting the power of the brand logo and mascot for free advertising as customers carry or wear these branded items. For contemporary examples, think of the ghastly I ♥ PB merchandise sold by Paul’s Boutique, the Vauxhall plush toys, CompareTheMarket’s frustratingly popular Meercats and the Churchill dog which I previously mentioned.

Blurring the Boundaries

Increasingly the lines between content and advertising are becoming blurred to the point of incomprehension. I don’t frequently watch television, but when I do it usually throws up something obscene, as though it was designed solely to enrage the anti-capitalist region of my brain.

Case in point: whilst watching Channel 4’s flagship T4 magazine programme last year, its host Jameela Jamil cut to a commercial, the screen went black and a familiar figure appeared on-screen. It was Jameela Jamil. Only this time she was here to advertise Maybelline cosmetics. Following her discussion on the wonders of Maybelline, we went straight back to T4, presented by the erstwhile Ms Jamil.

However, rather than wanting to conceal their attempt at deception, the Channel 4 Sales website is brazen about their motives in creating what they now refer to as a Break Innovation.

Channel 4 was the perfect partner for Maybelline, delivering the youngest profile of the main TV channels. With The Outfit, Channel 4 developed an innovative advertising solution featuring Jameela Jamil, presenter of Channel 4’s youth strand T4.

Spots were created that blurred the boundaries between ads and programming and gave a behind-the-scenes peak at New York Fashion Week. This contextual approach ensured significant viewer engagement.

The campaign was the first to take advantage of a change in the BCAP code about the placement of advertising. The Jameela ads were transmitted during the ad breaks alongside Jameela’s programming in T4, Channel 4 and E4.

Channel 4 Sales – Break Innovations: Maybelline

If all this wasn’t enough, things are about to get worse. Due to a change in broadcasting regulations, television advertising is now no longer restricted to its traditional position sandwiched between programming.

Product placement in the UK was given the go ahead in September 2009, and recently came into effect across the UK. So far take up has been relatively low and programmes which include product placement are required to display a warning logo prior to the beginning of the programme. It is not yet known how significant this decision will be, but to some extent we have been surrounded by product placement within the entertainment industry for quite some time.

I recently attended a preview screening of Morgan Spurlock’s new film, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold at Sheffield Doc/Fest. The film is an investigation of product placement within the entertainment industry, which was itself funded entirely by product placement. In it, Spurlock points out that over $400bn is now spent annually on advertising in the US, with motion picture companies recruiting more brand partners than ever before. A film such as Iron Man for example, had teamed up with fourteen different corporate brands in the making and promotion of the feature. With the increasing tendency of advertising influencing the content itself, the US provides a frightening premonition of what we may very well see evolving across the British television industry over the next decade or so.

It has become common practice for corporations to pay celebrities to appear in advertising as a trusted/recognised public figure, giving the brand a level of credibility it may or may not warrant.

Here’s the deal, folks. You do a commercial – you’re off the artistic roll call, forever. End of story. Okay? You’re another whore at the capitalist gang bang and if you do a commercial, there’s a price on your head. Everything you say is suspect and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink.

– Bill Hicks

Placement of this sort can be almost subconscious at times, enabling Cheryl Cole’s performances and promotion of her latest single on ITV’s The X Factor to go ahead relatively unnoticed. Another example of this kind of behaviour can be seen in the increasingly incestuous cross-promotion between the Daily Express newspaper and Channel 5 programming, which came about following the acquisition of both by the same proprietor, Richard Desmond. This prompted the satirical magazine Private Eye to introduce a column entitled Five a Day to document some of the more absurd examples.

The Damaging Effects

In the US, the amount corporations spent marketing to children under 12 increased five-fold between 1980 and 1990 and ten times more during the 1990s. By 2004, $15 billion was being spent marketing to children. Not only are there a great many more advertisements aimed at children but they are increasingly infiltrating the safe spaces where children play and learn.

Sharon Beder’s fantastic book This Little Kiddy Went to Market: The Corporate Capture of Childhood discusses the increasing indoctrination of children in brands through advertising.

Children are naïve about advertising and can easily be manipulated and exploited by marketers to want and demand their products. Corporate marketers believe that over time they can be shaped into lifelong consumers with brand loyalties and that can be profitable for decades to come. What is more, children influence family spending decisions worth hundreds of billions of dollars on household items like furniture, electrical appliances and computers, vacations, and even the family car.

Sharon Beder – This Little Kiddy Went to Market

The American Sociologist Juliet Schor expands on some of the harm done to children in this culture of exploitation:

If a kid buys a pair of Nike shoes and feels better about himself or herself because of them, then Nike’s ads may enhance self-esteem. But the messages are a double-edged sword because they also do the reverse, undermining self-worth. Sometimes the reality doesn’t meet the promise. Sometimes kids desperately want a product because they’re convinced it’s essential to their happiness but there’s no money to pay for it.

As the nation’s children are increasingly likely to live in poor and low-income households, this gap between desire and means is likely to grow. Many psychologists already find this a worrisome trend. Allen Kanner and M. E. Gomes have argued that many young people are suffering from feelings of deep inadequacy brought on by an inability to keep up with consumer culture.

Juliet Schor – Born to Buy

Women in particular suffer a great deal from the effects of advertising on their psyche. The shocking advertisement below was produced for the watch company Accurist in 1998 and cited by Jean Kilbourne in her fascinating documentary Killing us Softly as a perfect example of the harm lifestyle marketing can cause. With the slogan of Put Some Weight On, it depicts an emaciated woman who is indeed so thin that the watch fastens over her upper arm. The ASA upheld 83 complaints against the ad, stating that it glamorised an “unhealthy” look.

Accurist Advert, 1998

Other high-profile advertising campaigns promote discrimination and violence against women in equally disgraceful ways, such as this Dolce & Gabbana advert, depicting a scene in which a woman is held down against her will by a gang of men. The ad was criticised by Spain’s Labour and Social Affairs Ministry as being both illegal and humiliating to women. A different Dolce & Gabbana campaign was criticised by the UK’s ASA in 2007 for showing models wielding knives.

Why these sorts of advertisements should prompt customers to splash out on overpriced designer goods is anyone’s guess, but apparently they do succeed: D&G made over $150m profit in the 2009 financial year. Of course many ads are intentionally designed to cause controversy such as this, which can – as long as it doesn’t push the existing boundaries too far – only serve to boost their brand visibility.

The reinforcement of gender norms is another issue of concern when looking at advertising. Adverts frequently portray the stay at home mother looking after the kids and carrying out the housework, married to the beer-swigging, 9-5 working, football loving father. However, is this really an accurate reflection of family life in 2011? I certainly don’t believe so. It certainly makes you wonder whether a fair and egalitarian society could ever exist in ad-land.

More Than Meets The Eye

Lies, damned lies, and statistics goes the saying, and this is certainly true of much advertising. The abuse of statistics has become somewhat of an epidemic. Surveys with increasingly low numbers of participants are regularly flashed up in the small print of advertisements to convince us that the nation approves of the product currently being flogged. However, the underlying data behind these studies is usually quite difficult to find. When doing research into claims made within advertising I frequently have to accept defeat before I’ve gotten anywhere near the independent statistics cited in the advertisements themselves.

Of course this kind of deception is far from limited to statistics. Frequently the images themselves lie to us. Airbrushing and digital manipulation is a commonly used tactic in both print and visual media. Complaints against a Rimmel advert in 2010 were upheld after the Advertising Standards Agency decided the advert was misleading and that the use of lash inserts would distort the visual representation of the effect achievable from the use of the product alone. However, similar complaints against Boots in 2008 were not upheld, leading to the development of a cynical attitude amongst many towards the effectiveness of the ASA.

One issue which I think many don’t yet consider is the misappropriation of real creative talent. In essence, that incredibly creative people are tempted into advertising by the sums of money available, rather than creating something worthwhile and non-corporate. Evidence on this is difficult to gather, but I do feel it to be an acute problem. In terms of advertising to children especially, some working in the industry even admitted this when interviewed by Juliet Schor, with one commenting that they were doing the most horrible thing in the world and another who confessed that she would probably burn in hell.

Distorting our View of the World

The increasing reliance on advertising also has dangerous effects on the mainstream media and their ability to effectively gather and report on events taking place across the globe. The media watchdog website Medialens has frequently highlighted this as a major barrier to press freedom.

One of the great ‘Flat Earth’ ideas of our time is the notion that deep dependence on corporate advertising does not compromise the ability of our corporate press to report honestly and accurately. Contrary to common belief, most money is not made on a newspaper’s cover price. Instead advertising constitutes fully 75% of the average broadsheet’s total revenue….

…are we really to believe that these newspapers – “disproportionately reliant on ad revenue” as they are – would +voluntarily+ risk such disastrous falls in revenue by launching devastating and sustained attacks on corporate advertisers, corporate products, corporate activities and corporate philosophies, of the kind that are regularly seen in the non-ad-dependent radical press?

Advertising Makes A Mockery Of Press Freedom – Medialens

For this particular article, Medialens also interviewed several influential media owners and editors, all of whom said that although commercial considerations were important, these would never prevent their outlets from running a story. However, this is certainly not a version of the world shared by the advertising industry.

An international memo put out by tobacco company Philip Morris reveals the reality beyond these arguments: “The media like the money they make from our advertisements and they are an ally that we can and should exploit… We should make a concerted effort in our principal markets to influence the media to write articles or editorials positive to the industry position on the various aspects of the smoking controversy.”

In 1993 Mercedes Benz told 30 different magazines that it would withdraw its advertisements from any issue that contained articles critical of Mercedes, German products or Germany.

In a letter to over 100 magazines, Chrysler corporation advised in 1997: “In an effort to avoid potential conflicts, it is required that Chrysler corporation be alerted in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial content that could be construed as provocative or offensive.”

The Economist reports how media projects “unsuitable for corporate sponsorship tend to die on the vine,” adding that media “have learned to be sympathetic to the most delicate sympathies of corporations”.

Advertising Makes A Mockery Of Press Freedom – Medialens

Medialens therefore sum up the damage caused to press freedom from advertising and other economic pressures, especially the corporate profit motive, by saying that: we cannot possibly receive an honest picture of the world from the corporate press – not of the problems that face us, their urgency, their cause nor, most importantly, their solutions.

Some argue that advertising provides us with free television, yet it only appears to be free at first glance. Once you scratch the surface it becomes evident that we do indeed pay for it whether we like it or not, through higher prices on our consumer goods.

Advertisements, like much of corporately-controlled popular culture also seems to promote a certain anti-intellectualism and anti-humanitarianism. It’s never seen as cool to help your fellow human being or to call for an end to war and the military industrial complex, even though these ideas on their own would appear common sense if not surrounded by a culture which consistently ridicules them.

Rejecting and Resisting the Commercialisation of Culture

We are surrounded by advertising. It has become all-pervasive and almost impossible to escape, although that does not mean we have to endorse or approve of the never ending sales pitch which life is slowly becoming. We must challenge advertisers, publishers and broadcasters, so they may not so easily deceive us.

Subvertising (Second Photo: vertigogen on Flickr)

We must also push back against a culture which consistently promotes the fallacy of perpetual economic growth as being a noble and acceptable goal, of which advertising forms a hugely influential propaganda mouthpiece.

The forbidden truth is that we are living by a set of lies which are necessary for short-term profit, at the expense of human physical and psychological life and global environmental integrity. We are living in a system where power ensures that the requirements of profit take priority over the requirements of living things – including to know that this is the case.

David Edwards – Free To Be Human

So next time you’re sat at home in front of the television feeling unhappy with the world around you, surrounded by branded clothes and eating junk food, complaining that there’s never anything good on, it might be worth taking a step back and considering the huge amount of physical and psychological damage which advertising inflicts and more importantly, what you and I might be able to do about it in pursuit of a better society for all.

[Article photo: e-diot on flickr]

2 Responses to Why I Will Never ‘Love That Advert’

  1. Riff on June 16, 2011 at 11:56 am

    A very good article with frightening facts! From the outside advertising looks very pretty but like you said if you scratch the surface you will be shocked with what you discover. We are surrounded by money making corporations whom are living in a whole different world to us and anyone that refuses to join in the addiction is seen as a loser when in fact the person chasing the brands is losing! We live in a very sad world 🙁

  2. » 28 Weeks Later… on June 29, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    […] Why I Will Never ‘Love That Advert’ – My latest article argues that advertising damages our society in increasingly negative ways and that we shouldn’t sit back and accept the massive influence it has over the way we perceive ourselves, the way we treat others and the way we receive information about the world. […]

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