What is advertising really doing?

Here’s a fascinating article about the impossible dream that many advertisers sell their consumers.

I would attempt to paraphrase its essential point, but it’d be easier and clearer if I just did this:

Adverts wouldn’t work as well as they do if they didn’t operate with a very good sense of what our real needs are; what we really require to be happy. Their emotional pull is based on knowing us extremely well. We are creatures who hunger for sexual love, good family relationships, connections with others and the feeling that we are respected. Adverts understand.

Yet, armed with this knowledge, they are unwittingly extremely cruel to us. For while they excite us with reminders of our buried longings, they refuse to do anything sensible or sincere to quench them adequately. They show us paradise, then don’t sell us anything with whose help we might reach it.

Of course, ads do sell us things. Just the wrong things in relation to the hopes they arouse. Calvin Klein makes lovely cologne. Patek Philippe’s watches are extremely reliable agents of time-keeping. But it’s hard to see how these products are going to help us secure the goods our unconscious thought were on offer. A watch, or a bottle of scent – however excellent in their own way – don’t have the answers to our true dilemmas. Our troubles are so much bigger than these products seem to understand.

I won’t reprint the ads – click on the damn link – but I think it’s a fascinating idea that we use an unobtainable perfection to sell an obtainable but pointless nicety. Did the people who came up with that communication dynamic do it consciously or did it just seem like the right thing to do at the time? Now that it’s been so successful, and requires so little from the product it’s selling, has it become more prevalent? How do you feel now that you’ve read that? Like you’ve been had? It makes me aware of how we are all consumers, whether we like it or not. What have these ads done to me?

So far so interesting, but it’s the last paragraph that really catches the eye:

The people who work in advertising know in their hearts that they’re usually arousing longings they can’t fulfill. It’s why many of them, particularly the most talented, suffer crises in mid-life. They know their genius has been devoted to making images of happiness that the products they’re selling can’t generate. Struck by the inauthenticity of their lives, with some cash in the bank, many of these ad people tend to leave the field and try out something new: they do a philosophy degree, start a bar, or travel around the world in search of meaning. We invite them to return to work to spearhead a new kind of advertising: one that not only identifies what makes us happy, but also helps us to have a better shot at actually being so.