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.


Comments 23

  1. Bill Burton wrote:

    It is an interesting post, but I feel it falls into the cliche driven view of advertising and its effect on the world. Much in the same way a rant from Bill Hicks plays on the apparent evils of advertising.

    I don’t for one second think that anyone buying a Patek Philippe watch thinks it is going to bring them fulfilment. I would say that they have a reasonable amount of money and want a nice watch – how awful. It is not like people are going around like crack fiends selling their kids for sex and pawning their prized possessions to get that prized watch.

    The same is true of the Calvin Klein aftershave. It seems unlikely a single middle aged man will go out and buy it in the hopes of achieving a wife and 2.4 children.

    The accumulative effect of such advertising may have an effect for sure, as such advertising has to answer for the impact of the materialistic ideal they create.

    What about the other ‘genres’ of advertising. Did the Tango adverts turn Britain into a weirder place? Did the VW adverts introduce irony to America? Of course not, to suggest so would be crazy. [Not sure if this is a ‘slippery slope’, you have to be careful around those pesky philosophers.]

    It is patronising to suggest that such objects avert people’s gaze from the true issues facing them. In reality there are far bigger issues that cause societal woes than advertising.

    Posted 04 Mar 2014 at 11:27 pm
  2. Holly Brockwell wrote:

    I’d turn this round on the writer, actually – the way we sell products is the way that works. If I could sell you a £10,000 watch by saying “this is a beautiful piece of metal that tells time really fucking well”, then great. But I can’t.

    We all know we have to sell benefits, not features – ideals, not realities. If you’re the one brand telling the truth in a world of idealism, you’re not going to be held up as an ideal – you’re going to go bust.

    Can you imagine a phone manufacturer running a campaign tomorrow saying “Actually, our phones are quicker, thinner, lighter, more robust and easier to use than iPhones” and actually selling any?

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 12:03 am
  3. ben wrote:

    I think if someone could do that, they might well, but no one can.

    What about Dyson? Feature based because the product is great.

    When you have nothing to say, distract.

    And to ‘It is patronising to suggest that such objects avert people’s gaze from the true issues facing them. In reality there are far bigger issues that cause societal woes than advertising’ I’d say: just because someone else broke your leg it doesn’t mean it’s OK for me to punch you in the face. In fact, some might say it’s worse.

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 12:19 am
  4. Bill Burton wrote:

    I guess my point was that the impact of advertising on our mental state is trivial compared to other factors.

    Picking a fight with advertising is low hanging fruit. Where is the tangible evidence of its emotional effects good or bad? How does this shape up compared to other factors that influence life?

    Education is surely the crucial factor in what determines our emotional make up, both in school and at home.

    A more apt comparison would be flicking ones ear compared to being shot in the head with a rifle.

    How can this even be managed? Ban all advertising that has implicit emotional ties? Only allow truthful advertising? Maybe this would be a good thing for society.

    Advertising is often held as a bastion of culture when that is obviously a joke. Its influence as a creative industry does not hold up to art, film or music. Why not do away with all ‘creative’ advertising.

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 12:49 am
  5. Scamp wrote:

    The writer doesn’t really understand people that well. A nice cologne really does make you smell nice, and give you confidence, and perhaps make you feel sexy. That’s all extremely valuable stuff.

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 1:09 am
  6. vinny warren wrote:

    personally I love selling stuff. it’s at the heart of the consumerist economy. and i get to have fun.

    yeah some artists stuck in advertising realize they should have been artists all along.

    we are the hair and makeup of capitalism. if you’re not happy with that, find another job.

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 4:06 am
  7. steakandcheese wrote:

    The 1950’s called, their want their article about advertising back.

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 8:22 am
  8. Anonymous wrote:

    ‘Not guilty!’ scream the advertisers.

    Just like Tony Blair.

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 9:19 am
  9. Dan Madden wrote:

    Ben, if a product is that good, does it really need advertising? Dyson hardly have the most ‘idea-led’ adverts (when they do them at all), so I’d it’s in our interests as creatives for their to be at least some level of parity in the marketplace.

    And Holly, doesn’t Samsung’s phone advertising do exactly that? If not on TV then certainly in their online stuff.

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 9:37 am
  10. Original Richard H wrote:

    I think the writer has aimed at the wrong target somewhat. No matter how effective the advertising, products don’t sell (beyond spikes in the campaign, at any rate) if they are not enjoyed/liked/found useful by consumers/people/your mum. If the writer is convinced that the products we sell don’t fulfil the basic needs of humans, maybe it’s the fault of the products? (Although, given the list of priorities stated by the writer, it would appear that only prostitution, IVF clinics, adoption agencies and throne makers could ever advertise effectively. And they don’t have great big Guiness-size budgets.)

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 9:55 am
  11. Dan Madden wrote:

    Also in answer to the original post, I’d say it’s more a case of people in advertising wanting to leave a legacy and be recognised/admired for their creativity by a wider audience that makes the want to write a book/direct a film etc. In some way we feel held back from our full creative potential in advertising because we have to meet the needs of commercial reality, so we’re curious about what we could do without the shackles on.

    That and the potential lottery ticket of writing the next Harry Potter.

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 9:57 am
  12. oaky wrote:

    I often think articles like this give people in advertising way too much credit. What if the art director just wanted a ride in a speed boat?

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 10:58 am
  13. Sell! Sell! wrote:

    I’m with Vinny on this. I’m okay selling stuff, thanks. At S!S! we tend to do it by saying things that are actually true about the product and what it can do for you. Maybe that’s the difference? I’d say that’s true of a lot of US advertising too – what was that Bogusky quote, something like “We know we’re selling, you know you were selling, let’s just get on with it and enjoy it”. Yep, some like that.

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 12:48 pm
  14. dave trott wrote:

    I once asked Mary Wear about this.
    She said something like “Look, instead of keep going on about it why don’t we just accept advertising exists like buildings exist. No one’s going to stop doing it anymore than they’re going to stop building. So why don’t we just do it better?”

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 2:40 pm
  15. ben wrote:

    Very good.

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 3:22 pm
  16. Cynical wrote:

    I agree with Oaky. Most people I see in agencies are pretty thick, rather than Machiavellian plotters. But it is true to say that we’re not contributing anything of worth to society, except on extremely rare occasions.

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 8:26 pm
  17. Ed wrote:

    About the Patek Philippe ad: “…it is moving precisely because what it depicts is so hard to find in real life. Father-son relationships rarely go so well. There is neglect, rebellion and bitterness. Dad was too often away. The son is caught up in a bad group at school. There’s no chance to talk any more. But for a moment, thanks to Patek Philippe, we are afforded a glimpse of psychological paradise; no wonder if we are touched.”

    If you’re so emotionally raw and your life sucks that you’re reading that far into a magazine advert, I’m afraid therapy may be the only real solution.

    Advertising didn’t make your life shit, and it’s not up to advertisers to pander to your own personal insecurities. 99% of people will see those ads and ignore them for the soppy stock-photo bullshit they are rather than have a breakdown.

    Posted 06 Mar 2014 at 9:25 am
  18. Anonymouse wrote:

    Good point, Ed.

    “It’s moving because …”

    Let me stop you RIGHT there.

    Posted 06 Mar 2014 at 10:14 am
  19. Les McQueen wrote:

    I suspect it’s Alain de Botton who wrote this – he’s behind the Philosopher’s Mail.
    But hang on, Al; you inherited a good hundred million quid that you choose not to spend, and make choices re: clothing, like a dozen bits of Gap and Benneton as your personal non-style. Stop being a bit of a cunt, matey.


    Posted 06 Mar 2014 at 12:36 pm
  20. Fake like a like wrote:

    Patel phillipe brief;

    This watch lasts a really fucking long time.

    Benefit based on a mechanical superiority incorporating an emotionally led Quite brilliant) idea.

    Pretty straight forward stuff.

    Posted 06 Mar 2014 at 3:06 pm
  21. ben wrote:

    Patel Phillipe?

    The Indian rip-off version?

    Posted 06 Mar 2014 at 3:08 pm
  22. Les McQueen wrote:

    The Patel Philippe’ strapline has a slight variation appropriate for the market:

    You never actually own a Patel Philippe.
    You merely look after it in your current incarnation.

    Posted 06 Mar 2014 at 10:37 pm
  23. Whatdidijustwatch wrote:

    “dave trott wrote:
    I once asked Mary Wear about this.
    She said something like “Look, instead of keep going on about it why don’t we just accept advertising exists like buildings exist. No one’s going to stop doing it anymore than they’re going to stop building. So why don’t we just do it better?”

    That’s my argument to vegetarians that are concerned with animal welfare. It’s easy to not get involved with the issue. But people will always eat shit meat just like like people will always create mind numbingly shite ads.
    If people buy meat thats been treated well they create demand for good stuff. Once there is a demand for good things, money follows. And eventually people will only want the good shit. Or am i talking tripe?

    Posted 07 Mar 2014 at 3:31 pm

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