American Culture

Advertising’s enticement: You must crave, therefore you must buy

Advertising may be evil, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil.

Despite my exposure to what a colleague estimates is nearly 100 million advertising impressions as I approach seven decades of life, I am not taller, I am not more attractive, I am not thinner, and I sure as hell don’t smell much better than I did in the 1950s.

I teach in a journalism school in which more students aspire to be advertising and PR madmen and madwomen than journalists. So I think about advertising often — mostly with disbelief and frequent outrage (the righteous kind, y’know).

The disbelief: I watch an ad in which a pricey luxury sedan maneuvers at night through lanes illuminated by paper lanterns. The lanterns seem to stretch to infinity in the background. Damn. Nobody set out a gazillion lanterns and kept them all lit at the same time. Must be effin’ CGI.

Then comes the outrage: Well, crap. If the images in the ad are literally unbelievable, are the claims about the product being pushed similarly unbelievable? Remember, unbelievable means not to be believed.

Generally, I suppose, advertising represents a business’s attempt to provide information about a product or service and induce people exposed to those messages to like it — and buy it. Dictionaries tell you that. But, writes Randall Rothenberg in an AdWeek piece, “there is no … consensus on the basic definition of advertising.” Even experts, he writes, disagree on the newly divergent nature of advertising:

Meanwhile, what we might term the ideological landscape of advertising has become so varied it’s downright contradictory, even contentious. There are those who insist advertising is and must be social — absent social connectivity a message can no longer be heard. There are those who say advertising is and must be mobile — without a connection to place, it is irrelevant to the sales process. Others say advertising is and must be a utility — it must serve a consumer’s needs, and not just inform. Still others say advertising is and must be liquid — it must create experiences that cross media platform barriers, or else it will barely cross consumers’ awareness threshold.

Interesting commentary, eh? It posits several different takes on the ad game. Rothenberg’s article is worth a close read. Frankly, however, I find one particular quote ignorant of the anger many like me feel about advertising: “it must serve a consumer’s needs, and not just inform.”

My need, which is unmet, is less exposure to advertising. Leave me the hell alone. Let me opt out. Stay the hell away from my “awareness threshold.” (Tell that to effin’ Twitter.) Advertising has become an overt, covert, social, mobile, liquid, permanent assault on the senses. It voraciously consumes attention — because it is omnipresent in life — and converts that attention to cravings. As I age, the sensation that I’m at war with advertising sharpens. Ads keep telling me, often through their cute 30-second, happy-ending story lines, to want what I don’t need. Advertising incessantly demands the purchase of a product or service that will cure me of what the advertising tells me is wrong with me. Damn. I didn’t know I suffered from “low T.” Maybe that’s why the wimmin no longer flock to me and do my bidding.

The advertising universe is crowded — particularly in the sporting world. Watch an NBA game, an NFL game, a MLB game. Even college games. Or NASCAR. Every available space in those universes is occupied. Advertising faces creative and, frankly, ethical choices on how to break through that clutter. Sometimes, the advertiser’s modus operandi is much like discourse in Congress: Out-shout your opponents. Out-gaudy them. Out-spectacular them. In the presence of so much overwhelmingly bad advertising, true creative genius seems notably absent.

Rothenberg’s phrase describing the “meet consumers’ needs” role of advertising rankles for two reasons: First, I don’t think advertising ever “just informed.” And it wasn’t always about “meeting consumers’ needs.” Even in the General Electric ads for a Rockwellian, all-electric, miraculous wonderland in the 1950s, everything was, well, perfect. Advertising presented a good or a service in the context of achieving the highest possible social value: You really need this fancy doodad to simply be someone of value in America. Otherwise, you will be like them — the Others who are less than worthy. You bought; they didn’t.

Second, the “information” presented did not represent the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. For how many decades did cigarette advertising avoid labeling tobacco as causative of cancer? For how many decades did beer, spirits, and wine advertising avoid the cautionary phrase drink responsibly — which is lost on so many of the feckless undergrads I teach. And the endlessly overacted and overhyped advertising by local car dealerships? Sheesh. Even the FTC has had enough.

Whoa, Denny, you say. Didn’t you work for two decades as a journalist? Didn’t your salary (such as it was) stem directly from the sale of advertising by your newspaper — including those cigarette, alcohol, and car ads? And the real estate and department and grocery store ads? Yeah. Thanks for pointing out the gaping hole in my rant. I blindly believed during those many years in the newsroom that we truth-seeking, ethically pure journalists were insulated from the many evils being perpetrated on the other side of the “wall” by the ad folks.

I continued to believe through seven years of graduate school and 20 years of college teaching that the difference between journalism and advertising should be transcendently simple: Advertising enhances; journalism verifies. Lately, however, “advertorials”have emerged as producers of mock verification: They are ads draped with the illusion of objective news stories. And now, we are faced with “native advertising,” described by Sharethrough CEO Dan Greenberg as “a form of media that’s built into the actual visual design and where the ads are part of the content.” Even The New York Times has blissfully launched itself into native advertising.

Truth has always been difficult to discern in advertising. Advertorials and native advertising further complicate the consumer’s essential questions: Am I getting my money’s worth? Is this stuff safe? Will it last? Is the warranty any good? The problem of ascertaining veracity is aligned with another: In America, we no longer test ideas; we only measure the volume of their proponents’ claims. Advertising, methinks, is complicit in the duplicitous search for Dubious Truths Via Maximum Decibels™.

Advertising, like death, taxes, and the common cold, will continue to court, soothe, and prevaricate as our minds, trained to consume, absorb its pleadings. After all, advertising is a principal driver of the economy’s capitalist engine. Media ad spending is predicted to reach nearly $200 billion by 2017. (I’m not sure whether that includes the cost of producing the ads, but I hope the industry continues to employ my students to do so.)

In grad school, my peers and I studied media effects. Essentially, we asked this: To what extent do media messages (like ads) cause changes in people’s behaviors, attitudes, and opinions? Depending on the particular theory tossed at us, the answers were: Never. Some of the time. All of the time. Or some of the time for all of the people or all of the time for some of the people. It was 25 years ago; I can’t remember. But I haven’t seen in research any replicated results that show a smoking gun that media messages do — or don’t — cause such changes. So do they or don’t they? After all, the ad industry is betting a few hundred billion dollars each year that ads do cause change in behaviors, attitudes, and opinions. (I wonder sometimes about the ROI of advertising. Despite massive analytics, the ad game’s bet seems more a hope for a lucky roll of the die.)

As age 70 hovers on my not-so-distant horizon, I wonder about the impact advertising has had on shaping the human being I have become and how I act in the real world. Hundreds of thousands of scholarly studies have addressed the influence of media messages. But I wonder about longitudinal impact — what influence advertising exerts over a person’s lifetime. How and when have those hundred million ad exposures affected my sense of self worth, my understanding and attitude toward the opposite gender and other ethnicities, and certainly my sense of “after all this time, when the hell do I get my cut of the pie“?

So here I have sat, for many a year, parked above it all in my academic ivory tower, tossing various colorful epithets at the world of advertising.

Until three weeks ago. That’s when I realized I need … to advertise.

I published a novel. Now I’ve got to sell it. Thus I must advertise. Now I must ask (after a suitable diet of overcooked crow) for the assistance of those in the push-the-product biz. Oh, and I’ll be selling photographs soon, too. How will I induce art lovers to buy? I must advertise my products.

We all have something to sell, to peddle, to advertise. That’s why we create hype-filled résumés, dress to impress, put up signs for garage sales, and (at least for guys) suck in the paunch when that really nice lady glances at you.

Advertising, I have sadly discovered, is a necessary evil I must now perform.

I feel so dirty …

3 replies »

  1. Your mind is a very busy place Dr D! Fun blog but there is one consumer feedback loop that didn’t get mentioned, review sites. Angie’s List, Yelp, CNET and others aggregate experience and allow a savvy consumer immediate access to product reviews, success or failure.

    That is something quite new and may force more honesty in advertising…or not.
    Just remember, you’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent 8^)

  2. I know Randy, and he wrote the single best book on advertising and marketing ever written (better than the three I wrote): Where the Suckers Moon. Athough for the quotes in this article, he’s got a bit of an ax to grind since he’s with IAB.

  3. Denny,
    I’ve felt this way for a long time – perhaps one reason I haven’t sold more of my artwork and photography.

    Jim and I are reading a book by Steven Pressfield – “the WAR of ART Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles” – and I found something he says made me think of your last statement in this piece.

    “To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution.”

    When we love what we do and what we do is ‘create’ we are putting part of our very being out on display. It’s tough to accept selling it which often feels like selling out – at least it has felt that way to me. But, as you point out, the ad masters have every-increasing control on what the public decides it wants or needs.
    I often think of my work as my ‘offspring’ and try to rationalize being proud of it in the same way that parents are proud of their children’s achievements and talk them up to anyone that will listen. One way to think about it that feels less grimy. Just keep loving what you do and try to make that the main purpose.

    I look forward to reading your novel this year and hope you do exceptionally well with it and your photography sales.