On Advertising

I wanted to name this article “Why I hate (almost) all advertising”, but I figured many less people would click on it as the position seems very extreme. And maybe my position on the matter is extreme, but of course that in and of itself does not necessarily make it wrong. I think we have gone morally and intellectually way off course with advertising.

In this article, I hope to outline a brief history of advertising, where I think it has gone wrong, and where I think it is (wrongly) going in the future. I hope to make a compelling argument that convinces more than zero people to move slightly in the direction of agreeing with me, something that I think is hard to do nowadays. Even if people strongly disagree, I welcome any conversation on the topic. Anyway, my attempt…

A Brief History of Advertising

According to Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, America saw its first paid newspaper advertisements in the early 1704. Two such advertisements took the form of a Wanted ad for the capture of a thief and the renting of a plot of land. These and other such advertisements during Postman’s “Age of Exposition” and what I will call “Phase 1 of Advertising” were predicated on the fact that the customers were literate, rational, and analytical. The advertisements actually made claims about their products.

During “Phase 2”, which Postman describes well in the following quote, we see a dramatic shift:

As late as 1980, advertising, still understood to consist of words, was regarded as an essentially serious and rational enterprise whose purpose was to convey information and make claims in propositional form. Advertising was, as Stephen Douglas said in another context, intended to appeal to understanding, not to passions. This is not to say that during the period of typographic display, the claims that were put forward were true. Words cannot guarantee their truth content. Rather, they assemble a context in which the question, ‘Is this true or false?’, is relevant.

Postman goes on to say that this is the time during which America saw its first illustrations in advertising in addition to the use of slogans (e.g. “You press the button; we do the rest.”) This is followed by jingles and rhymes. Postman adds:

By the turn of the century, advertisers no longer assumed rationality on the part of their customers. Advertising became one part depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory.

It is hard to disagree with Postman here, even today. Almost no commercial today, written or televised, assumes consumer rationality. Many state no facts about the product or service to be sold, but instead rely upon emotional appeal. While heavily utilized throughout the past 100 years, I believe this phase is starting to be eclipsed by a new, socially and politically motivated breed of advertising. This form puts the product or service being peddled in the extreme background and relies upon the consumer agreeing to an ideology to make the sale. I call this Phase 3, and will describe the dangers of this as well as Phase 2 below.

What is wrong with Advertising?

Advertising in and of itself does not seem morally ambiguous. In fact, what I have described as Phase 1 above seems to be perfectly fine. If the advertisement makes you aware of a brand and does so in an honest way, then there seems to be nothing wrong (One could argue, that advertisements being everywhere in the modern world could be seen as wrong – in this article I hope to only discuss within the context of a given advertisement). What does it mean to be honest? This is where Phase 2 of advertising goes wrong. Postman’s claim that advertising in this period often contains no truth propositional content seems hardly debatable. Remember, this means that the content of the advertisement can be true or false. As an example “Fords are the safest automobile as rated by X” can be either true or false. “Just do it” or “Obey your thirst” have no truth propositional content and are thus empty: they tell you nothing of the product and make no actual claim that can be verified.

Commercials of this era often do not attempt to claim anything at all and often rely on emotional appeal to sell a product. A great example is from Fancy Feast:

What have you learned about Fancy Feast in this commercial? Absolutely nothing. Further, the brand scores particularly low compared to other cat foods. This does not faze most people I talk to, probably because this type of marketing is so rampant that they expect it and only hope to be entertained. When people talk about and spread a commercial like this because of the emotional appeal (marriage, love, cute cat), the emotional content crowds out any need for propositional content. As a result, successful companies become not those that produce the best cat food, but those that produce the best marketing and/or advertising teams. This is why ALS received a lot of money for the Ice Bucket Challenge even though relatively few people contract ALS and we are nowhere near to a cure: because the advertising and marketing plans for ALS were much better than for other charities (Consider donating at http://www.givewell.org/ to get the most out of your dollar!). Psychological, manipulative tricks are developed and utilized to get you to buy a product, instead of the product relying upon its own merits.

Notice that in Phase 2, the product has receded into the background. The goal is to get you into a mood or feeling and then present to you an often unrelated product, in the hopes that you associate the two in your head. In Phase 3 of Advertising, the product or service recedes possibly even more, and ideology replaces direct emotional appeals. Take, for instance, the following Ax commercial:

Like Phase 2, we see the product only at the very end of the video. But here we see more. At the end of the video we find out something about “Peace One Day” and “Supporting Peace One Day” and we are asked to tweet with #KissForPeace, a phrase that contains the product name in an insidious way; a tweeter might see the phrase and retag it without even being aware of the Axe campaign to sell more Axe. Here we have the new Axe product bound up with notions of patriotism, peace, and love much more directly than in the Fancy Feasts commercial.  We are for peace (who isn’t?) and want to share it with our friends on social media. Fancy Feasts made a cute commercial that reminds one of positive emotions. Axe becomes a symbol of peace.

Another example for Dove:

Here we are told that beauty is on the inside (from a beauty product company!) and want to invest in a campaign to lift women’s feeling of self-worth. Notably, this commercial does not even advertise a specific product, but wants you to form a general positive association with the brand. The product, therefore, has receded into nothingness.

Lately there have been many such “see yourself positively, ladies” advertisements. The feminist that I am feels crushed by the fact that these advertisements are so tricky and serve to sell more products. To me, the fact that they are selling a product compromises the positive message. This is likea really good friend of yours says they heard of a great new plan for you to make money and you later find out that they make more money in the process by selling to you. It is disappointing and deceptive. Here is one for Always, again, no specific product:

Here is one for Verizon:

These have drifted so far from selling any actual product or service that it is almost unbelievable. These videos attempt to convey that these companies understand deep, human emotions and needs, but that is something they can never do, for they compromise their ideals by virtue of the fact that they are selling something. As a result, “I’m lovin’ it” can never say anything about love, no matter how hard it tries.

What Can We Do?

When a problem is so ubiquitous, it can seem overwhelming and fruitless to even try to find a solution. Still, I think we need to do our best. For one example, I think we can learn more about the various tricks that companies employ when creating advertising. A good start is to review some informal fallacies, something that I strongly believe should be taught in high school, if not grade school. These show the various ways that claims can be falsely made (when there is a claim at all! (“Just do it!”). People of all ages that I know seem unaware of the common techniques that advertisers (and politicians, journalists, etc) use to make (unfounded) points. We can think more critically when we see a commercial and analyze what it is trying to convey, instead of simply accepting that commercials can or should be pure entertainment completely divorced from the product or service they are trying to sell.