Advertising is the bogeyman of the Left. It makes you desire things you never wanted. It confuses wants and needs. It brainwashes you to make you believe things that you otherwise would not. In short, advertising, in this view, turns you into a slave. By hijacking your preferences, advertising turns you into the instrument of other people’s interests.
But this negative view of advertising is mistaken in two ways. First, it denies that you are ultimately responsible for your own thoughts and actions. No advertising can convince you to believe or do something unless you choose to believe or do that. You are free to ignore or disbelieve advertising, so advertising can never turn you into a slave.
Second, all communication — whether it is called advertising or not — is attempting to convince you to believe or do something. Even warning you that advertising is trying to brainwash you is itself an effort to convince you of something. How is that message any more pure than dirty advertising? In fact, what would innocent, non-coercive communication look like? Even art is a form of communication that is attempting to convince its audience of something. So if advertising is evil I have no idea what good would be.
I love advertising. I love it because it is a form of communication that is more self-conscious of its efforts to convince others and therefore tends to be more accountable for its success or failure in doing so. That accountability tends to make it more engaging, meaningful, and beautiful. If advertising isn’t these things, it fails in its effort to be persuasive.
Let’s take for example the McDonalds ad at the top of this post. That ad manages to tell an entire story in just 30 seconds. And it’s a really good story. It captures the anxiety of a first kiss as beautifully as the Odyssey captures the longing to return home. The moment when the boy realizes that her request for “no onions” on the burger means that she wants him to kiss her is as universal and essential to the human experience as anything I have seen in a museum.
Yes, I understand that McDonalds is just trying to get me to buy its products. Everyone understands that. But they are also providing me with useful information. They are telling me that McDonalds is a cheap and easy place to stop on a date in case you are hungry. And most importantly, they are telling me that McDonalds will make my burger to order so that I can enjoy their product and still kiss without onion-breath. So, the ad provides me with useful information. But because it seeks to be persuasive, the ad is also compelling in its story-telling, engages its audience in a meaningful way, and is beautiful to watch.
Because I think advertising is wrongly disparaged, I am nominating Thomas J. Barratt for the Al Copeland Award. Barratt is known as the father of modern advertising. He married into the A&F Pears’ soap company in 1865. As Wikipedia describes it:
Under his leadership the company instituted a systematic method of advertising its distinctive soap, in which slogans and memorable images were combined. His slogan “Good morning. Have you used Pears’ soap?” was famous in its day. It continued to be a well known catch phrase well into the twentieth century.
Barratt was keen to equate Pears with quality and high culture through his campaign methods. He acquired works of art to use in the advertisements, most famously John Everett Millais’ painting Bubbles, which he turned into an advertisement by adding a bar of Pears soap in the foreground. Millais was said to be unhappy about the alteration, but could do nothing since Barratt had acquired the copyright. Barratt followed this with a series of adverts inspired by Millais’ painting, portraying cute children in idealised middle-class homes, associating Pears with social aspiration and domestic comfort….
Barratt was not a systematic theorist of marketing, but introduced a number of ideas that were widely circulated. He was keen to define a strong brand image for Pears while also emphasising his products ubiquity with saturation campaigns. He was also aware of the need for constant reinvention, stating in 1907 that “tastes change, fashions change and the advertiser has to change with them. An idea that was effective a generation ago would fall flat, stale, and unprofitable if presented to the public today. Not that the idea of today is always better than the older idea, but it is different – it hits the present taste.”
Barratt was not only a genius and innovator because he was the first to develop advertising practices that are common today, but because he recognized the connection between art and advertising. They are both engaging, meaningful, and beautiful forms of communication. Both are trying to convince you to believe or do something. And one does not sully the other. If Andy Warhol can turn a can of soup into art, I can’t see why Barratt couldn’t turn a work of art, like the painting “Bubbles“, into an advertisement. Unlike Warhol, Barratt actually owned the rights for the image he used.
So, whenever you hear someone rant about the evils of advertising, just think about how much free entertainment, useful information, and beautiful images you get to experience from advertising. Think about how much the human condition is improved by plentiful and free advertising that everyone gets to enjoy. And rest assured that advertising is no more an effort to brainwash you than an Andy Warhol painting or the blowhard ranting about advertising.