Any obsession probably has roots in some sort of childhood fascination, or at least they seem to for me. Advertising is no different. I can trace my obsession with commercials back to a few childhood memories which have now turned into something I have been studying throughout my adult life, both officially in school and unofficially through reading, watching, and generally paying attention to the gamut of media available to us, the public.
The four earliest products that I can think of where I saw the commercial and immediately ran to my mom to say, “Mom, we need to buy this” were the Ronco Food Dehydrator, the sandwich press (also from Ronco), My Buddy, and My Pet Monster. The first two devices were responded to with a simple, “No, I’m not going to get that for you. You absolutely don’t need it,” and I would promptly come back with, “But you don’t understand, you can make fruit roll-ups and beef jerky,” or “you can make sandwiches that are hot and sealed together.” Luckily my mom didn’t give in and convinced me that I had just been persuaded by the commercial to buy something that I didn’t need. My Buddy and My Pet Monster, however, both ended up as presents at some point. Upon opening up My Buddy and realizing that he was not alive (which wasn’t really in the commercial, but for some reason I had that impression), I tossed it aside, never to be touched again. My Pet Monster I actually still have, and he sits in my room collecting various badges and pins as time goes on. Obviously, I was a gullible child.
It wasn’t long after that that I saw a news program about advertising that broke down the ways that they present things to make them more appealing than they actually are. And there started the long campaign of me being obsessed by advertising. When you actively pay attention to it, it’s impossible not to feel its ubiquity and pervasiveness. In fact, right now while writing this the Phillies are playing the Braves on TV, and there are three ad spots perfectly placed on the screen behind and around home plate. Two are dedicated to Auto Trader, but have changed to Coca Cola during the process, and the middle one has been for Sun Trust without changing.
My current phase started with The Age of Persuasion, which is a textual adaptation of Terry O’Reilly and Mike Tennant’s CBC radio program of the same name. One of the things that I am having a lot of trouble with is determining my actual feelings about the cultural value of advertising. Part of me thinks that it’s a terrible tumor on modern society that truly reflects how superficial and easily manipulated we can be. But then part of me can’t help paying attention to it and sometimes being entertained by it. And then another part of me feels like it’s actually a positive thing, in terms of trying to inform different demographics about certain products and allowing the consumers to offer feedback through focus groups and whatnot on said products, hopefully improving them.
The authors of The Age of Persuasion keep this sort of split opinion throughout their social history of advertising, sometimes bringing up people’s response about loving their show but still hating advertising. However, they themselves are in the advertising industry, both having backgrounds in developing radio advertising for many years. As such, they have a positive outlook about marketing in general, while openly admitting its negative aspects. The writing style is entertaining and engaging, keeping the reader’s attention while also being informative. There’s some positive feedback that you can include in future advertising for the book. One of the pieces of information that had a pretty big impact on me was that upwards of $600 billion is spent each year on advertising, which is more than the US spent in four years on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both of those aspects are significant to me, how much is spent on advertising and how much is spent on war, and the fact that those two things have the budgets they do is what tends to unsettle me.
Part of my personal obsession also lies in Mr. Edward Bernays, who I at least thought I’d come across during the reading, but he is not mentioned. It does make sense, though, considering that The Age of Persuasion is more specifically about advertising whereas Bernays is considered the father of public relations. But both are really two sides of the same coin. I was first introduced to Bernays via the BBC documentary The Century of the Self (based on Stuart Ewen’s 1996 book PR! A Social History of Spin), which focuses on Freud and his daughter and nephew (that’s Eddie!) and the ways they influenced government and corporate interactions with the public. Bernays is also the author of Propaganda (1928).
So to supplement Persuasion I also listened to Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel (1965) by Eddie Bern-dog (as I refer to him, as opposed to the Burg-dog, in whose texts I’m currently engrossing myself) and again I was met with writing about advertising that really made points that seemed to me to show that advertising was blatant public manipulation, but at the same time maintaining that it was a positive force in society. As Eddie says, “People were saying that what we were doing was propaganda; and it was.” And later he states that he’s always believed what he was doing to be a valuable service to the public.
In listening back to some of Memoirs, there still seems to be this creepy undertone, starting right from the beginning, where Bernays says that his choices out of school were to work in his father’s business or go into his major of agriculture. Instead he went into journalism and eventually started the now standard practice of writing about products and placing them in newspapers. At that time, though, they did it by buying ad space and filling them with what seemed like legitimate articles. Another pretty creepy story is his campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes, trying to influence women to smoke them. The chief problem was that the main color of the packs at the time were green, which didn’t match the clothing that was in fashion. So what they did was to hire designers to make stylish clothing relying heavily on green, take photos of French models wearing said clothes and pass it off as a trend for the newspapers. Green became a popular color and Lucky Strikes soared with the ladies.
And we move on to the last piece that I imbibed with my focus on advertising, which is the recent documentary Art & Copy (2009, dir. Doug Pray). And my own confusion continues. For all the positive things that are included into the making of advertising, and as great and likable as a lot of the people interviewed in the doc come across, this is still the same strategy used to get people like Bush (either one) and Reagan elected to the presidency on account of emotional manipulation through television advertising while purposefully avoiding facts and issues. This is not discussed in detail during the film, but the election of Reagan and its campaign ads are included. Not to say that advertising was void in the presidential elections of Clinton and Obama, but hey, I like them more so I can make peace with that.
My conclusion is inconclusive. After all, as someone involved in magazine writing, a format for which advertising is the main income source, and a fan of the easy money provided by focus groups, I can’t help but be thankful for the copious amounts of money that is thrown at trying to persuade people to buy one product over the essentially identical product by a different brand. But at the same time, I can’t help but imagine what the world would be like if all the money that was spent on both advertising and international fighting were instead channeled towards humanitarian efforts. And honestly that’s not something that I can seem to envision no matter how hard I try.Visit: The Age of Persuasion | Counterpoint
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