Monday, February 15, 2010

Buy this argument. Other arguments are available.

Advertising is immoral.

It felt good to type that.

The US Supreme Court may have ruled on several occasions* that advertising is protected by the First Amendment right to ‘freedom of speech’ , but that isn’t completely correct – advertising is the freedom to buy the opportunity to express speech. As individuals, we have freedom of speech – but those people we hear from most are those with some status, whether this results from their position or their popularity, both of which imply that the right not just to speak, but to be heard, is somehow ‘earned’. Advertising, on the other hand, is simply paid for.

This is the primary argument against advertising; if you have money, you have the means to advertise, and thus to make more. If you don’t, you can’t. There may technically be ‘free competition’ in access to the market in that there is equality (I’m not getting into exclusivity deals here) of the non-financial ability to buy ad space – but that pales into insignificance beside the inequality of financial ability. And as advertising space is a good to be sold, it’s the ability to pay that is the main concern for the seller.

It’s a bit like assuming that there is true equality of opportunity because the best universities don’t tell people from council estates to fuck off purely because they come from council estates. It ignores the multitude of reasons why that would impact on one’s ability to compete equally for a place. This is, of course, a much more complex issue than the ability to buy advertising – it comprises issues relating to income, class, family background, the social make-up of the surrounding area, education policy, aspiration, and intellectual ability, and there will always be some individuals who buck the trend and are held up as proof of ‘equality’ (well, if she can make it...). Whereas advertising is much more simple – cold hard cash.
Advertisers – those buying and selling advertising services – seem a little defensive about their position, because, damnit, we’re British you know and it’s just a bit infra dig to admit that it is, indeed, all about money. So they come up with a lot of other justifications, some of which are:

Informing the public – were it not for the adverts, we would not know that it is possible to compare the market, the meerkat, or enter into an IVA which will solve all our problems – thus, advertising provides a valuable public service. Bollocks. When was the last time you saw an advert that said (like the BBC does, with a weary sigh) “other providers / equivalent items are available”? Partial information – partial to this extent – is arguably worse than no information at all. And it is useless for Brand X to say “but Brand Y are free to buy space as well” – even if Brand Y can afford to do so, this still excludes public knowledge of Brands A through W.

And if it’s advertising for a new book, film, album, what-have-you, then if you’re interested in new releases, there are a lot of unpaid (and often free) resources called ‘reviews’. Which do focus on the quality of the product as assessed by an (I am so optimistic) independent person, rather than simply selling one’s own goods.

Art / creativity – yes, some adverts are pretty cool. Those puzzling black-and-white numbers with the waves and the horses and the drums and the tick follow tock follow tick follow tock. Coloured bouncy balls. Very pretty, very clever. But why not be creative to be creative? Why limit yourself by meeting the template of your customer? There’s sufficient non-commercial art out there already. Some of it sponsored by advertisers to make themselves look cool and sell us yet more stuff. I really used to think the Orange Prize for Fiction was names for Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. And that the Mercury Music Prize was something to do with Hermes (the deity, not the scarf manufacturer). Which leads onto...

Corporate Social Responsibility – ah, the new piety. Cheerful adverts trying to persuade us that major polluter A is good for the planet, that small cartoon animals gambol and chitter under its benevolent eye. Again, bollocks. Donations to charity, having your own charitable foundation (easier, and more constructive, to find an existing charity with a track-record to support, but no, that wouldn’t have your brand on it), staff volunteering, an ‘ethical manifesto’ that exists mainly as an annoyance for the HR team and a surprisingly large section on your website – yes, there is a lot of good being done, but by being done within the template of CSR, this is largely another example of competitive advertising than a real shift in corporate behaviour. And this applies to those altruistic sponsorship deals as well.

(Personal note - from my point of view, being a resident alien in France, adverts, with their simple language and constant reinforcement, have had a small positive impact on my linguistic abilities in terms of listening comprehension – unfortunately that mainly results in me having the jingle “Groooooupama – toujours, toujours là pour moi!” (which I misheard during the 2008 US election campaign as “Oooooooobama - toujours, toujours” etc) and “Bonjour, je suis Sebastien Carglass!” stuck in my head on a loop – at least now Christmas is gone those feckin’ Canal Plus parachuting reindeer have disappeared. So any educational aspect is also fatally flawed.)

One can also bitch about the reinforcement of social stereotypes – often masquerading as ‘humour’ – which when co-opted as a gender issue just causes rock-throwing between the groups that believe “advertising harms women!” and “advertising harms men!”, when it is more accurate to say that “advertising holds us all out as idiots, can’t we get together on this?”. From ‘two cunts in a kitchen’ to boasting that you use ‘real women’ who are slightly, but not unattractively, larger or older than the norm, to hapless men having to look after their kids which is clearly a one-off because mum has clearly gone to Iceland for a long weekend with her girlfriends to talk about ‘bowel stuff’ or something, and being surprised that after a couple of thousand years of development, soap can actually clean stuff – it demeans us all.

And body image. See a ‘normal person’ in an advert and they’re selling IVAs or insurance or debt consolidation. Anything even vaguely glamorous is out of our reach, non-models. And even they are air-brushed and made up and messed with and dehydrated such that they are utterly unattainable templates for ‘normal’. Peh.

So, what’s the only justification for advertising that I can find? That it is a means to an end. Those sponsorship deals? The prize / exhibition / charity project probably wouldn’t exist without them. That newspaper / magazine would cost £14 and be half the size and printed on toilet paper. Those websites would require payment. If you can resist the message to buy buy buy you can consume without (or at lower) cost – but they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t persuade someone to buy buy buy, so we actually have to hope that advertising is successful (for others) in order to free-ride on it ourselves. Community spirited, we are.

I’m a big fan of Dorothy L Sayers, and one of my favourite books is Murder Must Advertise. Formerly a copywriter herself, Sayers makes advertising sound interesting, intellectually challenging, and fun (if a bit dangerous if you happen to be killed by a slingshot, but she did have a job to do). And that’s why I applied for a couple of advertising jobs when I was coming to the shocking realisation that I wasn’t going to be able to stay at college forever. Much like I considered the civil service as I was a big fan of Yes, Minister – I’m very easily influenced, really. My mates who went into it worked in offices with games rooms and coffee bars, had no dress code to adhere to, and were encouraged to ‘think creatively’. It was almost as if they weren’t trying to sell something at all – but they still got fired when campaigns didn't hit target. It’s an industry that can’t reconcile what it is with what it fondly thinks it is.

So it’s immoral. All of it. But we can’t get rid of it – for two reasons. Firstly, kill their ability to spend money securing a place for their ‘speech’ in the public domain, and the public domain would lose not just their speech, but lots of other speech as well. Secondly, maybe we should bite the bullet and say – if this other supported information is valuable to us, it is worth paying for. But ‘we’ cannot decide that (even if we would – again with the community spirit) – advertising and sponsorship is so entrenched that we might believe we can ignore it, that we don’t really notice it, but it is there, it does have an impact, and there is nothing that ‘we’ can do about it as ‘we’ are largely incapable of acting together. We have given in to capitalism. It is our norm. It is toujours, toujours là pour nous.

* for a summary, and, most recently relating to campaign financing,