In Defense(?) of Advertising


What the Pentagon is to the military-industrial complex and the White House is to the political structure, advertising is to the free market. A highly visible symbol of American "capitalism," often loud and garish, advertising receives more than its share of abuse. Vilified by radical, liberal, and hip-capitalist alike, it has its detractors especially on Madison Avenue. As one ex-creative director said, "For a while it was fun, but in the end did I really care who sold the most tooth paste?"

Some objections being raised are valid and deserve action, while some are not and do not. Because advertising serves a necessary social function (information dispersal) and has become one of the most effective vehicles of social change, it is important that it receives only the punishment it deserves. The matter would not have the urgency it does were it not for the very real jail cells (or, more likely, fines and restrictions) awaiting those who violate government edicts concerning advertising that either already exist (the FCC and its censorship by license removal, tobacco ad restrictions) or are planned.

Probably, to some people, this piece begins suspiciously like a pleading for special interests of the tobacco growers, pornography peddlers, corporate establishment (etc.). Let me assure you it is not. I dislike cigarettes, vicarious sex, and big, faceless enterprises. That question mark in the title is symbolic of the sticky problem faced by the staff as we attempt to develop systematic and sensible approaches to current issues. We wish to protect rights that people are often guilty of abusing. That question mark in the title means there is a difference between defending the right of anyone to buy a page in a magazine and a blanket, dogmatic approval of whatever any particular advertiser may choose to fill that page with. Keep that distinction in mind before charging us with having sold out to the interests of big business.

Sometimes the charge of partisanship is simply an escape mechanism for those who see the truth of the argument but just don't want to admit it, especially not to you. This recalls the dilemma of the UCLA girl who did a study of the relationship of the free market and quality of taxi service in Washington, D.C. for Trans-Action, and found, to her chagrin ("you're not going to believe this," she says in the article), that the market seems to work best. That one's conclusions happen to benefit (or seem to benefit) one particular group does not invalidate the process of thought that brought one to that conclusion. This is not, however, to concede that advertising is inherently helpful to large industrial conglomerates; it is not.

Who, then, gains from advertising? "They" are spending money on it. But "We" are watching and reading the ads. Do we do so freely—or do they have in ads a special device that causes us to act against ourselves? Vance Packard and Paul Goodman have both charged advertising with "manipulation." What about this?

First, to the extent that people are viewed as manipulable, there is an implication that they are without free will. Determinism has been refuted by philosophers of many ages, many persuasions. Without repeating their counter-arguments, what is in error within a deterministic critique of advertising can be stated briefly. Those who write ads are people, affected by the same things that affect ad readers. If "manipulation" is a valid concept, admen are also manipulated, in their case manipulated into the chore of creating ads that manipulate others in turn. Clearly, then, admen cannot be blamed for the ads they turn out. They "have to write" the ads that others "have to respond to" by buying certain products.

Objections such as Packards's and Goodman's are probably, however, not so much on deterministic premises as on the observation that considerable numbers of people aren't particularly psychologically independent and are thus prone to subtle pressures. This observation is, of course, true. The fashion industry, even minus its advertising, is a veritable monument to that fact.

Ad writers can and do use this weakness to successfully push tailfins, high heels, colonial style homes, and other dysfunctional products of plastic America. But it is important to keep in mind that, no matter how useless many of these objects may be, people really do want them. Their desire may be foolish, but it is real. And so, the problem—and the place to seek solutions—is not on Madison Avenue but in Hometown, U.S.A.

Advertising does not so much create trends as it takes advantage of a trend-seeking public, a public more concerned with conforming to standards that are acceptable to the neighbors than with seeking out and purchasing what is best suited to satisfying their particular needs.

Advertising, at worst, did not create America's current crop of supermarket zombies; it only cashes in on their existence. Advertising is after the fact, an effect. The cause lies in people who no longer have the ability (hence option) to think about purchasing choices. This stems in part from the misguided rearing they endured as children; but primarily, and in a continuing way, the fault is in education.

Why is it that so many social critics, both left and right, find more comfortable the process of delineating their "enemies" than the job of aligning themselves with their "friends"? Could it be a giant case of "Ain't It Awful" (cf. Games People Play)? Or could it be an example of modern day demonology, in which the devil is the state, or overpopulation, or the industrialists, or the New Dealers, or the hippies, or…well, you name it.

Whichever—whatever—it may be, the fact remains that those who snap at Madison Avenue are, for the most part, barking up the wrong display sign post. The problem is both more simple and more complex than they make it out to be. More simple in that, no matter what, an ad cannot sell to the unconvinced or uninterested. More complex in that the captive audience of advertising was cultivated long ago in those mind-crippling institutions, the schools. It is my contention that, for long range effect, fundamental attitude, and ability to solve problems, parents and schools are by far the most substantial (often harmful) influence. Advertising cannot and does not destroy the mind; parents and schools (but especially schools) can and do.

Advertising is but one means of communication through which men can be manipulated. It is certainly not the cause of their being so malleable. There is no worse tyranny than that of adults over children. Who really gives a damn if Revlon makes a million dollars selling false eyelashes? Who cares—who ought to care—what a woman does with her body? She ought, presumably, to be able to think for herself. Who can say that of a child? Adult chauvinism, among the many kinds of chauvinism now on public display, is the only one against which the victim is powerless to resist. What is a million dollars profit from selling false eyelashes compared to the murder of a single mind?

What about the ethics of advertising? I have an answer which although unorthodox, is nonetheless correct.

There is no such thing as a bad product.

What about poisonous products or those which quickly break or wear out? It all depends. If the poisonous product is labeled food, there exists an obvious case of fraud. If the merchandiser of the easily breakable product promised durability, again there exists a case of fraud. If he didn't, no crime has been committed, although the product will soon get the reputation it deserves. The critical issue is the honesty or dishonesty which the advertiser displays. A shoddy product represented as superior or a superior product represented as shoddy are both examples of the same wrong. As a matter of fact, just forget about "shoddy" and "superior." Any sales pitch that deceives commits the basic evil of advertising: fraud.

The difficulty with the good product/bad product approach is that it doesn't allow for the very real differences that exist between people. One would logically end up condemning Hershey for selling candy bars, which, after all, would be unhealthful for diabetics. This is what I mean by saying that there is no such thing as a good product, not in any universal-applicable-to-everyone sense. It's for the individual consumer to determine what is best suited for him.

Objections to advertising rest on some view of economic process (that is, how people interact in a society with advanced technology, an extensive division of labor, a widely accepted medium of exchange, a high level of trading, and a massive state). Indeed, many objections are entirely on economic grounds. The flaws in most complaints would quickly be revealed in a reading of Ludwig von Mises' Human Action, or even Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson. For this reason, I'll keep my comments short.

Here, as in other aspects of the matter, complaints about advertising often turn out to be complaints about the basic structure of society, because what is criticized is not unique to or caused by advertising. Complaints that fall into this class can be further divided into those about which something can be done and those about which nothing can be done because what is wrong is inherent in human nature under any social arrangement.

Other authors have demonstrated that some horrid evil the socialists have blamed on capitalism is in fact the fault of current or past socialist or fascist practices. It's much the same in advertising. Left-leaning critics blame the open market (where? where?) for problems created by the massive federal-local political complex (here! there!).

Much of the plasticity of America can be traced to the existence of a political structure that tends to squelch creativity.

Unions, empowered by various statutes, have crippled industries, notably housing. Management, equipped with its own legal throat-cutting implements, has created similar problems. Taxation, as well as subsequent redistribution and political oppression, has a terrible distorting effect on men's interactions. Inflation: everyone knows what happens when the money supply is in the hands of the power elite. And so on. Products are not now what they could (should?) be in either manufacture or distribution. Why not criticize a union-backed law that retires good workers at an early age? Because such laws give needed jobs to younger men? What about falling production quality when knowledgeable workers leave? Blame it on something further down the line: advertising!

Ads are best mainly when the product is marketable, i.e., desired. Think of a "bad ad"? Hate the "White Knight"? What would you say about a product that resembles so many others? Ads for ultrasonic cleaners, paper clothes, and nudist colonies, however, just might be well done. The formula is simple: Without a Unique Selling Proposition, there are boring, uninforming ads (cf. Volkswagen's beloved ads which are full of USP).

Why is it that so many products lack USP? It is primarily the result of a regulated, essentially closed market. The predictable outcome of an open market, if we were ever to see one, would be as much diversity and as rapid fulfillment of consumer desire as men and the sciences were capable of. Diversity means USP, which means the possibility of good (that is, entertaining and profitable) advertising. At the same time, ad agencies, themselves subject to the same market conditions, could improve internally.

If much advertising is boring, ineffective, and tasteless, part of the trouble is in the people in the field and in the way advertising agencies are organized. Adman Jerry Della Femina recently released a best-selling gossipy book about advertising (From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor) that goes into many of the inane practices on the Avenue. You can guess the story: committee upon committee upon committee hacking good ads to rotten ones, bad ads into worse. Nobody in Washington told ad agencies to run their business this way; you have to blame the agencies themselves. But more, you must see that, for most clients, buying ad space is as much an ego trip as a sound investment. (What the ratio is can be learned through market research figures, which reveal that many expensive campaigns are totally worthless.)

Here again the trouble is not exclusive to the Avenue but is a characteristic common to most American enterprise. Even within those companies that turn out "good" (i.e., satisfying to the customer) products, it is a rare manager who understands the role of advertising. This means that multi-million dollar accounts will be given to old (incompetent) college buddies and that you and I will be subjected to years of hearing how Wonder Bread (devitalized, bleached, and stuffed with sugar) "builds strong bodies 12 ways." For all those who are sincerely interested in seeing the end of such things as the hawking of plastic bread as a health food for children, a clear understanding must be gained of the relationship between the way an industry (advertising) is organized and the quality of its products. Incidentally, if you want to take some action now, please realize this, bad ads can often be easily wiped off the screen by several letters to the manufacturer. (Della Femina describes how four letters cancelled a campaign.) Manufacturers are incredible cowards.

Happily, much of what is bad in advertising is slowly, painfully, disappearing in what Newsweek has called a "creative explosion." (Boom! "Speedy Alka-Seltzer is dead!) See, as example, Time's recent rave reviews of this year's television commercials (in which the "new" Alka-Seltzer won special mention).

However, in the interest of fairness, an aside; if some silly manufacturer wants a hard sell or artsy campaign, wants it aside from all considerations of effectiveness, he'll probably find someone to write it for him. But that's life. That's not an advertising industry fault.

If advertising is truly improving, soon it may be that only purely economic objections will be raised. Let's look at one of the most important of these: that advertising affords the large company an inherent advantage over the small. This assumes that the number of insertions or the expense of an agency determines the effectiveness of advertising. But how could it? The whole question is talent, not cash.

However, there are many products and services that could not profitably be marketed except nationally. Automobiles are an example of such an enterprise. In these businesses, some quantity of expensive advertising seems to be required (although it isn't clear just how much; V.W.'s American sales were already on a rapid upswing when they decided to buy a minuscule $800,000 a year's worth of advertising. Word of mouth is still the best advertising).

The most serious charge that could be brought against advertising, the one that I myself level time after time is that of outright fraud or hucksterism. Quick: by brand, what's the most effective pain reliever? If you have any memory for this sort of thing, at least two brands with conflicting claims pop into your head. It takes less time than one hour watching television and flipping through two consumer magazines to find plenty of examples of puffery. One of the blackest examples at least in terms of the ultimate damage (cf. Perils of the Peaceful Atom) is the phony pat-on-the-back General Electric gives itself in its let-us-put-your-mind-at-ease ad extolling the pollution-free power soon to be available through G.E. atomic reactors. The visual shows a man's hand holding a lit match with a curl of smoke about it. The head: "Light a match. And you put something in the air that nuclear plants don't." The copy informs us that many environmentalists are now speaking up for nuclear power, that radioactive wastes released into the air, water, and land are so mild that you could live next door. Bullshit. Oh, sure, you could live next door if you wanted to. Remember those six thousand sheep that "lived next door" to the Army's chemical warfare center?

Those who would protect the consumer against advertising fraud would do well to consider the libertarian approach to the issue. The most important failing in the standard "consumer protection" action by government agency (FTC, FDA, FCC, ICC, etc.) is that the consumer is usually the last person to even hear about it, let alone receive any benefit from being "protected."

One example is a proposed action against the makers of Hi-C (Coca Cola Company) for misleading advertising concerning the vitamin C content of its product and its value to the consumer. Let's assume that Hi-C is guilty as charged and examine the proposed punishment (as reported by the 12 November 1970 issue of the Wall Street Journal). For a period of one year, unless Coca Cola states in 25 percent of its Hi-C ads that its previous ads were inaccurate, the corporation would be forbidden to make any nutritional claims about any of its products. Aside from the fact that this runs counter to the trend of the FDA to force food and drug manufacturers to make full disclosure, how does this procedure benefit anyone already hurt by Hi-C's false claims? And if one of Coca-Cola's diet food divisions should fail as a result of this cock-eyed punishment, is this just retribution for a misdeed of the Hi-C division? How can the court hand out a punishment the full impact of which it doesn't know? How was the figure of one year chosen? Do you know? Could you find out? Did "they" know what they were doing in this action?

But ads fail in other ways. Is anyone "protecting" us, however ineptly, elsewhere? The market (who would have guessed it?) shelters us from one, namely, that of tastelessness, specifically the use of sex to attract attention to ads. I've good news: it doesn't work (that is, it may attract attention, especially women's attention, but it doesn't help sales any). Marketing research indicates that the more incongruous the sex is to the theme of the ad and the nature of the project, the less effective as a selling proposition the ad becomes. People, we find, remember the girl but not the product, which is the fittest punishment for those who would stoop to this. But remember that beautiful people can be a legitimate inducement for buying certain products, for example, contraceptives, just as beautiful scenery is appropriate in a travel ad.

The advertising world is getting better, but it cannot solve all the problems that arise within its own industry. Ad writers must write about existing products; without truly marketable products, even good ads can't say much. Without thinking people who consider what they really want from a product, without courts that will effectively protect the consumer against fraud—without a lot of things not in its control, advertising cannot improve forever. Help it along; think before you buy. You just may encourage production of goods, ads, marketing procedures and laws that are suited to your needs and wants.

(Check one: the above was___ was not___ a paid advertisement.)