Few people speak kindly of advertising. H.G. Wells described it as "legalised lying," George Orwell dismissed it as "the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket," and Stephen Leacock defined it as "the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it." Alexander Solzhenitsyn, morosely pondering the "decadence" of his adopted (and adoptive) West, spoke of those who "spit in the eye and in the soul of the passerby and the passenger with advertising."
The standard case against advertising is familiar. Advertising, it is claimed, insults the intelligence of consumers by its fatuity, offends their aesthetic sensitivities by its vulgarity, betrays their trust by its dishonesty, wastes their money by its costliness, and manipulates their tastes by its cunning. All in all a formidable case.
Yet it is not an unanswerable case, even though it frequently goes unanswered. And while it is understandable that businesses employing and businesses providing the skills of the advertiser should prefer getting on with their respective tasks rather than diverting their energies into pointless debates, it is important that the case against advertising be challenged. Burgeoning bureaucracies are not usually popular with the general public, but bureaucrats regulating advertising enjoy a considerable measure of community approval. Are they not, after all, on the "side" of the hapless consumer? Yet rule by bureaucratic edict, rather than governance by general principles of just conduct that apply equally to all, augurs ill for a free society. Subjecting advertisers not to general rules proscribing fraud or enforcing contracts but to a battery of regulations specific to a particular industry imperils a defining principle of a free society.
The popular case against advertising goes little beyond indignation occasioned by the alleged aesthetic, intellectual, or moral shoddiness of many advertisements. Such indignation, however, is inappropriately directed against advertisers, for advertisers simply try to appeal to the actual tastes, and speak the idiom, of those whose attention they seek. To appeal to tastes "superior" or "inferior" to those of their intended audience would guarantee their failure to gain attention and communicate. Trial and error has ensured that popular advertising reflects, with remarkable accuracy, the tastes of the masses. To blame advertisers for what their advertisements reveal about popular tastes is comparable to arraigning wet roads for inclement weather or indicting thermometers for raging fevers.
This point is frequently obscured by those who hold the (improbable) notion that the success of advertised commodities is determined by tastes "artificially" created by advertisers. Yet even assuming this belief, it is still obvious that if an advertisement is to attract and sustain attention, it must initially appeal to consumers' actual tastes. In the absence of "advertisements for advertisements"—that is, advertisements creating tastes that attending to further advertisements can satisfy—the success of an advertisement in gaining attention for itself cannot be explained in terms of artificially created desires. An advertisement, then, must initially appeal to existing tastes. To assert otherwise initiates a vicious infinite regress.
Rather than blame advertisers for the allegedly shoddy tastes of the masses, self-appointed refiners of community tastes and improvers of community values should thank advertisers for revealing the enormity of their task. (Moreover, one cannot help but note that even the Philistines responsible for television commercials occasionally reveal a capacity for humor conspicuously absent in their cultured detractors. And some commercial art is not aesthetically inferior to certain works of "art" that have bluffed their dubious way into galleries haunted by the self-styled guardians of artistic refinement.)
A more substantial criticism of advertising stresses its alleged wastefulness as a dependent industry. The least sophisticated formulation of this criticism simply notes that advertising is a "second-order" activity, dependent upon other industries. What is not self-contained is parasitic, the argument goes, and what is parasitic is undesirable and wasteful.
Any plausibility possessed by this criticism derives from the "bridging" word parasitic. The word mixes together descriptive and evaluative elements. To describe A as parasitic upon B is to assert, minimally, that A depends upon B. To evaluate A as parasitic is to ascribe a lack of value to A. The word thus makes possible a glide from the description of an activity as dependent upon some prior activity to the evaluation of the activity as worthless. Precisely the same move was made by the Physiocrats of 18th-century France who asserted that all industries dependent upon the activities of farming, hunting, and fishing are parasitic on these industries and hence are wasteful. The transition is obviously invalid unless a further premise can be established—that all dependent activities are wasteful.
A more telling version of the argument seeks to defend that premise. Proponents of this line of thought make a distinction between production costs and selling costs. Production costs are incurred by producers in the actual fabrication of a commodity. Selling costs are costs that, while not incurred by any process or activity to change or modify a commodity, are necessarily involved in securing its sale. Selling costs are thus by definition nonproductive. Since advertising is a selling cost, conclude the critics, it is nonproductive.
It could, of course, be countered that "selling costs" are productive of increased sales. In fact, however, the distinction between selling costs and production costs collapses when it is transposed from the rarefied world of economic theory to the flesh-and-blood world of market reality.
In purchasing a particular commodity a consumer forgoes buying some other goods, because he values that commodity more highly than the goods he forgoes. The commodity is the total cluster of qualities evaluated by the consumer. Some of the qualities will be peculiar to a particular consumer: an ashtray, for example, might possess the quality of "being large enough to cover the burn mark on a dining-room table," and this might be the crucial quality in determining the value of the ashtray for that consumer. Other qualities might be noted by all consumers but evaluated differently: the color of an ashtray may be a positive factor for one consumer, negative for another, and irrelevant for a third. All costs incurred in creating qualities intended to be valued by a consumer are production costs. To single out any one link in the chain of events culminating in the consumer's evaluation and purchase of a commodity is arbitrary. Inasmuch as advertising can create such qualities as a commodity's "being known to a consumer," advertising is a production cost.
A consumer deliberately purchases, for example, a particular brand of soap. That particular brand possesses not only the qualities of soap per se but, as purchased, other qualities as well. It is known. It may have a particular color—say, green—that through advertising, the consumer associates not with green slime on a stagnant pond but with the refreshing greens of spring. For a particular consumer, that association may well be the decisive factor in choosing this particular brand of soap over another. That association and its attendant pleasure is as much a "real feature" of what is purchased as is the mass of the soap.
What irks many critics of advertising is the "trivial" nature of many advertised goods and the "unimportance" of the associations that advertising may link to a particular commodity. And it would be folly to deny that the need for food is more important than the need for color TV sets, that shelter is more important than a soap whose color is associated with spring freshness. And if insignificant, trivial, or unimportant are to mean "unnecessary for survival," then most goods advertised and all qualities of goods created by advertising are insignificant, trivial, and unimportant as well.
Few people, however, would care to defend the view that any lifestyle beyond mere subsistence is evil. Most would agree that goods contributing to a person's enjoyment of life are desirable. The objection, then, is not that manufacturers and advertisers create goods that are unnecessary for survival but that many of these goods, or some of their qualities, should not be relevant to such enjoyment of life.
How is that should to be defended? Who is to determine what goods or qualities of goods should or should not contribute to an individual's enjoyment of life? Is the Mozart enthusiast to rule that others should not find pleasure, say, in the music of Abba? Is the Dostoevsky devotee to decree that those entertained by Ian Fleming's novels should not be so entertained? Is the admirer of abstract art to declare that simple, "brainwashed" souls who enjoy Disneyland should not enjoy such "debased" entertainment?
That some producers and advertisers will produce and sell commodities that misguided individuals in their folly value, is the price paid by each member of a society in which other producers and advertisers, led perhaps by nobler ideals, bring to market commodities that he in his wisdom seeks. The wise person simply rejoices that, in a free society, each person can be his potty little self and indulge his own lunacies.
Perhaps the best-known attempt to find an objective distinction between consumers' legitimate and illegitimate valuations of goods is that proffered by John Kenneth Galbraith in his widely read The Affluent Society. Galbraith's essential thesis is that the market economies of developed nations, even though hampered by state intervention, are still too productive. Excessive affluence in the private sphere coexists with a paucity of resources in the public sphere. On the whole, Galbraith maintains, consumers enjoy purchasing power in excess of that required to enjoy a "good life." But they resent the appropriation of that excess through taxation, because they are driven by insatiable "artificial" wants. These wants, which give rise to voracious consumption of an ever-increasing range of commodities, are created by advertisers and their wicked clients, the producing businessmen.
First off, one wonders whether the alleged paucity of the contemporary state is quite as depicted. In 1978, for example, the assets of the top 34 listed corporations in my native Australia were worth a total of some $13.5 billion. Total state revenues from taxation came to some $26.8 billion—almost twice as much. And that staggering sum represented only 75 percent of total government spending for 1978. To suggest that paucity describes such a public sector is somewhat extraordinary.
Galbraith's skeptical readers also noted that beyond indignant references to cars with large tailfins and repetitious comments about the plurality of detergents on supermarket shelves, he proffered no evidence for his faith in the quite remarkable powers of advertising. Could advertising sell and continue to sell inedible food, unwearable clothes, and unworkable gadgets? Could even the most sublime advertising have given oil-lamp makers a market edge over manufacturers of electric light bulbs, or quill-pen producers an advantage over their ballpoint-pen competitors?
Galbraith's case against advertising is not, however, dependent on unverified speculations about advertising's effectiveness or on the excellence and authority of Galbraith's own tastes and preferences. Rather, it depends on a distinction between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" wants defined by appeal to what Galbraith designates the "dependence effect."
Illegitimate wants are those that would not be experienced in the absence of the processes of production that satisfy them. A want for a breakfast cereal that goes "snap, crackle, and pop" would not exist in a world lacking such a peculiar breakfast cereal. The production and marketing of the known product creates the want the product satisfies. Such a dependent want is a mark of the alleged decadence of an "affluent society."
Crucial to Galbraith's argument is the insistence that the illegitimacy of a want is a function of its dependent nature. A want is not illegitimate because it is frivolous—Professor Galbraith, wisely, is at pains to avoid opening the Pandora's box of mischief such subjective criteria present. The dependent nature of socially created wants—as against "natural" wants—is the basis of their illegitimacy.
Unfortunately, this objective basis means that all culturally created wants are necessarily "illegitimate." A desire to listen to and possess recordings of the music of Mozart is dependent upon the productive activity of Mozart. A desire to gaze upon and own reproductions of van Gogh's paintings is dependent upon the productive activity of van Gogh. A desire to understand and read books explaining the scientific insights of Einstein is dependent upon the productive activity of Einstein. As Friedrich Hayek has pointed out, Galbraith's test results in all wants save those for food, shelter, and sexual opportunity being dismissed as the undesired consequences of obscene affluence.
Hayek asks three questions that are worth quoting. "Clearly my taste for the novels of Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope or C.P. Snow is not 'original with myself.' But is it not rather absurd to conclude from this that it is less important than, say, the need for education? Public education, indeed, seems to regard it as one of its tasks to instill a taste for literature in the young and even employs producers of literature for that purpose. Is this want creation by the producer reprehensible? Or does the fact that some of the pupils may possess a taste for poetry only because of the efforts of their teachers prove that since 'it does not arise in spontaneous consumer need and the demand would not exist were it not contrived, its utility or urgency, ex contrivance, is zero?'"
Few motorists navigating a railway crossing wish to collide with a train. They are genuinely grateful for information that a train is coming. And it is a clanging, flashing message that thrusts that information upon them in a way that cannot be overlooked. The desire for information about whether a train is coming, it then would seem, is not sufficient to ensure that motorists would seek out, notice, or heed a clearly visible, but tastefully discreet, signal.
Similarly with advertising. A producer may manufacture a commodity he reasonably believes will please the tastes of many. The commodity was created to help consumers satisfy their tastes and attain some of their desires—and of course, by selling well, to enable the producer to satisfy his desires. The producer believes that, after examining the commodity, consumers will purchase the commodity rather than other goods they value less. If the producer is right, there is every reason to be confident that consumers will appreciate information about the existence and nature of the commodity and further information about where they can purchase it.
Yet this is no guarantee that consumers will diligently search out such information. The situation is precisely the same as that of the railway crossing: the desire to avoid collisions does not mean that motorists will seek out a discreet sign warning of the impending approach of a train. The advertiser has to ensure that a certain commodity possesses the quality of being "obviously available." He has to thrust his advertising message at the consumer. Most advertisements are less obtrusive than the clanging, flashing railway-crossing sign, but they are deliberately created to solve the same problem: human laziness or inattention or preoccupation with other matters.
The suggestion that the advertiser's attention-grabbing devices can benefit the consumer is made in all seriousness. A producer manufactures a commodity because he has noted, or believes he has noted, an "information gap" in the market. Consumers have indicated a willingness to exchange a given sum of money for a commodity satisfying certain needs and desires. The suppliers of raw materials and skills that will produce that commodity have indicated a willingness to sell their goods and expertise for a sum considerably lower than that proffered by consumers. By organizing suppliers and workers and bringing the resulting commodity to the attention of consumers, the entrepreneur-producer bridges an information gap and makes it possible for all parties, himself included, to exchange what they value less for what they value more. Yet he must break the stubborn barrier of consumers' laziness and habit and other interests.
Little has been said directly about the usually cited "virtue" of advertising: that it provides information about available commodities. Consumers do need to know what commodities are available and where. Yet to separate information about commodities from the chain of production creating known and desired commodities is to lose sight of the peculiar functions of advertising. (Such separated information is, of course, valued by some, and sources like Consumers Research exist to satisfy these consumers.)
While advertising does communicate valuable information about commodities, its primary functions are to create certain qualities of a particular commodity and to persuade consumers to evaluate a product that, in the judgment of its producers, satisfies existing wants in a new or more satisfactory way. These creative and persuasive functions have value for the consumer quite apart from the information that advertising also makes available.
The opponents of advertising are puritans, tormented by the distressing thought that someone, somewhere, might be happy. They condemn the masses' tastes as shoddy, their values as ugly, their pleasures as trivial, and their enjoyment of earthy, concrete things as materialistic. They are terrifyingly confident in the privileged status of their own tastes and preferences and see nothing amiss in imposing these upon their fellows.
They do not like the free market. Indeed, they are ill at ease in any market, for markets are vulgar places. Vendors shout about their wares. Shoppers squeeze the oranges, prod the tomatoes, and otherwise test the merchandise. Buyers and sellers frequently meet and make the exchange each desires only because of gaudy, obtrusive signs or blaring, ear-shattering amplifiers. It is all very noisy, all very chaotic, all very inelegant.
Yet it works. And at the core of any market is a childishly simple transaction: in the absence of coercion, two people make an exchange, and each party to the exchange acquires what he values more for what he values less. Each finds pleasure in what he acquires. And the observing puritan laments those shoddy values and inappropriate pleasures. He yearns to refine and correct them.
Let him. Let him set up his shop, advertise his views, and peddle his tracts. But beware that he does not opt for the easier path of silencing the voices, pulling down the signs, and destroying the goods of those he so despises.
John Williams teaches classical civilization at a college in Australia.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "And Now, a Pitch for Advertising".