We're used to the usual charges against advertising: that it manipulates defenseless children, promotes crass materialism, and compels consumers to buy ever more of what they don't need. But when John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a free market think tank in North Carolina, set out to defend the social value of product promotion, he found himself up against an unexpected group of critics: advertisers themselves. In Selling the Dream (Praeger), Hood defends the art of advertising from the self-hating sloganeers, telemarketers, and admen who help create it.
Q: Why are advertisers apt to believe the worst about their profession?
A: Advertising has drawn from pools of talent that do not traditionally consist of libertarians or free market people—graphic artists, writers. A lot of them have a set of cultural beliefs that do not lend themselves to defending free markets. They may be very talented at the work. But often they hate themselves doing it, because it hasn't occurred to them that a clever slogan has any social value at all.
Q: Do we lose a sense of authenticity when we start defining ourselves through brands?
A: Authenticity is a kind of a brand. People buy various goods because they have authenticity; that's the brand. Human beings like to identify with categories, behavior, people. There is nothing that can be done to squash that impulse. If you banned all advertising, people would find other brand identities. They wouldn't be commercial, but they would be brand identities.
We went through a period where this was treated as manipulation by corporate masters. One would hope by now we realize that a lot of what companies intend to happen with brands doesn't happen. People use brands in perverse ways, and companies unintentionally become brand identities in ways they don't actually like.
Q: Most of the attacks on advertising now center on kids.
A: It's easy to make the argument regarding children because then you don't have to make the argument that everybody in society is incapable of interpreting advertising messages.
I think exposure to advertising is essential for children. We assume that children should be exposed to a variety of things in moderate amounts so they can develop some understanding, perspective, the ability to take it. Advertising is no different.
Q: Is there too much sex in advertising?
A: A more interesting question is, why isn't there more sex in advertising? The answer is that it isn't all that effectual at accomplishing what advertisers are trying to accomplish. If extreme uses of language or images or innuendo are actually a distraction, if that is what people remember but not the brand name or where to buy the product, you have failed.