Economics

The Visible Persuaders

Advertising as a medium for truth telling

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Covering up the inconvenient facts of his résumé, donning new identities the way other men change suits, the hidden persuader at the center of AMC's Mad Men has a talent for duplicity that would seem to place him squarely in pop culture's rich canon of ad industry villains. 

But even with his fake name, appropriated past, perfect show family, and less than ethical approach to client management, Don Draper stands apart from the cynics, hoodwinks, hacks, and evil mesmerists who populate the pages of such anti-advertising tomes as The Hucksters, The Hidden Persuaders, and No Logo. At home in his dining room or at a fancy restaurant wooing clients, Draper may be a lying, boozing con man. But when he's in his office, dreaming up catch phrases to sell products, the specters of candor and authenticity possess him. "You are the product," Draper tells a neophyte copywriter. "You, feeling something. That's what sells." He doesn't just want to sell us the sizzle of girdles and popsicles; he wants to sell us their souls.

Art & Copy, a 2009 documentary about the advertising business, is built around interviews with eight of the industry's most celebrated practitioners. One of them, the legendary ad man George Lois, echoes Draper's passion. "I can get excited about selling a new kind of pin," growls Lois, a pugnacious blusterer whose campaigns for MTV and Tommy Hilfiger helped turn them into cultural mainstays. Contemplating a pin's very pinness—identifying the precise qualities that make it useful to us and enhances our lives—is the path toward great advertising.

The contrarian theme that advertising is at heart a medium for profound truth telling runs throughout Art & Copy, which will be out on DVD this summer. The more common nonindustry view is of advertising as a fundamentally crooked enterprise that aims to brainwash us into buying products we don't really need to solve problems we don't actually have and attain ideals we don't genuinely aspire to.

Art & Copy departs from this stereotype in large part because it's not a nonindustry depiction. While aimed at general audiences and directed by Doug Pray, whose past work includes documentaries on surfers, graffiti artists, turntablists, and the Seattle music scene, the movie was funded by The One Club, which describes itself as "the world's foremost non-profit organization for the recognition and promotion of excellence in advertising."

In other words, it's a documercial. But if advertising is indeed a powerful medium for truth telling, then so what, right? Watch Mary Wells, founder of Wells Rich Greene and one of the most successful and influential ad executives of the 1960s and 1970s, explain how she helped Braniff Airlines make air travel hip and fashionable by convincing the company to paint its planes, redecorate their interiors, and clothe its stewardesses in new uniforms. Watch Tommy Hilfiger explain how, after George Lois devised a campaign that equated the then-unknown designer with Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, he worked harder than he ever had on his next clothing line to measure up. Great advertising, these anecdotes suggest, isn't about figuring out clever ways to hide a product's flaws or tricking us into buying things we don't really want or need. It's about showcasing a product's inherent desirability in ways that resonate, even if that means going back to the drawing board and revising the product itself. Wells' campaign for Braniff turned a formerly utilitarian part of travel—getting there—into an entertaining experience. The artificial status Lois conferred on Hilfiger inspired him to produce his best-designed clothing yet. Advertising, in short, can make the world better.

But not without something to sell. Look at Art & Copy's high-water marks of the business, and what's striking is how often the brands and products associated with them are revolutionary game changers (Volks-wagen, Macintosh, MTV, FedEx, Ronald Reagan), or at the very least delicious (Wendy's hamburgers, milk). While the interview subjects show no shortage of confidence in their own abilities, all seem to recognize that their powers of persuasion have limits. The best way to produce great advertising is to produce great products. Give the best pitchman a pig's ear, and even Don Draper couldn't turn it into a silk purse. The best he could do is make you think about how a pig's ear might improve your life. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.

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  1. An “enterprise that aims to brainwash us into buying products we don’t really need to solve problems we don’t actually have and attain ideals we don’t genuinely aspire to.” Does this include the Reason ads too?

    1. The Reason Gear girl is so hot.

    2. RCTL,

      Without the ads, Reason couldn’t afford to publish the dead tree or have this nice online version. No way subscriptions cover the cost. Donations to the foundation don’t cover enough either. Even government sees the benefit of allowing advertising – see the inside of buses and subways.

      1. “Donations to the foundation don’t cover enough either.” How do you know?

        1. As a subscriber, they hit me up twice last year and the plead-o-letter said basically that. They need more donations because the current donations and subscriptions are not enough to cover the cost blah blah blah. I felt bad and sent $25. Then I started commenting on blog entries and here we are.

          1. “They need more donations because the current donations and subscriptions are not enough to cover the cost blah blah blah.” Why don’t you let them fail? Isn’t the risk of failure part of the libertarian ideology? Free market consequences?

            1. @interesting but

              Unless government is bailing them out, your comment makes no sense. I support Reason because I care to. If they have to sell advertising to stay afloat, I understand it. I want MSNBC to fail (and they are working hard to achieve that outcome) so I don’t watch their talking head shows or their advertising. Plus if Reason were to fail, where would go to make nasty comments about “libertarian ideology”?

              1. classic liberal in the modern, “they hit me up twice last year”. Sounds like they need TARP funds and you can make your pro-libertarian comments for free on the web.

                1. “Modern classic liberal” actually.

                  “they hit me up” – I started using that for any communication mostly from my programming background. I could have said “they asked for money twice last year” but I like “hit me up” despite the desperation connotation.

                  I don’t see Reason asking for TARP handouts – they are not the NYT or other “too big to fail” journalistic endeavors.

                  “you can make your pro-libertarian comments for free on the web” – $25 is not free plus I’m exposed to the ads which make Reason some money. I believe in monetarily supporting things I use and enjoy.

                  1. I never said $25 was not free but I did imply you could keep your money and post on the web gratis. There are many interesting blog sites out there and I never intend to donate to Reason.

                    1. No one will force you to donate to Reason – it is not the Obama-ment.

  2. Reason has successfully hypnotized me into buying a hoodie that I don’t.

    Damn you for exploiting my weakness for blondes!

    1. I have been eating lobster every day for 5 months now…

  3. Maybe ads “tell the truth”, but ad agencies want you to substitute their version of the truth for the version you see around you everyday. It’s like substituting a made-up truth for an actually-perceived truth.

    1. You hit the nail. Advertising executives, at least the traditional forms, relies on collectivist notions about our personal truths–all women think this, all teenagers feel that–to mask the reality: they see the world primarily through themselves.

      Which would be fine if it was their money being spent. BUt clients have figured it out and that’s why so many agencies are struggling with the ‘deflation’ affecting their perceived value.

      1. That is the single most head-spinning abuse of the word “collectivism” I’ve ever seen.

        Also: there is no decline in advertising budgets or growth. It’s at 400 billion annually worldwide and headed north.

        The demographic techniques you describe are not based on collectivism of any kind. Demographic subdivision is the vocabulary of mass MARKETing.

        The market. You may have heard about it.

        1. Here, Orel, let me put something in your mouth so the wind doesn’t spin your head around so much.

          Seriously, try googling the term ‘collectivist’.

          Mass marketers have been missing the goals of the individuals that make up the market for years by treating demographic groups as if they have common goals for brands based on crap like gender, age and race.

          You might also try googling ad spending. Down 14% in 2009 from the down year 2008.

          Google. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

          1. There is no way for a company to send an individually tailored message to each person. Until recently, there have been few ways for companies to send more than a few messages total. Their choices are therefore to market to absolutely everyone or to try to tailor their message toward broadly defined groups. Because 22 year old men tend to have different aspirations and needs than do 68 year old women, it’s useful to know which group is using your product and which group is watching the show you’re advertising on. That is why so many companies pay so much for advertising.

            And as for ad spending being down 14% this year: the recession. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

  4. After 20+ years in advertising, I’m convinced that the greatest advertising con job of all time is the one anti-advertising folks spawned to convince the world that we were diabolically clever, instead of usually clueless and pathetically plagiaristic…

  5. Advertisers can engage in bad behavior, but there are checks to their power, like anti-fraud laws and competition from other companies that can subtly (or non-subtly) point out the problems with the competition.

    And there are non-market competitors to the market – things like religion, or opinion journalism (which isn’t really a profit-making business these days, is it?).

  6. I’m a little skeptical. Coca-Cola spends massive amounts of money trying to make me feel an emotional conection to their product because they want to convince me that their sugar water is superior to all other forms of sugar water. They don’t lie, but they invent their own truth that they want us to share.

    One great thing about advertising, however, is that it sponsers my favorite TV shows, sporting events, and other stuff that makes money by selling ad space.

    1. Are you saying Santa Claus and polar bears don’t prefer Coca-Cola over other sugar waters?

  7. People are powerless against the forces of advertisements! Corporations can make you do anything by showing you and advert! You must elect us because we are immune to advertising’s effects and we will stop this scourge!

    1. HURR DURR HURR HURR. CORPORASHUNS ARE NOT PEOPLE! HURR

      1. sage, don’t you have a job to do?

        1. Hey, I’d be glad to iron your skirt. While you’re still wearing it. And it’s one of those old timey cast iron ones that you leave in hot coals for hours.

          How’s 3:00 work for you?

          1. Awesome comments. I truly agree with you.

  8. Is pinness a cromulent word?

    1. A cromulent word and a possible beatoism.

  9. David Ogilvy’s book is still the best book on advertising.

  10. Is it possible to admire capitalism while finding most advertising completely patronizing and obscene? This is serious.

    1. Of course. I’ve had this argument with Leftists way too many times.

      Coming from the Marxian analysis, capitalism CREATES/REQUIRES the culture of crass consumerism through false advertisement and imagery. Advertisement of such sorts imposes a false view of the world that sustains the “unsustainable” consumerism in capitalist societies.

      The reality, IMO, is that relatively free societies ENABLE such advertisement, since no central agency is allowed to determine what “values” are disseminated. Companies HAVE to market their products so that consumers know they exist. Advertisement plays on the common psychology of a society to promote their product over competition. Are their images and rhetoric “true”? Rarely. But who really believes that Axe Body spray will make you a snatch magnet? Or a talking Gecko is selling you insurance? Very few. Repeat business is not drivin by advertisement, but by consumer satisfaction.

      1. I see your point. Although I’ll admit I find the “enablement” aspect to be most depressing of all. It means consumers actually chose all this garish, unsightly bullshit. Or at least help justify its continued existence.

        It’d be much easier if government or some other coercive force were the ones putting obnoxious neon signs along every highway. At least then I could yell it’s not what people wanted.

        1. I get market forces, I get spontaneous order, I get property rights. I don’t get why we need lame slogans constantly pelted at all our available senses.

          1. You don’t need it.

            I don’t need to see muffin tops and beer guts hanging out of shirts in public either.

            But I bear it. Because it’s legal.

            1. Indeed.

              Capitalism works, I just wish it weren’t so gross to look at.

        2. This is one of the nice things about capitalism. Once any central authority takes charge, no matter how well meaning, the first thing they do is try to fix the tastes of the common rubes. A capitalist society allows elitist snobbery to flourish without giving it much power. (Not to call you a snob; I hate most ads as well.)

          1. Hey, I might be a snob, sure. I find most ad campaigns to be base and degrading. I might even call it “low culture” if I’m in the mood. That’s certainly snob talk. But I can judge people without stopping them. Right?

  11. @ Mike G, Back a couple decades before you entered into advertising, back in the 1970s, I read a book by Wilson Bryan Key titled Subliminal Seduction that explained in careful detail how people like you hide erotic images in visual ads to get us to buy products we don’t want. To the dismay of my paranoid friend who gave me the book and insisted it was a shocking expos? about the methods used by advertisers, I saw only an obviously flawed and poorly thought out hypothesis based on a 1950s urban myth involving visual suggestion on a purely subconscious level. It would be my guess that in writing the book the intention of the author had little to do with exposing anything and more to do with selling his book.

    Outside of massive ad campaigns that attempt to persuade people to adopt radical political or environmental philosophies by exploiting young children to try to make the viewer feel guilty I have no problem with ads. It’s product familiarity more than anything that sells products. People tend to rate products they’ve heard of much higher than those they haven’t even if they’ve used none of them. This is why ads that people will remember and associate with the product are considered successful ads, and it’s why ad time during the Super Bowl is so highly valued.

    It’s extremely unlikely the creepy environmental and political ads have changed a single mind, most people recognize when some one is attempting to manipulate them and dislike it. If the mountains of cash to pay for those ads hadn’t been taken from tax-payers and redistributed to those advertisers for free they’d probably know they don’t work. Commercial ads are a different bird, they use everything from catchy jingles to beautiful women to give the viewer, reader, or listener a reason to remember the product in hopes that familiarity will help make a sale when they make a purchase.

    If ads cause a person to buy things they don’t and never wanted then that person must have some serious personal issues. If they actually believe advertisers to be some kind of evil cabal that makes them buy things they don’t want then that person also has some serious mental problems.

    1. I used to tell my non-ad biz friends that I had to send all my work to the Subliminal Imagery department to have secret messages put in before it was printed or broadcast.

      Yeah, that Wilson Key stuff is crazy. If anything is right out there being liminal, it’s the sex in a beer or car ad. The processes inside an ad agency do not encourage subtlety, any more than the development process for summer blockbusters does. Trust me, you’re not going to get anywhere at an ad agency saying in a creative review meeting, “So I figure we can sell Marlboro using an image of a horse running free in the west, and meanwhile we’ll airbrush an erect dong on its flank.”

  12. I read Subliminal Seduction too and all I can remember was a scotch ad? with the shadow of a girl sitting seductively at the bottom of the glass.

    1. That would be the same book. It’s not difficult to understand how impressionable people with imaginations and natures that lean towards the suspicious or even paranoid can read such a book and accept the ideas in it’s pages as unquestionable facts. If it hadn’t been for my father’s desire to give his children the needed tools to survive in the world he’d not given each of us a lesson demonstrating the importance of skepticism and like my friend I too may have become an unquestioning believer in the ideas put forth by the books author. But that’s not how the story goes, and where I tend to approach every new idea with questions and logic, before his death a few years ago my friend had advanced his faith to include the beliefs that elite politicians are the offspring of lizards from outer space, the Illuminati controls the world, condensation trails from aircraft are “chem-trails” being used to poison us, and many other marvelous and unusual things that defy logic.

      If a distiller wishes to sell more scotch whisky making his product more familiar may increase sales if it’s drinkable and priced fairly, but whiskeys have the best salesman built into the liquid it’s called alcohol. The female form in the glass, like the other images included in the book could be seen with a little helpful suggestion from the author, but then again with a little helpful suggestion from some one with imagination we can see almost anything in the clouds, too. The human mind naturally searches for recognizable patterns in the formless, but the patterns seen where there are none depend on the individual much as children seeing scary things when the lights are turned off. Once a known pattern is recognized, such as the bottom of a glass, unless it changes, that’s as far as it goes. Flashing “Drink Coke” or “Delicious Butter Popcorn” on a movie screen, even if were physically possible, too quickly for conscious perception will not create a run on a theater’s popcorn and soda anymore than hiding the indication of a pair of breasts within an advertising image would make anyone run out and buy a particular brand of electric drill.

      1. Ratko, the ideas in the book led me to read feminist literature. I think I read The Women’s Room next. I can’t help think that your friend suffered from a mental illness and that he would have developed paranoid and aberrant ideology over time.

  13. I always found it astounding the disconnect between the real advertising industry, and the image that people have of the advertising industry.

    In reality, most copywriters are just trying to make a cool ad that wins awards and respect from other copywriters in the buisness, so that they can jump to another agency for even more money in two years, then jump to another agency… and finally make creative director and phone it in until they retire. Most copywriters won’t be around long enough to know or care how well the ad actually sells product.

    For most ad people, research involves going on to youtube and seeing what people think is funny.

    And “focus groups” and “testing” is pretty much a sham, with the results decided long before, and designed mostly to give timid lower executives an excuse if something fails “Well, it did well it testing, it isn’t my fault!”.

    Pretty much the whole myth of clever advertising executives manipulating public opinion is entirely false. Ad people are largely just past-their-prime hipsters looking to do something to impress other past-their-prime hipsters, or old timers just biding their time until retirement.

  14. I was in advertising for three years, when I was in my early 20s. I wrote and produced music for TV commercials.

    With one exception, the caliber of the people I worked with was uniformly low. The central trait most related to career success in that industry was only the ability to not threaten clients.

    Clients (marketing execs) were most threatened by creativity, independence, knowledge, individual initiative, and any strong aesthetic sense. In other words, clients disliked every single trait that you would want in yourself or your friends and associates.

    It really was a lot like this, no kidding:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Go_VtqtxCHY

    The biggest lesson I took away from my time in that business was this:

    If US big business places such phenomenally vacant turds like these in their PR and marketing roles – that is to say those roles nominally associated with corporate creativity – then what kind of retarded troglodytes must occupy the boardrooms? In finance? In legal?

    /shudder/

    1. That’s not an insight, that’s ridiculous hyperbole.

    2. Why the hell did you quit?

      1. I quit soon after this encounter:

        While working on a TV spot, I had been directed to create a theme using “surf music”.

        So I wrote and recorded a piece with snappy drums, reverby guitar, etc.

        The client, a marketing VP clown for a major telecom company, spent hours in the studio being unsatisfied but being incapable of explaining why. Eventually, hours and hours later, he found the words he was looking for:

        “I love the surf music. But can you get rid of the twangy guitar?”

        That’s like saying “I like fire, but I don’t like the heat, the smoke and the light.”

        Of course, I did what he wanted, having finally been directed properly. But I came very close to laughing in his face and I realized I probably wouldn’t be able to stop myself from doing that the next time.

        So I got into internet, which was just taking off. Thanks, Department of Defense for taking some time off from blowing shit up around the world to give away that technology. It made me a lot of money, and as a bonus, I now use it to irritate libertarians!

    3. In other words, clients disliked every single trait that you would want in yourself or your friends and associates.

      But, unlike you, they have an inkling about how to sell shit. You’re just a hired hack who thinks WAY too much of himself.

      1. Well, no, see, if they had an inkling of how to sell shit, why in the world would they hire me to craft the selling message?

        Let me know when you have an answer for that.

    4. And a WHOLE THREE YEARS? Amazingly impressive! … And in your early 20s, as well? The age where you fucking know everything? … Incredible insights! When do you start your book tour?

      1. That’s my point: I learned a lot about corporate culture at that time and was lucky enough to get the hell out with my dignity intact. Three years was (more than) enough.

        Most people who learn about corporate culture become ensnared in and dependent upon it. They work in it for a long time and become unable to tell the truth about it lest it cost them their standard of living.

  15. “Art&Copy;” is playing at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana, where I live.
    It is an excellent, stimulating film.

  16. Bioethical Issues. Well its seems quite interesting. Hope this commission will bring some positive results for Americans. Hope not to fly over night.

  17. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke.

  18. The visible persuaders was such a great title for this post thanks for the nice read I really enjoyed it!

  19. I like the idea that much more in advertising is left to chance and actually the result, not of the forces that many belive i.e. contrived public manipulation. But then isn’t this the case with most things; art, literature, movies. We always analyse after the event and try to pigeon hole motivation into our over analytical view of the world whereby everything has to have an implicit reason?

  20. This is an interesting post. It seems that yet again we over analyse things after the event when often the motivation is very often motivation is not as it seems. Great post!

  21. This is an interesting post. It seems that yet again we over analyse things after the event when often the motivation is very often motivation is not as it seems. Great post!

  22. Good post. Advertising is so strong and even when you look at many adverts that do tell the truth they have the power to deceive.

  23. Often advertising will tell the truth but make use of disclaimers. In this case it is being honest but is cleverly disguised to deceive.

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  29. Interesting read, advertising is a fascinating science.

  30. Advertising may be known as the root of all evil to consumers who believe that everything is a lie or at least very over exaggerated but there is something that everyone uses everyday that is 100% advertising….. the internet.

  31. Advertisers can engage in bad behavior, but there are checks to their power, like anti-fraud laws and competition from other companies that can subtly (or non-subtly) point out the problems with the competition.???? ????? ??? ???????
    And there are non-market competitors to the market – things like religion, or opinion journalism (which isn’t really a profit-making business these days, is it?).

  32. name, appropriated past, perfect show family, and less than ethical approach to client management

  33. omes as The Hucksters, The Hidden Persuaders, and No Logo. At home in his dining room or at a fancy restau

  34. appropriated past, perfect show family, and less than ethical

  35. hical approach to client management, Don Draper st

  36. ader at the center of AMC’s Mad Men h

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