Sssh, the ads are on

The truth in advertising we prefer to ignore

Words & images © Paul Ransom

Of course you hate those pesky ads. Who doesn’t? Not only do they interrupt our favourite TV shows and pop up unbidden online, they are mostly condescending, cliché ridden and insulting. They make false promises, entrench stereotypes, frequently stoop to shaming, guilt tripping and outright blackmail, and to top it off, make no bones about exploiting our fears and sensitivities to sell us all sorts of crap we neither need nor particularly want.

Little wonder I was surprised when, whilst working in the disability sector many years ago, one of my adult clients chided me for talking over the television. “Sssh, the ads are on,” he said with furrowed brow, as if I had somehow trampled on his precious viewing time.

I (professionally) refrained from laughing but his surprising chastisement did feature in a number of subsequent dinner party conversations. We all chuckled cleverly at the charming irony and reminded ourselves how much we hated advertising and how it never had any effect on us.

These days, having worked in the media for nearly thirty years, and been a gun for hire on the other side of the promotional fence, I wonder at the prescience of my former client’s love of ads. Did he see something more truthful and revealing in the TVCs than he did in the scheduled programming, or was he simply unable to resist their cleverly baited hooks?

Much as they might pitch to jingoism and sentiment, ads can also be subversive and form-shattering. Therefore, although the many tricks of the trade are employed with cold calculation to grab and hold our attention, the ad breaks are indeed worthy of our attention.

My guess is the latter; and this, in turn, brings us back to the former. Whereas we might argue that the cynicism and manipulation evident in advertising speaks to a commercial culture of ruthless, Machiavellian intent, the persistence and financial success of this model underlines in stark terms a truth few care to confess. Dirty tricks they may be, but we fall for them. Over and over and over. In other words, they peddle it because it sells.

Thus, in a way which we may find unflattering, ads show us ourselves; perhaps not in a granular or individual way but as a broad socio-cultural reality. Indeed, the much-mooted zeitgeist is often reflected with more precision and greater effect in sponsor messaging than it is in the latest TV hit or viral sensation. For, unlike the makers of searing heartfelt dramas, ad creatives sift out distractions like plot and character and reach for the core psycho-emotional and cognitive mechanisms required to create desire (or fear, loathing, etc). In fact, the central function of the industry is manipulation. They would doubtless prefer polite terms like coax, nudge, inspire or inform. Others might prefer propaganda. Yet, nomenclature notwithstanding, ads are prompts – purchase, vote, pledge, become aware, get yourself killed in a trench somewhere.

This is not to suggest that advertising is pure evil, nor to deny that ads can be smart, inventive and even moving. Annoying and repetitive though they can become, closer inspection frequently reveals details of high artistry, genius technique and superb production values. Much as they might pitch to jingoism and sentiment, ads can also be subversive and form-shattering. Therefore, although the many tricks of the trade are employed with cold calculation to grab and hold our attention, the ad breaks are indeed worthy of our attention.

Why? Well, for a start, know thy enemy. After all, one of the key objectives of advertising – and its co-conspirators, marketing and propaganda – is to side-line conscious resistance by arrowing in on unconscious triggers.

  • As an example, I sometimes participate in what is euphemistically called ‘neuro research’, whereby I am fitted with a skull cap and asked to watch an hour or so of TV. The cap measures brain activity, the idea being to monitor how I and others respond, neurologically, to certain stimuli. The paying client – usually an ad agency or major company1 – wants to better understand how and what we respond to, beyond matters of taste or culture. This kind of research is not only common but increasingly sophisticated. Combined with focus groups (in which I have also been paid to participate), brain mapping is delivering a vast trove of data and psycho-emotional insight to companies, political parties and others. The fact that they pay participants well for their time tells you there is a reasonable expectation of serious pay-off at the end of the process.

How else to explain what seems, on the face of it, to be the breathless triviality, relentless vacuity and blunt essentialisations so common in advertising? I mean, do they really think we’re that gullible? Erm, yeah, and they have mountains of research stretching back decades (all now augmented by advances in neuro-science) to back them up. Not to mention the fattened bottom lines, electoral victories and successful misinformation campaigns of their happy high-value clients. I believe the correct terminology here is…k-ching!                 

While poison world paranoiacs on the conspiracy bandwagon would have us believe this is a symptom of cancerous, central banking capitalism and/or imperialist mind control, they reckon without the input of the target market. Advertising does not exist in a corporate, cultural or creative vacuum, and any analysis or criticism of the industry and its methods needs to understand that the key component in all ad campaigns is us. Viewer, reader, clicker.

Granted, modern marketing mantras too easily lurch in a de-humanising (or de-individuating) mentality, in which people are reduced to lab rats in a glossy looking ‘buy/act/believe’ experiment.2 However, rather than merely recoil, insulted or revolted, we would be better served by tuning in. Commercial breaks, banner ads and billboards open a window for us to see our tribal selves; albeit in artfully designed pose. It is said that great art shows us what it is like to human. The same, I believe, may be said of ad art; though whether this makes it great or not might be a matter of taste.3

Much as we might regard ads as an airbrushed reality, when we delve deeper, we cannot help but notice the warts.

What we can say though is that the truth revealed in advertising makes many of us uncomfortable. It not only confronts cherished notions of individualism and conscious agency but undermines the denialist impulses of everyone from religious conservatives to leftist intellectuals. In ad land, the human animal is tribal, normative, acquisitive, fearful, envious, nostalgic, sentimental, sexually insecure, fooled by appearance, obsessed by status, easily led, frequently lazy, largely innumerate, befuddled and frightened by detail, lulled by the familiar, prone to peddlers of potions and miracles, readily spooked by doomsday scenarios, and keen to deny everything from aging to personal accountability.

Far from being misanthropic, ad creatives and marketing mavens are pitching to a raft of cognitive and perceptual biases we all exhibit, regardless of how clever we think we are. They have understood and accepted that although there are, as Abraham Lincoln suggested, ‘better angels of our nature’, we are far more likely to be stimulated to action or strong belief by less deliberative and unconscious mechanisms like emotion and heuristics.

So, when we cringe at ad campaigns that rehash gender and generational clichés, or rely on the tropes of nationalism, we are, in effect, appalled by what we see in the mirror. Likewise, for those irritating ’crazy discount barn’ commercials and the endless dating site, work-from home, sculpt your tits, grow your dick, invest in this, block this ad bullshit cluttering the internet.

There have been many realist traditions in art over the centuries, but few engage a realism as brutal and realpolitik as advertising. By leveraging our individual and collective fantasies and insecurities, advertising offers us the unique and beguiling spectacle of the ideal and the actual in concert. Much as we might regard ads as an airbrushed reality, when we delve deeper, we cannot help but notice the warts.

Point being – don’t look away. Don’t assume you’re immune. Become a savvy consumer. Notice how they are trying to pull your trigger. Unpack their promises, defuse their scare bombs. But most of all, don’t be smug. That brain numbingly stupid TVC is not only for your neighbour. It’s aimed at you. At all of us.4

Anyway, gotta go now. The ads are on.

1: After one such session I approached the young woman in charge and quizzed her about the rationale and objectives. She was obviously guarded, careful not to give away too much, but she did let me know that the research had nothing to do with the show we had watched (a saccharine, family drama called Packed To The Rafters) but rather the ads for the chain store brand sandwiched between the rafters. “It’s about colours,” she said, before handing me an envelope with a crisp hundred dollar bill tucked inside.    

2: Despite the current vogue in ad and marketing circles for tailored campaigns underscored by algorithms, influencers and click tracking, the industry’s motive and profit base remains in tight alignment with the financial, political and ideological objectives of their clients. They say they want to ‘personalise your experience’ but, let’s be frank, this is fantasy at best, if not bare faced deceit. You are not, and most likely will never be, fully human to them; the reasons for which are matters of practicality, efficiency and prudent cost/benefit assessment.        

3: To quote Banksy: “The thing I hate most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists.”

4: To stake out my credibility in this matter, I have worked in the media since 1992. Aside from article writing, making content for screen and opining on blogs like this, I have created copy and visuals for clients including government departments, record labels, charitable organisations, SMEs, music festivals, and dance companies. While true that my ad career has been less than spectacular, I can claim to have worked in many of the engine rooms of media and, as such, to have witnessed and actively participated in the creative chicanery of the industry. Smoke, mirrors, bells, whistles…you bet I’ve used ‘em.   

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