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Captive: how the ad industry pins us down


Brand ambition: getting closer to Gucci in Shanghai, China.

Belinda Lawley / Panos

Buddhism and Hinduism recommend it. A retreat from clamour, a wondrous detachment that allows the material world to float up, like a sloughed-off skin, for one’s dispassionate consideration. Whether they offer useful advice on re-engaging after this revelation, I don’t know. The first astronauts saw a floating world, too. It provoked suitably joined-up thoughts about its (and our) fragility and essential unity.

But there are other worlds. And the one that elbows itself to the front of our attention’s queue painstakingly creates surface and whips up froth. It’s the one that the 125 residents of Clark, Texas, signed up to in 2005 when they changed the name of their township to Dish in return for a decade’s free cable TV from the DISH Network. Hey, what’s in a name except a wacky corporate PR opportunity, right?

The bubbly, dazzling world of which Dish has become an emblem shows little sign of floating up for our inspection. If we inspect it nonetheless, it reveals itself to be firmly riveted down by that old culprit – disproportionate corporate power.

Advertising is a bit of a compulsive liar. In the early days it was quite bare-faced – the beverage giant, Dewar’s, claiming in the 1930s that their Scotch whiskey repelled colds and flu; cigarette brands claiming that they soothed the throat and helped asthma. Some of this still goes on. Quack cures are advertised in numerous Majority World countries. The half of all Mexican citizens who are overweight are pummelled daily on TV by products that promise to melt 10 centimetres off the waistline in two hours.

Repeat after me

Nowadays, regulatory bodies will see off many of the more obviously fraudulent claims.

But advertising is involved in soul fraud instead. If that sounds a bit deep, just stay with me a while.

Advertising today has little to do with introducing a new product or describing an existing one’s virtues. It has everything to do with images, dreams and emotions; stuff we are evolutionarily programmed to engage with but which is, almost without exception in the ad biz, fake. Imagine how much attention you would pay if there were just text and no images. When ads for Sprite (owned by Coca-Cola) proclaimed: ‘Image is nothing, thirst is everything’, they were reassuring people that they were right to be distrustful, while building up images of honesty and straight talk, using professional basketball players to push the product. Sprite jumped several notches up the soft-drink rankings; moolah was minted. Image was everything, even if it was purporting to be an anti-image. Amid the visual clutter, advertising – the chief agent of the mess – has to jump out at us. It must trigger off associations, however tangential, that will keep our attention. Endless repetition through media channels should build up a handy cloud of associations. According to one industry executive: ‘In the context of most advertising, particularly passively consumed media like television and cinema, learning is incidental, not deliberate. This is why people tell you they are not influenced by advertising. They are not actively trying to take anything away from the experience, and therefore are not influenced at that time; but the effects will show up later, long after a particular viewing experience is forgotten.’^1^

Much effort is expended upon trying to sink boreholes into the vast iceberg of the subconscious mind, probably because the products being flogged are in reality just variations on the same old same old. A recent buzzword is ‘neuromarketing’. Neuroscientists and psychiatrists are searching for the buy-button in the brain. This involves putting subjects into brain-scanning machinery and pitching concepts and images at them to see which ones make the lights flash. In one experiment, subjects were made to blind-taste Pepsi and Coke. Pepsi scored higher in terms of response in the ventral putamen, the part of the brain associated with feelings of reward – ie, most thought Pepsi tasted better. But when the subjects were informed which drink was Coke before they tried it, their medial prefrontal cortexes lit up. This is an area of the brain believed to control cognition. Most now said they preferred Coke. So just the name had prompted memories and brand nostalgia which influenced the taste of the stuff.^2^ One might question the validity of using expensive hospital equipment and highly trained medical professionals to explain choices of fizzy drinks with no nutritional value whatsoever – but that would be to get a bit real.

The good news is that all this dubious effort is just as likely to fail as it is to succeed. If an ad can latch on to the emotion of a winning goal in a football match or the tears and triumphs of Pop Idol, then there’s a good chance it will do the trick. Much else is trial and error. Focus groups assembled to pretest the vibe are notoriously unreliable as they can be suggestible and become dominated by loudmouths.

Anxieties of influence

One might well ask: so what? So what if silly money (for an indication of just how much, see column below) pushes the usual goods/junk, if I can still make an informed choice about what I buy?

Well, maybe... But how would you react if all this were seeping into the very pores of the culture you’re part of – and changing it? Mass advertising is about brands with the most money behind them pushing to the top. Smaller companies with less of this fluff-muscle don’t always survive.

More perniciously, corporate giants try every trick in the book to control our media channels. Much of the mainstream media exists to sell audiences to advertisers. Newspapers aren’t profitable based on sales alone. The missing factor is ad money. It’s their lifeblood. Teen magazines (especially those aimed at girls) are little more than catalogues for products – and that’s the content. The profile of the chubby hero who saved a life is usually tucked away at the end. Here’s what an agency representing Coca-Cola demanded in a letter to magazines: ‘We believe that positive and upbeat editorial provides a compatible environment in which to communicate the brand’s message... We consider the following subjects to be inappropriate and require that our ads are not placed adjacent to articles discussing the following issues: Hard News; Sex related issues; Drugs (Prescription or Illegal); Medicine (eg chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, AIDS, etc); Health (eg mental or physical conditions); Negative Diet Information (eg bulimia, anorexia, quick weight loss, etc); Food; Political issues; Environmental issues; Articles containing vulgar language; Religion.’^3^ So, not much chance of a mention of the intimidation of union workers in Coke’s Colombian plant, or of the charges of water pollution in India, then (read more at ).

If anyone still thought they were watching ‘the news’ on CNN, anchor Jack Cafferty’s on-air views might disabuse them: ‘We are not here as a public service. We’re here to make money. We sell advertising, and we do it on the premise that people are going to watch. If you don’t cover the miners because you want to do a story about a debt crisis in Brazil at the time everybody else is covering the miners, then Citibank calls up and says, “You know what? We’re not renewing the commercial contract.” I mean, it’s a business.’^4^ In the US, one study found that 40 per cent of the ‘news’ content of a typical newspaper originated in press releases, story memos and suggestions from PR companies.

Hungry for cool

More subtle is the cultural shift wrought in the media – light, non-political television programming that contributes to a ‘buying mood’; magazines filled with little nuggets of ‘instant gratification’; serious newspapers that insert lengthy travel and fashion sections for no obvious reason. So much happiness, so unbearable. Advertising consistently portrays ‘lifestyles’ that are beyond the reach of all but the wealthy. This is somehow viewed as ‘apolitical’. Yet charities’ ads calling for dropping Southern debt or opposing cruelty to animals often fall foul of regulators or media ad-sales teams for being ‘too political’.

As a child I loved the ads before the movie. They were zippy and bright. I found the varied angles they took before the ‘Ta-dahhh!’ moment when the product was plugged ingenious. I still find the creative energy that goes into them intriguing, but feel tired by their consistently conservative values and know better about the social, economic and environmental issues behind the products they push. I also feel fed up by the sheer volume of the glitzy deluge. Corporate advertisers know this fed up feeling all too well and have responded with marketing moves that look less like traditional advertising but seep more than ever into our lives. The upshot is that everything gets branded, logo-ed or sponsored. Supermarkets that shaft farmers sponsor children’s play areas and school computers. Children are employed to hand out freebies to other kids and talk them up (‘peer marketing’). Conspicuous charity abounds, trying to make the brand look more benign – for example, Ronald McDonald House offers accommodation to families with sick children. Product placement sneaks into movies, TV shows, computer games and even novels. Our email and cell phones are bombarded. Most websites would collapse without revenue from ads that get ever more lively and mysterious.

With traditional advertising showing diminishing returns, corporations get into all sorts of contortions. The apparel company Diesel ran a multimillion-dollar campaign contrasting clothing ads with scenes of hardship in North Korea; Benetton notoriously used the image of a man dying of AIDS to push its duds. Wow, just feel that edge!

Ever wondered where that urge to shop when you’re feeling a bit down comes from?

A certain amount of advertising is probably unavoidable – indeed, countries that curb it often flood mental spaces with political propaganda instead. But the worldview the ad biz pushes is so out of touch with real life that it can mess up our heads. Ever wondered where that urge to shop when you’re feeling a bit down comes from? Or how our desire for social change or rebellion gets transformed into speed, sex, indulgence and living for the moment? Why is so much of our culture about dictating taste (the tyrannies of ‘cool’) and transforming it into want? Why are disadvantaged groups (be they dark-skinned, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, you name it) so absent from this trendy world, unless they are being fetishized by niche marketing?

With the deluge comes avoidance. Ungrateful wretches that we are, we try to block out as much as we can. TV advertising is in crisis. Ad guru Lord Saatchi thinks young people nowadays have ‘continual partial attention’ – the kind of brain that’s constantly sifting but records little. His answer is for companies to strive for ‘one-word equity’ to fit this goldfish attention span – Be^TM^, Live^TM^, Buy^TM^, anyone?

This dizziness is reflected in the philosophical musings of Maurice Lévy, top honcho of advertising giant Publicis: ‘Consumers do not want only to be given an astonishingly wide-ranging choice. They want that choice to be renewed at intervals that are always shorter. This is the reason why we have to redefine our very notion of time. What we have to deal with is not only change, but an acceleration of change itself. Not only transformations, but the transformation of transformations: it will be a real challenge to make fidelity out of inconstancy.’^4^

He doesn’t stop to ponder how his work is all about creating this blur of inconstancy. Advertising’s influence is being implicated in eating, compulsive and attention-deficit disorders. In the Majority World the big brand steamroller is intent on creating Westernized aspirational cultures often at odds with local cultures. If we are to free identity from consumerism, reality checks are our strongest weapon. If struck by an ad, it’s useful to measure how much of it is actually telling you something about the product and how much is image. Brands are eager that you identify with them, make them a part of your lives – deny them that privilege. Independent media (like the *NI* and, yes, this is a shameless plug) can give us all the dirt we need to chuck at corporate ad lies. Thinking before we buy, and buying nothing – especially when irrational urges prompt us to do otherwise – are bound to punch a few holes. The idea of our world and its public spaces as shared commons is becoming increasingly visible. Streets are being reclaimed by ‘citizen artists’ redrawing ads to reveal their subterfuges, and by social movements gathering to protest government by corporations.

There’s quite a bit of ad-industry nervousness as brands come under attack and marketing tactics backfire. Could the industry one day start to tell us things we actually want to know? The distorting mirror will need to shatter first before a floating world comes into view.

*Recommended reading*
Jean Kilbourne, _Can’t Buy My Love_, Touchstone, New York, 1999 – social critique of what advertising does to our feelings.
Naomi Klein, _No Logo_, Flamingo, London, 2000 – comprehensive anti-brand treatise.
Gloria Steinem, ‘Sex, Lies, and Advertising’ – classic 1990 essay, available here.
Amaranta Wright, _Ripped & Torn_, Ebury Press, London, 2006 edition – ‘cool hunter’ for Levi’s sees the light.

*Web resources:*
Feisty analysis of ad trends.
US group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.
Center for Media and Democracy on the interface between politics and advertising.

See also other websites mentioned elsewhere in this edition.

  1. Erik du Plessis, _The Advertised Mind_, Kogan Page, London, 2005.
  2. Clive Thompson, ‘There’s a sucker born in every medial prefrontal cortex’ in _The New York Times_, 26 October 2003.
  3. James Ledbetter, ‘New Coke Order’, 14 April 1998, www.fair.org/index.php?page=2731
  4. Alex Benady, ‘Maurice Lévy: The Napoleon of advertising’ in _The Independent_, 31 May 2006.

Top global marketers

(ad spend, 2004)

  By Company $ millions


Proctor & Gamble



General Motors















Time Warner






Johnson & Johnson






Walt Disney






Altria Group























  By Country $ billions


























South Korea








Total official world aid in 2004 amounted to $79 billion.

Total world expenditure on advertising in 2005 was $570 billion. In 1970 it had been $140 billion.

Sources: _Advertising Age_, The Worldwatch Institute, _Vital Signs 2006-2007_.

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