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Unfinished Business › “Lies and Lying Liars Who Tell Them” or Why Advertising Is the One Who Should Apologize
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“Lies and Lying Liars Who Tell Them” or Why Advertising Is the One Who Should Apologize

We are in eager anticipation of a visit to Toronto next week from Adrian Ho, who started Zeus Jones with a bunch of folks who left then hot shop ad firm Fallon, which had rocketed from Minneapolis to the NYC indy bigs with a bullet in the early 2000’s (Fallon is now a global agency owned by Publicis).

My friend Matt Milan told me about Adrian and the Zeus gang a while back, said some intriguing stuff about the concept of “marketing as a service” (which I understood to be an idea about how to devise advertising-like communications and campaigns that created value for all it touched rather than merely extracting value from its “targets”).

The interwebs have been pretty hot just lately over the “future of advertising” (again!). A vitriolic piece by Peter Merholz not only got him in hot water with friends, enemies and a few clients, but even with some of his own Adaptive colleagues (there are now 115 comments on the post, much heat on it on Twitter and another 20+ comments on a follow up piece he wrote). Personally, I think Peter didn’t go far enough in his broadside against the industry.

The substantial claims in Peter’s piece were that we should be worried and mistrustful of the involvement of advertising folk in “user experience design” since that “discipline” relies on empathy, a trait which is, Peter believes, anathema to advertising as a practice. His ultimate charge is that “advertising, as it is widely practiced, is an inherently unethical and, frankly, poisonous endeavor that sees people as sheep to be manipulated, that vaunts style over substance, and deems success to be winning awards”.

Personally, I think the only claim here that advertising folk have any hope of defending against is that their practice may not be inherently unethical. (Peter has made crystal clear that he did not mean that all people who work in the trade are per se unethical and even apologized for giving offence).

Is advertising inherently unethical? That’s a really mucky philosophical swamp, and with way too much graduate education in philosophy I finally know better than to get lured into that morass of intellectual oneupmanship.

I’d like to back a different horse in this race: I think that advertising is simply dangerous. Not evil, not universally repugnant, but dangerous.

Personally, I think that on a good day the advertising industry merely helps the purveyors of goods and services of dubious merit sell more than they would otherwise. And herein lies the first source of the danger of advertising: it is effective. Not always, of course, but it is now very well established and understood that the various and sundry techniques of advertising do persuade us to act as we might not otherwise. The question becomes, do the actions that it engenders do more harm or good and should anybody care? I do not want to go too far with my own view here, but I think it’s a stretch for the industry itself see itself as simply benign. If it is convincing that on the whole advertising does more harm than good AND that it is effective, then we start to see the corner of the problem.

As far as I know, advertising does not have a professional ethic analagous to the Hippocratic oath of medicine, the oaths that lawyers and accountants (OK, stop laughing up there in the cheap seats!) must take, and others that are common in professions where we as a society have agreed that there is a social trust. Now it is true that a great many jurisdictions have laws that prohibit the telling of lies in advertising, so-called “false advertising”. But I know of no publicly established explicit or implicit promise on the part of the advertising industry that it will not willingly, knowingly and deliberately refrain from manipulating the decisions of the people it is “aimed” at. Certainly I don’t know of any such standard (notice this dependent clause) that people find credible.

Advertising is by and large, I think, a business of lies. We can call them “white lies”, lies with no consequences, fantasy, aspirational blah, blah, blah, etc., but lies by any other name still smell like advertising to me. Now this could be a hard claim to defend, unless we held advertising to a standard that required that it do some good. I don’t mean that it should be morally good in either its intent of effect, but that it should at least add some real value to those who pay for it: and WE ALL PAY FOR IT. Advertising claims more attention, directly or indirectly, than do many, many other things that might better or more productively occupy us (imagine the boost in cognitive surplus if we turned all the advertising off!). This is the second danger advertising poses: it wastes our time.

So, I’d ask those in the pro-advertising seats a simple question: what do you think advertising is good for? what does it deliver that we need, that is valuable and that you can be proud of producing? Personally I find defenses like Rory Sutherland’s clever and funny argument for intangible value unpersuasive.

Now, it could be argued that many industries might falter on such standards. And that’s probably true in many cases, but that’s also a red herring. Advertising has an disproportionate influence on our public culture, our society, our economy and our selves. It’s different in many ways, including the fact that it has become a virtually ubiquitous part of our built and lived environment. Just try to go 5 mins, let alone a whole day, without encountering any advertising. This is the third danger of advertising: it is inescapable.

I think that advertising is dangerous: I think that it gives has us worshiping false idols and gives us false hope, that it tells lies about quality and value, and that it helps support an economy that well functioning markets would otherwise punish.

You may not believe these things. Or you may think that advertising is not long for this world. Consider the pithy phrase a recent Fast Company article attributes to Jon Bond (wish I’d said it first): “Marketing in the future is like sex. Only the losers will have to pay for it.”

Notwithstanding the artful turn of phrase, I do not share Bond’s optimism. I think there’s more advertising than ever (though the whiners of the ad business claim there’s less and less and that it just doesn’t pay what it use to) and I worry that there’s much more on the way.

Advertising is the junk food of our attention span. We are seduced by the sweetness of its aspirational voices and excited by the salty sexiness of its inuendos.

A while back I was talking about innovation to someone who had just moved from Pepsi Co to its corporate sister, Frito-Lay. After a while I couldn’t resist being clever and provocative and I said: “so, essentially, you are in the business of selling salt and sugar at scale”? He was not impressed OR amused. He replied, in all earnest seriousness: “Actually, that’s not how we think about it. We like to say that we are in the enjoyment business.” And that, my good friends, is as clear a diagnosis of what’s wrong and dangerous about advertising as anything I could ever hope to argue or invent.

We know that as junk food has become pervasive and ubiquitous in many people’s diets that it has started to produce a dangerous disease: obesity. The pandemic of obesity is now as real (and as often denied, I expect) as global warming.

Advertising is, if anything, more pervasive and ubiquitous for even more of us. What to call the disease that it is producing in our consciousness? How about for now, we just call in CONSUMPTION.

It is often argued that its not the delicious cakes that are to blame for my being fat (actually, I’m not that fat, but I sure do LOVE cake) and that’s fair comment. We, all of us, must decide whether we think this diet we are on is OK or not. And then we must decide what we want to do about it.

Advertising folks need to be more honest with themselves and others. To those sanctimonious defenders of advertising: folks, c’mon…you are McDonald’s and Smith & Wesson. I’m not saying you should be Save the Children, but maybe its time to save yourselves?

A while back a colleague said something to me that has troubled me and defined my own professional struggle ever since. He said that those of us who sell our creativity and ingenuity to business (consultants, marketers, ad men & women) are part of an intellectual arms trade. We make and sell the weapons that allow businesses to make and meet their “targets”. Not that everything we do is bad or tainted, but we do work with explosives, combustibles and projectiles. Our tools are sharp and they cut both ways.

I don’t say say any of this to advertising folk to be holier than thou. I’m as much a sinner as anyone and unlikely to ever be a saint. But for us the “arms dealers” of the business world, we’ve all at least gotta stop pretending we are not part of what’s wrong with the global economy and that our collateral damage are mere externalities.

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