ADVERTISING ― The Subtle Poison
By NICHOLAS MILLS
Advertising has become one of the worst plagues of English modern life .... this fungoid growth of advertising has done evil beyond anything which our fathers have imagined. Undoubtedly it is the strongest of the forces which have so degraded our Press. The Press cannot print, even where it should so desire (and being itself in the hands of monopolists it does not so desire to print), any truth which the great advertisers desire to have suppressed. And that is why our field of vision ― even on the most urgent public affairs, grows narrower and narrower.
― Hilaire Belloc
ADVERTISEMENTS are a feature of modern life and are an essential part in any fair sized company's marketing strategy. Indeed, billions of pounds a year are spent in the UK alone on advertisements and revenue generated from TV commercials is sufficient to maintain two channels. Why, though, are there billions spent on ads when everywhere industry is striving to cut its costs? The answer is that the capitalist must, at whatever cost, persuade the consumer to buy his product. It is here that the issue of advertising raises moral objections.
The capitalist justifies the vast amounts spent on advertising by correctly claiming that the consumer must be aware of the various products available to him in order to make a fair choice of what to purchase. However, an advert goes further than just product description. The ad is presented in such a way as to make the product desirable, not just for what it is, but for some associated emotional spin-off.
It might seem unfair to criticise the capitalist for wanting to persuade the consumer to buy his product. Of course it is quite natural for him to want his product to be purchased in preference to that of a competitor. Thus the capitalist's motive appears reasonable enough: an ad presents his product to the scrutinising eye of the consumer who then compares it with a similar article and then decides which of them to buy. It comes as somewhat of a surprise then that an ad does not just give a favourable product description. Capitalists prefer to call in psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists and behavioural experts to design the ad and put it in 'presentable' form. Why rely on these experts who are normally associated with curing the mentally sick? Simply because these students of the human mind are best equipped to be able to present the product to appeal most to our needs. Frequently they design an ad to appeal to more than just our needs. It is invariably the case that extensive research is carried out into the emotional state of potential buyers and that the products are presented in such a way to satisfy some hidden desire or quell some inner fear. Ads directed at mothers often suggest using that particular product will make her loved by her family.
The point to be recognised is that the ad man's acknowledged target is the subconscious mind. It is at the frustrations, fears, desires and irrationalities of the inner man that the ad man directs his message.
Examining one particular ad will illustrate the point more clearly. In the early 1950's the cancer risk associated with smoking became widely known. Cigarette sales fell quite dramatically as, of course, did the profits of the tobacco companies. The industry's capitalist bosses quickly called in the requisite team of behavioural experts in order to counter the cancer 'scare'. Without doubt the most successful company is Marlboro. The mind experts called in by that company reasoned that the only way to tackle the cancer scare was to appeal to the 'macho' instinct in man. It was thought that if a real he-man, bursting with virility and strength, was presented as a smoker the sissy she-man with an eye to health could project himself into the image and thereby shrug off the cancer scare. The approach worked and cigarette sales rose, as did the tobacco companies' profits, and, of course, the number of people with cancer. All told then, quite a success for the capitalist.
Advertisers also have an educational function. Of course this does not refer to them passing on their skills at sub-conscious manipulation to adults but rather to employing them against young children in order to prepare them for life in consumer land. This is easier than dealing with adults. The ad man, preying on the sub-conscious weaknesses of an adult, must be hawk-eyed indeed to strike home successfully. When the intended victim is a young child the process of persuasion is easier. A kiddy's needs are easier to identify than an adult's. Also, given the lack of intellectual sophistication in children the mind is easier to mould and act upon.
One common technique employed in kiddies' ads is to present adults in a foolish light. A young child is shown outwitting an adult, thus allowing him to live put the fantasy of role reversal. A recent fruit gum ad showed kids outsmarting dad and tieing him to a totem pole.
Thus the ads aimed at children have two effects. They inplant a desire in the young mind which only mum or dad's cash will be able to satisfy. They also train the youngster in consumer skills, enkindling within the young mind 'product consciousness' which manifests itself as the ability to differentiate between, say, a Golden Wonder crisp and a Walkers one.
What then is the goal of the advertisers? How sophisticated does the capitalist wish the advertiser to become? It is feasible that, one day the techniques of persuasion will have become so exact that virtually at will ad men can persuade consumers to buy their particular product? Just how far off is the capitalist's dream of the zombie in consumer land? Clearly giant strides have been taken in that direction. However, it must be borne in mind that the consumer will never actually realise he or she is being manipulated,
Daily the media and politicians assure us that we are free men living in the free West. Indeed, the notion that we are free is drummed into us from the earliest age. Political leaders of all persuasion's make constant reference to freedom. Margaret Thatcher's 'freedom' speech in Berlin was rendered all the more poignant by having, been made with WW2 as a backdrop. Here where the 'free' West borders on 'unfree' East, our Prime Minister proclaimed our freedom to the world. (Does our 'freedom' imply that the millions of unemployed chose to be so?)
It is with these assurances of freedom buzzing in the head that the consumer faces the ad man. To answer the question raised earlier then, it is to be assumed that the advertiser will gain ever-more control over the consumer and become more sophisticated in his techniques. The consumer's unquestioning belief that he is free will keep him unfree and act as a sort of 'iron curtain' in the mind to prevent his reason recognising that advertisements are a cynical method of engineering behaviour.
One last point to consider is who is actually involved in the advertising world besides the behaviour experts. Well, when an advertising campaign is being decided on the whole board of a company will generally meet to discuss the merits of the various suggested approaches. Now members of company boards are usually prestige figures. All companies like to have MP's, current and ex, on their boards. Of course, it is MP's who proclaim most loudly that we are free.
The immorality of the capitalist mass advertising campaign is plain. The involvement of the politicians of the old regime, those that shout most loudly that we are free, is clear. It will be up to a future National Front government to ensure that all attempts at sub-conscious manipulation are banned.