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The strange suspicion of advertising

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Thursday, Apr 30, 2009

In the NYT yesterday was a brief item about a meeting of the American Association of Advertising Agencies—which has decided, perhaps in part because of advertising’s growing unpopularity with consumers, to rebrand itself as 4A’s. The article quotes the president of 4A’s:


“Our business is still fighting for more respect in the public sphere,” Ms. Hill said. “The common perception of our business in the United States continues to be so negative for so many people.”


The belief that simply renaming something removes the underlying structural problems that afflict it is basically everything that is wrong with advertising in a nutshell: The main premise of the industry is that every conceivable goal can be accomplished entirely through reputation and perception management. And consequently, it tends to recognize only those goals that suit such a program, fixing superficiality as an ideal. The success of the industry hinges on how seductive it can make that ideal.


So is it any wonder that consumers are wary of it. The NYT article also mentions this Harris poll (also noted by Rob Walker) that reports that among those polled, two thirds believe that advertising and marketing share some of the blame for the current economic malaise, because they encouraged people to buy things they couldn’t afford. The coverage of the poll linked to above attempts to dismiss this finding as Americans playing the bad old Blame Game, but that doesn’t wash. (This might be the most ridiculous claim I’ve ever seen: “Now, thanks to television shows like Mad Men and Trust Me, [advertisers] are slightly more visible and they are an easy scapegoat.” So people dislike advertisers more now that they are glamorized in TV shows? And Americans are so myopic that they don’t know what an industry does, or that it even exists, until it’s depicted on a show?)


Sure, the advertising industry isn’t responsible in the same way Wall Street is (though one shouldn’t forget the aggressive marketing campaigns of lenders and mortgage brokers over the past decade), and neither are imprudent consumers buying what they can’t afford, for that matter. But what the poll gets at is the climate of irresponsibility that people felt to be palpable, a climate that derives directly from the ideology that marketing must by its nature disseminate: namely that whatever we are doing is inherently inadequate, that we need more, that we shouldn’t be too secure in ourselves because we don’t really control that all-important surface that we present to people, for which the evaluative criteria are always changing. We distrust advertising because we sense that it is stripping us of our ability to desire, that it entices us to outsource our own motivation (it is far more convenienet that way), leaving us as shadows of ourselves. We see that we are giving it all away to avoid the very sort of effort we should be striving to find opportunities to exert.

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