Advertising is everywhere around us – at every sports game, every nine and a half minutes on television and (even more often) on radio, on the backs and sides of buses, on parking-meters (as if their daylight robbery weren’t enough), on zillions of T-shirts and tops, on every page of any women’s magazine, and even as Decals on bodies at the beach. The literally billions of dollars poured into advertising each year is based on the absolute certainty that words and images do affect us, no matter how clever we think we are.
All advertising is about getting us to buy something that we do not need or want. Indeed we might claim that a proverbial 95 percent of all that we buy, we do not actually need. This is one of the primary illnesses of capitalism. Capitalism is driven by three factors: consumption, expansion and exploitation. Advertising is particularly interested in consumption and expansion. They want ever-increasing markets, and they want us to use and to use up their goods.
People within the media will usually say that no, the real purpose of advertising is to disseminate information. But they are obliged to say that. Advertising funds the media, and no media personnel want to bite the hand that feeds. We know that they are incorrect because whatever ‘information’ we do get a) is still designed to get us to buy that product or service, and b) is lopsided to indicate only the ‘positive’ informational attributes. No part of Telecom’s advertising informs us of the potentially harmful side-effects of so much electro-magnetic waves bombarding us, nor does it advertise the social cost of creating a generation of communicatively handicapped moron with the antisocial habit of crashing into other pedestrians whom they are not observing. (Only Vodafone uses the antisocial nature of telecommunications as an advertising selling-point, as a positive.) Real information is not what advertising is about.
Advertising starts with the imperative of creating a sense of dissatisfaction when none is there. A woman is struggling to vacuum in a tight corner (because she can not be bothered moving the pot-plant), a woman is struggling on the floor with a dozen cleaners and scrubbers (anyone ever seen that happen?), a woman is struggling to put some clothing into a front-loading washing-machine (because she is too obscenely fat or stupid to bend her knees). They must convince us of the existence of a problem, even though we may never have experienced such a problem. They must then convince us that they have the product or service which will deal with this problem which we have just been convinced that we have.
One of the many ingredients of the great advertising con is the use of science and its related mumbo-jumbo. The actor in the white clinical coat is still one of the favourite cons of the industry. So is the ‘doctor’ who supports the product. (Let us not forget that with half a million doctors around, you will always be able to find at least one who supports your hair-brained product!) We are aware of the partisan ‘information’ given to us in the form of quasi-scientific adverts such as the allegedly impartial nature of ‘Brand Power Facts and Value, of Wendy Meyer’s ‘Better Living’ series of adverts (for Glad’s environmentally unfriendly plastic items), of Marnie Oberer’s ‘Eating Well’ which simply advertises certain brands of muesli and yoghurt, or of Jude Dobson’s ‘Family Health Diary’ which supports the corrupt supplement industry.
Products, we are told, contain ‘sphagnum’, ‘dichlofenac’, ‘phyto K’ or ‘glucosamine’, even though no one has any idea of what they are or of what they do. But there is a certain security in scientific terms. What is next – ‘contains oxygen dihydride’? Sure, if you like water! Until very recently, no one in this country even knew what a ‘phillie’ or ‘Philadelphia’ was, but that did not stop the advertising of them, with capsicum flavour and the like, because people will buy them if they think that they should know what they are. The beverage ‘Fresh Up Energy’ is advertised as having “acai and guarana”. Well, we have all eventually come to terms with guarana, even though many people still do not know what it is; but what the hell is ‘acai’? No one knows, but we think, ‘I should buy this, because I do not know what it is – so it must be good for me… and let’s face it, the industry is not going to deceive me, are they?!’ True, while we have come to accept Omega 3, already that is simply not enough: we have to have “Omega 3 DHA.”, whatever the hell the difference is – but Nurture Gold wants us to infer that our babies will be worse off if we do not get this ‘DHA’ form for them, and only their product has it! Further, what on earth is this new face-cream which is described as ‘non-comedogenic’? It literally means ‘not producing a revelry-poet’, but we may be sure that that is not what the manufacturers meant. Whatever it is, it sounds so impressive that we all must make sure that we never, under any circumstance, use anything which is ‘comedogenic’… as all of our other product patently are! O my god, not to stop there, Derma Genesis contains pro-xylane and hyaluronic acid, and, according to the manufacturers, “everybody’s talking about it.” Has anyone heard anyone talking about them… ever? As far as we know, they might be no more than extract of dog-piss and turkey-vomit. (In fact, they simply mean a saturated hydrocarbon derived from wood, and an acid formed from urine and glass.) The latest is, of course, ‘pre-biotics’; but a ‘pre-biotic’ only means ‘pertaining to that which occurs before life’, not, we may be assured, what they are used to mean. ‘Pro-biotics’ is equally as silly! But the mere uttering of the new-fangled, chemical words is enough to seduce. No pre- or pro-biotic has ever been proven to be of use to anyone. Forget these ‘probiotic’ yoghurts that supposedly redress the bacterial imbalance in the colon: the whole thing is a myth from beginning to end, but doesn’t the word sound cute?
Then, of course, there is the language of statistics, either direct or implied. Products are ‘ninety-nine percent fat-free’. This actually means ‘one percent fat’; but a vast amount of products have minimal fat in them with no problem at all, other than for the neurotic calorie-conscious. ‘Fat-free’ is more impressive than ‘fat’, but ‘ninety-nine percent’ will outdo and has a far better emotive value than ‘one percent’ any day. We are told that Panadol cures head-aches “two times faster” or that a dish-washing liquid gets items “eight times cleaner”. If an ordinary pill cures a head-ache in five minutes and a second does so in four minutes thirty seconds, “faster” means thirty seconds; therefore “two times faster” means one minute, not two and a half, which is the implication. Without knowing the initial baseline and the term of reference for the comparison, it is meaningless. “Eight times cleaner” is even more ridiculous. How do they evaluate the first differential of ‘one times cleaner’?
We observe the pseudo-statistics of the meat advertising industry in which we noted that their “eat red meat at least five times a week and you will feel better for it” justifies the advert because the word ‘feel’ is used, while ‘…be better for it’ would have been contrary to fact. But the industry knows that the public does not make such subtle distinctions: we will readily substitute one phrase for the other because we make the false assumption that in a ‘free-press’ society no one is going to lie openly to us through any of the medium’s outlets, even through commercial advertising.
The industry is very skilled at making the negative sound positive. We may take, for example, the regular ‘off-loaded shipment’ sales or ‘liquidation’ sales which offer “up to eighty-three percent off”, which sounds remarkable. What this disguises is that if the company were to be selling these rugs, etc. at no profit whatsoever, which is highly unlikely, then the original price (on which we are saving this eighty-three percent) was itself a more than a four hundred and eighty-eight percent mark-up! Godfreys advertise four hundred dollar vacuum-cleaners for ninety-nine dollars; if they are still making at least twenty-five percent on the item, the original mark up was four hundred percent. And, of course, we get those endless rug sales with “ninety percent off”. The greater amount that we save on a sale, the more overpriced the item was to begin with.
The food industry, of course, is notorious for its fraudulent representation. For example, Nestlé has a breakfast product called Cheerios, which it attempts to advertise as being healthy for us because it contains four grains – corn, oats, rice and wheat. However, a passing glance at the product shows that each piece of it is annular, in a ring shape. How many natural grains naturally occur in such a shape? None! It immediately alerts us to the fact that once again this is little more than processed foods which are simply called ‘natural’ when they are not. The law only requires that products indicate what is in them, not how they got there.
Worse, we get Australian products like Bam! household cleaner using “the coin test”, where they dip a copper coin into their product and it comes up supposedly shinier. In fact, it is not ‘shinier’; it is clean, but dull. However, any competent numismatist recognises the con: sulphamic acid (a parallel of sulphuric acid), something which we are never supposed to apply to metals, for while it has a passing cosmetic utility, you either decay the metal rapidly by using the product a few times and no more, or decay it slowly when the acid deteriorates the metal over time and indeed requires that in order to deal with the constant slipping back into discolouration, we must continue to use the product. The product’s habit of causing metal decay on your household products is packaged as a beneficial ‘shine’.
This last fraud is based on our neurosis over cleanliness. Dettol, Protex and Palmolive all have their disinfectant soaps, and use the hysteria of sick children to push these dangerous items. I say dangerous because we forget that being too clean is actually bad for us, as we build up no resistance to infections: our children will become sicker in the end! Similarly, toothbrush manufacturers want us to replace our brushes with a new, firmer one every season: but hard brushes are bad for the gums and scratch the teeth – medium brushes are better!
Currently, the four largest consumers of advertising time-slots are banks, car manufacturers and dealers, cellphone and Internet providers, and cosmetics suppliers. Not one of these groups could be accused of selling us honesty. The former two deal with industries which are directly involved in a social vulnerability (that of housing, of personal financial security and of transport) while the latter two deal with those of personal vulnerability (that of image and of social acceptance). The former two are so well ingrained in the nation’s mind-set that they even form a part of our periodic assessment of the affluence of our society – yes, in evaluating our affluence statisticians will take note of how many cars we own and buy! And the latter two are so ingrained in our collective sense of personal attractiveness that extraordinary latitude is given to them to come out with any nonsense that they like (including the latest extract du jour of some curious plant or fruit – ‘You too can have ageless skin with our new extract of Senegalese m’guanamumu berries and natural lepto-xyloxyphenylane!’) in order to get us to subscribe to their product and never query the legitimacy of the market itself.
New Zealand has one of the highest rates, if not the highest rate, of cellphone ownership in the world and this directly parallels our high rate of motor vehicle ownership. Our sense of terror at a potential lack of immediate mobility, both physically and communicatively, have made us willing suckers for the industries’ promotions. Our sense of terror at a potential lack of appropriate image, in accommodation, in the pretence of affluence and in physical appearance, have made us an easy target. For this reason, techno-fanatic suckers literally queue up in sleeping-bags overnight to be the first to own the latest Apple iPhone: life is a shallow shell without it!
New Zealanders suffer from an ailment which I have chosen to call ‘acquired delusional schizophrenia’ (ADS) – and it is very exploitable! It works on a simple premiss: if you can not be filthy rich, for god’s sake at least look as if you are! (We noted that during the 2008-9 recession, women spent 30 percent more on cosmetics to avoid looking poor. At exactly the same time, movie attendance was up by 16 percent as we indulged in activities which detracted us from the reality of our financial predicament.) The schizophrenia is based on the avoidance of the recognition that the life which we are often compelled to live is at odds with the life which we envisage that we should be living; and so we create a delusion to live the image rather than the reality. It is the delusion which makes people buy items from overpriced specialty stores rather than from supermarkets, because supermarkets are ‘common’ – or if it is at a supermarket, one will buy a Venerdi loaf of bread for $7.25 (yes, that much!), rather than an ordinary loaf for a dollar eighty. It is the delusion which claims that no breakfast is complete without the grilled avocado and camembert on delicatessen rye, because no self-respecting person eats – what’s that word I am looking for? – that’s right, porridge! As one ex-flatmate remarked, ‘Porridge! Isn’t that what those poor, Glaswegian, working-class people eat?’ It is the delusion which makes people spend more money per annum on cosmetics than on health-care or on their children’s education.
And because this ADS is completely about image and pretence, the image-based advertising industry is right into it. After all, we all want to look like something that essentially were are not, don’t we?! Every month there is a new Avon or L’Oréal product or the like, “guaranteed to fight the seven signs of aging,” whatever they are; or some new hair shampoo, “guaranteed to make it shine,” which is actually a sign of bad hair! (We all know this, but we love anything that ‘shines’.) How many brands of lipstick do we need to plaster images of artificiality across our faces?! And because of this ADS we all want a new car when the one we have works fine and will easily last us another fifteen years; but it is a great model because the shape of the headlights is different from last year’s model which we coveted almost as much (and our rival colleague at work only has last year’s model, so what I can not excel at in the office I can excel at on the road). Image is everything, supported by want, and the reality, supported by need, is irrelevant.
Almost all advertising is based on pandering to this “delusion”, and by its appropriate placement within the media, the media itself gives it a credibility which it does not deserve. For example, the adverts which require the greatest credulity on our part are conveniently placed during and immediately after the news and current events programmes. Somehow, we believe, an advertisement must be truer if it is placed within a news time-slot. An advert’ based on some supposèd ‘new discovery’ will always go down better when accompanying an investigative section of a current-affairs programme.
These are no accidents. The advertising department of the television and radio stations will actively hunt out advertising which best ‘suits’ the items being aired. Thus an item on road safety will have as one of its adverts a motor vehicle which ‘conveniently’ has been “judged the safest in its class”. An advert on how supposedly healthy MacDonald’s really is will immediately follow an item on the evils of the fast-food industry. An item on hospital waiting-lists will have an advert on a company offering a new medical insurance, which “even covers private hospital treatment” – what a coincidence! Prime TV approached the distributors of Cialis for their anti-erectile-dysfunction advert’ to be played during a documentary on penis size! Of course, it is no surprise that during the various afternoon talkback shows, the domain of the undervalued housewife, we find the endless cosmetics promotions.
In advertising, a guaranteed increase in sales is not even always the objective. To promote the advertising industry itself, they have convinced businesses that ‘brand health’ and ‘brand likeability’ are at least as important as sales. But this is a fallacy, for if ‘health’ and ‘likeability’ do not translate into sales at some point, all that the businesses end up with are warm, fuzzy feelings that cost them a lot of money. If knowing that the All Blacks are sponsored by Adidas does not lead us to buy Adidas, then what is the point when we end up buying Nike instead?
For this reason, the principle that even a bad advert’ is a good advert’ if you remember the name, is equally fallacious; for this reason, adverts will frequently have a backlash effect. We can say, ‘Yes, I do remember Fresh Up – they made that atrocious “Fresh yourself up with a Fresh Up, yeah” advertisement, and I am not going to buy their product, it was so bad!’ People were actually turned off buying the product. When the Velform ‘New Today’ skin-care product was advertised, its key ingredient, allantoin, was pronounced by the voice-over as allatonin. While we get to ridicule this stupidity, how does it encourage us to have confidence in the company which manufactures it, who, having vetted the advert’ after its completion, were apparently none the wiser concerning their own product? (Let us not forget the incompetence of Thin Lizzy’s advertising first a facial cremé, then a cremè, when they really meant crème. What confidence does this create?) Anti-depression advertising makes truly depressed people more depressed. Anti-drink-driving adverts raise our level of indignation and, therefore, of bravado and do not encourage the real problem people not to drive under the influence. Anti-smoking advertising is counterproductive: every time a smoker sees one of those adverts, what is the first thing that they do? They light up! It actually encourages smoking; that is to say that it does not encourage more people to smoke, but it does encourage smokers to smoke more!
The flooding of the market with advertising is based on the Coke-versus-Pepsi fallacy. These two world-famous companies have spent billions on advertising, under the assumption that if you see lots of young, attractive people having endless fun, you will associate your desire for similar fun with the product to which they are attached. But there is nothing scientific to support this. All supposèd research into this arena has been done by the advertising industry itself. While it may be true that an advert for Coca-Cola may encourage a level of thirst (Pavlovian experiments are not without merit), there is nothing to support the notion that that thirst must be satiated with a Coke. By the time that you get to the local dairy, you will be making decisions based on other criteria, such as varieties, taste preference and price. It only seems to work if the response is immediate, if thirty seconds after seeing a Pepsi advert you are at the movie counter and you ask, ‘I would like a… (what?…) Pepsi.’ In most purchasing circumstances this does not apply.
But because so much of our modern world is based on advertising, both in its direct input into the expense of the item and in its relation to sponsorship, we are more than willing to believe what is at best nonsense and at worst fraudulent.