April 27, 2012Are ad men as bad as the Nazis?

I recently crashed and burned with a girl when I explained what I do for a living. As I’m used to socialising in the East London media bubble, it came as a shock to me to find that some people consider my profession to be on a par with lawyers, estate agents, and politicians: in short, that I lie for a living.

OK, so I’m not a doctor or a nurse, but she thought I was out and out evil.

It’s an accusation that’s been thrown at the advertising industry by critics since the dawn of time and, incredibly, is still going on today, as this recent Guardian article demanding the banning of all outdoor advertising demonstrates.

It states:

Adverts are not there to inform but to sell one thing: unhappiness. They work because they make us dissatisfied with what we’ve got or what we look like. They make us want the next new thing, until of course the next new thing comes along. They help sow the seeds of mental illness, insecurity, humiliation, debt, brand bullying at school and, through the remorseless use of resources they inspire, they threaten the planet.

It is an attack from the hard left:

A ban would be aesthetically, culturally and environmentally right. But it’s what it says about us that matters too. It would be a sign of collective and democratic power over the market.

Make no mistake, the author is putting across a collectivist, i.e. socialist, argument — evil capitalists are exploiting the workers through advertising, making them unhappy and making them believe the way to happiness is to buy shiny new things.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that repressive and totalitarian socialist regimes also use propaganda to maintain control and dominate their subjects and consider if there’s any truth in the old lie:

Are ad men as bad as the Nazis?

This view has been espoused, jokingly, on Mad Men several times (see Peggy’s boyfriend, or Don’s claim that Sterling Cooper has “more failed artists than the Third Reich”). Don would disagree with The Guardian critic’s view that advertising aims to instill unhappiness. He argues —

“Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”

Don is a good creative director because he understands the way to people’s wallets is through their hearts — that creating a positive emotional connection between individual and brand is essential to making the sale, something I have written extensively about here.

However a cynic would argue that Don only uses this technique because it works. Advertising is entirely results driven — and if fear worked, he would use it. Consider the way cigarettes are ‘un-sold’ these days: we use fear of lung cancer to promote anti-smoking campaigns.

This echoes what Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis Minister for Propaganda, said:

“Propaganda is good when it leads to success, and is bad which fails to achieve the desired result… it is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success.”

By the way, did you know the Nazis came up with the very first anti-smoking campaign? Clearly, they understood the power of fear — and so do we.

So is advertising evil or amoral?

It’s my view that advertising simply is. Only the product is good or bad.

Advertising is a request for your time, a pitch, a suggestion you are free to ignore. I am bombarded with advertising for women’s pantyliners on the Tube every day and yet I have never felt the need to go out and buy a pack.

In short, if I want or need the product, I will consider your pitch. Otherwise I will simply switch off.

99% of the time, advertising is at its best when it both informs and entertains and creates a connection with the reader. Ad people have other tools (such as fear) at their disposal, but who buys a product out of fear? The rare occasions where fear is used in advertising it is generally used to positive effect: stop smoking… don’t drink and drive… et cetera.

But we’re still not getting to the heart of the matter: rebutting the claim that advertising is simply the propaganda techniques invented and refined by totalitarian states such as the Nazis and USSR and re-purposed for capitalist uses.

Let’s contrast and compare.

Three Nazi Propaganda Techniques Still Used Today

1. “The Big Lie”

Hitler argued that the best lies are ones so colossal that no-one could believe the liar “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” In other words, the bigger the lie, the more it is believed.

We still use this technique. Although the Advertising Standards Agency prevents outright lies, messages such as eternal youth and “turning back the clock” are endemic in the beauty industry. “If you buy this, you will look younger, you will look hotter’ etc. No product has ever actually prevented ageing. Yet in this myth we persist, and we buy cosmetics by the bucketload.

But no-one is forcing us to.

2. “Triumph of the Will” and other TV ads

The Nazis were the first people to understand the power of the moving image for propaganda purposes. Their film “Triumph of the Will” is considered a seminal work because many of the techniques it uses such as musical accompaniment and cutaways are still staples of advertising today.

Similarly, the despicable and outrageous film “The Eternal Jew” paints a false picture of the Jewish people, presenting their living quarters as unhygenic and even interspersing footage of a nest of rats to get the point across. Disgusting, but effective.

In capitalist society, the technique is reversed. Show a picture of the product. Cut away to happy, smiling, perfect people using the product. Of course most modern ads are more subtle than this but the message is clear. If you buy this, it will make you happy. In other words, every ad ultimately makes a promise it can’t promise to keep.

But we know we are being sold something, and we make informed choices.

3. “Propaganda vs culture,” or the relationship between advertising and art.

Goebbels understood that propaganda was more than a mere race to the bottom, was more than catchy slogans and lowest-common-denominator films. It was essential to include all strata of society and to ensnare people who were too smart to believe the ridiculous lies espoused by such films as “The Eternal Jew”.

Think you’re too smart for advertising just because you’ve got a TIVO and skip through the ads, or laugh cynically at billboards and claim they have no effect on you? You’re not.

In addition to celebrity endorsement, catchy slogans, and tabloid journalism, the Nazis appealed to intellectuals in the form of apparently reasoned and rational arguments in the broadsheets and even opera, appropriating the music of Wagner for their cause.

Today, advertising adopts a similar technique by associating itself with things you find “cool” — from underground music (remember Apple’s early iPod campaigns?) to internet memes. Yes, Success Kid is now selling broadband.

But sometimes (see Success Kid), this technique simply doesn’t work.

In conclusion: advertising is the free instrument of a free people in a free state

  • Advertising is clearly good “when it works”. Most of the time, it works when it sides with us and makes us feel better about our lives. However, like propaganda, it is also good when it instills fear — such as the best anti-smoking campaigns. Fear can be good.
  • While there may be some similarities between the advertising industry of today and the propaganda machines of evil empires past, fortunately, in a capitalist society, it’s incredibly hard to see advertising as a force for evil. Products can be evil, but never ads.
  • No, I don’t believe that £30 tub of moisturiser will give me the secret to eternal youth, but I’m not so blind as to believe it will. Advertising presents a point of view to us and asks us to make a choice. It doesn’t tell us what to do. Repressive states tell us what to do. L’Oreal does not.

Adverts are persuasive techniques used in a free society. You are free to ignore them.

They are one side of an argument in a society of free choice.

Propaganda is the instrument of totalitarian repression used by fascist states.

It’s a shame that The Guardian’s critic can’t seem to see the difference. It’s even more of a shame that the girl I met at that party seemed to think I was the ideological inheritor of Joseph Goebbels and the Third Reich.

I hope this article goes some way to proving them both wrong. Accusing advertising of being evil because it makes people buy stuff is like accusing dessert spoons of being evil because they make people fat.

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