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The big sell

The less attention we pay to advertising, the more it succeeds

By Will Self   June 2012

A Saatchi-designed poster for Castlemaine XXXX lager in 1991, when “the big, creative ad lumbered through the world”

When I was in my mid-teens I went to stay with my American uncle who, following a pioneering triple-heart bypass operation (he was always an early-adopter, for reasons that will soon become clear), had retired to Montserrat in the Caribbean. There are lots of things I still recall about that month in the intense sun—the sulphurous fumaroles on the top of the island, ones that years later were to erupt to such devastating effect; the red hair and dark faces of the kids at the two-room primary school where I helped out for a while; the deepening aquamarine of the water inside the reef that I obsessively snorkelled through, awed by the billiard-table-sized rays, and often shadowed by a lone barracuda in the mid-distance (an entity I cannot imagine I’d exhibit such sangfroid towards nowadays).

But what I remember most about Montserrat—and not only remember passively, but often actively recall—are the jingles for Radio Antilles and an advert that was frequently aired on the station. The jingle was a small masterpiece of the art that began low down and soulful with a solo voice: “Got a feelin’ deep inside/ It ain’t somethin’ I can hide…” before swelling to a great gospel-choir conclusion: “Feel the spirit, feel it! Feel the spirit of the Car-i-bbean! Radio Antilles, the big R-A!” Just typing these words almost 40 years later brings a happy smile to my lips—altogether devoid of irony. But then there’s the advert, which was for the brand of cigarettes my uncle—despite his recent extreme arterial re-plumbing—still smoked by the carton, and packets of which I frequently purloined so as to covertly smoke one in a lush tropical covert. The advert took the form of a little playlet:

SMALL BOY: Daddy, why do you smoke State Express 555s?

FATHER: I smoke them, son, because they’re the taste of success.

SMALL BOY: Daddy, when I grow up I’m gonna smoke State Express 555s.

FATHER: You do that, son.

Outrageous, no? Surpassing outrageous, in fact, more like flatly unbelievable—and yet it was so. I know it, not because I came to some years later when the anti-smoking drive had picked up speed and thought, wow!, that was one hell of an unethical advertisement, but because even at the time I realised it was distinctly beyond the pale. Indeed, I have been retelling that little piece of shameless indoctrination year in, year out ever since. Nowadays, when I recite it for my youngest son, who is ten, it actually seems rather less outrageous and simply wreathed in the wispy blue-grey quaintness of the past.

The curious thing about the moral valency of this State Express 555 advert was that already, by the age of 15 or so, I was a serious smoker, and there’s no doubt in my mind that cigarette advertising had played its part in convincing me that smoking was cool. Indeed, I can envision the cigarette advertisements of the early 70s—and, more especially, the pack designs—better than I can any other commercial information from subsequent decades. Yet while being fully persuaded of the virtues of the product (both qua product, and the merits of various brands in respect of each other), I nonetheless was already perfectly aware of both how damaging cigarette smoking was, and how specious advertisers’ claims for it were. This would have been in the mid-1970s, when cigarette advertising—apart from loose tobacco and cigars—had already been banned on British television for a decade.

Cigarettes are an interesting phenomenon when it comes to the history of advertising and an understanding of its contemporary impact. There is simply no comparable example of a product remaining widely available, in a range of many different brands, while its advertisement has been almost completely banned. That cigarette smoking has declined is undeniable, but if this could be attributed to the restriction of advertising alone it would be a powerful confirmation of the model on which most advertising has traditionally been based: that of effective persuasion. Of course, we would also—if such a bizarre analysis were remotely possible—have to assay the impact of anti-cigarette advertising in all its forms: government health warnings, public information films, etc, etc. That young people continue to embrace the habit cannot any longer be a function of their being rationally convinced that the benefits outweigh the downsides, as there is absolutely no one, either corporately or even individually (with the possible exception of David Hockney), who’s prepared to make that case.

In his book Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising, Robert Heath writes persuasively about the reasons for the longevity of the Marlboro cowboy in the British popular subconscious. Despite the cowboy only appearing in a billboard campaign that ran for three months in 1974 (and then only in the background of an image predominantly of steers moiling in dust), Heath discovered that his students of advanced advertising theory at the University of Bath, born between 1989 and 1991, could still instantly recognise the eponymous puffer on the range. Heath deduces several factors that led to the Marlboro cowboy riding on across our psychic terrain: first there was the very publicity that surrounded the banning of the cowboy, then there was the way Philip Morris (the cigarettes’ manufacturer) continued to suggest the cowboy’s presence for three years after the initial ban by showing fences with saddles on them, or spurs lying by barn doors, together with the slogan “Welcome to Marlboro Country.” Heath goes further, arguing that the separate elements of the Marlboro cowboy’s image—ruggedness, toughness, machismo—had long been absorbed by the collective subconscious, and hence could be readily triggered in potential consumers by images as glancing and allusive as the “red rooftop” packaging symbol that remained on Ferrari Formula 1 cars until 2008.

Heath’s book is far more persuasive than any advertisement, no matter how top-loaded the latter may be with accurate information. His basic thesis is that far from advertising persuading consumers to buy a product at all, or favour one brand over another, it largely works by creating emotive associations. His is an alternative history of the progress of advertising towards its current state of psychological sophistication, one that largely discounts the conscious efforts of Madison Avenue’s so-called “mad men” (and their British Charlotte Street counterparts) in favour of what he terms their ability to “subconsciously seduce.” His thesis depends on a lengthy journey through cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, and a firm grasp on how—so far as we know—the human mind actually does work (rather than how we would like it to work). But the slug lines are clear enough. Firstly, chuck out that Cartesian “thinking I” once and for all, and accept that self-consciousness is more like the monitor of the computer-mind rather than its central processor. And secondly, advertising succeeds more the less we pay attention to it.


That’s right: the less we pay attention to it. When I began thinking about the subject of this article I sat there for a while in a warm glow of satisfaction thinking about how it was that—apart from the aforementioned State Express 555 advert on Radio Antilles—I could barely recall, unprompted, any adverts, let alone ones currently running on TV, radio, and web page, or plastered on the billboards ranged around Vauxhall Cross where I live. Was it, I considered, my innate resistance to late capitalism in all its manifestations—a socialism that I concede is rather more emotive than it is practical—that made me such salted earth for advertisers’ broadcasting? Or was it possibly that over the years I had become more and more detached from the commercial zeitgeist, its steady go-round of innovation, promotion and obsolescence? After all, I don’t drive a car, fly only when I have to and have worn the same style of clothes for years. My mobile phone is a decade old—my computer over five. I spend a good part of each day simply declining to have new software added to it by its wonky internet connection. And while I’m not exactly the Unabomber—yet—I am seriously considering a ten-year-programme that will, once all my children have left home and are self-sufficient, leave me peacefully “off-grid.”

Then I pondered the matter more and felt still more pleased with myself, because it occurred to me that while I do indeed have a visceral antipathy to advertising of all forms, born of being the child of bien pensant left-wingers, I nonetheless also care about it, am interested in it, and when—in the past—I’ve seen an advert I admire for its pizzazz and chutzpah, I think I have the honesty to admit this. Why wouldn’t this be so? For advertising is also in my blood. State Express 555-smoking Uncle Bob was one of the original mad men himself: creative director of the huge US ad agency Leo Burnett and latterly senior vice-president of D’Arcy McManus Masius, Bob took a part in the creation of the Pillsbury Doughboy, one of the most successful branding exercises of all time. When I was a kid my mother spoke in hushed tones of going to Bob’s office on Madison Avenue and finding him at a desk in front of no fewer than four televisions, all on, and all tuned to different networks.

I never spoke to Bob much about the industry—he’d retired by the time I was worthy of his attention. But he did once tell me about making a TV advert for the Ford Thunderbird in the 1960s, the action of which consisted in a driver being boxed in on the freeway, but then planting his foot on the gas so that the car sprouted wings and started flying over the traffic in front. This being in the days before computer-generated imagery (CGI), the way they contrived to make this happen was to, well, make it happen: the car had actual wings, that actually unfolded, and it was winched off the road by a very real helicopter. There was only one problem: the actress playing the driver’s passenger became increasingly agitated as the day’s shoot wore on—with all the predictable glitches—so that instead of appearing thrilled in the rushes, she looked terrified. Bob’s great solution to this problem was to dose her heavily with Scotch: “It was costing us two million to make the goddamn ad,” he growled. “I couldn’t let her louse it up.”

It’s the collision between this sort of can-do will to power and a more cerebral approach to selling that the US TV series Mad Men captures so well: Don Draper is the creative maverick who spools out ideas that grab—or so it’s hoped—the attention of clients and their consumers alike, but the character I rather prefer is Bert Cooper, the eccentric, goatee-toting founding partner of the Sterling Cooper agency, who is obsessed by Japanese culture and the writings of Ayn Rand, and who often comes out with gnomic but compelling statements that suggest it is he who truly intuits the nature of the relationship between advertising and sales. John Wanamaker, the American industrialist, is quoted by Robert Heath as saying: “Half of my advertising is wasted, but I don’t know which half.” I suspect that Bert Cooper would know which half was wasted, and also that he’d know it wasn’t the half that seemed salient.

Heath tells us that “advertisers may think their creativity makes us like ads more and pay more attention to them,” but that in fact the opposite is the case: “the more advertisers attempt to subconsciously seduce us with creativity, the more we like it, the less we feel threatened by it, and the less attention we feel we need to pay to it. So the more creative advertising is, the less attention we pay, and the less well we recall the message it is trying to get over.” You might’ve thought this would be the death knell for all, not just half, of conventional advertising, but on the contrary Heath demonstrates quite clearly—at least to my satisfaction—that it is precisely when we pay no conscious attention to advertising that advertisers can get to work on our subconscious with complete effectiveness.

This is not, Heath hastens to add, because they are using sinister subliminal techniques, the so-called “hidden persuaders” identified by Vance Packard in his 1957 book of the same name. Heath points out that the evidence of subliminal techniques working at all was nonexistent, and really the whole furore about them missed the point: the subconscious “persuaders” in advertising are those that appeal to our emotions rather than our reason. There’s no rational basis as to why we should visit a website for a car insurance comparison quotation on the basis of a cuddly-looking meerkat’s linguistic confusion—and yet we do. Advertising makes us feel good about things—and the purchasing of them—by associating these with other things that we like unequivocally. Back in the 1980s, when Thatcherism was beginning to chomp its way through British culture, there may have been revulsion at the way traditional lifestyles were being chewed up and spat out, but there was also a sheer exhilaration in the business of consumption itself that had never really been felt before.

This exhilaration was evident in a whole swathe of advertisements that not only exalted products and services, but simultaneously ironised their own exaltation. Again, Heath points out that an advertiser that pokes fun at its own product is perceived by the consumer as so confident in its worth that it can afford to do so (after all, that’s how we interpret such behaviour at an interpersonal level). If you like, British consumer capitalism took such ironic confidence to new—and very creative—heights in the late 1980s and into the 90s. In many ways the British advertising of this period was probably the best in the world. (The iconic Carlsberg advert created by Saatchi & Saatchi actually first ran in 1973—and was voiced by Orson Welles no less—but I think it fair to say it was the shape of things to come, and not just in lager but politics as well).


So, thinking on my inability to summon up campaigns more recent than those iconic ones of a quarter-century ago, and wondering whether it was me or it, I started paying a bit more attention to contemporary TV advertising, only to discover myself massively underwhelmed. Indeed, at the time of writing I find it hard to summon up any memory of what I’ve seen in the past month or so, excepting this aperçu: that eBay, Ikea and at least one mobile phone company seem to feel that the distinguishing—and sexy—characteristic of modern life is a sort of flat-pack concept, whereby the protagonists of their ads move seamlessly from one interior to another. Err… that’s it. When I put it to friends that contemporary advertising was pretty creatively uninteresting, they agreed, and surprisingly—to me at least—they seemed instinctively to know why, being hip both to Robert Heath’s subconscious seduction theory, and, more instrumentally, to the reorganisation of the advertising industry that presaged, although by no means anticipated, the impact of the web.

In his book The Daily You: How the New Advertising is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth, Joseph Turow gives a sharp insight into the way the advertising industry was organisationally primed to take advantage of the web by the hiving off of media buying from other agency functions. In the days of the mad men, media buying was done in house—think of the bespectacled Harold Crane, frustrated short story writer and creator of the Sterling Cooper TV department—but in the 1970s and 80s British agencies started hiving off this function in order to make it possible for them to represent clients with similar products while, apparently, minimising conflicts of interest. Media buying was seen as a dull and functional task compared to the Don Draper style creative flights, but in a world of subconscious seduction the placement and ubiquity of advertising becomes far more important than its actual articulated message. Moreover, advertising space and airtime buyers always depended for their efficacy—or so they would tell clients—on quantifying metrics that somehow demonstrated just how much a given advert would be seen in a given medium. This put them—not the creatives—in pole position when it came to exploiting the potential of the new internet-based media.

Turow’s thesis boils down to this: the “click” that we make when we select a link on a webpage was the biggest gift to advertisers since the invention of moveable type. It enabled the market research departments of advertising media buyers to cement for the first time the connection between the message and the product. True, display advertising in new media is still very much the poor relation of network broadcasting despite the damage the web is inflicting on good old moveable type. But then it hasn’t been display advertising as traditionally understood that’s enabled Facebook to offer its shares for sale with a company valuation of £59bn, oh no. What’s enabled that is the simple and often mindless “click,” which Turow follows on its vermiculation through virtual space, hollowing out a wholly new and commercially exploitable realm.

Back in the 1980s and 90s when an advertiser wanted to reach new prospects through either advertising or marketing, they would approach a list broker, who would come up with computerised lists of suitable prospects according to income, geographical area, demography—even previous purchasing history. But now the click and the cookie that registers our search histories do all this for them by feeding back such information automatically as we sleepwalk our way through the shiny, happy world of the web. Above-the-line advertising no longer needs to be creatively cutting-edge, because the dull and insensate electronics beneath our fingertips ensures that clever and unscrupulous capitalists know everything about our purchasing habits required to flog us either more of the same, or more of the similar.

Turow paints in pixels a landscape in which there are advertising haves and have-nots, in which when you go on to this or that page—whether it be a commercial site, or even that of a thoughtful politics and current affairs periodical—it knows you’re coming and adjusts its banner advertising, its pop-up idents, its sponsored links and all the other bangs and whistles, so that they’re tailored to you precisely. You can imagine Ken Clarke logging on to the Telegraph web site and immediately being offered a banner advert for Hush Puppies, a link to a cigar store and a ticket offer for Ronnie Scott’s. By contrast, it’s already the case that if you’re on a low income you may not receive any of these blandishments at all, or those that you do will be for economy, Aldi-style offers. I’m not sure this bothers me that much—it’s only the logical extension of the matrix of economic reality being projected into the virtual realm. But what does seem troubling is that if you splice together what Heath and Turow say, you end up with a world where you can be perfectly attuned to the sell in all its forms: someone who by no means considers himself to be a materialist—indeed, is barely aware of purchasing products on the basis of their brand at all—and yet is nonetheless stealthily and effectively sold to all the time.

Ads on petrol pumps, ads on TVs in the back of cabs, ads on smartphones—and, that particular killer app, product placement. Back in those halcyon days of Maurice and Charles Saatchi, the big, clever, creative ad lumbered through the world—it could hug you to death, certainly, but you could see it coming. Now, in the latest movie schlockerdämmerung, Avengers Assemble—which I had the misfortune to doze through with my aforementioned ten year old this weekend—a Motorola phone or a Toyota car just happen to be picked out by the eye from the CGI maelstrom of disintegrating New York. Heath observes that product placement—which has recently become permitted for the first time on British TV—is so insidious because we think of characters in soaps as our friends and neighbours, so their imbibing of this drink or slapping on of that unguent stands as a personal recommendation. I’m not sure that I want to use the same phone as my new—but undoubtedly fast—friend the Iron Man, but what I wouldn’t mind is his colossal turn of speed, because that’s what’s needed if I’m going to out-swim the silent barracuda of advertising which loiters lazily in the periphery of my vision, seemingly innocuous but actually quietly replete—because it’s already taken a big bite out of me. Uncle Bob would, no doubt, approve.

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