Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Ad Nauseam (2018)

A 1956 7-Up ad,
From the November 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
We look at the world of advertising, how it has changed over time, and what it shows about how capitalism operates.
In 1957 the American journalist Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders, an examination of the US advertising industry. One aspect he emphasised was the role of psychology in determining what the advertising message would be, with motivation research aiming to discover what drove people to make particular choices, whether it was packaging, image, celebrity endorsement, or whatever. For consumers are often ‘loyal’ to a product, even when they cannot tell it apart from its competitors. In a 1981 epilogue to a later edition, he looked at social developments that had influenced the way advertisers worked, with a reduction in family size, more single people and a growth in sexual permissiveness among the factors affecting consumption and hence advertising. But it was still a matter of working out people’s motivations for purchases and tapping into those. Most beer ads, for instance, sold companionship rather than beer.

Since Packard was writing, there have of course been massive changes in how advertising operates, with ads now being almost everywhere, rather than just found in newspapers, TV and street posters. In particular, the proliferation of online ads has had a major impact, not just on the advertising industry, but on how all of us as consumers are targeted. Technology and supercomputers have taken over much of the role of psychology in efforts to study and predict how people will behave. One of the crucial considerations is that of the dwell time, the time a user spends looking at an ad, especially one online. Clicking on a link and then almost immediately going on to another page means the dwell time, and presumably the impact of the content, of the first link are minimal.

There are even claims for the efficacy of advertising in public toilets and those in shopping centres, restaurants, pubs and so on. Dwell times are impressive: on average a man spends 55 seconds looking at an ad above a urinal, and ads can be targeted to the desired gender (washroomadvertising.co.uk).

The UK is the largest advertising market in Europe, with expenditure of over £21bn in 2016. The US is of course globally the largest market, with $197bn spent in 2017. Advertising supposedly ‘adds £120bn to UK GDP by raising the level of economic activity and boosting productivity’ (thecreativeindustries.co.uk). Many workers in industries such as music and animation are employed in advertising, which means they are forced to contribute to selling things rather than doing anything truly creative.

The Advertising Association brings together agencies and brands to, among other things, show the value of advertising to politicians and others. It runs a campaign Front Foot, designed to ‘advocate advertising’s beneficial and responsible contribution to the economy, to society and to people’ (adassoc.org.uk). It is not clear if this alleged contribution includes the visits of arms companies to schools, where they promote their brands and may get children to play with a missile simulator (Observer 1 September).

On the ‘other’ side, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Committee of Advertising Practice are there to keep UK advertising ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’. For instance, a recent Tui ad for a summer holiday that could only be taken in September or October was banned, despite the company claiming that their summer holiday period ran until the end of October.

In September there was an almighty fuss when a Nike ad featured Colin Kaepernick, the American footballer who had caused controversy and lost playing contracts after he knelt rather than stood during the playing of the US national anthem, in a protest about racial injustice. Trump said that Nike were sending ‘a terrible message’, but it seems to have benefited their sales rather than harmed them.

It is often said that the best ad is the one that doesn’t look like an ad. Thus Instagram influencers, as they are known, can push products such as teeth whiteners, without declaring that they are paid to endorse them. More generally, social media are awash with product placement and more subtle ways of influencing people’s behaviour, and the line between advertising and publicity is often extremely blurred. The use of ad-blockers on the internet can reduce or even eliminate the annoying ads that appear on many web pages. Newspapers such as the Guardian have got round this by offering pages of ‘paid content’ that still bring in revenue.

In many cases TV ads are repeated over and over in fairly short proximity: this appears particularly to be the case with cosmetic products such as perfume, shampoo and toothpaste, where what is being sold is essentially an image rather than a product. In fact what is marketed, in this and other cases, is a brand, the kind of development described in Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Packard noted that in 1950s America some cosmetics companies were spending a quarter of their income on advertising and promotion, and he quoted one tycoon as saying, ‘We don’t sell lipstick, we buy customers’ (he described this person as ‘probably mythical’, but it does not seem at all an unlikely thing to say).

In socialism there would presumably be what might be termed public-service announcements, such as reminding people to have a flu jab; giving warnings of strong winds or heavy rain; and informing people of new books, films and other products. But the onslaught of ways of getting us to buy, with its total waste of resources and human ingenuity, will be a thing of the past.
Paul Bennett

Exhibition Review: ‘Peace and Plenty? Oldham and the First World War’ (2018)

Oldham Victory Celebrations, by John Armitage (1919)
Exhibition Review from the November 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

About fifteen thousand men from Oldham (Owdhamites) fought in the First World War, and over 2,600 of them were killed, with the highest number of deaths on a single day being on the first day of the Gallipoli campaign. This is the background to an exhibition at Gallery Oldham, on until the middle of January, which contains many contemporary posters, cartoons, photos and other mementoes.

Many of those who joined up went into two local regiments, the Oldham Territorials and the Oldham Pals. At first there was little difficulty in obtaining volunteers, and the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 was used as an opportunity for recruitment. Supporters of the war, such as the local suffragette Annie Kenney, spoke enthusiastically in its favour, while attempts to hold anti-war meetings often resulted in violence, such as the sacking of an Independent Labour Party office in the town in August 1917.

Those who stayed in Oldham encountered problems with food shortages, especially of sugar and potatoes, with long queues at shops and markets and claims of profiteering. Women took over much of the work previously done by men, in engineering works, for instance. Loans from workers were used to finance the war effort, and Oldham was among the towns presented with a tank as thanks for this. The tanks were displayed locally, and many of those that survived until the Second World War were used as scrap.

And was it indeed peace and plenty when the war was over? For one thing, over six hundred Owdhamites died in the 1918 flu epidemic. In June 1919, cotton workers went on strike for three weeks and won a reduction of the working week to 48 hours (which meant they could eat their breakfast at home, rather than at the mill). Before the war, Oldham had been the world’s leading cotton town. After the war there was a short-lived speculative boom in the cotton industry, but this did not last, and unemployment grew in the 1920s and even more so in the 1930s. So Oldham, like other places, was in no way part of a ‘fit country for heroes’, as Lloyd George claimed.
Paul Bennett

Material World: Power Saws – Safety and Profit (2012)

The Material World Column from the October 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Power saws (and other power tools) are widely used by people who work with wood, whether in employment, as students or at home as a hobby. They are very powerful and also very dangerous machines, responsible for tens of thousands of hand injuries a year in the US alone. Especially at risk are youngsters new to the workplace. It is estimated that 4,000 cases a year require the amputation of mangled fingers, or sometimes the whole hand. The nervous and circulatory systems may suffer permanent damage.

Stopping the saw
In 1999 a physicist and amateur woodworker by the name of Stephen Gass invented a safety device designed to stop a saw blade within milliseconds of penetrating human flesh, before the cut goes any deeper than 3 millimetres. There is still pain, and plenty of blood, but no serious injury. The sudden drop in the electrical signal upon contact triggers the release of a spring, pushing a piece of aluminum or plastic into the teeth of the blade to stop it spinning.

In 2000 Gass displayed a prototype of his device under the brand name SawStop at the International Woodworking Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair in Atlanta, Georgia. His demonstrations of how it worked, using a hot dog in place of a human finger, attracted considerable attention.

Next Gass registered a series of patents on various versions of SawStop and tried to persuade the big power tool companies to license them. He was disappointed by their reluctance to do so. They offered various excuses, some more convincing than others. Their main objections – surprise, surprise! – were to do with money. Retooling assembly lines would cost them tens of millions of dollars. Firms would have to charge higher prices for products incorporating the device, and that would weaken their competitive position. They did not believe that most customers would willingly pay more for safety.

A get-rich scheme
In April 2003 Gass petitioned the Consumer Producer Safety Commission to make an emergency brake obligatory for all table power saws. While he framed his case in terms of ethics and the public interest, his opponents viewed the petition as a get-rich scheme. He had comprehensively patented the SawStop concept: any competing devices based on the same concept would infringe his patents. And no one had any alternative concept. Gass was claiming the rights of a monopolist. If he had his way, every table saw would have to be equipped with his device and he would receive license fees amounting to 8 percent of the wholesale cost of all the saws sold. If preventing avoidable injuries was his overriding concern, why had he not placed his patents in the public domain?

In 2005 Gass and his associates established SawStop as a company – “the world’s leading maker of safe 10-inch table saws” (www.sawstop.com). It has found a market niche, but the makers of unsafe saws remain in business and hands continue to be mangled.

This story shows how the workings of capitalism and its patents system can impede a socially useful technological innovation, delaying its introduction by several years and restricting its scope. The outcome might have been worse. If one of the major power tool companies had bought up SawStop or its patents, the new safety device could have been suppressed altogether for decades (see my article “Patents: capitalism versus technological advance” in Socialist Standard, February 2007).

Safety doesn’t sell
The story also raises the issue of the relative priority given to safety in designing not only power tools but many other products. According to conventional economics, it is consumers who ultimately make such decisions through the use they choose to make of their (very unequal) purchasing power. In fact, producer firms actively shape consumer behaviour through manipulative advertising. 

Although marketers admit that safety considerations may influence some consumers, on the whole they are guided by the maxim that “safety doesn’t sell”. Young people in particular are disinclined to think about safety, even though they tend to be the group at greatest risk, whether as users of power tools or as drivers of cars.

Keen skiers, car racers or do-it-yourself enthusiasts may also prefer not to dwell upon the dangers to which their pastime exposes them. Perversely, they may turn away from safety-oriented advertising because it reminds them of those dangers. Or they may react to such advertising not by buying the safer product on offer but by giving up the dangerous activity altogether. Potential first-time buyers may be discouraged from even starting. These outcomes are not exactly what the advertiser was hoping to achieve!

A special situation arises when power tools, for example, are purchased not by hobbyists as consumer goods but by employers as capital equipment to be operated by hired labour. A few decent employers may sincerely care about the safety of their workers, but in general capitalists seek to maximize profit. That means they will pay more for safety only insofar as they are forced to bear medical and other costs associated with injuries – through workers’ compensation, for instance.

In a socialist society, producers will be motivated by an inner need to do the best they can for other members of the community, including those who are going to use the things they make. Safety will undoubtedly be one of their top priorities.