Friday, February 9, 2024

The Battle for Your Mind (2001)

From the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
Does happiness reside in a bottle of perfume? Is your only concern the sweat under your arms? We take a look at the world of advertising
In 1969 the American Association of Advertising Agencies estimated that approximately 1,600 advertisements were aimed at each individual every day. That may seem a ridiculous number at first but the individual is not aware of most of them. The average person is likely to take momentarily notice of about 60 to 80 commercials a day with only 10 to 13 making a conscious impression. The number of advertisements hitting each individual today is certainly higher. You can now find advertisements regularly covering taxis, buses, toilets, envelopes, phone boxes and golf balls. In order to maintain sanity amongst this constant bombardment each individual has to erect a sort of sensory screen that can detect the oncoming signal and reject it.

On rare occasions advertisements are clever, entertaining and creative. Advertisements of this variety are few and far between, but they do exist and it would be incorrect to say that all advertising is “bad”. However, success in advertising is dependent upon the ability to manipulate the emotions, thoughts, and intelligence of the target audience to achieve the desired reaction—to get them to buy your product or service over that of your competitors. Typically, ads concern themselves with fantasy; a constructed world usually beyond the reach of our everyday experiences. They offer a vision of a world where happiness resides in a bottle of perfume, where your only concern is the sweat under your arms, and where a a low calorie drink could change your life (as part of a well-balanced diet of course).

Advertising has conditioned generations to accept it as an inescapable part of the landscape, as ubiquitous as night and day. There was a time, however, when advertising was widely considered an unwanted distraction. For example, editors initially thought ads were an intrusion upon the reader and would segregate all the adverts to the back of their magazine where they were out of the way.

The roots of mass advertising lie in magazines and took off over 100 years ago when industries began producing vast amounts of consumer goods. Since broadcasting didn’t exist and newspapers were largely local, magazines were the only national advertising medium. The fact that you could produce high quality colour graphics on heavy paper, unlike newspapers, meant that magazines were much favoured by advertisers.

As soon as advertising revenue became important, at around 1890, ad agencies insisted that ads be moved from the back of magazines to the front. Inevitably, it wasn’t long before major advertisers were demanding that their ads appear opposite the opening pages of major articles. But it didn’t end there. Editors were soon selecting articles based not only on the basis of their expected interest to its readers but for their influence of advertisements.

As mass advertising grew, “liberal” and “radical” ideas in editorials became a problem. So did serious articles. A reader in an analytical frame of mind was unlikely to be enthusiastic about an advertisement for a trivial product. An article about genuine social suffering would certainly interrupt the “buying mood”. What was the solution? Easy, change the content. Better still, just fill the publication with material that will attract the readership the advertisers want. Before television emerged in the 1950’s, successful magazines were 65 percent ads. By that time, most magazines were fundamentally designed for advertising rather than editorial matter (see Vogue, Talk, Here’s Health, etc). Pick any random magazine off the newsagent’s shelf today and you’ll have a tough time trying to spot the difference between an article and an advertisement. Compare the differences between the styles, content and ideas. Most of the material claiming to be an “article” is in fact product promotion. Some writers call this “fluff”, a term used to describe material which is not news in any real sense but is non-advertising material supporting advertisers (see promotion sections in Vogue, Marie Claire, Woman’s Own, Muscle and Fitness, etc). Advertsiers want “fluff”, to create a buying mood.

One of the best examples to demonstrate the level of influence major advertisers now have over the contents of magazines is Vogue magazine. The January 2001 issue totalled 186 pages. Of those 186 pages, 87 were full-page ads. (In the first 66 pages there are 50 full-page ads.) Another 21 pages could be described as “fluff”, product promotion. The first “article” comes in at page 33. 17 pages consist of travel, food and horoscope sections. That leaves 61 pages out of 186 for article space. Of those 61 pages, 43 are full-page photographs. The main article entitled “Stars In Their Own Eyes” totals 28 pages, 27 of which are full-page photographs with 1 page of text. Richard Shortway, editor of Vogue, has said, “The cold, hard, facts of magazine publishing mean that those who advertise get editorial coverage”.

Another good example is Talk magazine. In the first 48 pages of the premier issue there were 46 full-page adverts! Unlike a few decades ago where editors would segregate ads to the back of the magazine on the grounds that it was an infringement upon the reader, the of bulk of adverting now appears in the opening pages—just where the advertisers want them.

Advertising’s greatest effect on the mind is not so much its detail, but the mass conditioning attempted by the same basic themes occurring over and over as we slouch in a chair and uncritically listen to the garbage emitting from the box everyday.

Advertising likes to tell us how to think and how not to think. Some of the criteria we are told to use include how one should judge what is credible and incredible, what is success and failure, and how we should judge ourselves against others. Even though the advertisers are at war with each other for viewers’ and readers’ attention, the same themes keep cropping up again and again. That is because all advertising is born out of the same system, capitalism. Advertising does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of a system. Forget the three R’s taught in the education system; it is the 3 C’s in advertising that count—consumerism, conformity and competition.

Some advertisers aren’t shy to declare their support for capitalist ideas:
  • “Business is the engine of society. Without it there would be no jobs. No products. No competition. No advancements.” (A 1996 Microsoft ad)
  • “Of all human powers operating on the affairs of mankind, none is greater than that of competition.” (Mead Coated Papers)
  • “You don’t win silver, you lose gold”. (Nike)
  • “Identify yourself”. (Mitsubishi)
There are many researchers who believe subliminal advertising is being employed by a number of major advertisers to influence the subconscious mind of its viewers and readers. (Subliminal advertising is defined as images and messages that are below the threshold of conscious perception, but which will nevertheless affect the viewer on a subconscious level). The use of subliminal advertising may or may not be a reality. That is not the important thing. What we have to look at the reason for the existence of advertising in the first place, not necessarily the techniques advertiser’s employ.

The Vice President of Proctor and Gamble made a statement over 20 years ago which is truer today than ever. He said, “We’re in programming first to assume a good environment for advertising“.

In 1965 the Federal Communications Commission held hearings to determine how much influence advertisers had on non-commercial content of television and radio. Albert N. Halverstadt, then general advertising manager of Procter and Gamble, was particularly interested in the image of business and business people. He gave the FCC formal requirements for television programs:
“There will be no material on any of our programs which could in any way further the concept of business as cold, ruthless, and lacking all sentiment or spiritual motivation. If a businessman is cast in the role of a villain, it must be made clear that he is not typical but is as much despised by his fellow businessmen as he is by other members of society”.
The manager of corporate communications for General Electric has said, “We insist on a program environment that reinforces our corporate image”.

Far from being content with dominating the pages of popular magazines, major advertisers—BP, Pepsi, Levi’s, Cadburys, Ford, Nike and the rest—have set to conquer the almighty task of controlling the messages that emit from the black box in the corner of our rooms. Without doubt TV is the most effective advertising medium. Viewers don’t have time to examine or judge the messages. You sit and listen as the TV talks at you. Far from taking a passing interest, advertisers want to know exactly what time of day and in-between what programmes their ads will be shown because that will define the audience population they are buying. And there is no shortage of time. A double episode of the highly popular American sitcom “Friends” airs about 18 minutes of ads in one hour, which is nearly a third of the programming time. But don’t be mistaken in thinking the scripts of programmes are devoid of advertising influence. The ad agencies aren’t going to let them off that easily. TV executives (like editors) have surrendered to the altar of profit and are forced into the competition for viewer’s attention. Michael L. Buchenbeth has said: “The scripts are written to build tension before the commercials to hold the viewers attention during the commercials“. The basic strategy in programming is not merely geared towards satisfying the audience’s tastes but what is perceived as the most likely to attract advertisers. Like magazines, the difference between ads and programming becomes blurred. Flick the TV on . . . is it soap, a documentary, the news, an ad . . . who knows?

The motion picture has obvious advantages in immediacy, sound, colour over the still image. There is no end to the image and sound creation and manipulation possibilities; the ads with Steve McQueen in are a good example. However, the problem as far as the admen are concerned is the fact that you can only broadcast one message on one programme at a time. If an audience finds an ad boring, too long or too offensive they’re likely to commit the ultimate sin that haunts every ad agency and TV executive—they’ll switch the TV off.

The correct atmosphere is essential for advertising; which is a buying atmosphere. Short, half-hour programmes that are trivial, non-political and humorous are much favoured by advertisers. Coronation St, Star’s in their eyes, GMTV, Neighbours, She’s got to have it, Friends, TOTP, Blind Date (etc, etc) fit the bill well. Richard Lesser, then Vice President of the Grey Advertising Agency, in an article in Advertising Age (12 December 1957) wrote, “Advertisers for years have been studying the integration of the show and the commercials to see how the two can be married to each other“. It is no coincidence, for example, that Rachael and Monica from the American sitcom “Friends” have never appeared on air with anything less than perfect and immaculate hair since they have advertised L’Oreal hair products. Which ads most frequently appear in-between each episode? That’s right, L’Oreal shampoo ads that feature both Rachael and Monica.

What about the News? The fact that the Newsreaders’ scripts are interwoven with the advertisers’ interests is deliberately ignored. We are supposed to think that the ideas are the independent work of professional journalists detached from commercial bias. If the audiences were told that the ideas represented explicit demands of advertisers, the message would lose its impact. Sure, they can say what they want; as long they don’t conflict with the advertisers’ interests. The major advertisers can actually demand they report along certain lines by threatening to pull out their advertising.

Politics too
Advertising has also been used as a tool in the struggle for political ideas. Politicians, leaders and political parties alike have for some time exploited this effective medium. Political campaigns are increasingly looking and sounding more like advertising campaigns with each successive election. Sound-bites, slogans and style are very important considerations in any campaign now. The fact that a political party needs to spend thousands and thousands on advertising campaigns to improve its image just shows how shallow their message is, or the lack of one. Capitalist parties have long since ran out of anything intelligent to say and their only hope is to either re-hash old ideas or change the packaging they sell them in (see “New” Labour). Of course, the problem does not lie in the fact that they promote their political agenda but rather that they have nothing useful to say. Take away all the style and sloganeering and all you are left with is a bunch people who say very average things about very average politics; not worth voting for (see New Labour, again).

Would advertising still exist in with a society based upon common ownership? No. The inhabitants of a socialist society may well decide to have images and messages in the cities and outer environment but instead of being under the control of a profit seeking minority, they would be under the democratic control of the society, and will therefore benefit society instead of retarding it. When everyone has an equal say in what is produced and free access to it, there is no need to seduce people to choose one product or service over other. Of course, there may be a range of products which serve the same function but people will make choices free from the distortion and manipulation of advertising. The need for advertising only exists when different companies are competing over the same market for a bigger cut of the profit. A socialist society won’t require cities, towns, magazines and newspapers to be plastered with images and messages that serve no useful social function but contribute only to pollute the mental environment. There will be no profit to accumulate, no companies to exploit the workforce and no leaders to follow. Creativity, free from the constraints of profit making, can flourish and can be used to benefit society, and not be wasted on the anti-social aims of advertising agencies. Ideas, concepts and solutions will not be judged by their ability to realise a profit but by their value to its people.
T. M. Jones

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