Useless, evil, or something else? – By @_florussell

Useless, evil, or something else? 

In preparation for the course, Marc has asked us to thoughtfully consider why we want to work in this industry. My surface level answer to this question is brazenly simple. 1) I want a fun and challenging job that allows me to be creative, and 2) I’m not really sure I’d be much good at anything else. Why wouldn’t I want to work in advertising? Well, when the question began to phrase itself in this way, it actually became a lot more complicated, as I began to realise there are quite a number of reasons why I might not want to, or (according to some) perhaps shouldn’t want to work in advertising. After reading a selection of articles and essays around advertising’s fundamental principles and ethics, I came across the report, ’Think of Me as Evil?’ in which Jon Alexander presents three main arguments, commonly deployed by advertising executives to defend the industry they work in; 

1) Advertising merely redistributes consumption

2) Advertising is simply a mirror of cultural values

3) Advertising is about the promotion of choice

In order to process my own thoughts, this blog post will be an attempt to reflect on and respond to these 3 assertions. (As a side note, I hope my future SCABs will be more exciting and interesting. I’m aware this is beginning to read a bit like a school essay. But I do think working through these arguments for myself will give me a deeper, critical appraisal of the industry I see my future in, and for me, that’s an important place to start). 

A frequent critique of advertising centres around the idea that while human needs are finite, human greed is not. Therefore unlimited economic growth can only be achieved through the creation of artificial needs through advertising. This is more commonly referred to as consumerism – companies persuading us to be dissatisfied with what we have, in order to pursue the next smarter, shinier or sexier toy. Yet how much evidence is there to suggest advertising actively increases consumption, rather than merely redistributing it? The report’s findings here are inconclusive, and there are certainly arguments going both ways. While it is true that some markets can emphatically attribute their growth to advertising (most notably tobacco), if advertising does hold the power to redistribute spending, then a world without it would be a rather flavourless place. Redistributing spending through communication can help people become (who may not otherwise have been) aware of things, both physical and intangible, that can potentially improve their lives. 

This links to the third argument, which I encountered through Jeremy Bullmore’s (WWP) Campaign column ‘On the couch’. He equates advertising to the promotion of choice, or ‘competitive persuasion’ which, he argues is a key tenet of democracy. But what about the supposed ‘unconscious response’ evoked through advertising? Subliminal manipulation through behavioural science, intended to alter our spending patterns without our awareness or consent? Those vehemently against this lack of choice would perhaps point you to estimated 3000 ads that a London commuter is exposed to on a daily basis, without taking into account the fact that removing the subsidies from this £1 billion contract would likely result in a hike up of transport fares. Given the choice between tube ads (the most beautiful and clever of which can often elicit a reluctant smile) and bare, subdued commutes as well as having to far more frequently top up my oyster card- I think I know what I (and most Londoners) would choose. 

It’s unclear whether advertising is a mirror to, or a manipulator of social values, however Stephen Fox writes “To stay effective, advertising couldn’t depart too far from established public tastes and habits; consumers must be nudged but still balk at being shoved”. However, even king of advertising Rory Sutherland admits that while “the purpose of tobacco advertising was not to encourage people to smoke, I find it astounding that anyone could barefacedly suggest that cigarette posters seen everywhere did not serve to normalise the habit.” That may have been the case back in the 50s and 60s, during the golden age of tobacco ads, but since they’ve been banned by governments, more and more brands are intent on showcasing their corporate conscience. Whether that reflects society’s appetite for more ethical consumerism, or whether it comes from a brand’s active desire to change consumer habits for the better, I think it’s a tentative step in the right direction. 

The title of this post was inspired by a quote from Sutherland; ‘I would rather be thought of as evil than useless’. (Just to be clear Rory, I don’t think you’re useless). But in the hope that I can avoid being thought of as either useless or evil, I would like my year at SCA to teach me to be something else. What, precisely, remains to be revealed. In the meantime though, maybe I should get my head out of this philosophical sandstorm and get on with trying to understand what the hell is going on with Photoshop.

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