In defense of advertising.

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When it comes to voicing an opinion, I don't tend towards coyness (regular readers may not be surprised to learn this). For instance, I more than happy to reveal that my political views broadly fall into the left-of-centre, liberal camp . Although, I'm currently toying with the idea of party political atheism; a lack of any trust or belief in the system as a whole, my beliefs definitely favour humanist socialism as opposed to capitalist conservatism.

All well and good - and not particularly controversial - until I am held to account for my career in advertising.

The late left-wing, American comedian Bill Hicks, had little tolerance  for advertising and marketing. Indeed, in one routine, he urged the employees of those industries to kill themselves. He clearly saw the practice of promoting goods and services as inherently wrong and somehow wicked. As I've mentioned before, this didn't prevent Bill from running ads for his tours, videos and CDs. Presumably that was 'good' advertising.

In a similar vein, from time-to-time people ask me to justify my work as an advertising copywriter in light of my political stance. My response is usually twofold. First, I ask them exactly who they think they are, suggesting their assumption that I owe them an explanation for my career decisions is deluded to the point of lunacy. Then, once I've calmed down a bit, I explain why I see advertising as both inevitable and helpful in a healthy society.

The problem, I suspect, stems from an unrealistic and stereotyped impression of the industry. Mention 'advertising' and most folk think of expensive television campaigns for motor cars and baked beans. They picture shady rooms, in which devious characters in red braces plot the means through which they will brainwash the populace into buying stuff they don't need. They think of advertising as a device of deception and manipulation.

What they ignore is the sign outside their favourite cake shop; the posting which drew them to their current job; the charity messages which attract precious donations or the t-shit with the designer's name and logo on the front. And yet, this is all advertising.

Sophisticated communication is the mark of humanity. Once we had sufficiently evolved to produce language, we moved on to the creation of signs and symbols. Tribes would announce their presence and cohesion using emblems and patterns, while hunters painted their prey on the walls of caves to both describe and encourage success. As soon as mankind established communities and commerce, advertising became a necessity. From Egypt's Valley of the Kings and the city Pompeii, to Roman encampments and the Palace at Knossos, evidence of messages proclaiming wine for sale, building services, the availability of hot food and primitive healing clinics, is everywhere. It is obvious the human instinct to declaim, announce, propose and attract using design, words and typography is hardwired into our psyches. It's a potent strand in our unwavering desire to communicate with each other, let others know what we think, want and need.

So, I reject any notion that forging a career that art is in any way shabby or Machiavellian, in fact it's a traditional craft as old as the hills. Should I have an objection to a particular group or trade using advertising to further their causes, then I can (and have) opt not to work with them. But there is no shame in making innovative, honest businesses more successful, nor helping to introduce people to jobs, training or education through marketing.

Like so many human abilities, advertising can be used for honourable purposes or disreputable goals - but in itself, it is morally and politically neutral.

That's my second response. Bet they wish they'd never asked.        

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant



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