I don’t watch TV, I don’t buy magazines, I’ve never seen Mad men, and I’ve got add-block on my internet; so although my day-to-day exposure to marketing is thankfully fairly limited it does mean that whenever I return to Europe and the UK I am very unprepared for the increasingly intrusive levels of advertising I witness when I get there.
As I step off the plane at Heathrow a haggard, sleep-deprived man in a two-day worn- suit smelling of cigarettes and cheap perfume is there to greet me. With a nauseating grin on his unshaven face he grabs me by the lapels and slams me up against the nearest wall. He’s spitting words into my face that I don’t understand, screaming the names of products I have never heard of, or have no interest in, whilst rifling through my pockets. As I try fight my way from his domineering presence his sugar-coated promises chase me like a paparazzi amongst the carrousels of luggage. In the same way an exhibitionist would he proudly flashes his offers of splendour from the inside of his dirty mackintosh as I leave the airport. Then he follows me through London, whispering in my ear on the escalators, prodding me in the back in the gents, sneaking me a peak of his merchandises in the back of taxis and slapping me across the face with his wares on every street corner.
I can’t even escape him in the safety and comfort of a living room; he is there in the corner, swaying about like a drunken lecherous old uncle at a family party. Making inappropriate comments, interrupting conversations and standing too close to everyone, his boozy breathe infiltrating our personal space. He whacks us on the back as we laugh nervously, awkwardly at his jokes and he ignores our attempts to change the subject to something more savoury. We are afraid to make a scene and ask him to leave in that frightfully polite way that we do, and wait and hope that he’ll wander off into the kitchen to annoy someone else, or at least keep his hands and opinions to himself before falling asleep for another 20 minutes.
Advertising is a grubby old misogynist, regardless of how beautiful, sexy and modern he pretends to be on the outside, he’s a dirty bastard underneath, and he deals in a murky business. On the surface this snake-oil salesman claims to be about making our lives better, making us happier, and making us fit in with our peers yet find our own unique space in the confusing world we live in. But really he’s trying to make us feel inferior, he points out our failings, he insinuates that there is something wrong with us, and then he tries to divide us, make us jealous of each other. He reminds us we are inadequate without him, and that our life is incomplete without his help.
He finds us wherever we are, there is no escape. He shouts at us across the road from billboards as large as houses, and he whispers secretly at us across the back of his clawed hand from magazines. He reads our emails, checks our Facebook, picks through our shopping baskets and finds our weak spots, our insecurities, our doubts. With this knowledge he carefully constructs poignant images and memorable slogans that reach out to us, influence us, inspire us and touch upon our innermost fears. He force-feeds us with his lies until we can do nothing but believe his harmful self-loathing mantras:
You are ugly!
You are fat!
You have no friends!
You are crap in bed!
You look ridiculous!
Your penis is too small!
Everyone is laughing at you!
For God’s sake do something about it before it is too late; because you are worth it!
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of advertising is:
“To describe or draw attention to (a product, service, or event) in a public medium in order to promote sales or attendance”
George Orwell’s definition in Keep the Aspidistra Flying is:
“The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket.”
So when a supermodel, or a celebrity, or a genetically modified love-child of the two like David Beckham, shakes the swill bucket at me telling me that I might be happier with a bigger watch, or whiter teeth, or a sexier vacuum cleaner then I am almost tempted to believe him (I am human after all), but then I think:
“Well David, you are magnificent to look at and once upon a time you could kick a football about, (although I’ve always thought you were let down by your lack of pace) why shouldn’t I listen to you when you tell me that I need a powder that doesn’t only clean my clothes, it leaves them a colour brighter and more defined than it was when the small Indian child hand stitched it, or that my bottom would look far more appealing in a pair of swanky pants. For you are plastered onto billboards as large as mountains up and down the land, you visit me in the privacy of my own home, and pop up in the literature I read; who am I to question your extensive knowledge of bathroom appliances?
But do I really have confidence in David Beckham as a litmus test of the quality of tomato sauce, or do I trust that Ant and/or Dec genuinely prefer Morrisons over Waitrose? Can I really believe that Ozzy Osbourne really cannot believe it’s not butter, whilst Johnny Rotten prefers Country Life on his anarchistic slice of toast? Admittedly Thora Hird probably did use a Stannah Stairlift, I’ll give her that. But just because somebody richer and more famous than me is paid (an awful lot of money) to be pictured wearing, using, eating, lying on or travelling in something, does it make that something any better than any of the other ‘somethings’ out there, or me any more likely to buy any of them?
I think it does, and I think that is wrong. I think it is deceitful and harmful, and the fact that over $500 billion is spent every year promoting things we more than likely don’t need strikes me as a criminally immoral activity.
Perhaps if we got some breathing space away from the dirty old man, perhaps if he could just stop trying to sell us something for a few minutes, perhaps we’d spend a bit less time worrying about all the things he tells us we should be worried about, and a bit more time on the things that are actually more important in the world and are therefore worth worrying about. But he knows that and as long as he can distract us with the banalities of life, the longer he will survive, the richer he will become and the more impoverished and debt ridden we will be. The moment we see through his wicked game, the moment we realise he’s tricking us is the moment we are free, the moment we can be ultimately happy in our own beautiful and amazingly unique bodies.
As Brian said so wonderfully “We are all individuals”
A friend (cheers Tom if you are listening) pointed out to me one day the most perfect, and the most simply amazing piece of advertising I have ever seen. One that hits the nail on the head, one that stands loud and proud above all the others, and one that exemplifies all that I have said, one that without shame, without a hint of apology typifies the world we live in.
A billboard towers over a hot, dirty African street.
(Insert your own stereotypical image here involving one or more of the following: children, chickens, goats, corrugated iron sheets, dust, etc.)
On the bright red, brightly lit billboard is a picture of a bottle of Coca-Cola, condensation running down the sides, hints of ice cold bubbles exploding out of the top and the words:
Says it all really, doesn’t it.
Why can’t everything in life be so simple?