Friday, September 4, 2009



I noticed something new about advertising as I rode the New York subway this morning. I thought I had written all I could about advertising, but just when I thought I had said enough, a new idea spawned in my head. After all, advertisers stop at nothing to kindle our commercial urges. As such, they resort to any tactic to get our attention and make us want to spend money. The Supreme Court actually grants advertisers full freedom to say whatever they want, provided they are not “deceptive, false or misleading.” Yet that is a meaningless exception, because it is very easy to provide misleading information without “actually lying.” And it is easy to lie simply by keeping quiet about bad stuff.

But today I do not write to analyze advertising theory or constitutional standards. Rather, I write to make a simple point, namely, that all advertisements do the same thing: They selectively provide an “informational tidbit,” which in turn makes a suggestion to the listener. The suggestion is always the same: “Now come give me your money.” Advertisers provide information—perhaps largely true, perhaps half-true, perhaps not true at all—for a purpose: To entice you to give them money. Advertisers do not aim to educate. They do not want you to “know more” or develop into a more “enriched person” with the information they provide. No, they want to “inform you” only to the extent necessary that you feel compelled to spend your money on them. It is strictly instrumental.

Consider these examples. As I sat on the train today, I looked up and saw three distinct commercial messages. The first was an admonishment from Duane Reade, a drugstore. Its message: “There are a bazillion germs on the pole you’re holding.” Broadly speaking, this is information. Maybe some people don’t realize that contagions congregate in crowded public spaces like the subway. Yet Duane Reade doesn’t care whether they’ve just educated you. They don’t care whether you’ve just become a more well-informed person because you heard their message about germs. No, they want you to take the information and translate it into commercial activity. Namely, they want you to say: “Omigod! There are germs all over the place, so I should go to the Duane Reade and start buying things!” Duane Reade is not trying to inspire the world’s next great microbiologist with this information. It is trying to lure an average schmuck into the store to buy cough drops.

In the next message, a local college advertised: “95% of people without college degrees never obtain jobs with salaries over $40,000 a year.” This is information, too. It might be accurate; maybe it isn’t. Still, it sounds relatively accurate (it has a percentage in it…wow), and in advertising, appearances are just as important as—if not more important than— “truth.” No one on the subway is going to check facts anyway, so it really doesn’t matter. Yet the local college does not provide this information to alert its listeners to demographic trends or educational crises in the United States. It wants to spark a desire in its listeners to start spending some money on tuition. After all, according to this information, if you don’t have a college degree, you stand a 95% chance never to make over $40,000 a year. You want to make more than $40,000 a year, so you’d better get a college degree with us. Again, the advertiser here provides information for an instrumental purpose: “People without college degrees don’t make much money. We can give you a college degree. Now give us your money.” Simple.

Finally, an Upper East Side “enrichment group” called the “Center for Practical Philosophy” blared this message: “No other ad on the subway will make you as happy as this one.” The center revealed that it offered classes to teach “working students” about “reason, beauty and justice” (no commerce or free beer; note that), and that its classes would lead to “happiness” by “harnessing the power of attention.” This was not typical advertising fare (ie, it wasn’t hawking trinkets or dental services), but it followed the same formula as any other. Specifically, it provided information about “classes” and those classes can make you “happier than other ads on the subway.” People want to be happy. Again, the message provides information in order to make the ultimate suggestion: “Now give me your money.” You want to be happy, don’t you? Well, here’s some information about happiness classes. Now you know where to spend your money if you want to learn how to be happy.

“Practical philosophy.” That made me laugh. In my experience, the two concepts mutually exclude each other. You’re either philosophical or practical, but not both. If you’re practical, you don’t like “philosophical bullshit” because it “doesn’t get things done.” If you’re philosophical, you don’t like “everyday, boring, banal practical shit” because it’s not “deep” or “sophisticated.” You can’t have it both ways. Yet this advertisement dared to cross the line. It made philosophy—which is generally antithetical to commerce—a commodity to be bought. On the other hand, this is New York. Everything is for sale here, even things that traditionally can’t be bought, sold or “commercialized.” We have more banks than guys named Bob in this town. In that light, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that philosophy is for sale, too.

But enough about philosophy. The point is that advertising is insidious because it channels information for a limited purpose, namely, to enrich the speaker. Human beings cannot know everything. They have short-range senses; they can only learn so much by direct perception. Everything else requires reliance on second-hand reports and “information sources” like advertising. In many ways, we are all hopelessly dependent on external information sources. Those who possess more information hold more power. That is the nature of things. Advertisers do not want us to “learn about the world” or even expand our consciousness with the information they selectively dispense. They want us merely to learn a few suggestive “facts” then fork over some money.

Ironically, it doesn’t matter whether advertisers provide “accurate” or “true” information to their listeners. Truth is largely irrelevant in commerce; it only matters when a commercial actor must be truthful to avoid a loss. Advertisers, too, provide accurate information if the law threatens punishment or if they want to outdo a competitor. But truth is never the ultimate aim behind advertising. Rather, the only goal is to incite an urge to buy in the listener. Selectively providing “facts” can create that urge. Whether the facts are “true” does not affect whether they will spark a “commercial urge.” In many ways, then, advertising targets human emotion more than reason. Advertisers want to incite a reaction, a need, a desire, an itch to buy. These are not entirely reasonable responses to information. To the contrary, they are childish, even animal responses: Show a dog a bone and the dog will want it; show an average American an all-NFL cable package and he will want it, too. In fact, if consumers had access to all information, they probably would have reason to avoid virtually every seller in the market. In short, advertising would not work if people were too well-informed. And it certainly would not work if people used their reason all the time.

I write all this because advertising literally surrounds us. Commercial speakers speak more than any others. They buy airtime. Their billboards leer over us. Their television messages interrupt us every five minutes. Their radio broadcasts barge in on our music. In short, they own our senses, besieging our eyes and ears with generally unreliable information calculated to arouse our commercial urges. No matter the medium, they all function in the same way: They selectively provide information for an instrumental purpose, then suggest “Now come give us your money.” Some advertisers spark more commercial urges in more people than others. They are called “effective advertisers.” But whether effective or not, they are all doing the same thing. And I venture that there is nothing noble or sophisticated about it.

After all, what do I care whether a private company succeeds in luring more people to spend their money? Who cares? Will anyone even remember? This is the never-ending “commerce dance.” Advertising provides an endless beat for the dance. It just keeps droning on day after day, generation after generation, following the same old formula: Provide information… suggest “Come on down and spend your money…”

In sum, there is nothing to it. It is all the same.

1 comment:

SteveW said...

Philosophy is practical - my philosophical training was instrumental in making me a great engineer.

Advertising is almost all misleading, but it is awesome. First, it only one half of a voluntary exchange rather than an entire involuntary exchange. Do you believe that people will actually sign up for a 4-year college on the basis of a billboard with no further research, and if they will why do you worry about such people in any case?

The alternative to advertising is a smart-panel put together that makes peoples decisions for them. Even if we ascribe to this panel good information and good intentions, they run the strong possibility of being wrong, and they have a slower response time to fix things that are wrong. In the advertising world, people have many sources of information includinng their own experiences and the experiences of their friends.

You assume that the people out there are drooling masses that will take in no more information than a brief message that is clearly marked as being published by a biased provider and then act on that. Why do you care about such people anyway, if this is your view of them? However, people are much more complex than this, and largely see advertising for what it is. They may buy a pack of gum on impulse because they saw a billboard five minutes ago, but they aren't going to buy a car because they saw a sign.