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The advertising industry can sell just about anything. Whether promoting the slave trade in the eighteenth century, peddling quack medicines in the nineteenth or flogging cigarettes to impressionable youth in the twentieth, advertisers have persuaded the public to consume an astonishing variety of unethical, ineffective and sometimes deadly products. But there is one thing the advertising industry has always had trouble selling – itself.

Thanks to a few hit television shows, however, advertising is back in the spotlight, and for once the public isn’t crying swindled. The Gruen Transfer‘s debut episode on ABC1 in 2008 attracted almost 1.3 million viewers, and the show has gathered similar audience numbers over its four seasons. In that time the Gruen franchise has expanded into high-rating spin-offs like Gruen Nation, and the concept has been sold to TV production companies in Europe, the UK and South Africa.

If you haven’t seen it, The Gruen Transfer is a panel show about advertising, exploring ‘how it works and how it works on us’. The industry panellists include the heads of large advertising agencies, such as Russel Howcroft from Young & Rubicam Brands and Todd Sampson from Leo Burnett. The filming is fast-paced, there’s plenty of witty banter, and host Wil Anderson chimes in with a gag when things start getting too serious. It’s entertaining television, and the result is that advertising – once seen as the domain of charlatans, self-hating salary men and sinister manipulators – has gained a new respectability.

While it was never intended as a cheerleader for consumerism, The Gruen Transfer had little leeway to question the role of advertising in society. Any serious criticism would have angered advertising agencies, leaving the show floundering without willing commentators. The upshot of such close co-operation with the industry is that The Gruen Transfer has become one big pitch for the advertising profession.

‘It has the potential to be the very best thing that’s happened to our industry image,’ wrote Gawen Rudder from the Advertising Federation of Australia (AFA) after the first episode aired in 2008. Today, the industry is still singing the show’s praises. ‘I think The Gruen Transfer has certainly invigorated interest in careers in the marketing industry since it started,’ says Margaret Zabel, CEO of peak body The Communications Council. ‘So it’s been a great tool in promoting the industry to future new employees.’

Advertising’s re-branded public image troubles me. I’m an old employee of the industry, and The Gruen Transfer reminds me of conversations I had within the walls of advertising agencies, where social issues – such as the link between fast-food marketing and childhood obesity – were acknowledged, and then dismissed with a clever quip. The message, never explicitly stated, was that advertising is just a bit of harmless fun, so we shouldn’t worry about it too much.

Indeed, advertising is fun. The chance to get paid to come up with zany ideas was what attracted me to the industry in the first place. So while my friends sat in university lecture halls learning history or philosophy, I enrolled in RMIT’s creative advertising degree and spent my years of higher education staring at jam jars and sauce bottles, trying to write taglines that captured the emotional essence of kitchen condiments. In retrospect it sounds embarrassingly superficial. But this triviality was what made it such a blast. When what you create seems completely inconsequential, you feel free to create whatever you like.

In my third year, I landed a job as a copywriter at a small Melbourne agency, and I soon had a few television commercials under my belt. I looked set for a stellar career. Then, in 2008, I started writing a column about the environment for youth literary magazine Voiceworks. That’s when I realised advertising wasn’t inconsequential at all. In fact, the work I was doing had grave consequences for the health of the planet.

I became a walking contradiction, spending my weekdays writing ads promoting petrol-guzzling V8 cars and my weekends researching the dire impacts of climate change. To offset my guilt, I started writing pro bono campaigns for environment charities. In the middle of 2008, my inner conflict boiled over at an industry awards night. I slipped outside the swish function room and started crying. After that I refused to work for car companies, and at the end of the year I left my job.


Now when I hear people praise the marketing industry for being clever and creative, I want to remind them that the public once had a healthy distrust of advertising. As historian Robert Crawford writes in But Wait, There’s More, ‘Advertising has generally been synonymous with deceit and dishonesty.’ Throughout history, advertising has been criticised for a long list of social ills, including promoting materialism, reinforcing warped sexual stereotypes and cultivating discontent in order to sell more stuff.

Not only do these criticisms still apply today, but marketing is more insidious, pervasive and harmful than ever. In fact, as consumerism’s chief spruiker, the advertising industry is perhaps more responsible for environmental destruction and the havoc caused by climate change than any other profession.

So before we return to congratulating those clever ad folk for their eccentric and amusing ideas, let’s do something The Gruen Transfer should have done long ago, and take a deeper look at advertising’s role in society. And this time when we strike a nerve, let’s not change the subject with a cheap gag.

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‘Advertising is based on one thing,’  the creative director Don Draper in Mad Men, another recent hit show about advertising. ‘Happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.’

Mad Men follows a Madison Avenue ad agency during the 1960s as the advertising industry enters its creative revolution. The character Don Draper is allegedly based on Draper Daniels, the creative head of the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago in the 1950s, and the quote also has a ring of truth. Advertising really is about happiness. Well, almost.

But before we get to the swinging 1960s, we need to take a look at what an account executive, or ‘suit’ in industry lingo, would call background. Advertising has existed for a very long time, possibly thousands of years.

Early Egyptian, Greek and Roman merchants, for example, hung carved signs and painted storefronts to promote their wares. But it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that advertising evolved into a discreet industry with an increasingly important role in the economy.

From the 1880s manufacturers grew dramatically in size, commanding larger resources and achieving unprecedented economies of scale. But what good was increased production without more customers to buy all those shiny new products? And so advertising took on its new role – to create consumer desires.

As you can imagine, advertising’s expanding influence didn’t sit well with everyone. ‘The consumer’s outlay may be diverted, by incessant advertising, from food and clothing to tobacco and Continental holidays,’ wrote the socialist English economist Sidney Webb in 1914, arguing advertising should help direct spending towards the common good.

Later, as US corporations sought to lift the country out of the Depression, admen re-imagined their role as ‘consumption engineering’, a phrase coined by the copywriter Earnest Elmo Calkins in 1930. ‘Goods fall into two classes,’ he wrote in US industry journal Printer’s Ink, ‘those we use, such as motor cars or safety razors, and those we use up, such as toothpaste or soda biscuit. Consumption engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use.’

World War II intervened, and while US consumers practised patriotic thriftiness, industry expanded to supply the army. As a result, factories exited the war with ramped-up manufacturing capabilities. For a few years consumers sopped up the excess production by buying all the things that were in short supply during the war: clothing, cars and appliances. In 1946, personal consumption was 70 per cent higher than in 1941, as noted by Gary Cross, professor of history at Penn State, in his book An All-Consuming Century. Then, in the mid to late 1950s, industry began to worry that consumer demand would crash, leading to another economic depression. Writing in the Journal of Retailing, US retail analyst Victor Lebow summed up the sentiment:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption … We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace.

Those in ad land quickly realised they couldn’t keep flogging products based on features alone. After all, people’s material needs were quickly being fulfilled. What they needed to do was link the consumption of material goods with non-material needs, which were endless. And so ads began to feature images that tapped into human social desires, things like emotional security, self-worth, status, ego, power and aspirations.

This wasn’t the first time advertising had employed a ‘soft sell’ approach based on feelings, of course – the profession had been seesawing between rational and emotional appeals for generations. Advertising agencies had also been dabbling in psychology since the 1920s. This was, however, the first time emotional appeals had been strategically coupled with systematic research.

In 1957, Vance Packard’s best-selling book, The Hidden Persuaders, exposed these subtle manipulations, sparking a debate that simmers to this day. Although it’s been mischaracterised as a conspiracy theory about subliminal messaging, the book’s real topic is ‘motivational research’, which involves gleaning insights from psychology and the social sciences to manipulate unthinking habits and desires.

In Packard’s view, marketers had become concerned that consumers were too easily satisfied with what they had. By the late 1950s, the majority of US families already possessed perfectly functional modern appliances, so industry adopted the tactic of ‘psychological obsolescence’ to make things appear out of date or untrendy after a few years. Cars, such as the GM Cadillac, developed stylistic quirks like tail fins, tempting consumers to replace their vehicles just to keep up with changing fashions. Advertising’s role in this was to promote the new products as superior to the old ones.

In 1958, economist John Kenneth Galbraith published The Affluent Society, launching a scathing attack on the importance of production and the ‘conventional wisdom’ of consumer demand. In the prevailing economic view, the consumer was ‘sovereign’, free to choose products that fulfilled his or her pre-existing desires. Galbraith argued that it was production itself that created those desires. In other words, consumers were not acting on inner needs but were influenced by outside forces. One of those forces was modern advertising, whose ‘central function is to create desires – to bring into being wants that previously did not exist’.

Social pressure also helped to drive up consumer demand. This is the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ theory we’re all familiar with. But the concept is actually more powerful and pervasive than trying to outdo your neighbours. It applies to the whole of society – as everyone around you consumes you must do the same, not just to get ahead but fundamentally to keep your current position. In Galbraith’s words: ‘The more that is produced, the more that must be owned in order to maintain the appropriate prestige.’

That brings us back to the 1960s, and the changing social mores explored in Mad Men. When the countercultural movement began to attack Western society’s emphasis on materialism, advertising was portrayed as a profession for conmen and ‘waste makers’. The industry responded by staging a ‘creative revolution’, appropriating the symbols and lingo of youth counterculture in order to sell those upstart kids more products. Pepsi embraced the peace and love movement with a campaign titled ‘Think Young’, and Coca Cola launched an ad with a rainbow of ethnicities belting out the tune ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’.

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The 1990s brought with it a new cult of branding, with companies such as Nike re-conceiving their business not as making tangible products but as promoting a lifestyle philosophy. Big labels moved manufacturing offshore and pumped hundreds of millions into marketing. In the mid 1990s the US media exposed poor working conditions in these overseas ‘sweatshops’, leading to a backlash against several prominent brands. As Naomi Klein documented in her book No Logo, activist groups shifted their focus from monitoring governments to ‘tracking violations committed by multinational corporations’. Perhaps the most famous example of anti-corporate conflict was the ‘McLibel’ case, in which McDonalds sued London-based environmental activists for producing a leaflet (PDF) accusing the company of promoting unhealthy food and exploiting workers, among other claims.

The cult of branding had another effect. Ads leapt off billboards and onto every available item – envelopes, fruit, takeaway containers. Other promotional tools, such as sponsorships, became a bigger part of the marketing mix. Activists, upset at the way corporations seemed to be infiltrating every aspect of their lives, fought back through ‘culture jamming’, which involved altering advertisements – commonly billboards – to subvert their meaning. One famous example is an image of cigarette brand mascot Joe Camel transformed into ‘Joe Chemo’ and hooked up to an IV machine. Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine helped spread the culture-jamming scene, with the editor Kalle Lasn likening advertising to ‘mental pollution’.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, advertising had come to dominate public space, making it ‘the central storytelling mechanism of our society’, in the words of Sut Jhally, professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts. Each ad sells a different product and therefore tells a different story, but every ad has underlying values and themes in common.

Jhally wrote that underneath all the slogans and images flogging different products and services, the consistent and explicit message of advertising is that ‘commodities will make us happy’. But quality of life surveys show that, beyond a certain level of comfort, it is social values such as love, friendship, autonomy and self-esteem that lead to lasting contentment, not material objects. And so we have what in marketing terms is called a ‘bait and switch’. Advertising lures us with images of our non-material desires and then tells us they can be fulfilled through material goods. We purchase perfumes hoping for love, new clothes hoping for status and acceptance, the latest phone seeking a sense of connection.

These advertising strategies are usually subtle, but a recent Coke campaign was shockingly explicit in its attempt to commercialise social relationships. In the lead-up to Christmas last year, the soft-drink brand printed common first names on its labels, transforming a bottle of Coke into a bottle of ‘Chris’, for example. A television campaign then asked consumers to ‘Share a Coke’ with someone of that name, tapping into the affection we feel for close friends and family. The ads ended with the tagline ‘open happiness’.

Like so many ads, the underlying message of the ‘Share a Coke’ campaign was that material objects – in this case a fizzy brown liquid – could fulfil social desires. The great irony, writes Jhally, is that by doing this advertising ‘draws us further away from what really has the capacity to satisfy us (meaningful human contact and relationships) to what does not (material things)’.

It turns out that advertising isn’t based on happiness, but the promise of happiness. And that promise is a lie.

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Those are the past criticisms of advertising – so what’s changed? Does advertising still persuade the public to misspend money, as socialists claimed? ‘Yes, I would very much say that this criticism applies today, perhaps even more so in that advertising has become more extensive and pervasive,’ says Dr Hans Baer, a development studies lecturer at the University of Melbourne, pointing out that ‘most advertising revenue focuses on promoting processed foods, beverages, drugs, tobacco, motor vehicles, personal and household products – such as toiletries, cosmetics, and mobile phones – movies, and leisure-related items’.

Meanwhile, advertising continues to create desires that did not previously exist. Perhaps the best example is the way Unilever has foisted its deodorant products into untapped markets, beginning with Russia, where women did not traditionally use manufactured deodorants. ‘Attracting a man is fundamental to Russian women so we told them, “If you don’t use a deodorant, you won’t look beautiful”,’ Russell Taylor, global vice-president for Axe, the Unilever-made deodorant marketed as Lynx in Australia, told The Times in 2008. The next task, he said, was to make Asians self-conscious about their body odour. ‘Asia is a market we have never really cracked. They don’t think they smell.’ This was also the case in the UK before World War II but mass advertising managed to convince the consumers their body odour was unacceptable. ‘The sense of paranoia created the market.’

Social pressure and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is still an important strategy for re-enforcing consumerism. In their 2005 book Affluenza, economists Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss argue that once basic needs have been met, increases in material standards of living do not lead to increases in happiness. Yet advertising continues to promote an endless array of ‘improved’ products, the most obvious being razors with an ever-increasing number of blades. The upshot is that what we own always feels somehow inadequate. ‘The unspoken role of marketing is to keep consumers in the richest societies in human history feeling deprived,’ write Hamilton and Denniss.

Advertising still appropriates the symbols and ideas of countercultural movements in order to sell more stuff. Perhaps the most ironic example is the way Adbusters – a magazine that is explicitly anti-advertising – has been embraced by the advertising profession. In fact, industry-run training course AWARD School once gave wannabe art directors and copywriters the brief of writing ads for Buy Nothing Day, a worldwide anti-consumerism protest that Adbusters helped popularise.
Corporate branding is even more insidious and invasive than before. The guerrilla advertising of the 1990s, featuring stickers on footpaths or stunts in malls, looks almost quaint compared with the integrated ‘360 degree’ campaigns of today, which attempt to surround consumers at every marketing ‘touch point’, meaning anywhere a brand can thrust itself onto an unsuspecting citizen. The National Australia Bank’s recent ‘Break Up’ campaign about ending an all-too-cosy relationship with the other major banks is a good example of assaulting consumers from all sides. Along with traditional newspaper advertising, the campaign featured tweets, letters plastered on the sides of buildings, banners flown by helicopter, ads on yachts in Sydney Harbour, a ‘break-up’ blog, viral videos and public stunts, earning a top gong in PR at Cannes Lions, the advertising industry’s annual international awards show. This year Cannes Lions introduced a new category called ‘Branded Content and Entertainment’, indicating product placement is also booming.

A few things have changed in recent years. Margaret Zabel argues that consumers are no longer so easily duped by advertising’s appeals to emotions. ‘As communication has evolved so has consumers’ knowledge and intelligence of it.’

It’s true that the public is more marketing savvy these days, but being wary of advertising does not make you immune to its effects. In fact, the industry has previously tapped into consumer cynicism as a way of selling more products. In the 1990s, Sprite adopted the tagline ‘Image is nothing. Thirst is everything’ to appeal to Generation Xers increasingly sceptical of overblown claims that a brand could confer status or social acceptance. The target audience loved it, and the brand grew at double-digit rates for the next three to five years, writes Jack Stahl, a former president of The Coca-Cola Company.

Marketing has now moved beyond merely persuading people to buy products. These days, advertisers want their brands to stake out a territory in our very identities. In The Brand Gap, marketer Marty Neumeier argues that selling has evolved from an emphasis in the 1950s on ‘what you feel’ to an emphasis in the 2000s on ‘who you are’. ‘So we make choices based on symbolic attributes – which tribe will I join by buying it?’ An extreme example can be found in Bonfire of the Brands by ex-style journalist Neil Boorman, a self-confessed brand addict who claimed his entire identity was caught up in what he owned. ‘All I ever wanted was to love and be loved, and these damn labels seemed to be the best way of achieving it.’

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But, as they say in the biz, that’s not all, folks. In fact, we’re just getting started. As critics have pointed out, these arguments all have their roots in the 1950s, a different world from today. They also take a social or moral approach, making them vulnerable to accusations of subjectivity. But there is one Super-Strength A-Grade SCIENTIFICALLY TESTED™ argument against advertising, and it’s the most relevant for our modern age of ecological awareness.

As you’ve probably heard before, things aren’t looking so good for planet Earth. By geological standards, humans have only been around for a short time, but we’ve already cultivated one quarter of the Earth’s land, dangerously exploited 80 per cent of world marine fish stocks, increased the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by over 30 per cent and multiplied the species extinction rate by as much as 1000 times. What’s more, the biggest and most damaging changes have occurred during the consumer boom of the last 60 years.

The biggest driver of these environmental problems isn’t overpopulation but overconsumption, meaning a level of consumption beyond what the Earth can sustainably replenish. If everyone on the planet wanted to live the lifestyle of the average Australian, for example, we would need 3.7 Earths to supply resources. Disproportionate resource use is also linked to climate change. Stephen Pacala, director of the Princeton Environmental Institute, calculates that the world’s richest seven per cent of people are responsible for 50 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. The same logic applies to species extinction from habitat loss. Those people who consume the most place the greatest demand on natural resources, and therefore cause the greatest destruction.

Overconsumption is, of course, a symptom of consumerism. At an individual level, consumerism involves acquiring stuff as a way of showing status, expressing identity and deriving meaning from life. On a global level, consumerism refers to consumption-driven affluent economies. In 2006, the 65 high-income countries accounted for 78 per cent of consumption expenditure but just 16 per cent of world population.

Marketing activity promotes this consumerism. Advertising does this through commercialising social rituals (Christmas sales ads), encouraging impulse buying and a culture of bargain hunting (retail ads), plus the previously mentioned strategy of linking social desires with material objects (big budget brand commercials).

Not that promoting consumerism is the only role the advertising industry could play in society. As experts in mass communication, advertising agencies could help bring ecological awareness into the mainstream. Margaret Zabel points out that advertising could also promote the message of consuming sustainably rather than consuming more – so long as business sees value in it.

But, at the moment, that’s not happening. Instead, most environment themed advertising is pretending to promote sustainability while actually reinforcing consumerism. Although ‘green’ products may require fewer resources or use less energy, they are still pushed onto consumers with the same breathless urgency. Yes, the products are changing, but the system remains the same, and the system is the root cause of overconsumption. We’re heading for a future where shoppers purchase an unsustainable amount of sustainable products, and ecosystems collapse despite our good intentions.

If advertising were using the symbols and language of sustainability to promote a genuinely sustainable culture, that wouldn’t be so bad. But at the moment, most advertising uses these symbols – the colour green, words like ‘eco’, concepts such as regeneration – within an underlying framework of consumerism, thus divesting the symbols of their authenticity, credibility and meaning. In the same way that advertising assimilated the countercultural movement of the 1960s, it is co-opting the green movement of the late 2000s. If this continues the movement won’t achieve the radical systemic change required, and it’ll peter out. And in 50 years when people blame advertising for everything that’s wrong with society, you know what? This time they might actually be right.

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In ‘The Pitch’, one of the most popular segments on The Gruen Transfer, agencies go head to head to ‘sell the unsellable’. Past examples include promoting human urine as the latest luxury beverage and convincing Australians to invade New Zealand. Each agency creates a short television commercial about the fictional product, and the panellists then debate which strategy would work.

Ironically, the most remarkable achievement of ‘The Pitch’ isn’t how the agencies market unlikely products, but how the segment itself promotes the historically ‘unsellable’ advertising industry. Once again the message is that advertising is all a bit of harmless fun.

The Gruen Transfer has now morphed into Gruen Planet, which explores spin, branding and image control from a broader perspective. But the show still includes ‘The Pitch’. Given the new name and focus, I’d like someone to present a more critical view of the advertising industry. ‘The Pitch’ would show how advertising promotes discontentment with what we have in order to sell us stuff we don’t need, and how the resulting waste is choking ecosystems and causing dangerous climate change.

It would make for depressing viewing, and it probably wouldn’t help the ratings. But it’s something the Australian public desperately needs to hear.

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