A long time ago, Marxist social theorists thought that advertising was the new opiate of the masses, up there along with religion and drugs. In making people think they were happy in a society in which they were exploited or at least not dealt with fairly, the rich able to continue in their money grubbing ways by lulling most people into a sense that they were both in control of their lives and also satisfied with those lives. Automobiles let people think they were free because you could get into your Chevrolet and tour the American countryside, going where you wanted when you wanted, when, in fact, people were tied down to their boring and unsatisfying manufacturing and white collar jobs, prisoners of the wage/salary system. People could improve their love life if they wore the right lipstick and deodorant, and that would make up for the unpleasantness of work life, sex another opiate of the masses. Cigarettes would relax them and appliances and dishwasher detergent would make the life of the harried housewife so much easier that she had time to indulge her fantasies of romance. There was nothing that advertising couldn’t fix.
We have come a long way since then. To my eyes, advertising nowadays is not about adjusting people to society but just helping them get by. While the point of the Marxist influenced analysis of advertising in the Fifties and Sixties was that advertising concocted false anxieties so as to distract people from their real condition, advertising nowadays plays on real anxieties if for no other reason that you can get people to buy products they need as well as products that they don’t need. The burden of advertising on television and in the movies (a venue into which advertising had not penetrated until almost when this century began) is to show the audience just how awful life is and how the products advertising offers can make that burden only a little easier.
The most prominent examples of this new advertising come from health related matters. We are all aware of the many medications that are on the market to rid us of diarrhea and to regulate our hearts and to give us clearer thoughts and to treat our bi-polar disorders, these often accompanied by warnings of side effects that would suggest you not at all take this medicine unless absolutely necessary. These medications require prescriptions and so the assumption is that patients will urge their doctors to prescribe them and the ads also assume that doctors can be pressured into writing such prescriptions, and the prevalence of these commercials suggest that this chain of causation does indeed take place. So these ads appeal to the reality of health problems. We are all on the brink of coming down with something and will be desperate to find a way out. Illness pervades our consciousness. It is also the case that hospitals now advertise, some saying, as Mount Sinai does, that which hospital you go to makes a difference, though not bothering to add that the procedures at most major hospitals are roughly equivalent. I have not been able to discern how open heart surgery a friend had at one major hospital in New York City was different from the same surgery I had at a different major hospital. Fifty years ago, hospitals would have thought it unseemly for health professionals to engage in advertising, to say that one or another of them is a better place to be treated.
Medical advertising may be the result of the aging of the Baby Boom population, more and more of them requiring more and more medical services just to keep going. It also may be the result of the competition between the ever more consolidated hospital systems, what with mega-hospitals establishing satellite entities around a city or area because most patient care is now not done in full scale hospitals but in office suites which offer routine care as well as numerous special procedures, all on an out-patient basis. It may also be that medical advertising offers the closest thing to salvation that is available in a secular society, people concerned more about the condition of their bodies than the condition of their souls.
This puts us in the realm of the dystopian vision of “Synecdoche, New York”, that movie where the economy and the environment are deteriorating, Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing a visionary theatrical director who takes twenty years to put together his production, a symbol of the fact that the society as a whole is failing: natural gas fires continue on indefinitely in the street, contained but not extinguished by public authorities. The TV advertisements invented for that 2008 film, which is not so long ago, were directed at the ailments of an elderly audience and it was unsettling, while now, a decade later, it is commonplace and not at all shocking.
It is not just that today a constant search for medical care makes life a sobering occasion. Contemporary advertising reminds us of any number of other real anxieties. Dating service advertisements remind us of how difficult it is these days to avoid a hook up culture and find a serious, long term, romantic interest when, in the past, you dated and married colleagues and college chums or met a mate at an appropriate summer resort. Ads for travel agencies and insurance companies remind you of how their competitors are out to cheat you with false discounts and much higher prices. Ads for on-line universities remind you that you are cheating yourself out of career advancement. All in all, life is full of snares that stand in your way. That is just the way it is and maybe some of the goods and services advertised will give you a leg up. They do not constitute false advertising because the problems you face, healthwise and otherwise, are really out there, and the ads do not guarantee success, only opportunities.
Here is what might seem like an innocuous institutional ad placed just to let you know the institution is available for use, part of the landscape. The Republic Bank of New York puts ads on the PBS Newshour that depict it as having a friendly relation to its customers, each of them treated with respect, this message illustrated with graphics showing a path to one or another of its friendly branches. This might seem just a bunch of platitudes, empty adjectives to provide customers with a good feeling, but consider the ad more literally. There are banks out there that might not be all that friendly and you have to look out for them, not knowing what they are up to. It was not that long ago that Wells Fargo Bank engaged in an advertising campaign to apologize for the fact that its bank officers had deliberately defrauded its customers, opening investment accounts when none had been requested. And BP is now proclaiming how good it is at wind power when not too long ago it was apologizing for a major oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. So don’t trust institutional advertisers because they spend some of their money on making up for the bad things they do. It’s a tough world out there.
Interestingly enough, deprecating one’s competition and apologizing for one’s own errors is not the only path taken by contemporary advertising. Some is old fashionedly upbeat, telling you of the virtue of its products. That includes franchise restaurants who tell you how good is their food and ambiance. It is also true of candy and ice cream ads. It is also true of auto ads that rely on the prestige and luxury of the vehicles they tender and sometimes on the safety features that go along with the computerization of the automobile dashboard, all in preparation for the day of the driverless car, even now in test development. That will certainly alter the nature of the automobile experience, and car designers are worried how to get car purchasers to go along with the transition, perhaps by keeping a driver’s set and wheel in place until they become antiquated in the public perception. Certainly, the driverless car will mean a serious decline in highway deaths, and that will be a great boon, given how the public has accepted for so long a yearly death rate of 50,000, now down to 30.000, and with the driverless car, probably down to the hundreds. Meanwhile, the networks and cable stations get a lot of revenue from car ads that emphasize luxury rather than safety. Driving is still supposed to be a pleasurable experience, as it is indeed for many people.
So what is to be made of this reappreciation of advertising as a way of telling the grim truths about life? Maybe that advertising is too often sold as a form of genius, the Don Drapers of the world seeing into the psyche of a nation far better than other analysts, when what advertising really is is just a way to sell toothpaste, to meet not such hidden demands but simply to make people self-aware of what their continuing demands are, and so pointing in the direction of one product rather than another to satisfy that demand. Which reminds me of the time back in the old days when Crest had a scientific advantage over its competitors because it had an additive that really did reduce the chances of tooth decay, that claim authenticated by the American Dental Association. It invested heavily in advertising but the result of that campaign was only a small increase in its sales, the reputations of it competitors allowing them to keep most of their market share until they too added the same ingredient. Were people fooled by advertising because they wouldn’t give up Colgate for Crest? I think not. Toothpaste also gets sold for the taste it provides in the morning, and some people preferred the taste of Colgate to Crest. The consumer knows more than he or she thinks he or she knows about buying preferences. We weren’t then nor are we now prisoners of advertising. It is the advertisers who have to figure out what is the reality behind our preferences.