The Big Lie – the complete book online - 17 Style

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Chapter 17

Does attitude wash whiter?

Style

My revolution is aimed at the so-called harmony of the page, which is contrary to flux and reflux, the leaps and burst of style that run through the page. On
the same page, therefore we will use three or four colours of ink, or even
20 different typefaces if necessary. For example: italics for a series of similar or swift sensations, boldface for violent onomatopoeias and so on”.

Emilio Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. “Futurist Manifesto”, Milan, 1899

One of the apologies ritually trotted out in the defence of advertising is that it presents useful information. That is indeed how advertising began 200 years ago, with utilitarian purposes such as the announcements of the sailing times of ships. Yet the first thought of any agency starting to work for a retail account nowadays is to advise the client to undertake an image-building campaign to replace those boring full-page informational advertisements listing its wares and prices. It’s a suggestion that many in the client organisation will resist, because it’s contrary to their experience; they know an attractive price offer, a “loss leader”, can bring people into the shop. The argument is between the kind of attitudes which may cause consumers to favour the retailer over the long term versus the immediate effect of short-term measures, which may cheapen those impressions.

There is an imperative to let the consumer know exactly what is on offer and how to get it, but the overriding appeal is emotional. Successful advertising turns on finding the right balance between information and image, as in the placards in Soho doorways:

 

Young Blonde Model

[Insert evocative name here, e.g. Monique, not Mary.]

1st Floor Upstairs

Come on up.

[Vertical arrow]

 

Today, with the exception of classified advertising, which is not intended to have a mass effect, the informative content of most advertising is minimal. This is particularly true of television, where a new word had to be coined for a special aberrant type of long-winded commercial which does aim to inform – the “infomercial”. In many advertisements, where information would appear to be essential to effective persuasion, the advertiser forsakes the task. Frequently, he embarks on a broader agenda: telling people how to live. The rapidly evolving, highly technological global village has burst the parochial bonds of school, family, and church. Movies, television, and advertising are now the arbiters of mores for the emerging consumer classes all over the world. It’s a permissive, entertainment-oriented society. Responsive to desires rather than directives, brand culture represents the ultimate triumph of manner over matter: lifestyle.

A golden rule of good communication holds that the artifice used to present an idea should be transparent. The design of the communication should be invisible, allowing the idea to pass straight through to the receiver. Today in advertising, the opposite idea holds sway: because products are similar, the design is the distinguishing message. The Absolut Vodka campaign (see Chapter 13) aimed neither to communicate information nor to dramatise nor to entertain. It presented the style of the advertising itself as its Unique Selling Proposition: any product which strikes such an attitude must itself be truly wonderful. By 1999 the brand felt confident enough to dispense altogether with its core idea, the bottle shape, in its American advertising, and simply linked the name to the essence of an experience. Under the headline “Absolut Memphis”, an illustration showed a pair of legs rocking and a microphone stand teetering in front of a curtain. On the feet were blue suede shoes. This was king-of-the-hill advertising with a breathtaking hubris worthy of a high-spending cigarette brand. There was no indication whatsoever of what product was being advertised, except for the statutory information supplied in the small type beneath, acknowledging the permission of Elvis Presley Enterprises to use this image.

The earlier examples of the simple and stylish Absolut vodka campaign have been described as “art as advertising”, and indeed the company has fostered that image by sponsoring exhibitions of works featuring its bottle, commissioned from artists such as Chris Ofili and Keith Haring. Many people who earn their living by it do view advertising as a form of art. Illustrations of classical and modern masterpieces have always been a favoured means of lending prestige to pompous corporate presentations, and artists of reputation have sometimes strayed into Adland: Andy Warhol, whose oeuvre is a parody of marketing, once made an ad for Polaroid, and the 1960s minimalist artist Sol Le Witt designed packaging for Nina Ricci. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as advertising strove to heighten visual imagery and art stooped to examine cultural artefacts, the two were bound to bump heads. Conceptual artist Damien Hirst and TV commercials director Tony Kaye found they were performing in the same theatre of the absurd. Hirst was discovered and promoted by the archetypal adman and modern-art enthusiast Charles Saatchi, who commissioned a fourteen-foot shark suspended in formaldehyde for exhibition in his St John’s Wood gallery. Tony Kaye was also an exhibitionist. He once described himself in a full-page newspaper advertisement as “the greatest British film director since Hitchcock”. In 1993 the Dunlop tyre company spent half a million pounds indulging his conceit of an extended journey involving hazards such as a silver-coated bogeyman with black eyes romping with witches in a bizarre desert landscape to dramatise its slogan, “Tested for the unexpected”. Whatever the intentions of the advertiser in expressing this unextraordinary claim, the director’s aims were clear: he picketed outside the Tate Gallery, trying to persuade that national institution to put his commercial on view.A year later, while demanding £750,000 from Saatchi & Saatchi in a legal dispute over a commercial he made for British Airways, Tony Kaye kept controversial publicity bubbling by commissioning Damien Hirst to direct a commercial for the Meat and Livestock Commission. Hirst, whose works by that time famously included a dead sheep, pigs sawn in half, and a skinned cow’s head covered in maggots, regarded advertising as just another medium: “I don’t think there’s a big difference between what I’ve been doing and this. Commercials have to be visually compelling with a bit of shock value”. Like advertising, Hirst’s modus operandi is the pillaging of cultural symbols. “What I like about adverts”, he has explained, “is that you can rip anything off”.

Advertising pre-empts as argument not only visual design, but also Noel Coward’s concept of “Design for Living”. It reprocesses attitudes towards life, turning them into “theatre”. Gesture supplants thought, drama overwhelms information, emotion replaces understanding. “Relationship marketing” is the currently fashionable term for this approach. It’s not what the product does that matters, but what rewards you draw from it. The marketing men of the 1990s have rediscovered the truisms unearthed by the pioneer of motivational research, Ernst Dichter, applying them to the confusion of choices laid before today’s consumer. Advertising takes on the role of behavioural, even spiritual, counsellor: you should want to be this kind of person, who uses this sort of product. You are what you consume. Lifestyle advertising is just another way of displaying badges and selling status.

In 1960, lager accounted for 1 per cent of British beer sales, and was usually served in a half-pint glass, with a splash of lime juice, to a woman. Thirty years later, more than half of the beer sold in Britain was lager. Brand advertising had achieved an immense shift in attitudes amongst younger men, establishing lager as the real lad’s drink. In converting a generation, lager advertisers borrowed the “lifestyle” approach pioneered by beverages such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola. They exploited “attitude” – which sought to establish differences not between the brands, but in the assumed weltanschauung of differentiated consumer groups. A flood of machismo icons of pub culture dominated television screens. Early examples such as Skol Lager’s “Skolar” series were crudely sexist: a Skol drinker counted out a large number of cans for himself, so that he had enough left over to “give Samantha one”. A new catchline was coined for manly performance: “I bet he drinks Carling’s Black Label”. Hofmeister’s swaggering, beer-swilling, snooker-playing, bird-pulling “George the Bear” was a role model for public house mores, a teddy with attitude. Aggressive Australian brands such as Castlemaine XXXX and Fosters upped the stakes with romantic images of hard-boiled reactionaries of the outback.

Massive expenditure ensured that lager advertising entered popular culture; advertising agencies came to the view that the point of lager advertising was simply to be a social catalyst – to get talked about in pubs. Britain converted to lager, but by the mid-1980s, the variations of manly image were blurring. When Holsten Pils finally abandoned its 1980s campaign in which comedian Griff Rhys-Jones was inserted into old film footage to play opposite tough-talking men such as Humphrey Bogart, its marketing director was ingenuously apologetic: ‘Old Movies’ was a star campaign; everyone from 18-year-olds to grannies loved it. But it was proving very difficult to get people to listen to what the ads actually said”.

The distinctions between brands on the general theme of laddishness had virtually dissolved. When advertising “creatives” discovered computer gadgetry – “Harry” and Paintbox, photo-animation, model animation, pixellation, and digital edit – these effects became the ideas. A 1991 sixty-second television commercial showed a man wearing a chequered suit and carrying a hammer, wandering in a surreal world of many doors. Weird objects passed by, a moving eye in a walking picture frame, a clockwork mechanism also holding a hammer. The voice-over informed us that our hero was looking for something. Entering a room with a chequered floor, he encountered a huge animated bar of music and – the first clue to the product – another ambling picture frame containing a man drinking a beer, before emerging into a party scene with a few intercut glimpses of a glass of beer and finally the logo for McEwan’s lager. The agency account planner explained that the chequered motifs were visual reference to draughts and hence draught beer, while the bar of music was a pun on a place where you drink. “It’s basically about him not being able to find things he likes and building things to his own liking . . . There is a sense that when it’s you and your mates you live by your own rules”. The cult director whom the agency hired to make the commercial was less confident: “I’m not quite sure what’s on the brewer’s mind . . . On the whole I wouldn’t have associated heavy beer drinking with my sort of films. But maybe that’s what they do – go and get tanked up and watch art movies”. By the end of the century lagers were aiming to identify themselves with casual attitudes towards sexual behaviour in miniature soap opera episodes. A 1999 Castlemaine XXXX television commercial, set to the sound track, “Your Cheating Heart” developed the proposition that it was okay to make love to your best friend’s wife, but not to accept his last can of cold beer from her.

“Attitude” as an expression of a brand’s personality is an elaboration of a brand’s tone of voice – identifying closely with the outlook and aspirations of the members of the target group, so as to become accepted as part of their life. If you read their perceptions right – and that’s a big if – it seems to engage involvement. But essentially it’s a dead end. Because any brand can do it, it’s not a unique property. And street cred fashions are fickle. Because attitudes change, a product which is nothing but an expression of empathy can go out of fashion quickly. It takes enormous resources to continuously update a brand personality – and perhaps only the superbrands like Coke and Pepsi can do it.

 

Advertising lags cultural change rather than leads it, but it’s quick to sniff nascent social trends and exploit them for commercial purpose. While it can spread change fast, popularising new models for behaviour, there is no evidence that advertising can invent culture. In any event that is beyond its remit; advertisers do not like to take chances on the unknown. Advertising “creatives” are closely in touch with popular visual culture, and as new themes appear – in the cinema or television – are quick to borrow interest by adapting the latest theme to commercial interests. Advertising is highly ephemeral, because by the definition of avant-garde, by the time a new fashion is reflected in the mass media it is passé. That’s why when you leaf through the newspapers of yesteryear, you find your eye wandering to the advertisements. They freeze a moment in time: the anxieties, the aspirations, the collective symbolism of the day.

The ruthless competitive spirit of the wheeler-dealers of the international business community captured in 1980s films like Wall Street was quickly emulated as normative behaviour in television commercials. The extra cost of flying British Airways Club Class was justified on the premise that a comfortable journey would allow the sharp-witted business executive to put one over on his associates. His female counterpart, the hard-driving power-dressed young woman who specialised in puncturing male egos, appeared in countless others. In a Volkswagen Golf commercial, she celebrated her divorce, incidentally mocking an old dear who thought the occasion was a wedding – pensioners are well out of the target group for the Golf – to contrive a situation for the slogan, “If only everything in life was as reliable as Volkswagen”. Because Japanese car manufacturers had to overcome old prejudices about cheap oriental imports, advertising for Toyota in the 1990s attached the brand to spiritual qualities of the Japanese work ethic, evoked by a Japanese ideogram and statement of philosophy. The 1994 launch of the Hyundai faced an additional handicap: it was made in Korea. The television advertising showed conventional cultural images: traditional buildings, Korean people, blossoms, underpinned by a confrontational voice-track: “Even deeply held prejudice can be removed by knowledge and experience”. By purchasing a Hyundai, therefore, people who wanted cheap transport could defend their brand decision as an expression of an enlightened world-view.

As the 1990s released a flood of sentimental Hollywood films about characters getting back into touch with their real selves, advertising dutifully reaffirmed family values. An American magazine campaign launched in 1992 for Drambuie liquor played on the angst of “thirty-somethings”: an exhausted young Santa Claus crashed out by the Christmas tree alongside the milk and cookies left out for his visit, with the headline, “Oh no! I’m becoming my father!” In advertisements for family cars, the role model was now self-actualised and responsible. The young businessman in a 1992 British commercial ignored the temptations offered by the sexy sirens at his firm because he only had eyes for his wife, two children, and his Volkswagen Passat with its anti-lock brakes, catalytic converter, and engine running on lead-free petrol. A Volvo campaign in America presented a classroom “show-and-tell” session in which kids explained how they know their daddy loved them: “My daddy loves me because he bought me a toy airplane”, said one. “My daddy loves me because he bought me a doll’s house”, said another. The third trumped those with “My daddy loves me because he bought a Volvo”.

 

Uniformity drives profit, while people seek distinctiveness. As branding is about conformity, the technique of the Big Lie is to assert the opposite: its themes are independence, self-realisation, rebellion, and alienation. The soft drink Tango provides youngsters with the opportunity to identify with zany dysfunction, while Adidas and Nike trainers are for self-reliant youth. The 1996 television ads for the Peugeot 406, a prosaic family car, suggested that its purchase would enable you to “search for the hero inside yourself”. An American magazine advertisement with the headline, “Do you dream in Sony?” addressed the maverick lurking inside the consumer of mass market entertainment:

 

fantasy is just another word

for fearless there will always be

a place in the world for rebels

the key to creativity is yanking

convention inside out

 

Youthful protest is often seen as a kind of materialist backlash, a reluctance to use branded products as badges. In fact it is simply the substitution of one generation’s tokens for those of another. Youth feels it is “anti-advertising”, so a 1993 advertiser aiming at teenagers created a commercial which, like a rampaging cuckoo in a warbler’s nest, suddenly hijacked pastiche commercials apparently advertising other products, erupting in a frenzy of video static and zoomy graphics to plug Sega computer games.

In The White Negro, Norman Mailer developed the idea that black consciousness, leaching into white culture, would foment a revolution against the institutions of capitalism. But marketing fashioned the symbols of protest into products, and advertising co-opted rebellion as an identity badge. Subversion became a communications strategy. The social and political expressions of the white hipster stars of the 1960s counter-culture were sucked up by the advertising hoover and regurgitated as commercials. Waves of dissidence arising from the gutters were restyled as marketing fads: Generation X, the New Beats, the MTV Generation. Tony Kaye employed the iconoclastic Velvet Underground track Venus in Furs in his Dunlop tyre commercial. Janis Joplin’s sour ballad satirising the acquisitive society, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?”, was employed without a hint of irony in 1995 to sell – Mercedes-Benz motor cars. (Janis herself owned a Porsche.) Revolution became a lifestyle; preaching rebellion became the role of the consumer goods manufacturer. To inherit the mantle of reformers such as Gandhi, Miles Davis, and Picasso it was only necessary to “Think Different” and buy an Apple Macintosh instead of a personal computer. Mailer’s vision was faulty; it was the argument of the philosopher Herbert Marcuse which prevailed: radical impulses have been suborned by business and transformed into new instruments of conformity.1 Marketing has absorbed the shot hurled by the counterculture, beaten it into trinkets, and sold it back to the dispossessed: the Sex Pistols perform for Levis, Allen Ginsberg models Gap. Why does it work? Perhaps because, for most people, what rebellion is about is not changing the world for the benefit of mankind, but to create a brighter patch for one’s self.

As Goebbels knew, a cardinal tactic of propaganda is to promote bonding within groups by targeting outsiders for derision. In Britain “anorak” (a windbreaker) is a contemporary term of abuse for eccentrics, i.e. people who are truly independent-minded. A mid-1990s television commercial showed a man wearing an anorak describing how he had constructed his model of the Empire State Building. “Five years, six months in the making . . . 76,478 matches, each individually stained . . . ”. Suddenly, as in a Monty Python skit, a giant foot smashed his dream to pieces. It was wearing BK-branded trainers.

Because they focus on rebellion, the aspirations of youth are superficially different from adults, but underneath the motivations are the same. If you find the right nerve to press, youth are indeed more susceptible than adults because, feeling their way uncertainly to maturity, they have more anxiety. While craving individualism as a means of
self-expression, and wanting to be seen to be cool (indifferent to adult values), they have a desperate need to conform to those of their own peer group. Young people are highly aware of advertising as a cultural influence, and will steal posters from bus shelters and hoardings which touch their sensibilities and post them on their bedroom walls alongside those of other heroes: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, and Take That. These become cult classics because the youth are in the market for the attitudes they express, though that does not necessarily mean they will buy the products which ally themselves to these ideas. (The traffic in icons moves both ways; advertising influences pop culture too. The 1996 television campaign for Levi’s jeans catapulted its sound track, “Spaceman”, by a new pop group called Babylon Zoo, to the top of the UK charts. In 1999 a series of British Gas commercials featuring the over-protective mother of a gormless son inspired a BBC comedy programme, Mrs Merton and Malcolm).

 

Over the past two centuries the character of advertising has advanced from the provision of essential information, such as announcements of ships’ sailing times, through the application of social pressures, to the assertion of product claims, to associations with borrowed values, to now simply association with a point of view or attitude towards life: almost anything will do, from the idiotic pronouncements of the dysfunctional cartoon character “Reg” in the Embassy Regal cigarette advertisements (see Chapter 20) to the lofty ideals explored by Benetton. The drive towards minimalism was fostered by the creative response to the increasing restrictions on cigarette advertising. Because it was so prominent, and because innuendo is easier than thought, the empty content of cigarette advertising was mimicked by other advertisers who neither had the need to be so evasive nor the massive resources necessary to make the tactic work. The style of advertising presentation is now so essential to the brand message that new campaigns are promoted as media events. When Guinness launched a new television campaign in 1994 which involved seeing fantastic worlds in a pint of stout, it advertised its launch in the national press, and other brands have since followed suit.

Facts are now irrelevant to much advertising. Today brands seek to distinguish themselves by projecting an attitude or association which they believe will ingratiate them with their intended consumers, like a youth worker wearing a baseball cap back to front. Even a highly technical product with performance differentials, such as a mobile phone, is now advertised as a way of making a personal statement. A 1998 TV commercial for Siemens provided no brand information whatsoever; it focused entirely on the fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, who had designed a dress with a pocket for a mobile phone. Towards the end of the 20th century, like modern-art, there seemed to be nowhere else for advertising to go, except to self-destruct. Which is what happened next.

1 Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964.