The Big Lie – the complete book online - 25 Unreality

Article Index

 

Chapter 25

Meanwhile,
back in the real world

Unreality

“You may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”. Lincoln’s appealing slogan rests on two elementary assumptions. First, that there is a clear and visible distinction between sham and reality, between the lies a demagogue would have us believe and the truths which are there all the time. Second, that the people tend to prefer reality to sham, that if offered a choice between a simple truth and a contrived image, they will prefer the truth. Neither of these any longer fits the facts.

Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, 1961

In 1991 the magazine Vanity Fair featured a nude woman on its cover. It caused an uproar of outrage in the media. Not because the woman was nude. Not because the nude woman was the well-known film star Demi Moore. But because the nude film star was plumply pregnant. Five years later another nude figure outraged the public. This was a photograph on a poster of a naked baby, innocent as the day it was born. It was, in fact, shown on the day it was born, wailing, its umbilical cord still attached, smeared with blood and vernix. In the US a parenting magazine, Child, refused to print the press version of this advertisement. In Britain the poster provoked a storm of complaints and the ASA ordered it to come down, on the grounds that it was obscene.

The newborn baby was the latest image in a campaign which Benetton, an international chain retailing undistinguished casual clothing for youth in more than 7,000 shops and 100 countries, had developed around controversial social and moral issues. The images were confrontational, always shocking somebody. None of them had anything to do with Benetton’s products, nor indeed any public posture adopted by the company. Usually no text was included, apart from the Benetton logo. The questions these advertisements raised were left hanging. The aim of the campaign was simply that, by associating itself with provocative themes, the company would create an affinity with rebellious youth. The Benetton logo would become a global badge identifying the young people who wore clothing emblazoned with it as right-minded: selflessly interested in social issues, rather than venal acquisitiveness, and hence themselves interesting. A good reason to acquire a new wardrobe. Benetton advertising aroused widespread indignation, disgust, envy and admiration. None of it would ever have survived test by focus group.

Proprietor Luciano Benetton did not use an advertising agency; traditional advertising, he felt, was worthless. Like a Renaissance prince, in 1983 he commissioned a fashion photographer to wander the world searching for emotional images on the general theme of the universality of Man. To harmonise with this advertising approach, at first centred on racial harmony, he even changed the names of his shops: to United Colors of Benetton. The photographer, Oliviero Toscani, had no pretensions about advertising theory. He said his simple objective was “to make people look at the ads. Selling jumpers is the company’s problem, not mine”. He began by exploiting racial and sexual stereotypes. When a 1989 image of a black woman suckling a white baby had to be withdrawn because of protests in the US, it was followed by a picture of a black man and a white woman holding an oriental baby. A 1991 photo of a priest kissing a nun on the lips created uproar in Italy. A picture of the Queen, regenerated by computer as a black woman, achieved the same result in Britain. The images were sometimes ambiguous. One which showed two children, a cherubic, blue-eyed blond hugging a black child with his hair twisted into horns, caused an avalanche of criticism in the US from civil rights and religious groups. Toscani claimed he was promoting racial understanding: “Black people have been demonised. We’re reflecting what already exists”. American blacks also misinterpreted a picture which showed black and white hands cuffed together. Toscani had meant: “We’re in this together” but overlooked chain gang associations.

Undeterred, Benetton expanded its agenda to public health issues. One image was constructed of hundreds of snapshots of young people, the colours forming a pattern which read “AIDS”. Did it mean that all these people had the disease? Or just that it should be on their minds? The ASA ruled against another advertisement which showed a dying AIDS patient surrounded by his family. The British advertising trade press condemned Benetton advertisements and some magazines and owners of poster sites refused to carry them. The advertising community in general had no qualms about revoking freedom of expression for a company which had the cheek to appropriate real issues, moreover without the guidance of an advertising agency:

 

While the ASA impotently waves the red card and assorted magazine editors vie with the Health Education Authority in the vigour of their denunciation, two youth magazines are reported to be keen on running the ad to stimulate circulation . . . Far from denying the ad the oxygen of publicity, the act of banning it actually contributes remarkably to public awareness of its existence . . . What they are capitalising on is bad advertising which will eventually backfire on Benetton. This is no criticism of the art direction (the campaign has won numerous creative citations) nor of the indisputably high awareness achieved. The problem lies in the message. Either it is ludicrously pretentious or it is breathtakingly cynical. We are invited to believe that Benetton outlets are a haven for the ethically correct consumer of the Nineties. Yet there seems nothing remarkable in Benetton’s products or corporate policy to distinguish it from its competitors in this respect . . . American Vogue is still right to accept the ads and those who ban it over here are wrong. The campaign should stand or fall on its own merits.1

 

Other Benetton advertisements showed topical photo-reportage, pictures which might appear in any newspaper, or in the annual report of a respected charity: an oil-slicked bird, South American children slaving in a factory making mud bricks, economic migrants from Albania crowding onto a ship trying to get to Italy, a war cemetery, a blazing car bombed by terrorists, a Mafia killing. Nevertheless, the ASA banned most of these, and applied pressure through the Committee of Advertising Practice and directly on Benetton to force it to abandon the controversial campaign.

In 1993 the Obscene Publications squad sought to bar British distribution of a leading French newspaper, Libération, because it contained a double-page colour Benetton advertisement showing 56 sets of male and female genitalia including those of children. By mid-afternoon the issue was a sell-out in France, where there were only ten calls of complaint. One of them was from the country’s advertising trade body which told other publishers it would not tolerate further publication of the ad. Pascal Somarriba, Benetton’s head of international advertising, claimed it was not sexual exploitation, because photographer Oliviero Toscani had used his own children. He questioned the different valuations attached to advertising: “It is a study of sexuality and races. It is also about what is tolerated in one arena but not in another. Lots of things like nudity have been tolerated in art down the centuries but are not tolerated in advertising”. There was another agenda as well: the photograph had been placed in Libération in order to qualify for acceptance in the avant-garde section of the Venice Biennale arts festival.

That same year another advertisement attracted the Vatican to the ranks of Benetton critics. Its official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, denounced the company for “image terrorism” and “making a mockery even of death”. The offending images were a bloodied white T-shirt with a bullet hole and the camouflage combat trousers of a soldier killed in Bosnia. A Benetton press release explained that these clothes had been worn by a Croatian soldier killed in 1993, and had been given to the company by his parents. A typewritten message across the advertisement was from his father, saying that he wished his son’s name to be used in the cause of peace. A Benetton spokeswoman feigned pious astonishment:

 

It is absolutely amazing the Vatican should condemn people who are trying to get important issues debated. The church does not have a monopoly on social issues. If we were trying to sell T-shirts, there probably would not be a worse way of doing it. We are not that naive. It’s meant to question the notion of institutionalised violence and the role of advertising . . . in a commercial fairyland which pretends war doesn’t exist.

 

While this image was among the Benetton ads on permanent exhibition in the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung refused to carry this advertisement. A handful of disgruntled Benetton store owners in Germany used the provocative ads as a pretext for a rebellion against the parent company, though there was no apparent harm to Benetton sales, which, in spite of the 1994 recession, grew 12 per cent to record highs. In Britain, the ASA received only a handful of complaints about the dead soldier advertisement, possibly because the message was in Serbo-Croat.

The commonest complaint about the Benetton campaign was that it was exploitative. A letter to the Guardian was typical:

 

Using this banner [the United Colors of Benetton] as if it were any of the world’s true charities is gross arrogance. The objective here is the pursuit of sales and profit. Certainly profit has a place but not as shown in subterfuge. Human suffering should have no place as a vehicle for merchandise. The company is crassly dishonest to pretend otherwise. Bosnia is a bloodbath now, with very real daily torture and death. How sick can capitalism get to use this fact to sell “designer” clothing?

 

By this letter-writer’s logic, had Benetton endeavoured to contribute to a solution of any of the questions it aired, or even taken some policy standpoint about them in the way that Anita Roddick claimed to do for the Third World and animal testing with her chain of Body Shops, there would be no grounds for offence. Yet the intensity and flavour of the public reaction suggest otherwise. Benetton was offending a long-standing convention: advertising has nothing to do with real life. Its role is to tell fairy stories. The consumer shies from confronting the truths of birth, ageing, and death. Benetton, in any case, remained unrepentant. With the high-minded justification of “challenging assumptions of beauty”, the campaign continued in 1998 with a group photograph of Down’s syndrome children, and Benetton ushered in the new millennium in the US and Europe by featuring the photographs of Death Row inmates of America’s prisons. Opposing capital punishment was now a fashion statement. As photographer Toscani explained, “I’m not here to judge whether people in this campaign are guilty or innocent and I’m not saying they should be free. I’m just trying to raise awareness of the issue”. The American campaign provoked outrage from state governments and the powerful retailer Sears Roebuck reneged on a franchising contract it had just signed. Jerry Della Femina, founder of the American agency Della Femina/Jeary, was one of those offended: “If the death sentence were handed out to those who are guilty of producing excruciatingly tasteless, ineffective advertising and inflicting it on the masses, Oliviero Toscani, the self-proclaimed genius behind Benetton advertising, would be appearing in his own anti-capital punishment ads”. It was an iconoclasm too far. In 2001 Toscani’s 18-year association with Benetton was terminated.

Despite the widespread antipathy within the advertising industry, advertising people recognised that by trading in human emotion, the (however false) Colors of Benetton campaign was accumulating considerable image capital. Where Benetton led, others followed. A worthy three-minute travelogue, ranging from Botswana to the Cotswolds, appeared in the commercial breaks in 1994, with a voice-over offering concerned comment about issues such as elephant conservation, the flight from the land, and the effects of tourism. The reason for the appearance of expensive personalities such as cricketer David Gower and military hero Sir Peter de la Billière, plus a fleet of off-track vehicles, was deferred until midway, when it was revealed that this was a commercial launching a new Range Rover.

Nike appropriated feminist issues in a long-standing (1989-94) press campaign targeting the beauty myths promoted in women’s magazines. The inspirational copy ran:

 

A woman is often measured by the things she cannot control . . . by 36-24-36 and inches and ages and numbers, by all the outside things that don’t ever add up to who she is on the inside . . . let her be measured by the things she can control, by who she is and who she is trying to become, because as every woman knows, measurements are only statistics. And STATISTICS LIE.

 

The candid photograph nevertheless showed an attractive woman.

A 1991 television commercial showed a mentally handicapped man stacking the shelves of a supermarket. Shoppers averted their eyes as they swept past him. The man smiled, and the film froze on what now appeared as a perfectly normal happy face. A public service announcement? No, an advertisement for Fuji film. Another commercial in the series played the racial card: an Asian woman waiting by the school gate was shunned by a group of white mothers. When she hugged her daughter the film froze on a smiling white child. These images exerted the power of cognitive dissonance: the real world has intruded into the world of advertising. But unlike the Benetton ads, they resolved the dissonance with a conventional aspirational solution, and hence aroused little controversy.

Does the end unjustify the means? Using death, disability, racial prejudice, and human tragedies as a kind of product claim may seem in dubious taste. But by breaking into people’s private lives through advertising, rather than confining the rhetoric to the conventional and more avoidable channels, such advertising can create involvement in social issues. Advertising is by its nature exploitative. In the consumer world, where the avoidance of painful reality is paramount, images which serve to promote an awareness of the real world we live in – that new babies are bloodied with slime, that war is hell – seem a useful counter-balance. By cynically identifying themselves with issues in order to curry favour with certain target groups such opportunistic advertisers are nevertheless at least telling it how it is. By default, they fill an awareness gap created by the failure of conventional public service advertising (see next chapter).

In 1961, when television was still in its infancy, Daniel J. Boorstin foresaw that the increasing powers of mass communications technology, far from sharpening our perceptions of reality, would blunt them:

 

The images themselves become shadowy mirror reflections of one another: one interview comments on another; one television show spoofs another; novel, television show, radio program, movie, comic book, and the way we think of ourselves, all become merged into mutual reflections. At home we begin to try to live according to the script of television programs of happy families, which are themselves nothing but amusing quintessences of us . . . While we have given others great power to deceive us, to create pseudo-events, celebrities, and images, they could not have done so without our collaboration . . . We refuse to believe that advertising men are at most our collaborators, helping us to make illusions for ourselves. In our moral indignation, our eagerness to find the villains who have created and frustrated our exaggerated expectations, we have underestimated the effect of the rise of advertising. We think it has meant an increase of untruthfulness. In fact it has meant a reshaping of our very concept of truth.2

 

A sense of unreality permeates the process of developing an advertisement from the outset. Advertising conceptions spring from the assumption that the product, service, or company on offer is the optimum. No other choice is tolerable. As these brands function in a competitive environment, the claims of competitors are mutually exclusive, an unreality which the consumer recognises, though the advertisers do not. A communications strategy is then devised which develops this unreality in terms of wish-fulfilment: what the advertiser wants the consumer to know, believe and feel about the brand. It’s a wish list which requires an unrealistic degree of involvement from the intended target. At its least imaginative, this hope is simply translated into a dream world sanitised in the advertiser’s desired image. The advertiser simply denies reality, and asserts that the opposite is true. Woman magazine launched a television campaign in 1994 to correct its dated homemaker image simply by claiming it had changed in some intrinsic though unspecified manner. The only evidence offered for its transformation was the style of the advertising: attractive young downmarket housewives hurtled about in frenetic lifestyle situations: driving cars, refereeing a football game, and chatting in restaurants, a 1990s gloss on the traditional cosy homemaker’s world, with no man in sight, nor any working wives. Advertisements like these, which admit the need for change without demonstrably changing the product, simply remind people of their existing convictions. The people they target understand that the world shown in advertising is remote from real experience. Blinkered by their “communications strategy”, advertisers may not always appreciate the width of the gap, but consumers recognise advertising hyperbole and make allowances for it.

Effective advertising cannot ignore the consumer’s prior experience. On the contrary, it takes care to reconfirm preconceptions, before extending them to a new idea. Advertising thus has considerable power to reinforce what people already believe. Couple this with the physiological phenomenon that our senses are always attuned to what’s different: the sudden noise or the sudden silence, the leaf that stirs, the red frog, the woman standing in a group of men, the man wearing the beret, the monocle, or the ten-gallon hat. We are conditioned to notice and suspect the nonconformist, the member of another tribe, and exaggerate his different qualities. In this way, minorities become associated with behavioural ticks. Because advertising is based on dramatic simplification, it trades in these visual clichés, shorthand symbols which everyone will instantly recognise: the lascivious Frenchman, the swaggering German, the naive American. Advertising preaches the same popular parables as the tabloid newspapers.

A 1998 full-page press ad, lobbying on behalf of the Multiple Sclerosis Society to press for more extensive prescriptions of an expensive drug, Beta Interferon, and other services for MS sufferers, used an unflattering caricature of an uncaring doctor to represent the National Health Service. The image this charity chose was an intimidating middle-aged man wearing a white coat and a bow tie, with a stethoscope round his neck. While this character may still inhabit Harley Street and the senior staff of major teaching hospitals, 50 per cent of all doctors are now female, and GPs, who are in the front line of prescribing, have not worn white coats for decades.

Sloppy thinking confuses and further degrades these stereotypes. Advertising agencies are not great sticklers for detail, and it’s not a great step from dramatic simplification to dumbing down. When the 1995 UK campaign for Peugeot introduced two new models called Inca and Aztec with the headline “Mexican Faves”, it provoked an official protest from the Peruvian diplomatic office in London. There were also complaints from people who had allegedly bought package holidays to Mexico as a result of seeing the commercial, and were disappointed not to find Inca as well as Aztec ruins there. “We thought it was just a bit of fun”, explained a member of the agency board. “It’s all in the right part of the world”. An imported beer called Steinlager displayed a similar disdain for detail when it introduced itself to London on tube posters. The label on the bottle showed a traditional German stein. The headline read, “Of course you’re whinging poms. Up ‘til now you’ve only had Aussie lager”. This ostensibly more authentic lager was in fact from New Zealand.

In 1922 in his book Public Opinion, Walter Lippman pointed out the useful role played by stereotypes in distinguishing between “the world outside and the pictures in our heads”. These clichés, he explained, “help us defend our prejudices by seeming to give definiteness and consistency to our turbulent and disorderly daily experience . . . they are closer to propaganda. For they simplify rather than complicate. Stereotypes narrow and limit experience in an emotionally satisfying way . . .”. In advertising you can use any type of idea, as long as it’s a stereotype. It is thus a powerful conservative force, reinforcing prejudices against out-groups and blocking cultural maturity.

Advertising will not embrace a new idea until there exists an identifiable economic group which endorses it. As minority classes get wealthier, sociological shifts create new consumer marketing opportunities which are flagged by the news and entertainment media. And so, after a certain cultural lag which is necessary for businessmen to recognise and accept change, new images appear in advertisements. In 1994 the Swedish retailer Ikea featured the first homosexual couple in a mass consumer advertising campaign in the US, a recognition that this out-group had moved from being some kind of moral or social problem into an economic opportunity. The same year the Dutch tourist authority ran a magazine campaign welcoming homosexual couples: “Sincere greetings from people who respect your choices”.

 

Advertising inhabits a parallel universe. In this Truman’s World it cocoons us against reality by trivialising events which occur outside, in the real world. In 1999 the commercial television news provider ITV finally achieved its ambition of moving the traditional “News at Ten” to 6.30 p.m., (a proposal regarded as so threatening to Britain’s cultural life that it had been vetoed by former Prime Minister John Major), so that films could be shown in prime viewing time undistracted by a half-hour of reality. Concerns expressed in the broadsheet editorial columns about “dumbing down” were verified in the advertising campaign announcing the change, which paired cataclysmic headlines, such as “World on Brink of Recession?”, with shots from favourite films and the soothing reassurance that “with the news moving from 10pm you’ll be able to enjoy movies without interruption”.

David Remnick, a journalist who lived in Russia during the collapse of communism, observed the subversive influence of frivolous advertising imagery in less comfortable cultures:

 

There is something profoundly irritating and American about ads for investment funds or “premium” cat food in a country where the vast majority live in poverty. A year or two of exposure to American-style commercials has produced what decades of communist propaganda could not: genuine indignation on the part of honest people against the excesses of capitalism.3

 

The unemployed youth of the world, slumped in front of television receivers or gathered on street corners under advertising hoardings, with empty pockets and hearts full of anger, do not have the emotional stability to distinguish between advertising conceits and the realities of post-industrial society. Are the ceaseless fantasies of advertising a siren call to revolution? Oliviero Toscani, responsible for the intrusive Benetton images, believes so:

 

Advertising will be put on trial, it will have its Nuremberg. Real men all feel inadequate; real mothers are rushed off their feet while the ones in adverts never have a damn thing to do; fictional families are happy, real ones are a mess. Do you remember Pietro Maso, the guy who killed his parents? He is the product of the negative influence which advertising has on feelings. Young people look at a world which they don’t have at home.

 

The rest of us, who are equipped to distinguish between aspiration and actuality, must be on constant guard against manipulation. The denizens of advertising’s Lotus Land, a citizenry of consumption which must never be offended, which must be ceaselessly entertained, holding beliefs which must be constantly reinforced and impulses which must be indulged rather than challenged, inhabits a factory farm, not a democracy.

1 Marketing Week, 1992.

2 The Image.

3 Lenin’s Tomb, Penguin