Warning: The article below is over five years old. It may be badly written, poorly considered, immature, obsolete, no longer my opinion, or simply flat-out wrong.

On Advertising

Looking back it seems as if it only took a second. It was as if something snapped inside of me - a bubble burst and its contents scattered, no longer constrained. In reality my discontent had been brewing for a long time, but standing in HMV and surveying the aisles brought it all to a head.

One of the best parts of earning money is spending it. I love music, and so I tend to buy a fair amount of CDs, but I have strong aversion to paying full-price for an album. I haunt the aisles of the sales, clutching my "£5 off when you spend £35!" voucher, casting a discriminating eye over the racks of CDs trying to find a selection of albums that I'm willing to pay £(x-35) for. On this particular occasion, though, the offerings were particularly poor. My mind wandered, mainly as a defence mechanism against the awful music they insist on pumping into chain record stores, and a question popped into my head.

"When was the last time you were in a record store, and there wasn't a sale on?" I couldn't remember. I wasn't sure it had even happened. Those red stickers proclaiming "£8.99" like it was a bargain seemed even less alluring. How can it be a special offer if it happens every other month, I pondered. The whole mindset came crashing down as I saw each prominent price label metamorphose into the words, "Buy me!"

Crass advertising It was a revolutionary moment, but instead of release & euphoria it invoked cynicism, disillusionment, and depression. It made me realise that advertising was everywhere, and it is unescapable in today's modern world. Television, magazines, newspapers, radio, and the internet are all plastered with adverts trying to convince you that they're offering you The Best Deals! and Limited Time Offers!. Leave the media alone and go for a walk, and you meet it on bus shelters, the insides and outsides of busses, trains, stations, shop windows, telephone booths, and so on. Drive out into the countryside, and you're still not impenetrable - SMS advertising is a small but growing activity.

And it is everywhere. Think of one thing you've done this week that didn't have advertising. Ice skating? Adverts around the rink. Gone to the cinema? Sit through 15 minutes of adverts and trailers before you get to the bit you wanted to see. Gone out drinking? There'll be drinks posters in there, or maybe even a video screen blaring out adverts at you. Nothing is sacred in the eyes of a marketer. Everything, everywhere, is an opportunity for an advert. People adjust and tune out the adverts, so they become bigger, more brash, and harder to ignore - until people stop responding to those, and the cycle repeats.

There are a few basic kinds of adverts:

  1. Exclusitivity - an attempt at convincing you that you're getting something special that sets you apart from the crowd, or that their product is head-and-shoulders above the rest. See E&J Gallo's "Just a wine?" posters for the latter and most watch adverts for an example of the former. There's also a kind of inverse exclusitivity that invites you to be part of something - anything with the phrase "Welcome to our world" is one of these.
  2. Sexiness - Again, there are two broad types at work. Either a "Buy me, I'll make you sexy!" - perfumes, bras, most makeups - or a "Buy me, I'm sexy!" - laptops, mobile phones, and so on. The former is always a bit of a con, as these products can help make someone sexy, but they're not enough in and of themselves. A hefty dose of self-confidence is far more enticing than the perfume you're wearing. If the Lynx effect actually existed I wouldn't be writing this article - I'd be lathering myself up under a sprinkler. For the latter, sometimes the product is sexy, but not always. The iPod, for instance, is a tasty bit of hardware, but consider the Renault Megane. Renault designed an awful rear end to the car, then ran a whole host of adverts revolving around buttocks featuring lots of clips of sexy arses. The adverts made the car sexy, not the other way around.
  3. Appeal to lifestyle - Some adverts will try and convince you that their product will slot perfectly into your life. They're just what you need! The iPod advertising does this, to an extent, and mobile phones are frequent culprits.
  4. Good vibes - Whether it's Ben & Jerry's telling you about their generous corporate policy or Charmin's cartoon bears, there's possibly no better way to get you to buy a product than by making you feel good for doing so. Whether it's supporting a good cause, or just through cute mascots, making people feel good will sell your product. The reality can be completely different, as it's all in the perception. As long as the consumer believes that the company's being socially responsible, it doesn't matter if they're destroying trees or making their goods in sweatshops.

The reason why all this brought me down was because all of it is completely, entirely empty. It's a desperate attempt to get you to spend your money by convincing you that what they're selling is just what you need to make you happy. Everything's about whipping up a frenzy of excitement to try and make people think that what they're buying is unique and special - take DVDs. You can't buy a film on DVD. You can buy special editions, collector's editions, special collector's editions, director's cuts, special director's cuts, and so on. Stick a bit of printed cardboard around it and call it a boxed edition. It's all a big lie - none of it will make you any happier, any more sophisticated, or sexier. It's just a way of washing every last aspect of individuality out of yourself as you start defining yourself according to how the companies define you. Those gap pants - do you really think that they're cool? Or is it how they were presented to you?

I spent four years of my life studying economics, so I'm versed in the theories of supply and demand. I know the theories behind why shops offer sales, but I don't believe them. They're a psychological trick to make people spend more money, and that's all. Present someone with the assurance that what they're buying is normally priced higher, and it's reduced for a limited time, and people will drop their reasoning and open their wallets. I'm as guilty of it as anyone, but I will be seduced by the promises of "Virgin's BIGGEST EVER sale!" no longer. Who measures these things, anyway? What makes it the biggest ever - floor space? Price? Money off? Amount sold? Are these CDs and DVDs ever going to go back up to full price? Is £1 off an album sold for £10.99 really a reduction worth shouting about?

I'm convinced that all of the sales are a con. The company's still turning a profit in all the sales - lower margins, shift more units. Revenue increases accordingly. Music and DVDs are price-elastic goods according to this reasoning, which is probably true. It's win-win, as far as the shops are concerned - you walk out smiling, thinking you've got a bargain, and the shareholders and directors giggle all the way to the bank.

In the Western world, we've all bought into the consumer culture in a big way. It's unavoidable, and it isn't necessarily a bad thing. The desire to go out and buy things has made life easier and cheaper. But by worshipping at the altar of consumerism we've lost sight of what really matters. Good food is no longer what is wholesome and tasty - it's what Jamie Oliver endorses. Good company is no longer what makes your dinner parties great - it's the wine that you serve. Your clothes are not what make you sharp - it's who they're made by. This pattern repeats forever in a swirling morass of brand loyalty and recognition. I say that yes, you should go out and buy clothes. Go and shop for food and make tasty meals. But buy these things because you like the way they look or the way they taste - not because it's got "FCUK" or "Sainsbury's Taste The Difference Range" written on it.

So what's the solution? There are many ways of attacking the problem, but most people won't have time for most of them. The easiest thing to do is to look at things with a far more critical eye. Don't get swept up in the sales culture - so what if there's £100 off? Would you pay £50 for the item you're considering? If the answer is no, then don't buy it. The other easiest thing to do is to complain when products and services don't live up to expectations. Writing a letter is the best way, as it takes time and effort (and thus demonstrates to the company that you were sufficiently annoyed by their failiure to live up to expectations for you to take that time and effort), but email is another effective way of registering your comments. Don't be offensive, or demand recompense. Just explain what happened to you, how it differed from your expectations, and what you're going to do about it - for example, you might say you will take your business elsewhere in future, or will not be buying their products again, or will be complaining to Trading Standards. Even if you just say that your confidence in their product is severely dented, then it should hopefully be enough to get them to sit up and take notice.

Other things you can do are varied. Depending on what it is, you could talk to trading standards or the industry ombudsman, complain to your MP, tell your friends, write to the Director of the company or the parent company, boycott their products, or anything else you can think of. But really it all comes down to not getting swept up in the hype, and evaluating things for what they are.