The Big Lie – the complete book online - 28 Behaviour

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Chapter 28

Monkey see, monkey do


In 1992 a television station in a small American city was sued for failing to run a spot which a cosmetics firm had booked. The advertiser claimed damages for the loss of profits incurred by the failure of the commercial to appear. The television station was in a double-bind. An award for the plaintiff would require the court to determine an index of financial effectiveness for advertising, thereby setting an unwelcome precedent for American television contractors and advertising agents with disgruntled clients. The defence could only win by denying the influence of the television medium.

People abhor change. The older they are, the more difficult they find it. Not unreasonably. Because it means giving up “tried and true” habits which have got them this far. Concepts which require people to change their behaviour are notoriously difficult to sell. And their appeal cannot be predicted by research. As anyone who has tried to introduce an intrinsically new product, not just a new brand, should be aware:


In 1981 the largest producer of wine in the world (Gallo) decided to market a wine-based product packaged into individual servings . . . We took it to our in-house market research department which set up focus groups in nine cities over 14 days at a cost of more than $100,000 . . . I’ve never seen such a negative impression of a new product. First, they assumed we would use the worst wine we had in the product. Then they asked: “Why should you tell us what proportions to mix it in?” and “Why should you tell us what to mix it with?” The list of criticisms went on and on . . . I came home, absolutely hammered, saying that it was . . . a complete failure and we shouldn’t do it. At the same time, about 100 miles away, there were two guys making a product in their garage called California Cooler. Four years later they sold out to Brown Foreman, a big US distiller, for £150 million and the “wine cooler” became a phenomenon. After I left Gallo, it came out with its own product, which became No 1 in the market.1


This is why the pioneer in a new field often fails to reap the rewards which fall to those who follow. The successive waves of new technology in the spectacular explosion of telecommunications over the past couple of decades have left a lot of corpses on the beach. Remember the one-way cordless phone systems – Zonephone, Phonepoint, Callpoint, Rabbit? They were licensed by the government in 1989, but failed to impress consumers and were superseded by two-way analogue and later digital systems (Cellnet, Vodafone, Mercury’s One2One) which could receive as well as make calls. To avoid monopolies the new networks were prevented from selling direct to the public. The product field was beset by different technologies, spotty coverage, constant technological change, enterprising dealers to whom sellers of airtime paid money for connecting people to their network, and deceptive marketing practice, which virtually gave away handsets while concealing the true cost of the system. The result was a nightmare of consumer confusion. Lots of money was poured into two types of advertising: expensive image-building television campaigns to establish the major networks as brands, and hard-sell retailers’ ads cluttered with equipment models and prices. It was a decade before any serious effort was undertaken to explain any of this to the consumer in terms he could understand. This was finally assumed by one of the most successful retailers, the Carphone Warehouse (“carphone” itself by now a misnomer for what had become known as the mobile phone).

Some institutions, such as British Telecom, the Post Office, and the Central Office of Information, spend a great deal of money trying to change people’s behaviour: to get them to use the phone more, write more letters, or fasten their seat belts. Anyone who has tried to get one’s life partner to modify behaviour, say by remembering to screw the tops of condiment bottles on tightly, put the toilet seat down, or pick the towels up off the floor, knows this is an uphill task. The advertiser also risks attracting the opprobrium directed at any busybody who tries to tell us what to do. A 1994 British Telecom press campaign showed a man and his son on opposite pages, facing away from each other. Both were saying “I’d love to talk to him but he never calls me”. It was expecting a lot for the lengthy copy to resolve the generation gap. Another whimsical ad in the series showed a tot using a play phone, with the headline “Is it fair to blame Fisher-Price for the size of your phone bill?” The intention was to persuade people that “the urge to talk is part of growing up”, but the self-interest of the advertiser would be evident to any parents already concerned about the size of the phone bills generated by older children.

An opportunity to directly measure telephone behavioural change came about on Easter Sunday, 16 April, 1995. British Telecom had designated this as “Phone Day” in Britain. Every phone number in the country was to receive an extra digit. This was preceded for several weeks by a barrage of TV and newspaper ads on the theme “It’s 1 to remember”. The intended meaning of “remember”– to bear in mind – was confused in the campaign with a second meaning, which was altogether more fun to illustrate – nostalgia. Old photographs were used to liken the forthcoming event to landmark moments of the 1960s (i.e. the formative years of your average ad-person at the time) such as England winning the World Cup and man landing on the moon. British Telecom spent £16 million to get across this simple message. In fact the simplicity was deceptive. You had to drop 1 from overseas calls, and five major cities had completely rejigged numbers. This information never emerged until “Phone Day” itself, when it was simply stated in a classic all-type announcement. British Telecom later reported that by “Phone Day”, only one-third of businesses had changed their phone and fax systems to accommodate the new numbers.

The most difficult task in advertising is to get people to try something new. Yet there is one curious corner of the business where advertising people face this challenge all the time: the promotion of new films, usually on posters. Every movie is a new product introduction. The advertising formula is extremely consistent: brand authority is created by featuring the stars or (less often) the director, and the USP – the essential theme or story conflict – is summarised in a few dramatic words and a compelling visual illustration. A whole new brand has been created, which, if ephemeral, has an emotional imagery which is clearly expressed. Sometimes too clearly – the familiar genre and the predictable conflict is so well evoked that it hardly seems necessary to see the film as well.


Because of the conventions through which it is expressed, advertising is only a simulacrum of the real world, and we all recognise that. The same is true of art forms – each has its own conventions, and often they are trite. But occasionally art – and more rarely advertising – transcends these conventions and reaches through and grabs us by the heart or by the throat, or strikes us in the gut. We are certainly affected, we may be outraged, but do we actually change the way we feel and think? Can the cultural images presented in films and television and adapted so freely by advertising affect social behaviour?

In the film Falling Down, a man driven round the bend by the frustrations of modern life turned a machine-gun on objects and people he found irritating. In some American cinemas, audiences whooped and stamped their feet in approval. After the film The Deerhunter was shown on US television, twenty-six suicides from Russian roulette were recorded, thought to be related to a scene in the film. Shortly after viewing a video of the film Natural Born Killers, which showed two teenagers getting their kicks by going on a killing spree, two teenage runaways held up a Louisiana convenience store, and shot and paralysed the woman who owned it. Her family sued the film-maker, Oliver Stone. In 1999 the United States Supreme Court ruled that his claim of the right to free artistic expression was no defence, thus opening the gates to a possible flood of litigation. A lawsuit was promptly launched against the producers of the 1995 film The Basketball Diaries, in which Leonardo DiCaprio played a teenage heroin addict who gunned down his teachers and classmates, by the parents of three children who died in a schoolyard massacre in Kentucky in 1997.

Director Laurence Gordon was delighted when long queues formed at American cinemas for his 1979 exploitation film about urban violence, The Warriors. In the first week three street gang killings were linked to the movie. “People went out and pretended they were warriors”, Gordon said. The film was recalled by Paramount. Gordon later produced other films noted for brutal violence, Die Hard, Predator, and 48 Hours. “I’d be lying if I said people don’t imitate what they see on the screen” he has admitted. “Look how dress styles change. We have people who want to look like Julia Roberts and Michelle Pfeiffer and Madonna. Of course we imitate”. Sir Richard Attenborough, one of Britain’s most distinguished film directors, says,


I do deplore the pornography of gratuitous violence. Precisely what effect that has on the social scene is open to enormous conjecture. But I would find it impossible to dismiss the contention that it has a bearing. Years ago a ghastly piece of violence shocked one – Psycho and A Clockwork Orange – but now we are inured and young people no longer react in that way to something extraordinary like that.


The director of A Clockwork Orange, the late Stanley Kubrick, had second thoughts as well, and withdrew his film from circulation in the UK.

When it comes to influencing what people see, believe, and think, few people in the world have more power than media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The Economist has accused the newspapers he controls through News Corporation, such as the Sun, as contributing to “a coarsening of British public life”. His American film company, Fox, produces many films notorious for casual violence, and his television channel, BSkyB, broadcasts them in Britain. Murdoch has declared that he is opposed to extremes of violence, but is unsure about the effect of his own productions, and, in any case, is powerless to do much about it:


We would never do the violence such as you see in a Nintendo game. When I see kids playing Nintendo, and they’re able to actually get their character on the screen to bite his opponent in the face, that’s pretty sick violence. And you watch the kids doing this to each other and they’re yelling and laughing for hours on end. Is it all fantasy, and is it all harmless fantasy? I don’t know. There has been violence in movies that we put out. Some of it I dislike . . . But is violence justified? Is the violence of Lethal Weapon OK? I think so. If it involves personal cruelty, sadism – obviously you would never do that. The trouble is, of course, that you run a studio, and how free are you to make these rules? The creative people give you a script and are given last cut on a movie. The next thing, you have a thirty-million-dollar movie in the can which you may disapprove of.


Violence is omnipresent in TV programmes and advertisements. By the age of 12 the average American child, watching around three hours of television a day, has witnessed 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other acts of violence, according to the American Psychological Association. Will these children not assume that violence is a normal means of resolving disputes and achieving what they want? The classic rebuttal is that from an early age viewers can tell the difference between fiction and reality. The evidence is not totally convincing. According to British research conducted by the Independent Television Commission 55 per cent of 8-year-olds do not fully grasp that the characters of soap operas such as Grange Hill, Neighbours, and East Enders are fictions created by actors. At the age of 12, that figure is still 35 per cent. (Viewers of voting age were not interviewed.)

In terms of the power images have to shape opinion, whether people can distinguish between fantasy and fact hardly matters. In these days of recycled “library” news footage, “dramatic reconstructions”, “docu-soaps”, and rigged audience participation, the line is hard to draw in any case. But it is unnecessary to make a distinction. Fact is one method of persuasion; parable is another. The purpose of fictive devices is to allow people to experience new things at secondhand. They have always been invoked as a means of instruction and edification, from the plays of Sophocles, through the Bible, to playlets performed in the African bush to teach people the elements of hygiene or political theory. Thus even the exaggerated mayhem of cartoon characters may legitimately provoke concern. A 1994 commercial for Tango soft drink in which a football fan’s head spun across the pitch was banished beyond the 9 p.m. watershed by the ITC on the grounds that the action might be imitated in the school playground. (Another, featuring an exploding granny, was allowed, without reported repercussion.) Nevertheless, many of the anxieties expressed by those who complain seem frivolous. Would a commercial showing an animated Pepperami sausage rubbing its head against a grater really lead children to try the same stunt? If so, what more challenging problems might such a vulnerable child have to engage?

A significant body of social scientists and commentators, plus most of those who have a vested interest, argue that films and television do not affect social behaviour in this crude mechanistic sense. They claim that no causal link has been demonstrated between events shown on film and television screens and real-life behaviour, such as the imitation of violent acts. In his 1995 book published by the Institute of Communications Studies at Leeds University, Professor David Gauntlet avowed: “The search for direct “effects” of television on behaviour is over. Every effort has been made and they simply cannot be found”.2

Against such academic pronouncements must be laid the common sense testimony of parents, teachers, and other professionals who observe the everyday behaviour of children. Teachers reported an alarming increase in incidents of kicking in the playground whenever the kick-fighting Power Rangers appeared on children’s television. The first Tango television commercial, aired in 1992, featured a spherical orange genie who danced down the street to slap a Tango drinker around the cheeks, with the slogan “You know when you’ve been Tango’d”. Viewers complained that this stunt had become a playground craze, while doctors reported that children were coming in with ear injuries, and the commercial was eventually suspended.

The social sciences have failed to find direct proof of a causal relationship, just as the tobacco industry has failed to satisfy itself that their advertising directly causesyoungsters to start smoking, in the face of a wealth of coincidental evidence. A 1993 study identified 1,752 Californian adolescents aged from 12 to 17. None had ever smoked, they said, and never would – even if a friend offered them a cigarette. Three years later, half had changed their minds. Thirty per cent had experimented with smoking. Seventeen per cent were now willing to smoke, and 4 per cent were already smoking. Those who had been able to name a favourite cigarette advertisement in 1993 – usually Camel or Marlboro – were by 1996 twice as likely to have started smoking or be willing to start as those who could not. Those who owned a cigarette promotional item or were willing to use one in 1993 were nearly three times as likely to progress towards smoking as the others. The researchers concluded that 34 per cent of teenager experimentation was the result of tobacco advertising and promotion.3 Many people might agree that this study demonstrates that advertising can overcome a teenager’s determination not to start smoking. Yet others would argue that, because of the many influences which any teenager is exposed to during the process of growing up, no causal link has been established.

With this kind of defence advertisers put themselves in a double-bind. If advertising is to be effective it must change attitudes and, in some way or other, behaviour: the way we shop, or vote, or deal with others. And yet advertisers deny that their efforts can influence social behaviour such as violence, smoking, and drinking. Spokesmen for tobacco manufacturers and distillers and media owners consistently claim that the barrage of cigarette and booze advertising does not cause people to start smoking or drinking, or to smoke or drink more. Those who produce films glamorising antisocial behaviour crouch behind the same shield, and sometimes the media support them on their leader pages:


There is also that sturdy perennial – the advertising argument. TV can influence millions of people to buy soap powder; therefore it is powerful and able to influence millions of people to behave against a host of other influences and follow its dictates. To sell a product, however, is not an attempt to change fundamental behaviour. Simply to switch from one brand to another, or be reminded to buy something more of something you want, does not go against a complicatedly implanted moral code. There is no theory that links screen violence to real-life violence in the way you can link advertising a product to selling a product. The analogy does not hold.4


Until social Darwinists discover that consumers have developed a circuitry in their brains exclusively devoted to brand choice, and unaffected by any other experience, reasoning, example, or emotion, this inspired model of how persuasion works must be rejected as a piece of Jesuitical speculation. Advertisers and film-makers command the most powerful communications means of communication the world has ever known. They massage our senses with sights and sounds beyond our life experience. They summon powerful personalities from all over the world to corroborate their claims. They can even bring them back from the dead. Television and films can show anything the mind can imagine. And show it as reality. Of course these media influence our opinions and behaviour. As do newspapers, novels, parents, peers, and pals. Only more so.

In the last decade of the 20th century purveyors of branded goods have gradually come to realise that advertising, specifically, works by trying to create an emotional bond with the consumer. A brand aims to become his friend, someone who shares his viewpoint and will take his advice. Like the other content of the media in which it appears, advertising influences attitudes, creates value systems and affects behaviour. The church, schools, parental guidance – all of the traditional sources of authority in the community have been replaced by the authority of the media. Advertising, because it deals in aspirations, has become the new formulator of moral imperatives: “Just Do It!” exhorts Nike. Adidas replies with a reference to the three stripes on its shoes: “Earn Them”.

The academics who find no demonstrable link between the power of the visual media and social behaviour are in the same position as advertisers who can’t reliably predict whether their ads will shift goods. They simply do not have the right techniques for measuring these effects with any degree of certainty. But do we require copper-bottomed proof? It’s what we believe that matters. Do we really believe that what we see on the screen cannot influence human behaviour? It so, why do we act as if it can? Why does every newspaper, quality or tabloid, habitually chose to illuminate printed arguments on every topic, trivial or grave, with a scene from a film or television programme or commercial? If an anti-social action shown on the screen has no influence whatsoever on those who see it, how does an improving social message? Why does the government plough millions into advertising designed to change our social behaviour? Why, in 1999, did governments pressure tobacco companies worldwide to collaborate in developing major advertising campaigns aimed at discouraging under-age smoking?

Since we behave as if we believe in the suggestive power of media imagery, we should form our judgements according to what we practise rather than what we can conclusively prove. We cannot prove that “honesty is the best policy”, nor any of the other maxims by which we regulate our lives. Yet many societies acknowledge such concepts as a principle of behaviour. Those advertisers who insist on direct evidence of advertising causing unsocial behaviour may be swayed by the emerging syndrome of “ad rage”. Quite apart from the usual sources – anomie, deprivation, poverty, and the rest – the lad who set fire to the carpet warehouse on the Ordsall estate in Salford reported to his counsellor from the Salford Urban Mission that he did it because he was “sick of seeing the ads for Carpet World on television”.


Most people, in Britain at least, are tolerant of advertising, because it adds colour to life and is often entertaining. A 1998 survey claimed that 80 per cent of Britons “like” advertising. Because of this tolerance, advertising’s powerful effects on shaping society – the way we think and the way we act – are often underrated. Advertisers and their agencies, who can succeed only by changing consumer beliefs and behaviour, pay little heed, except to deny that they can influence social behaviour – smoking, drinking, and violence. They are dissembling, of course. Real people know that the world of advertising is unreal and make allowances for it. But do advertising professionals? The advertising industry has achieved no consensus on quality and behaves more like a branch of show business than of real business. When it comes to real social issues, the people who create advertising are essentially frivolous, and those who authorise it generally irresponsible. It is impossible to ignore the public presence of advertising; whether one agrees with its values or not, it expresses and helps to shape the national character. Just as unrestrained industry destroys the ecology, the excesses of advertising pollute the social environment.


The final section considers how the new technologies will accelerate both the commercial and social effects of advertising.


1 Harry Drnec, CEO of Maison Caurette, the beer distributor, The Independent on Sunday, 1992.

2 Moving Experiences: Understanding Television’s Influences and Effects.

3 John Pierce of the University of California, San Diego, Journal of the American Medical Association, 1996.

4 The Independent, 3 August 1995.


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