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Chapter 31

Round the bend down the Yellow Brick Road


When Christopher Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic Ocean looking for China, he could not know that sea-going Chinese junks were already crossing the Indian Ocean behind him to trade along the east coast of Africa. For his 1492 expedition, Columbus had to beg Philip II to provide him with three ships. In 1391, in the province of Nanking, the Chinese had planted fifty million trees, to provide wood for the fleets of the future.

Long-term thinking is no longer fashionable, either in government or in commerce. It is almost undetectable in the advertising industry, where clients, campaigns, and the people who create them all have short-term goals. Thirty years ago, campaigns used to run, with minor variation, year after year, drumming the same message into the public consciousness: “Nothing Works Faster than Anadin”, “Drinka Pinta Milka Day”, “A Mars a Day Helps You Work, Rest and Play”. Now, messages have largely been abandoned for impressions; the cultural models they imitate and the business cycles they aim to steer accelerate faster and faster. Campaigns change with the seasons.

Yet the establishment of a brand personality is a long-term project. Global brands have now swollen beyond Jeremy Bullmore’s representation of a modest “bundle of values” (Chapter 4). Like Hollywood films, which export American sentiments, they carry all the elements of a belief system. Just as successful religions do, successful brands must embody values which satisfy enduring emotional yearnings, yet adapt to new social habits as they evolve. What new trends are emerging which will affect how people react to advertising messages over the long term?


The couch potatoes are sprouting

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century television was the dominant leisure activity. For the great mass of consumers, personal and social activities of all kinds were replaced by passive hours spent before the flickering gogglebox. Towards the back end of the 20th century, with PCs outselling television sets and Internet access provided free, that trend began to reverse. Digital television is the gateway to interactive services, and by 2000, one in ten UK households had signed up for it. Its golden promise for advertisers is that it brings measurable direct response techniques to television. The viewer can call up a split-screen panel to apply for more information or make an immediate purchase. The home shopping channels such as QVC have read the future and have begun to convert to an electronic network platform using interactive TV technology such as the satellite TV company Sky Television’s Open TV interactive channel, launched in 1999.

The PC will soon be as omnipresent as the TV in the home, and will eventually merge with it. But a keyboard demands input. The viewer has to do something: send an e-mail, play a game, or surf the Internet on a shopping expedition or a quest for information. That means less time available to watch television. In households which have computers, television viewing is in decline; where there is Internet access it’s falling faster. However, the most common means of advertising on interactive TV remains that dubious legacy of the Internet model, banner advertising. The Internet cannot replace traditional image-building advertising media. Thus, the more time people spend fingering the keyboard, or the remote control television monitor input device, the less they will be exposed to meaningful advertising themes. Those most likely to be excluded are the choicest advertising targets: the better-off, better-educated consumers.


Introducing the amazing new, improved bullshit detector

Once upon a time people used to settle points of fact in pub arguments by ringing up the information desk of the Daily Telegraph. Now anyone can be an expert. Access to high-quality knowledge has been thoroughly democratised. As consumers find it increasingly easy to compare the performance and costs of one brand with another, they will become much harder to deceive. Though not everyone has the will, the skill and the intelligence to find out how the world really works, the opinion-formers we all harken to are much better informed today. Everyman’s natural bullshit detector has been upgraded, and this will severely inhibit the scope of deceptive practice for all advertisers, including politicians. The early experience of Internet traders suggests that if on the high street the customer is king, in the virtual world he can be a tyrant. Advertisers receive lots of complaints and demands for straightforward answers. In a dialogue conducted by e-mail or voice mail there’s little scope for adspeak and PR waffle.

Technology empowers consumer resistance, too. If we are to be able to construct virtual television channels reflecting our own interests, will we also be able to blank out advertisements? A technique for obliterating those pesky website banners is already on the market.


“Lonely Hearts” rule

With the consumer in command of the information process, the role of advertising focuses on the essentials: announcements of what’s new, and the forging of a long-term emotional bond, to create a brand preference which will override opposing rational appeals such as product distinctions and temporary price reductions. Much of today’s advertising fashion, crudely aimed at gaining awareness at whatever cost to the brand personality, is self-destructive. The effective advertiser will have to behave less like a shill and more like a friend.

What is a friend? A friend is someone who is usually glad to see you. A friend trusts you. A friend will say nice things about you to other people. A friend will make excuses for you when you fail. In developing interpersonal skills most people discover it’s usually a good policy to treat other people as though they were friends – even strangers. Particularly if you want something from them. As in any friendship, that means penetrating through the masks they present to the world to stroke that conflictive contraption of creativity and pathology which drives the inner spirit – what Arthur Koestler called “the ghost in the machine”.

This is what’s at the bottom of the glib phrase “relationship marketing”. Friendship is not a natural role for corporations, and they will find it awkward to simulate. Smaller, more flexible operators will find it easier to project sincerity: “We try harder”. Larger organisations may find that effective “relationship marketing” is beyond their natural grasp.


The rebel’s paradox

Who am I? What is the purpose of my life? A world driven by free-wheeling technology heightens our philosophical anxieties. In the past, comfortable answers were provided, sufficient to endure for one’s life-time at least, by church or state. These institutions do not control the new technology. Many people are attracted to new belief systems which urge them to find their identity and social purpose inside themselves. But these definitions seem real only to those who share the same belief system. So people withdraw within closed communities, either physically, in security-gated housing estates or communal squats, or spiritually, subscribing to “isms” of every description. Symbolic fragments are freighted with heavy meanings: iconoclastic posters on the walls of teenagers’ bedrooms in the leafy suburbs, the homilies of self-help books, the inarticulate grumblings of pop songs.

In industrial societies, there is a craving for self-identity through “independent expression”. The hymns of the new secular religion exult in the integrity of the individual spirit: the favourite karaoke performance of the Japanese corporate “salaryman” is “I Did It My Way”; in the domed cathedral erected for the British millennium celebrations a showbiz rendition of the lyrics “When you walk through a storm keep your head up high”, as emotionally stylised as a kabuki performance, nudges aside “Jerusalem” and “God Save the Queen” as the expression of national purpose. To demonstrate that they are unique individuals, not part of the herd, wannabe rebels join a peer group – a herd. Otherwise, who would be able to appreciate the particular character of their unique identity? In his novel, The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky described the 19th-century bourgeois urge to make a social impression as “a commonplaceness desirous above all things of being independent and original without the faintest possibility of becoming so”. By the middle of the 20th century, the search for differentiation turned inwards: “doing your own thing” was elevated into an ethical principle. But by then individuals were no longer just workers or citizens; they had become consumers dependent on a lifestyle determined by the market. Individual self-expression now takes the form of novel fashion choices, trends which the market is poised to identify and mimic, quickly converting each new quirky gesture into normative behaviour.

Thus, much of the marketing strategy of the late 20th century was based on the paradox of the faint-hearted rebel. This motor car, or beer, or perfume, or newspaper will allow you to express your own individual personality, but it is the preference of so many other people like you that no one can laugh at you for purchasing it. The mission of advertising was to pretend there was a plausible balance between those antithetical concepts.

As free-market enthusiasts are keen to point out, Adam Smith’s invisible hand of competition ensures that there is plenty of room for consumer self-expression in the global hypermarket. There are hundreds of different brands of shampoos, cornucopias of vegetables – often grown to organic specification and flown in from all over the world – a constant cascade of “bestselling” books, while the neighbouring multiplex vomits forth an endless shimmering stream of new films and hundreds of new channels may be summoned on your home television set. But these are options, not choices. The choices have been made by those who control the means of distribution: the manufacturers, the major multiple retailers, and the behemoths of the entertainment industry. The power of selection is concentrated into fewer and fewer minds, and from Tesco to the BBC, they are motivated primarily by mass market considerations of brand share and profit. If you’re into the simple life, there’s infinitely more choice in a street market in Rajasthan than in your local supermarket, and you’ll find what you want a lot more quickly.

The global hypermarket does not innovate, it monitors emerging trends in consumption and copies them. The packaged expressions of autonomy it offers are losing credibility. It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain with a straight face that the selection of a car or a cosmetic is an expression of rugged individualism. The Internet, however, offers genuine alternatives. Because of its low start-up costs and worldwide reach, small companies, even 13-year-old HTML hackers, can service quite specialised interests. And not just in commercial terms. If you’re planning a walking holiday in Corsica, for example, you don’t have to rely just on the generalised handouts you can get from a travel agent or the state tourist authority. You can page through the diary of someone who has made the walk and published it on the net for no other reason than, perhaps, egoism or altruism. The Internet provides an authentic means of expressing personal autonomy: some day everyone will have their own website, the ultimate badge of personal identity.


The 30-second sermon

If some corporations have more resources than most governments, and more global distribution centres than nations have consulates, it is inevitable that brand names will be drawn into political and ideological confrontation. Non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace were able to mobilise the weapon of consumer boycott to win victories over adversaries as powerful as Shell Oil – on the issue of waste disposal, and the French government – about Polynesian nuclear testing. Companies are far more vulnerable to consumer boycotts than are countries; they feel the pain and they can react more quickly. Consumers get worked up about a great many issues. In 1995 alone, Texaco was the subject of three national protests: because of alleged exploitation of tribal lands, for refusal to hire people with HIV, and for investment in Burma. In a Gallup survey that year, of 30,000 consumers for the Co-operative Wholesale Society, a third said they had boycotted stores or products on at least one occasion. In America at that time, according to other surveys, three-quarters of households were boycotting at least one product, usually because of concern about company practices. Today, comparatively under-resourced pressure groups can use the Internet to rally a worldwide protest within minutes. A number of ideologically incompatible fringe groups fused briefly to ignite a highly visible protest at the 1999 World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle. The increasingly interlinked dependencies of global trade make advertisers equally vulnerable.

Companies were swift to reflect consumers’ growing concern with social issues in advertising’s ingratiating mirror. Mainstream companies routinely extol wholesome themes such as family values, the protection of the environment, the rights of the disabled, international understanding, and racial integration. The kaleidoscope of impressions crowding your television screen during the commercial break – the joyful ethnic wedding party, the small boy listening to his pregnant mum’s tummy, the Masai warriors squinting into the sun, the choir of gospel singers – were they promoting British Telecom, British Airways, the Midland Bank, or the Hanson industrial conglomerate?

In pursuing these strategies, mainstream advertisers have to be mindful of the pernicious contrary. For each special interest which is favoured, there is a danger of arousing the prejudice of another. It’s not just pre-schoolers who harbour mutually incompatible desires. German motorists boycotted Shell because of the environmental effects of its operations but demand petrol-guzzling cars. British consumers oversubscribed privatisation issues but were outraged by the remuneration of the “fat cats” who ran the new companies. They demand cheap meat, but deplore factory farming. The political system finds it increasingly difficult to bridge these gaps, and brands which take sides on an issue can be caught in the squeeze.


Who needs creativity?

In the last twenty years creativity in advertising has come to rely more and more on borrowed values: associating the brand with a celebrity, an issue, an interest, a stance, something that people empathise with. In encouraging this trend advertising agencies have run out of road. The road ends at a cliff called sponsorship. Nike paid £250m over ten years for the privilege of sponsoring the Brazilian football team. A Hollywood blockbuster can expect to rake in $10 million in product placement, at around $30,000 a shot. Children’s collecting crazes, such as the late 1990s Beanie Babies, don’t result from advertising, but from clever marketing tactics. The Y2K version of this phenomenon, Pokémon, has its own television show, thus exempting it from both advertising expenditure and regulation. Advertising has burst the bounds of classic media, where there is some possibility of measuring effect, and from which advertising agencies traditionally gain their remuneration. Today, much of our world, and particularly leisure activities, is a stage for sponsorship. And there’s no real place here for the musings of advertising agency copywriters and art directors.


The fragmentation of globalisation

Globalisation became the buzzword of business just as nationalism was renewing ancient political schisms amongst ethnic groups all over the world. How can these two powerful cross-currents be reconciled?

Coca-Cola is the universal cliché of global marketing. It is the second best-known word in the world, after OK. Its logo is the third most recognised symbol in the world, after the Christian cross and the Muslim crescent. It built this monolithic global franchise through marketing imperialism, exporting the American dream unadulterated by any sensitivity to cultural differences. Yet any advertising professional who has worked in more than one country knows that it is notoriously difficult to export a sharply focused advertising concept devised for one country into another, just by translation. At the simplest level, there is the problem of homonyms. The British contingent of Unilever management insisted on retaining the name Gibbs in Germany, where it is pronounced like the German word “gyps”, and so launched its toothpaste in that market in 1964 by advising consumers to brush their teeth with plaster. In Cantonese, “Coke adds life”, literally translates as “Coke brings your ancestors back from the dead”. Cultural signals vary, too. The French don’t react well to commands, so the Nike slogan “Just do it” became the rather more timid “La vie est à toi”, or “Your life is your own”. Ad people in foreign markets are easily misled by their own cultural assumptions, before learning elementary codes: for example, that in India, white does not stand for purity, but for death. And advertising history is replete with anecdotes such as the slogan, proposed by an American copywriter to launch a range of Dunlop adhesives in Britain, for use “at home and on the job”.

The trick is to respect national differences without degrading the global aspiration. It’s a lesson British Airways learned the hard and expensive way. On a wave of hubris engendered by its belief in its own advertising claim, “The World’s Favourite Airline”, it introduced a diversity of multicultural design on the tail fins of its aircraft in 1997. By 1999, BA had replaced the Union Jack on two-thirds of its fleet with exotic ethnic impressions ranging from Chinese calligraphy to a Polish design of a cockerel. This composite imagery flew in the face of the major tenet of branding theory: that branding must be singular and consistent in every manifestation. It also abandoned the basic motivational strategy which lies behind all advertising for international airlines: the appeal to national stereotypes, such as Teutonic thoroughness, the submissive charm of the Oriental hostess, American technological skill, or, perhaps the most reassuring reputation of all to airline passengers: unflappable British reliability. BA persevered in its folly for a few years, against the fulminations of Lady Thatcher, air traffic controllers, and large sections of the British public, coming back down to earth only when arch-competitor Richard Branson cheekily dressed his Virgin aircraft in the discarded cloak of British nationalism. In 1999 BA began repainting half of its fleet of 308 aircraft with a redesigned Union Jack logo. After reputedly expending £60 million on its “one world” image, the company was left with the worst of two worlds: a schizoid brand personality.

If its basic promise satisfies universal emotional longings, a globalised brand can sit comfortably with emerging nationalism because it represents the aspirations of that society. Whether they end up as part of India or Pakistan, kids in Jammu and Kashmir want to ride on Hondas, not ox-carts. They want to wear designer sunglasses and drink Coca-Cola or maybe Seven-Up, not Thumbs-Up, just as people do in films and on television. In the 1990s Coca-Cola’s global advertising strategy was the emotional ambition to “teach the world to sing”. The clothing retailer Gap entered the new millennium with a wordless television campaign promoting a global lifestyle disguised as freedom of choice. So long as they communicate effectively across cultural obstacles to universal yearnings, multinational advertisers create their own virtual culture.


The Holy Grail discovered

The technological developments in communications which have democratised access to knowledge have the potential to empower the advertiser as well as the consumer. It is now technically possible and economically viable to apply the measurement disciplines of the direct response art to general image-building advertising on a large scale, with virtually instantaneous results. The systems for exposing pre-test advertisements to highly selective samples exist, and so do the interactive response mechanisms. All that is lacking is appropriate methodology, some verifiable simulated action, such as Horace Schwerin’s fifty-year-old “competitive preference” measurement, or even actual sales. A web “currency” called Beenz already exists, which can be exchanged for free goods, discounts, and special offers. Samples of householders are now induced to scan all their regular purchases so that research companies can monitor them by computer. For those who do their shopping on the Internet, comprehensive data on purchase behaviour will be available without any extra input. Realistic quantitative measurements of the effects of advertising are for the first time within the grasp of the advertising industry. These will free motivational research from the ignorant tyranny of the self-serving focus group and educate the people who create and judge advertising in the techniques of psychological persuasion.


Official: good taste defined

The same techniques – informed selection of mass research samples, downloading test materials, and interactive response mechanisms – permit regulatory bodies, and anyone else who is interested, to constantly monitor public reaction to existing or proposed advertisements or any other presentations in the public arena. A broadly based instant sampling of opinion will provide a more credible basis to support decisions on what is – or is not – deemed to be in acceptable public taste.


Happy ever after?

The assumption of free-market philosophers is that economic growth is the key to human happiness. On the other hand, songwriters, who perhaps are in closer communion with the human spirit, say that the best things in life are free. Folk wisdom agrees that money can’t buy happiness. What’s the point of owning a shiny new car if London’s streets are so clogged with immobile metal that you can’t drive it without losing a wing mirror? Economic prosperity, as measured by Gross Domestic Product, has doubled in the UK and the US over the past thirty years. Yet in 1995 a MORI survey reported that one in five Britons subscribed to life values which could be categorised as “post-materialist”. In 1970 only one in twenty held such convictions. Some observers believe that increasing affluence only creates increasing dissatisfaction, and in the end people will reject the values of materialism. They contend that status-seeking through conspicuous consumption, and the structures which enable it, such as advertising, will melt in the new dawn of a post-materialist society.

Yet, as income rises, so do expectations. Many Britons now aspire to holiday in the Seychelles rather than Blackpool. The suspicion remains that ambition always outstrips achievement; the drive for self-actualisation explains why people like Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates go on working. The carrot is always in front of the donkey. It’s the challenge that motivates, not the prize; outstripping others is the allure of the race; the reward is merely symbolic, of no more intrinsic value than a laurel wreath. Until society succeeds in channelling the competitive impulse in other directions, it will continue to be focused on the achievement of economic power and the baubles – trophy wives and badged brands – which display success to rivals.


Advertising has been an intrinsic part of our lives for only about 150 years. The graphic revolution of the first half of the 20th century developed it into the most powerful instrument of mass persuasion the world has yet known. In the second half of the century, its focus has been dissipated by a proliferation of new media with fragmented audiences, and there is evidence of consumer resistance to intangible “added brand values” in hard times. The new technologies have created an escalating race in which consumer perception quickly evolves to master each new trick: attention span adapts to jump-cut filming, imagination resolves the oxymoron of virtual reality, shopping habits adjust to the Internet.

Consumers soon learn to interpret each new deceitful advertising gesture and take what they want from it. Paid advertising in classic media is, after all, the most transparent and attributable form of propaganda. More insidious – as the lines smudge between independence and sponsorship, documentary and entertainment, editorial and handout, policy and sound-bite – are the techniques of mass persuasion we don’t even recognise as self-interested.

In the Depression years in America, an enterprising man could get rich by placing a classified advertisement in small-town papers which read in its entirety: “Hurry! Send $1 now!” plus a postal address. Until the postal authorities clapped him in gaol. Today he operates a website or international direct marketing scam, and the authorities dispute who has jurisdiction. Techniques change, but the Big Lie continues to exploit the same source of human vulnerability. An early, flawed axiom of advertising was that it should aim at people with a mental age of 12. The truth is, successful propagandists have always aimed not at our heads, but at our emotions, and in our hearts we are all 12-year-olds. Our insecurity is cradle-to-grave.

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