Advertising's Punch Bowl Round 2

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"We are not materialistic enough," says advertising scholar James Twitchell (JT) in the continuing e-mail debate with the anonymous creative director known only as the Phantom Menace (PM).

PM to JT

Tell me this, O great swami of capitalist realism: If advertising is about selling, and selling is about persuasion, and persuasion is about the use of relevant facts to support a claim, then why does so much of today's advertising eschew the basic tools of salesmanship? When was the last time you saw a convincing product demonstration, comparison test, or heard a sound explanation of a product benefit? Advertising has become another genre of entertainment. As entertainment, it fails, more often than not. And as advertising, it is a disservice to the advertiser and the consumer. Much of it is irresponsible self-indulgence on the part of people who don't want to face the fact that they are and should be salesmen. They want to believe they are `artists.' Something tells me they're the kind of people who read Creativity.

JT to PM

Wrong, O great biter of the hand that feeds you. Advertising is only sometimes about selling. What it's really about is buying. But you want to talk about selling? Fine. Selling is about, as George said in one episode of Seinfeld, getting them to remember your name. In fact, George says that his dating system works "just like advertising." First you meet the girl, then you leave something over at her house so that you have to go bother her, then you get to be a habit, and pretty soon she's humming your name -- "Costanza." But this is a two-handed game. Sometimes the chick is as eager to get George as he is to get her. Not very often, but it happens. Remember, George almost gets married, something Jerry, who says he wants to be in advertising someday, is never quite able to do. In the modern world, life imitates not art, but sitcoms.

PM to JT

And what do sitcoms imitate? Don't answer that, I'm too afraid to know. Let me set something up here. Let's say I manufacture shoes. As long as people need and want shoes, I'm covered. But the fact is there are more shoes in the world than there are feet to fill them. Now, how am I going to sell you something you neither need nor want? Simple. I create entertainment designed to persuade you that you will be sexier, more attractive and more successful in my shoes. And as long as I continue to create such entertainment, and keep you believing in the magic power of my shoes, you and I will both be happy. The problem with all this is that sooner or later you will discover that the promise has not been fulfilled. My shoes haven't made you as happy, sexy and successful as I promised they would. You will tire of my silly diversions. Perhaps you will be enticed by another kind of shoe that promises similar results. Perhaps you will eventually wake up to the fact that the entire premise is an unsupportable lie. Lucky for guys like me, the latter possibility is less likely, or I'd be out of a job.

JT to PM

Of course it's less likely -- because it's not a lie. Never was. Walk into any store. See all that merchandise? It's all the same. It has to be, because it is all machine-made. Sellers call this stuff `parity products.' To buyers, parody might be a better word. Now, if buyers were rational, they would all read Consumer Reports and find the best product and resolve the parody. But they don't. They clearly like the illusion of choice even when they know it's a figment of their -- and advertisers' -- imagination. So what are they buying? They're buying what you and your Madison Avenue co-workers are producing. They are buying the advertising. Because the advertising adds meaning to products, meaning that is desired by the consumer. Sometimes this meaning is added by USP (the hard sell), and sometimes by entertainment (the soft sell). The fact of the matter is not that we are too materialistic; it's that we are not materialistic enough. If we knew what objects meant, if we knew what life meant, then we would gather and use things by some inner principle. But we don't. Advertising gets in between buyer and seller because it offers big advantages to both parties.

PM to JT

Let me tell you a little story. I once went to interview for a job as a creative director. I showed the agency brass my resume. I showed them my reel. I went to dinner with them. Then they took me back to the parking lot where we said our goodbyes, and I got into my humble little 1994 Saturn. The following week a friend at the agency called. He'd heard the inside scoop. "They were very impressed with you," he told me. "But they were bewildered when they saw you get into your cheap little Saturn. How good could you be if you're still driving a small economy car? Maybe you should tell them it was someone else's car, and your BMW is in the shop . . ."

JT to PM

I'm embarrassed to agree with the agency honchos. Of course they want to see signs of success. That's human nature. You don't mix stripes and plaids. Sometimes we want to stand out, sometimes fit in. You should own a Beemer. Or a badge car like a Porsche. OK, if you want to subvert the paradigm, buy an old rusted-out Volvo 122S and come join us. In any case, lose the Saturn.

PM to JT

Hey, I like my Saturn, and anyone who has a problem with that can kiss my rough cuts. I also like advertising that is simple, honest, straightforward and informative. I believe that the next big change in advertising will be a return to the basics. This is what is happening on the Internet. Information, choice, reliability, speed, convenience, service, price. Don't tell me what it means, just show me the goods and I'll decide what's right for me.

JT to PM

Personally, I don't think the Internet can exist without running parallel to a commercial world in which advertising is constantly being applied to machine-made stuff. Shopping on the Web is like buying at Costco or Sam's Club. It only works when the consumer has already absorbed the meaning of products elsewhere.

To Be Continued

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