The Wall Street Journal recently published a list of classic advertising books. Two noteworthy titles listed are: Julian Lewis Watlins’s, 100 Greatest Advertisements 1852-1958: Who Wrote Them And What They Did and Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy, 1963.
On reflection advertising analysis and semiotics seems to have moved from the academic world to the political and resulted in a form of entertainment. When I was at college in the late eighties and early nineties it was Judith Williamson’s ‘Decoding Advertisements’ which we students in turn decoded in our own way. This student bible was a classic look at semiotics in advertising – about how adverts construct meaning, involving the customer in a system of signs and symbols. Looking back now I can’t help find it a touch paranoid with some of the analysis tenuous. It did however introduce us to the clever notion of ‘different-type-of-dirt’ where marketers invent a problem and solve it with a product. It’s a great book and, in some sense, a forerunner of Naomi Klein’s book on brands, No Logo, a book that for a brief moment made us panic about the impact of globalisation, Apple, Nike, Coco Cola etc. A back drop to this was the Canadian renegade and revolutionary ‘Adbusters’ magazine which now exists as a dot.org in a far-flung corner of the web.
Today in Australia we are entertained by The Gruen Transfer, a panel show comically revealing behind-the-scenes advertising tactics and Mad Men, a stylish comic drama based in a 1960s New York ad agency. This show glamorises the golden age of the ad man; we enter a world of creatives, copywriters, consumer insights and symbolism. So what is it that makes these shows popular, particularly with people outside academia and the industry itself?
The answer lies at the heart of what makes advertising work. For in much the same way that comedians, politicians, and filmmakers use signs and symbols to motivate and play with our fears or beliefs, so does the adman.
We prefer the exposure of the conjurer’s trick to the trick itself and that’s why we find these shows so entertaining. They may also help maintain our delusion that mass consumption is doing us no harm; it’s all just a bit of fun.