It's big, but how bad is it?

One of the articles in Creating A Future We Can Live With (IC#40)
Originally published in Spring 1995 on page 5
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

Advertising – it has made a major contribution to the state of the world today. The exponential growth of "consumerism" in this century, and the damage it has caused, can be attributed, to a very great extent, to advertising. Yet is it all bad, or does it have a positive role to play?

I have spent most of my working life in this field and have only in recent years re-orientated my career to take account of other concerns than simply making money. With no particular thoughts other than vague images of glamour and wealth (and a degree in philosophy leaves many doors firmly closed!) the first job I applied for upon graduating was in an advertising agency. I got it. This was in 1979, when the job market was more buoyant than it is today. My job was called "Sales Liaison" and involved supplying the people out there in the marketplace with all the items and information they needed to achieve their best as salesmen (yes, they were all men).

Smart Suits

The people I worked with at the agency were of a wide variety of types: the "creatives" – older ones in clothes intended to make them look 10 years younger, and younger ones looking older than their bosses, often due to an over-supply of drugs and drink, and an under-supply of sleep. There were the fast-climbing salesmen, with smart suits, fast talk and high blood pressure, and the slower climbers, whose suits needed cleaning and whose talk and blood pressure matched the wild fluctuations of the sales graphs I dutifully prepared for the board of directors every month.

The directors themselves were an interesting bunch. They had made it to the top by learning a lot about the technical aspects of the business – and selling a great deal of it. They were older men (yes, all men), mildly paternalistic and rather worldly-wise.

All these people had one thing in common. They spent their entire working lives, often nearly all their waking hours, in frantic, usually self-destructive efforts to sell very large quantities of other people’s products to millions who rarely had a real need for any of it.


Furthermore, it’s very hard to justify the activities of numerous vast corporations spending many millions of pounds every year in a tug-of-war for the same customers, offering them different brands of the same commodity. David Ogilvy, one of the all-time gurus of advertising, quotes Stuart Chase in Confessions of an Advertising Man:

"Advertising makes people stop buying Mogg’s soap, and start buying Bogg’s soap… Nine tenths and more of advertising is largely competitive wrangling as to the relative merits of two undistinguished and often undistinguishable compounds…"

In the years after my induction into the advertising industry, I moved on through a succession of jobs, covering all aspects of the "nuts and bolts" end of the Direct Marketing business, where results are entirely measurable, accurate predictions quite possible, and wastage easily identified and corrected.

But this relatively efficient form of advertising leaves important questions unanswered. Can we defend it, or is it a needless, even damaging, discipline with no saving graces whatsoever? And what effect does this kind of work have upon the agency employees themselves? One fact that has always interested me is that so many of the brightest, most compassionate, witty, and generous people I know have been, or still are, working in advertising.

Beneath the Gloss

Lucy, another reformed advertising copywriter, observed that if one spends large portions of one’s waking hours focusing entirely on outer image and presentation, it becomes very easy to drift into a way of thinking that precludes worthwhile self-examination. The real, often painful issues of life – be they physical, emotional, or spiritual – are buried, like toxins in a tuna can, beneath a surface gloss of attractive packaging. If we don’t open the can and deal with our own internal toxins, we can never become whole men and women.

Socrates, in Plato’s Apology, says "The unexamined life is not worth living." I have always agreed wholeheartedly with him. Yet, despite a lifetime’s interest in self-exploration and over a decade of actively pursuing a spiritual path, it was only around three years ago that I began to question my working practices and ethics.

One experience that had a most profound effect on me happened when I picked up some free "health" magazines at a local chemist’s shop. I am keenly interested in nutrition and health and eagerly leafed through the magazines when I got home. What I found was not useful information at all but a series of thinly disguised attempts to drive people into buying a lot of probably superfluous products, primarily through the exploitation of their fears.

The messages I was getting, even in the so-called "editorial" sections were, for instance: "Don’t ever let the world know you’re the only woman who menstruates" and "You can’t get enough health-giving nutrients by eating only food." These "articles," purporting to be educational, or even philanthropic, made me look very hard at the way I was making my living.

Becoming, all of a sudden, overwhelmed with a feeling of regret bordering on self-disgust (copywriters are not known for their moderation!), I resolved to sell my house, buy a smallholding (a small agricultural establishment, providng home and work for a family or small community), become self-sufficient and wave goodbye to the outside world.

Coaxing Mustard

But how to become self-sufficient? I had never been very successful even in trying to coax mustard and cress plants out of their little seeds; how was I to feed myself and a growing family on some remote, windswept hill? I joined my local organic group, appropriately named BOG, and offered my time and labor in return for their teaching. I quickly discovered that several of my new friends had formed a permaculture group, which had as its mission statement the slogan "Bath – a Sustainable City." Having watched and been enthralled by a documentary on permaculture, I was delighted. I joined this group too. Bath Permaculture Group formed a community-supported agriculture scheme, so that local people could enter a buyers’ collective and get good, locally-produced organic vegetables at a fair price. It was called BLOB, so I joined that too.

Next, I wanted to take the highly praised and equally practical Permaculture Design Course, but there wasn’t one available in the area. I decided to book one of the best teachers, hire a venue and promote the course myself. A few months later we held one of the most successful permaculture courses of the year. Patrick Whitefield, the teacher we had hired, told me after the 12-day session, that this was the first time he had ever been paid his full fee. Not only that, we had had to pin him down for an extra weekend course, which was packed, and paid him an additional fee. Plus, we had enough eager people on our waiting list to run another full course.

I formed Groundswell, a marketing consultancy specialising in people-care and earth-care matters. I began to show healers, teachers, organic growers, and others some of the techniques used by big businesses to promote awareness of their products and services. During the next year I earned in cash only just above what I had been used to charging for one day’s work. But I – and, I hope, my clients – learned a great deal. I became the LETS (Local Exchange and Trading System) baron of Bath, with more credit in the local "green money" trading account than anybody else in the city!

Then another change took place. Large companies, offering the kind of fees I had been used to in my former career (this time in sterling, rather than massages, chickens, or bags of compost!), began to approach me and ask how they might introduce better people-care into their already lucrative marketing programs. Suddenly, I found myself doing what perhaps I’d been looking for all along: "making a living making a difference." The living was good and the difference noticeable.

Between pumping out brochures, mailings, and advertisements and putting together the Groundswell Database (junk mail for positive change!), I’m still looking around for the perfect smallholding. Telecommunications and computer technology mean that today none of us needs to be in the city to achieve effective communication.

And that, I believe, provides the answer to our central question. Advertising, like people and circumstances, is not inherently good or evil. It can be done well or badly; it can advance positive or negative ambitions. The word comes from the latin advertere: "to turn towards." If we are to persuade significant numbers of people in the world to turn towards values of compassion, care, and positive cooperation, then honest, well-informed, complete, and widespread communication of information is going to prove an important asset.

Who would have thought advertising could help to save the world?

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