In Defense of Advertising

Pict0109 Winston Fletcher in New Humanist:

Hostility to advertising among British intellectuals goes back a long way. In 1843 Thomas Carlyle dubbed it a “deafening blast of puffery,” and at the end of that century the Society for Controlling the Abuses of Public Advertising (SCAPA) included among its members such notables as William Morris, Rudyard Kipling, Holman Hunt, Arthur Quiller-Couch and Sir John Millais – as well as Sydney Courtauld and the Fry chocolate family. But even then the public did not follow their leaders. 500 copies of SCAPA’s polemical leaflet were printed. Only 30 were sold.

Still, the critics kept up their fire. Many of the attacks were well-worn retreads. But in 1980 Professor Raymond Williams took the arguments a stage further. Williams – an influential Marxist academic, social commentator, critic and novelist – published an essay called Advertising: The Magic System. Far from being too materialistic, Williams argued, modern advertising is not materialistic enough, because the images with which advertisements surround goods deliberately detract attention from the goods’ material specifications: “If we were sensibly materialist we should find most advertising to be an insane irrelevance” he averred. In the 19th century he said, more or less accurately, advertising was generally factual and informative, except for fraudulent patent medicine and toiletry advertisements, which had already adopted the undesirable practices which later became commonplace. In other words Williams was not attacking all advertising, just most present day advertisements.

Why, he asked, do advertisements exploit “deep feelings of a personal and social kind?” His answer: because the concentration of economic power into ever larger units forces those units to make human beings consume more and more, in order for the units to stay operative. “The fundamental choice… set to us by modern industrial production, is between man as a consumer and man as a user.”