Thursday, August 17, 2006

AdS… Liberators or manipulators?

Is advertising the art of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money? 4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri checks out...

In her life altering biography ‘Changing’, iconic Swedish actress Liv Ullman (a key player in the legendary film maker Ingmar Bergman’s repertory of hi-octane talents) narrates her shock, bewilderment & terror at some of the ads that blitzed the TV set in her hotel room during one of her visits to Hollywood. “The ads interrupted programmes every 10 minutes – sometimes even more frequently, and made me furious on behalf of my sex. Women are aggressively urged to change their scent, cream their hands, wash their hair in special herbs, make-up their faces beyond recognition, improve their breasts... all in order to catch or keep a man!”

A professor at the New School of Social Research in New York teaches his students that advertising is a “profoundly subversive force in American life. It is intellectual and moral pollution. It trivialises and vulgarises, and is blatantly insincere. It is undermining our faith in our nation and in ourselves.” Adds humorist Stephen Leacock, “It is the art of arresting human intelligence long enough to get money from it!”

The hi- profile author of the celebrated best seller ‘From the Wonderful folks who gave you Pearl Harbour’, is less charitable & lashes out with all cylinders firing. Spews Della Femina, “Advertising deals in open sores, fear, greed, anger, hostility... you name the dwarfs and we play on them. We play on all the emotions and problems... from not getting ahead in life, to the desire to belong & be one of the crowd. Everyone has a button.” He offers examples of McDonald’s, Pepsi, Coke, Ma Bell, and how they were designed to fill the gap in lonely people’s lives by airing warm, family-oriented commercials that stressed togetherness and bonding to forge human connection and gain popular support at both a conscious & subliminal level.

The art of the psycho sell... the most popular and combustible marketing tactic, which combines the passion of Patton with the cunning of Rommel... the permissible lie... the seductive knack of creating needs & manufacturing wants to meet targets and fatten bottom lines... Is advertising really as evil, poisonous and dangerous as it’s made out to be?

Not according to Mumbai-based adman, Cyrus Hoshider, who sees red at such accusations, “Advertising is probably one of the greatest happenings as a sociological phenomenon. It is a true liberator in as much as it offers you a better quality of life. It exposes you to a wider variety of products & services designed to provide comfort, convenience and a higher level of well-being. Anything that is aspirational and invites you to live better cannot be anything other than a positive influence. To call it manipulative or exploitive is both negative & regressive.”

Kolkata-based journalist, author and filmmaker Jayobroto Chatterjee challenges the premise head-on, “The real world is not about winning accounts or making presentations, but deals with such ‘boring matters’ like truth, integrity, ethics and values in sync with people’s resources, needs and means. What’s the point of flashing glamorous, hi-ticket products to people who can’t afford them? ‘No one’s forcing them to buy’, would be ad makers’ facile argument, but the point is that the mischief has been created. You have subliminally seduced them with the promises of untold reward. That’s devious and dangerous!” Avijit Dutta, COO, Adcon Avertising (Planman Life) is more balanced in his perspective, “Ads are liberators as far as construst is concerned but in a way they require manipulation. If you consider fairness creams, they graze on the mythical fact – fair is beautiful. Companies have been playing on that for quite some time and it’s unfortunate, but they are successful.”

Contemporary thinking does propound that advertising is indeed playing out its role quite effectively, exposing the consumer to a wider array of goods and services enabling him to see, understand, decide and choose. Of course, for consumers who fall for every promise, claim or benefit powered into every ad, “they should stop seeing ads and start seeing a shrink!” says Jayabroto. Journalist Mala Sen provides the grand finale with her views, “Undoubtedly, the positive side of advertising exists loud and clear and it’s really dumb to take a tunnel-view of the issue... (But) where they default is the area of half-truths... it is done with such subtle, manipulative skill that they’ve said everything without saying anything! This is definitely wrong; but moral policing is worse.”

So while advertising is not quite the awesome magical liberating force it’s made out to be by its ardent champions, it’s neither the conniving, slimy, insidious, manipulative, psssst-persuader as suggested by the breed of its fire-spewing critics. Sure, there is a lunatic fringe, but that’s there in every area of life. So, would you dump life as a whole, ignoring moments of joy and fulfilment? In the market-driven new world order (for better, or for worse) advertising is a fact, even necessity, that needs to be applauded or chastised, as the occasion demands. The message for the livid Liv is simple – Dear Liv, Live and Let Live!


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