When is an Advert Not an Advert?

On the radio the other day I heard an advert for a Japanese car manufacturer (they’re not getting free advertising from me) that proudly stated: “we don’t need a fancy advert”. The statement seemed to say ‘Our product stands on its own’ and apparently it wasn’t their job — you know, the company that got paid millions to create a marketing campaign for this product — to explain the car they were selling any further. The irony being that the ad then had a thirty second terms & conditions explainer at the end. So it might not be a “fancy ad” yet somehow still needed caveats. And this wasn’t the first time I’d heard something like this either. A certain high street food chain and a budget internet provider both proudly deny the nature of the advertisements in recent campaigns too. One just being a brief image of food with no audio as if the steaming, dripping fare was all that was required to sell it, the other literally fast forwarding through it’s own ad — that was clearly fully shot and edited, by the way — implying it knows how disinterested the audience are in its sales pitch so it can ‘skip to the good part’. It’s a strange form of self-denial that still manages to tick all the boxes of what an advert is supposed to do. “We’re not an ad, but thanks for watching this ad” is the end product.

This is nothing new. In my youth I remember an advert for a particular chocolate biscuit brand that was so self-referential about it’s previous successful campaign it didn’t feel the need to mention the product name at all. It relied totally on ‘brand awareness’ without ever explicitly advertising the product. Similar to how a certain insurance market comparison website used a CGI mongoose to sell its wares by insisting people were going to the wrong website with a similar name. Even going so far as to create the fake website that redirected to the correct one. So successful was the campaign it took a relatively obscure service, let alone company, into the public consciousness and made it a household name. Thirteen years later and this ad campaign is still running with little to no actual depiction of whatever the hell this company is selling these days. It looks like cinema tickets, I think? What all of these examples seem to spell out is how much people hate advertising, how much these marketing firms are aware of how much we hate them and yet still… they must advertise. This can also be seen in the way pre-roll YouTube adverts beg you not to press the skip button or, in the case of movie trailers, shove in a 5 second ad before the full trailer begins so it can still force you to be advertised at before you are allowed to skip. The issue with this strategy is that it doesn’t solve the inherent problem of advertising: everybody hates it but it’s a cornerstone of the (crumbling) financial structure that runs our lives today. A good way to understand the hole we’ve dug for ourselves here is to look at what advertising actually is.

What all the above examples do is reveals the explicit purpose of advertising, for it only has one purpose, and that is to make the public aware of a product. No matter what any marketing company says it cannot make anyone buy a product, though it does have ways of channeling people toward their product which we will get to. Awareness is the aim of the game for advertising. The more people aware of your product or ‘brand’ (bleurgh) the more successful the campaign because people are more likely to invest their money in the product or service they have heard of. If there are only two luxury brands of toothpaste on the shelves you’re going to pick the one you have heard of, is still the rationale behind advertising. This is why advertising in certain spaces is so expensive. The more people who are able to see your product, regardless of what the message is, the higher your visibility, the greater the recognition, the higher the sales. This is why Superbowl ads are so expensive, not just to film, but to buy space. It’s one of the most watched cultural events, therefore it has the most eyes on it of any other advertisement. To the point where now the ads are just as important as the game. Visibility and familiarity are the aim of the game. Which is why you can make an ad that has no sales pitch and might not even mention a specific product but your audience have been made aware of your product instead of another. But in recent years there’s been a much more aggressive push around the way campaigns, if not specific ads, work. And it’s really creepy.

Advertisers use what is called the ‘Pyramid’ which is a process of desired outcomes over the timeline of a campaign. It’s essentially another “Five step programme” but for selling you stuff. The steps are: Awareness, Comprehension, Conviction, Desire, Action. That first step has always been the key but now awareness isn’t enough. Once the public are aware of a product they must be made to fully understand the product, then they must have trust that the product is reliable and they have faith it will do what it says, then they must want the product and it must seem they are missing out if they don’t have it, then, after all this psychological sculpting, they are pressured to go out and buy the product or sign up to the service. Stated like that, it almost makes sense. It is a logical thread that results in the purchase of a product. The trouble is this pyramid is used by groups other than marketing firms: Cults.

Whether it’s creepy sex cults like NXIVM, terrorists seeking to radicalise or even the incels of 4Chan, these five steps push people into, not only investing either money or themselves in a product, but in a mindset and a way of life. How often do you here that in an advert? “This isn’t just underwear, it’s a whole new you”. Ads don’t sell products, they sell lifestyles. By investing in this thing it makes you a different person. It ‘actualises’ you. In some way, the pyramid says, it improves you. Whether it’s a car, a toothpaste or a bomb. Which is why this strange trend of self-denial in advertising is so disingenuous and so dangerous.

There was a streaming only show that came out a few years ago called Maniac that wasn’t that good but had some great world building. One of the funniest and most interesting elements was when someone had no money to either get a train or buy some cigarettes they could get the product for free if they were willing to be advertised at. At which point a person would appear beside them and then follow them around, reading ads at them until the advertising budget had covered the cost of the fare. This is an amusing extrapolation of what happens in video games whereby the video game is designed to become almost impossible to complete past a certain point unless you purchase ad-ons and upgrades, and if you cannot afford to purchase them the game suggests watching a thirty second ad and you will get the ad-on for free. You would think the apparent redundancy of this strategy is obvious: first, if someone can’t afford the ad-on so accepts the ad to get it for free, what makes the company think they can afford the product being advertised? Second, all this would do is contribute to the malaise of the general public around being advertised at, constantly, wherever we go. But that isn’t the case. Maniac recognised this but importantly it recognised that the resigned acceptance of these ads wherever we go doesn’t render the ads powerless, it only makes them stronger. The lead characters in Maniac change their lives based on responding to advertisements read to them by a tired modern equivalent of a sandwich board man. Being constantly bombarded with ads wherever we go and whatever we do like this doesn’t foster a weary endurance, it maximises awareness. The specific goal of advertising in the first place.

The reason we remember certain ads is not because they were memorable but because they were the ones we saw most often. Which is why we should all be very skeptical of these commercials that insist they aren’t really adverts. They are. They have changed their gait and stopped quacking but they are still ducks. The fact I remembered these insufferable, disingenuous, smug commercials listed above and the products they advertise is evidence of the fact they work. They made me aware of the product. I will never be able to afford a new car, nor own a house so that I can compare home insurance quotes but now, whether I like it or not, I am AWARE of these products despite the adverts themselves lying to me about what they are. It seems absurd to me that these companies are aware and acknowledge that they have made the world such an ugly hellscape, smeared with advertisements for terrible products by amoral companies that I will never use, and even have the self awareness to deny that’s what they are doing but not the self awareness to stop doing it. Because — and this is important to understand — advertising is not necessary. Advertising is driven by profit not consumer demand. Products and services would continue to be bought and sold with or without a five stage marketing campaign. They are not a necessity. Marketing and advertising has made the supposedly freest nations and spaces in the world insufferable by coating them all in advertising, and now they have the audacity to deny it is even advertising.

Ironically, Maniac — unintentionally — reveals how to get rid of these damn ads: just buy the product you want. Funny how one of the biggest selling points of music or video streaming services is that you can enjoy their catalogue “without ads” if you pay for their premium service. It has come to a point where we are held to ransom by the toxic culture of marketing that has solidified a sad truth of what the advertisers were after all along, that you can only avoid this misery so long as you pay the price. But if that’s the case then just spend the money. Buy the product. Surely?

Sure. Okay…

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Peripatetic Writer analysing Pop Culture. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

Peripatetic Writer analysing Pop Culture. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.

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