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On advertising

3 min, 57 sec read
14:14 PM | 8 June 2011

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I think that it would be best for me to first introduce myself. My name is Temi Ogunye, I recently graduated from The University of Manchester with a first-class degree in Philosophy and Politics and, strictly speaking, I am not in the advertising and/or marketing industry. And although I worked on digital communications at the British Council for a while, I don't have any particularly strong ambition to get into the industry. That said, I must also add that I am fascinated by advertising. I think that it is an industry that impacts greatly upon the lives of most people, but to which far too little critical thought is applied by outsiders, and about which even less interesting things are said by outsiders. I think that this is a real shame and I hope to do my little bit to change it. It is my fascination with advertising, coupled with the things that I learnt at the British Council and continue to learnt from the other members of the futurerising team, that will inform my contributions to this blog.

Given that this is my first post, I thought that it would be a good idea to start from basics... So what exactly is advertising? In general, the average member of the public thinks about advertising in one of the three following ways:

  1. They don't think about it at all.
  2. They see it as in industry like most others, but where people are allowed to wear trainers and sit on bean bags.
  3. They think that advertising is basically all about big companies trying to trick us into buying things that we don't really want.

I think that all three of these common ways of seeing advertising are largely mistaken, and I think that the third way is particularly problematic. In fact, I think that advertising actually plays a far bigger role in society than people generally recognise. For one thing, it defines much of our sensory experience: the things that we see and hear. But it also has a much more fundamental role in our society: it acts as a mediator between the consumer and the 'marketplace' (and visa-versa). Once you recognise this fundamental role that the advertising industry plays, it becomes far easier to see that that advertising is inextricably linked to capitalism. Indeed, I think that people who think about advertising in the third way actually have a problem with capitalist society more generally.

Now don't get me wrong, some adverts are overly invasive or devious or stupid (or some combination of the three), and these are obviously bad things. But many adverts are not like this; indeed, some are quite beautiful. The real point is that advertising as an industry occupies a special place in a society such as ours, and reflects one key insight in particular. To illustrate this point let me use an example. Suppose that there are two companies, both make washing powder, though one company's washing powder washes clothes slightly better than the other. One may think, quite plausibly, that the company who made the inferior washing powder would simply not be able to compete. But imagine this company produced their washing powder near the site of a famous national military victory and decided to make use of this association. Perhaps they named their product after the battle or used the phrase 'blows stains out of the water' as their tag-line (I did say that I wasn't in advertising!). Making use of this association could allow the inferior product to compete because of the specific significance that the place where the product is produced may have for some people. The crucial point that advertising – and capitalism more generally – recognises is that people are infinitely different, and the ways that they are different are not necessarily intuitive, uniform or strictly rational.

Essentially, advertising is about human behaviour. If you can understand how people behave in a given context, then you can tailor your product or campaign accordingly. This seems to me to be fascinating in a way that advertising is very rarely given credit for. It is fascinating in a way not all that dissimilar to more recognised sciences of human behaviour, such as anthropology, sociology or economics. This also goes some way to explaining why the latest developments in advertising have become so closely related to developments in the internet. The internet is a relatively new context, within which we are still learning a great deal about how people behave. Companies like Facebook and Google are worth so much because they have unrivalled access to the ever-increasing body of information about internet behaviour. How this information is used will do much to define developments in the coming years... and not just in advertising.

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