Advertising: all lies and manipulation?

H. G. Wells referred to it as legalized lying, while Jerry Della Femina, who worked in the business, described as the most fun you can have with your clothes on. I am referring to advertising, about which I recently heard a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4’s One to One. The person being interviewed by the BBC’s Evan Davis was adman Steve Henry, a member of the British Advertising Hall of Fame. This interview was part of a series of three episodes on people who lie for a living, with Henry sandwiched between a credit card fraudster and a transsexual. Memorable campaigns are discussed including the “Slag of all Snacks” line for Pot Noodle. Henry mentions the lying and how his colleagues expressed great regret that they couldn’t lie more. Of course some of the lies are harmless. Henry cites the case of the Patagonian Toothfish, which is now known as the Chilean Sea Bass. This is part of a fascinating trend where the fishing industry has to convince people to eat unglamorous fish because their traditional catches are fast running out. The orange roughy may not be the world’s most appealing name, but it definitely sounds more appetising than the slimehead. Pollack, once considered suitable for cat food and the primary component of fish fingers when minced, was given a new name by the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. They want to persuade consumers to try “colin and chips as an alternative to cod. The new name, which should be pronounced co-lan, is French for hake. It gives the fish a more sophisticated air. And finally the humble pilchard has been rechristened the Cornish sardine.

I am intrigued by the way you can use language to frame reality. In advertising you see a lot of deliberately vague language. The idea is to make claims that cannot be falsified.  Here are some of the words advertisers like to use:

Adverbs that weaken (e.g. “often”, “probably”)

Numerically vague expressions (e.g. “some people”, “experts”, “many”)

Use of the passive voice to avoid specifying an authority

Modal verbs like “can,” “could,” “may,” and “might,” among others

Henry gives that classic example of the comparative: “Nothing acts faster than Anadin: The fact all analgesics worked at the same speed is beside the point. And there was a chocolate bar which had “New Size” emblazoned across the bar. This was true – it was actually smaller than the previous bar had been!

Then there are those weasel words.* For me natural is a classic weasel word.  In a post I did about the misuse of the word, I mentioned Natural American Spirit, an organic cigarette brand whose slogan is: “Taste nature. And nothing else.” Classic weasel words are helps and fights. A few years there was a Kellogg’s advert showing a photograph of a mother playing with her child, asserts that ”a bowl of cereal may help reduce the risks of osteoporosis” by providing recommended daily amounts of calcium. ‘Up to’ or ‘as much as’ are great for making dodgy numerical claims

Henry and Davis didn’t really talk about another of the keys to success in advertising – creating anxiety among consumers. The period I typically associate with this is the 1920s. After World War I there was a shift from the Puritanical values of hard work and thrift, toward a more consumerist society. Hollywood, with its cult of the beautiful body, was on the rise.  One commentator wrote:

Advertising helps to keep the masses dissatisfied with their mode of life, discontented with ugly things around them. Satisfied customers are not as profitable as discontented ones.

A fascinating case study is provided by Listerine. This product has enjoyed a number of different lives. It began as a powerful surgical antiseptic, and then it morphed into a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhoea. However it was when it was pitched as a solution for halitosis that sales took off.  This obscure medical term for bad breath was just what the doctor ordered for Listerine. Their adverts used to feature young men and women, eager for marriage. There was just one problem – their partner’s bad breath. “Can I be happy with him in spite of that?“, one forlorn maiden asked herself. Until that time, bad breath had not been seen as such a social faux pas. But Listerine changed the rules. Other terms that emerged in this period athlete’s foot, dead cuticles, psoriasis and BO. Luckily those men in white coats from the laboratories of the United States had not only identified these new conditions, but — miraculously, it seemed — had simultaneously come up with cures for them. Having said that, I probably wouldn’t want to go back to pre-20th century hygiene levels.

I think we shouldn’t overstate the case against advertising as it merely reflects human tendency to accentuate the positive and cover up the negative. It’s not just filthy lucre which engages in this kind of spin. We all engage in advertising. When we write a CV we seek to present ourselves in the most positive light.  The same thing happens with dating; the majority claim to be a lot richer, taller, slimmer, and better-looking than average.  Politics is full of it too. However, we are not passive recipients of adverts. We are becoming increasingly aware of the games advertisers play. You can lie and get a sale but if your product doesn’t satisfy your consumers, you won’t get repeat business. The industry is evolving and consumers are more media-savvy than they used to be. Advertisers will have to find new ways to get through to us.


*Evan Davis pointed out the origin of the term weasel words; the weasel sucks the contents of the egg through a tiny little hole leaving the egg apparently intact when in reality it’s empty. Curiously an article in the Buffalo News attributes the origin of the term to William Shakespeare’s plays Henry V and As You Like It, in which the author includes similes of weasels sucking eggs.


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