Some reflections on the most evil industry in the world
“Are we a nation of citizens or a nation of consumers? Are we a democracy run by citizens, or are we a corporatocracy that holds consumers locked in dependency by virtue of their consumption?” Thom Hartmann
“Advertising is inherently neither good or bad. It’s messily both… Advertising exists because the process of persuading others to do, buy, eat, change something exists. Sometimes it’s for evil (like promoting tobacco), other times it’s for good (like subverting tobacco). It’s simultaneously a necessary evil and a necessary good. Like government. Or flag burning. Or canned food. It is an ambivalent reflection of its time.” – Ed Tsue
My father, who is now retired, was an advertising Marketing Director in England and South Africa. In spite of – or perhaps because of – his experiences in advertising in Johannesburg from the mid 1970,’s to the mid 1980’s, he would often declare in his categorical, Thus spake Zarathustra manner, “Advertising is evil. It’s full of perverts”. Of course, he never elaborated on the pronouncement, and no comment was invited. Was it drugs, sex, or rock ‘n roll that had provoked such vitriol? Or a philosophic renunciation of his own career? I will never know.
His father, a Welsh socialist and an engineer, was equally scathing of “the service industry”. My father, and his father before him, were certainly not alone in denouncing the “industry” from which, by and large, I have earned a reasonable and honest living since I was in my twenties. There are a fair number of jokes about disreputable admen, and at times I confess I have emphasised that I am a graphic designer and illustrator rather than an art director, perhaps subconsciously to distance myself from the picture of slick-haired, smooth-talking reprobates. I have been told – seriously – that what I do is right down there with prostitution and drug trafficking. Interestingly enough I worked with a much-awarded creative director who named his company after a particular room of a house of ill repute in French literature where the, er, “service” the girls provided for the, um, “customers”, was second to none. The creative director in question (who went on to become a millionaire and one of the industry’s hall-of-fame greats) told me that one day he’d tell his grandson that he’d always known he was prostituting his talents. I think he was being a little ironic, but there we have it: my dad wasn’t far off.
Or was he? I tend to think that in all spheres of human activity you get the good, the bad and the ugly, and advertising is no more or less evil than, say, politics, the priesthood, the legal profession or accountancy, and that once you start pontificating about which profession is more virtuous than another you are on shaky ground. There are those who would disagree of course.
The monk and the Art Director: The Evil profession
A few months back I put on my Art Director’s hat (with it’s red devil-horns) and engaged in an on-line tête-à-tête with a Franciscan monk who had written a post deriding advertising as “the most evil of all professions”.
I will share an abridged version of the conversation here (with names changed):
“Dear Brother William. I came upon your article “THE GREATEST EVIL?” and I was surprised to arrive at such a grim meditation, especially in light of your apparent commitment to spreading “the spirit of love and harmony, breaking down barriers between people and fighting against the ignorance, pride, and prejudice that breed injustice or partiality of any kind”. I find it difficult to reconcile your essay with such aims. I am a graphic designer who has been, on and off, connected with advertising for many years, and I have mixed reactions to your essay, reactions I felt I needed to share with you. May I suggest the greatest evil – if we are permitted to engage in the dubious task of comparisons of degrees of evil – is intolerance: not to love, not to be able to see light in the dark, not to be able to find Christ even where there may be shadows. I may be wrong, but nowhere in Scripture do I find Jesus singling out a particular trade, industry, country or person and naming it “The Greatest Evil” (including prostitution, being a pagan Roman centurion, collaborator tax-collector or even a demoniac). Interestingly, Jesus seems to have reserved his harshest criticisms not for sinners such as these, but for the religious authorities of his day who consistently condemned those they regarded as unclean in their eyes and God’s. Maybe even as unclean as advertising and all the associated industries- film, tv production, motion graphics, illustration and commercial photography… this little rant of yours against the “the greatest evil” intrigues me both for its failure to understand the complexities and intentions of advertising in the global economy (I discovered your site online, by the way, precisely because it WAS advertised) – and for its judgemental tone. To suggest that the many people I am acquainted with and have been through my life, and the many, many throughout the world who do excellent, honest work to feed themselves and their families, are participants in an evil worse than “Terrorism”, “Drug abuse” “Genocide” “Pornography” and “War” [the priest’s contention] is an insult – not to me, because I frankly disavow the stupidity of that statement – but an insult to victims of the human tragedies you casually lists in your essay. It is also an insult to every person with a pc, a mobile phone, a TV, a magazine or a newspaper, for it assumes they are all either innocents to be corrupted or imbeciles who cannot decide for themselves if they need a new pair of shoes or not – whatever the admen say.
“Dear Scott, I’m sorry you felt threatened by my article on advertising. If you reread it you will see that I do not condemn advertisers. Had I done so, your criticism would have been more valid. As I have no idea what motives and forces have caused anybody to work in advertising, I cannot judge them. Only God can do that. It is a common misconception that Christians should not condemn anything. What Christians should not condemn is people. Contrarily, we have an obligation to attack evils. Jesus was very free to condemn things he felt were evil. I singled out modern advertising for criticism because it’s intention is to create discontent, encourage greed, and promote consumerism- all goals which are strongly anti-gospel, and moreover responsible or partly responsible for a great many of the ills of our modern society, including our environmental destruction. I call advertising “THE greatest evil” because of the huge volume of its destructive effects; there are other more evil things which affect fewer people. As a Franciscan, I am dedicated to living simply. This was easy when I was in Africa where there was no advertising – no stirring up of unnecessary desires and no suggestions that I’d have better sex (or more success etc.) if I bought things – one of the constant themes of modern advertising. Consequently I identified advertising as ONE (not the only) enemy of a holy life and trained myself to ignore it – with some success. Another factor in my condemnation of advertising is the constant falsehoods (despite ineffectual attempts at control) – so pervasive in our society that lying has become totally acceptable if it is profitable. (Witness the fact that Trump’s lies have almost no deleterious effect – especially not on his supporters. The “alternative facts” of today are the direct result of manipulative advertising.) I am old enough to remember when telling the truth was an important virtue. You, I imagine, are too young to remember a better way. All the best, Brother William”
“Thank you Brother William for your considered reply to my letter, although you avoided several key issues in my response to your article. Perhaps we won’t see eye to eye on this matter, as I see you did not address any of my comments on the positives of the free market economy, the positive use of advertising and so on. Not all advertising is manipulative unlike much which passes for religion. “I am old enough to remember when telling the truth was an important virtue. You, I imagine, are too young to remember a better way.” This is an unfair and untrue assumption which locates the telling of truth in some mythic virtuous past. When was that precisely? In Africa under colonial rule? In the propaganda infested World Wars? In mediaeval Christendom? I am old enough to refute this insinuation of an ignorance of truth, old enough to know that the present generation is profoundly aware of the previous generation’s falsehoods and moral bankruptcy. I believe you conflate political propaganda and falsehood with your bugbear, advertising. If I design, erect and pay for a billboard which tells you the advantages of, say, a low emission vehicle, how is this the greatest of evils that I am perpetrating? How is this more evil than, for instance, US drone attacks in Afghanistan or British made cluster bombs being dropped in Yemen? Buying Royal Dutch Shell petrol for your car when the oil company and evil regimes conspire to murder activists? You merrily demonize advertising and whittle it down to a parody of sex and material lust, as if we were innocent victims of an external agent. Somewhere Christ pointed out that it was not that which goes into a man that contaminates him, but what proceeds out of his mouth, out of his soul. The pharisees got this wrong time and again.You locate the great evil outside, the great evil of temptation, but evil of the very worst sort has and continues to arise in the hearts of men and women even in the seclusion of a religious community. As a priest you are surely aware of this and I need not bore you with examples. If the free market system annoys you and tempts you so, I ask what strength there be in Christ if we must flee into a metaphorical desert to escape temptation! Isn’t this what Thomas Merton understood, that there was something artificial and illusory in such an escape? If you want to raise the subject of sex, then a prostitute in a doorway in Jerusalem could be considered a crass form of advertising, and Jesus didn’t go about lambasting prostitutes or dimly lit doorways. Should you be interested you will find that lying and wilfully misleading the public, while perhaps a forte of men in power (Trump is but one recent example) is prohibited under law in almost every country. I cannot advertise a falsehood without facing criminal liability, and when you see all these lies you refer to I would encourage you to take action, write to your local advertising authority. I am no great lover of commercialism, I have my own issues with advertising, but I question your casting it as “the greatest evil”. The rise of christofascism in the US is surely a good contender for that position? Great Britain’s nuclear arsenal? ISIS? And lets not idealise third world poverty, or the nightmare of socialism in (then) Eastern block Europe and the soviet union, where ads were rare and scarcity common. My argument with you is not about the virtues of advertising which would be a ridiculous argument to make (should the internet be shut down because it carries pornography? Should TV and radio be stopped because they carry images of gratuitous sex and mindless violence? Where will we stop? Will we attack Catholicism because of the vices of some of its clergy? Isn’t this one of the ideas in “The Name of the Rose”, where the fight against vice becomes more evil than the evils it seeks to denounce? Thank you for your reply, Best, Scott”
It is not only Franciscan monks who regard advertising as a sort of Sodom and Gomorrah deserving of God’s unsparing wrath. Ed Gillespie, writing for the Guardian Professional Network, put it this way:
“If anyone here is in advertising or marketing … kill yourself.” So said the late, great and long lamented comedy genius Bill Hicks in (his) legendary clip. His scathing and withering dismissal of an entire industry came to mind last week with the launch of Think of me as evil?, a report from the Public Interest Research Centre and WWF, as well as subsequent commentary by the esteemed George Monbiot. Now I have to hold my hands-up here as this “evil, pointless” industry that apparently “demeans even love”, is also my industry – and I love it. And I wonder whether Messrs Alexander, Crompton and Shrubsole, the authors of the above report, might be at risk of hurling this particular baby out with the proverbial bathwater?”(1)
The George Monbiot mentioned above by Gillespie wrote, “Advertising claims to enhance our choice, but it offers us little choice about whether we see and hear it, and ever less choice about whether we respond to it. Since Edward Bernays began to apply the findings of his uncle Sigmund Freud, advertisers have been developing sophisticated means of overcoming our defences. In public they insist that if we become informed consumers and school our children in media literacy we have nothing to fear from their attempts at persuasion. In private they employ neurobiologists to find ingenious methods of bypassing the conscious mind.. Pervasiveness and repetition act like a battering ram against our minds. The first time we see an advertisement, we are likely to be aware of what it’s telling us and what it is encouraging us to buy. From then on, we process it passively, absorbing its imagery and messages without contesting them, as we are no longer fully switched on. Brands and memes then become linked in ways our conscious minds fail to detect.. Advertising encourages us to compare ourselves with those we perceive to be better off. It persuades us to trash our happiness and trash the biosphere to answer a craving it exists to perpetuate… We’re hooked on a drug that is destroying society. As with all addictions, the first step is to admit to it…”(2)
So there you have it – not from a monk mind you, but from the activist/author of “The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain”. We ad-men are devils after all, in cahoots with The Beast. The consumer is an innocent and hapless victim of my wicked industry’s nefarious machinations: I had better keep pushing the “I am a graphic designer” line after all, unless designers too are listed in the Malleus Maleficarum.
Perhaps graphic design will save the world? (and to the relief of Brother William, my soul long In the service of evil, will find some modest redemption). An article by Nicholas Windsor Howard – Poor Design in the Wild – illustrates what should in fact be obvious: the importance of good design(3). But this will be the subject of another blog post.
Notes and further reading:
Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility by Veronique Vienne (Editor) “What does it mean to be a designer in today’s corporate-driven, overbranded global consumer culture? Citizen Designer attempts to answer this question with more than 70 debate-stirring essays and interviews espousing viewpoints ranging from the cultural and the political to the professional and the social.”
Is Advertising Inherently Evil? An insider’s perspective on the industry’s perennial debate:
“Is it wrong to erect elaborate fantasies to sell people things they don’t really need? Is it moral to research, identify and leverage deeply primal emotions to sell candy, plastic toys or french fries to kids? Is it kosher to use art to serve commerce?”
Advertising in itself is not evil: it is just communication(1)