Gerry Farrell: Marketing success is proof of freedom, not coercion
ADVERTISERS are seen as scapegoats for society’s greed but that absurdly overestimates our power.
It’s the Embra Festival again and the plywood hoardings are plastered with posters hyping comedians. As I’m figuring out which shows are worth the exorbitant admission money, I’m reminded of the most inflammatory comedian ever, the late Bill Hicks, brought to his self-predicted, untimely end by his addiction to Marlboro Red. Mr Hicks got some of his biggest laughs ripping into people like me.
“Does anyone here work in advertising or marketing? Well if you do, when you get home tonight, take a gun and shoot yourself, suck a tailpipe, whatever. No bullshit. I’m not joking. Just do it. You have no rationalisation for what you do. You are Satan’s little helpers.”
Only last week, in a passionately argued but po-faced polemic in this very newspaper, Robin MacAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation had something similar to say: “We need to start asking some very searching questions about the real social value of advertising and marketing that has thrived on making us believe that avarice is normal and acceptable.”
Frankly, advertising is such a perennial scapegoat that finding negative quotes about it is a doddle. My favourite is George Orwell’s: “Advertising is the rattling of a stick in a swill bucket.” It is immediately less one-sided than the usual knee-jerk insults. For if advertising is the “rattling stick”, who has their snouts in the swill? Why, you and me, dear reader.
The most frequently flung clod of dung is that we “make people buy things they don’t want”. When you ask the (typically) middle-class intellectuals who peddle this half-baked pap whether an ad has ever made them ever buy something they didn’t want, they look flabbergasted and say: “Who, me? I never look at ads!”
In their heads, the people who are “made to buy stuff they don’t want” by evil manipulators like me, are the poor, ignorant working classes who don’t know any better. This isn’t just insulting to ordinary folk, it’s a ridiculous over-estimation of what advertising and marketing can and can’t do. Gray Joliffe, the famous cartoonist, was once a copywriter. At his first job interview he was asked if he had ever written an ad. He rummaged in his pocket and unfolded a full broadsheet page. In the middle of its white space was a tiny black dot with an arrow pointing to a handwritten headline that read: “Look at this dot. Now you are in my power. Go out and buy 17 Mars Bars.” Advertising is not mass hypnosis. It is the art of persuasion and it is doomed to failure unless it co-opts us into its conspiracies with humour, emotion and often useful not to mention legal, decent, honest and truthful information.
In Scotland BC (Before Ciabatta), there was precious little in the way of marketing to annoy self-appointed champions of the people. Retailers, in particular, found the whole idea of it rather disreputable. “What? Encourage people into our nice tidy emporium?!”
Jenners counter staff were particularly snooty in that respect. When I was growing up there was even a shop in Edinburgh’s Southside with a sign saying “No browsing”.
By the time I was 16, big brands had crept onto my radar. I wore Levis Sta-Prest trousers, Doc Marten boots and a Ben Sherman shirt. In my left hand was the latest Led Zeppelin LP in a red plastic carrier bag bearing the legend, “I found it at Bruce’s”. In my right hand was another plastic bag, clanking with tins of McEwan’s Export or pint bottles of Newcastle Brown.
Now, after 25 years working at the Leith Agency, I’ve realised that the most fool-proof way of getting folk on your brand’s side is to treat them like human beings, not “consumers”, using language you would never find in a strategy document or a Powerpoint presentation.
Scotland’s a small country with a big, self-deprecating sense of humour. When we deploy that in our work, we cut through much quicker than a London agency trying to reach the same market. We share a “tell-it-like-it-is” attitude that’s closer to Sydney than it is to Soho. It was the Australian Meat & Livestock Commission, after all, who were brave enough to run nationwide billboards that said “Eat more beef, you bastards”. My favourite irreverent Scottish equivalent is the current Edinburgh bus-back campaign that proudly declares “Our pies are pure mince”.
In Scotland today, advertising relies more than ever on the goodwill of its audience – and irreverence is a great way to win them over. If people love your product and the tone of voice of your ads, you barely need a media schedule. Our own Irn-Bru “Fanny” ad launched on Twitter and went viral overnight. Three weeks in, it was the second most popular online clip in the world.
In Scotland, we’re also much better than Soho at harnessing powerful human emotions to produce excellent public service advertising. The late Jimmy Reid was a great supporter of the worth of social issue marketing. I was lucky enough to work with him on a controversial anti-smoking campaign when he sat on the old Health Education Board for Scotland and he fought on my side to get the work made.
Advertising is the canary down the mine for any liberal democracy. It is living proof that we enjoy freedom of choice. In this digital age, dominated by social media, it is people, not companies, who decide whether or not a brand will prosper.
We’re celebrating our business in Edinburgh this week at the International Marketing Festival. In Scotland, from Specsavers sponsoring SPL refs to pies that are pure mince, there’s plenty to celebrate.
• Gerry Farrell is creative director at the Leith Agency, and speaks today at the Edinburgh International Marketing Festival www.eimfest.com
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