Advertisements are good for you

Brand Spirit - Advertising Advertising
November 19, 1999

The surprising thing about Advertising Advertising and Brand Spirit is that both books are concerned with "doing good", but are written by advertising professionals. Few businesses have a poorer reputation for benevolence.

Ad campaigns are more likely to be seen as fuelling envy or promoting unhealthy anxieties about body image than increasing public knowledge or inspiring corporate philanthropy. Moreover, ad agency folk are perhaps second only to currency-exchange speculators in being perceived as amoral and ultimately unproductive middlemen.

Despite their common interest in the social good, it is hard to imagine two books with less similar tones and arguments. Winston Fletcher has set up and run several ad agencies and has been the chairman of just about every advertising-related professional body in Britain. His Advertising Advertising , subtitled "It's Good for You", surveys the positive social uses of advertising in cocksure but mainly lucid and engaging prose.

According to Fletcher, ads offer helpful product information "free" to the consumer; they enhance consumers' sensual and aesthetic experience of brands; they can even improve a brand's performance; moreover, ads have value in and of themselves because they are often entertaining.

However, the overarching end benefit of all advertising, argues Fletcher, is that it helps us make choices in a society where we have too many to make. In other words, the main reason why advertising is good for you is because it works against a choice overload which engenders a "rather scary level of insecurity" in our society (the archbishop of Canterbury as quoted by Fletcher).

Although the book asks some fundamental questions and offers some agreeable insights, his main thesis remains unconvincing. Putting aside its debatable premise (too many genuine choices), Fletcher does not consider whether advertising contributes to, rather than militates against, crises of choice. Moreover,he simply discusses the imperative of making choices, not how to make better, more ethical ones.

Nor does he really address counter-arguments. He dismisses a few of his fellow ad-land "bigwigs" as talking "codswallop" and makes a couple of passing criticisms of Raymond Williams, but is too cavalier about the arguments of others to prove his own.

By contrast, Brand Spirit is a more careful, systematic and mostly diplomatic book. At the time of its writing, its authors, Hamish Pringle and Marjorie Thompson, were both consultants at Saatchi and Saatchi's Cause Connection "the first specialist cause related marketing unit inside an advertising agency on either side of the Atlantic".

With reference to market research and consumer theories such as A. H. Maslow's "hierarchy of needs", Pringle and Thompson outline several converging trends that together raise the importance of cause-related marketing.

One trend is that people are looking towards consumer brands to help them with their "self-actualisation" and self-esteem. Another trend suggests that as the influence and credibility of the church, government and monarchy decline, companies and their brands are increasingly seen as the new "pillars of society". Finally, there is a growing consensus in the business community that the most reliable route to long-term profits is through consumer loyalty. One way to secure that loyalty is to capitalise on the added emotional or even "spiritual" dimension that a good cause can bring to your brand.

Brand Spirit is a call to marketers to take responsibility for the wider role of their brand in society. It explores how brands can benefit by associating themselves with the right good cause, such as Tesco's Computers for Schools campaign, which gives more weight to their slogan "Every little helps", or Pizza Express's longstanding donations to "Venice in Peril", which help authenticate their positioning as modern and traditionally Italian. Finally, it outlines how to put together a successful cause related marketing campaign: from establishing the "territory", through developing the concept, to considering media relations and "corporate body language".

Both the strengths and weaknesses of the book derive from the fact that it is not just an exposition, but also an implicit pitch for new business.

Pringle and Thompson build up their argument with many case studies and, although one might quibble with comments here and there, it is difficult to disagree violently with their overall thesis. This is partly due to their admirable diligence but also, I suspect, partly the result of playing it safe - a necessity if you are writing within the context of a notoriously "political" agency and do not want to scare off potential clients.

I was not conscious of this polite, diplomatic tone until the one chapter when they drop it and let rip about the "chairman's wife syndrome". Here, they use uncharacteristically strong language to condemn the corporate tendency to sponsor "elitist non-functional visual arts", which are little more than thinly veiled efforts at "social climbing". At first sight, this may come across as an imprudent rant until one remembers the current agency's antagonism to their old chairmen, Maurice and Charles Saatchi (who now run the rival agency, M&C Saatchi).

Here, Pringle and Thompson's indignation would undoubtedly blind them to the fact that sponsoring young artists is a singularly appropriate terrain for a business whose ra ison d'être is creativity. Many would argue that the creative credibility and aura of the Saatchi and Saatchi brand was enriched by its association with what is perceived as a higher order of creativity, especially once the agency's earlier associations with Margaret Thatcher became less attractive.

Brand Spirit is a useful book for marketing students in need of familiarising themselves with agency jargon about brands - although a bibliography would have made it even more useful.

Sarah Thornton was a brand planner in a London advertising agency and lecturer in media studies, Sussex University. She is now a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

Brand Spirit

Author - Hamish Pringle and Marjorie Thompson
ISBN - 0 471 98776 X
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £19.99
Pages - 281

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