Out with the old, in with the... old

Advertising Today
January 11, 2002

"The word new," claimed the late David Ogilvy, perhaps the greatest advertising man of the 20th century, "is one of the most powerful words in the advertising dictionary." Ogilvy was talking about advertisement headlines, but he could just as easily have been talking about advertising people: they adore anything new - new gizmos, new jargon, new magic ingredients, new brands, new clothes, new cars, new spouses pretty frequently and, above all, new fashions in creativity. Hardly a day goes by without one adman or another claiming to have invented a chic new creative trend.

Warren Berger, the author of Advertising Today , is an advertising journalist who has, in effect, gone native. Like the admen he so admires, he spots new creative trends by the trolleyful. And he too likes to invent new jargon, and to give his putative new creative fashions catchy brand names. Have you noticed, he asks, how ads are becoming increasingly bizarre? That's the "oddvertising" trend. Are ads becoming more controversial? That's "shockvertising", of course. The fact that the new trends the author has spotted are not new, and that the names he has invented for them are never used in advertising, does not seem to matter a tuppenny price-cut to him.

Almost every whizzo trend Berger identifies - whether or not he dubs it with a zany new name - has been around since Victorian times, if not longer. He claims (because it is conventional wisdom) that humour did not enter advertising until the 1960s. Codswallop. The issue was being hotly debated at the turn of the last century, when Walter Dill Scott, a professor at the University of Chicago, claimed in his book The Psychology of Advertising (1909): "Advertising is a serious business and it is unwise to present the humorous side of life." A decade earlier, two British poster designers, Dudley Hardy and John Hassall, were already leading exponents of humourous advertising.

Like many commentators, Berger goes on about the inescapable ubiquity of modern advertising (more conventional wisdom), blissfully ignorant of the fact that in 1865 it was estimated that 1 billion to 1.5 billion advertising handbills were distributed in London alone, and that a couple of years earlier, Edward Lloyd, the founder of Lloyds Weekly Newspaper , had advertised his organ by stamping its name on coins of the realm - causing the government of the day to make the defacing of currency illegal.

Another exciting new advertising trend Berger spots is the need to surprise, which he puts down to the aforementioned ubiquity of advertisements and consequential consumer apathy (still more conventional wisdom): "It's become more and more important for advertising to become intriguing," he quotes approvingly, seemingly unaware that, in 1759, the great Dr Johnson wrote: "Advertisements are now so numerous they are very negligently perused and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic". Oddvertising? Could anything be odder than the 19th-century Scottish grocer Thomas Lipton driving chubby pigs - about to be slaughtered for bacon - through Glasgow's streets bearing banners incongruously saying "Lipton's Orphans"? Shockvertising? Has the author never glanced at Leonard de Vries's two splendid works, Victorian Advertisements and The Wonderful World of American Advertisements 1865-1890 , both of which are replete with shocking advertising, not least the notorious Bovril slogan of 1891, "Bovril by Electrocution", above an image of two bulls being electrocuted to produce the delicious meat essence.

Nor is Berger much better at media history or economics. He notes, correctly, that a small advertising revolution occurred in the 1960s when advertising copywriters and art directors began to create advertisements in concert. Berger explains this in terms of advertising culture, without apparently realising that it was driven by the growth of television, where words and pictures are almost unavoidably integrated. Likewise, he raps on about the increasing similarity of competitive products without subjecting it to any examination. The truth is that competitive products have grown less similar, as increased economic affluence has made it possible to have even instant coffee in 50 or so different varieties. The immense diversity of competitive goods is one of the main features, and one of the main complexities, of modern marketing - indeed of modern life.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect a journalist to be a historian, or to know about economics. But it hardly seems too much to ask, in a weighty and very expensive book called Advertising Today , for the author to have read pretty widely about the subject - and not just from the most recent and trendiest books, as the thin bibliography suggests.

Where the author does score, perhaps predictably, is in the chapters most akin to journalism. His international tour d'horizon , in which he zooms around the world commenting on the latest advertising fashions in about a dozen countries, is interesting and revealing. Though even here he fails to understand one of the principal issues. He quotes top British adman John Hegarty describing international advertising as a creative graveyard, and then seeks to prove the opposite by examining lots of national campaigns from different countries. Hegarty's point is that international campaigns - where the same campaign runs in many countries - are creatively damn difficult and rarely inspiring. By comparison, local campaigns, in whichever country, are a cinch.

Berger also scores in his coverage of non-commercial social-service advertising. And this perhaps provides the key to Advertising Today 's surfeit of weaknesses, and rather fewer strengths. The author begins his book by stating that he is going to focus on advertising "that breaks through the clutter by virtue of its style, cleverness and originality". He goes on to estimate that such "visually arresting and exhilarating" advertising amounts to about maybe 5 per cent of all advertising. "The other 95 per cent," he says, "shall be left on the cultural scrap heap, where it belongs." But the type of advertising that interests him accounts for nowhere near 5 per cent of the total. It is much less than 1 per cent of the total, perhaps even less than 0.1 per cent.

Berger has written a book that ignores more than 99 per cent of advertising, about which he knows little and cares less. His book is about a tiny segment of advertising, at the frontiers of commercial art and creativity. That is why he has bothered to read scarcely any advertising history. That is why he has not examined in depth advertising's role in the economy, nor the ways in which it affects consumers as consumers, rather than as aesthetes. These omissions constitute whacking great holes in a whacking great tome calling itself Advertising Today .

And perhaps this is why he is reasonably good on social-service advertising. Social-service advertising, a high-profile but minuscule advertising sector, frequently wins international creative gongs because it is often "visually arresting and exhilarating". This is because it deals with arresting subjects - drug addiction, road safety and Aids. Not even the most passionate of marketing men could call shampoos or lavatory cleansers arresting or exhilarating. But they are what advertising today is all about. Advertising Today is not what advertising today is all about.

Winston Fletcher is chairman of The Advertising Standards Board of Finance and of The Royal Institution.

Advertising Today

Author - Warren Berger
ISBN - 0 7148 3923 X
Publisher - Phaidon
Price - £45.00
Pages - 512

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