Winston Fletcher's Powers of Persuasion does exactly what it says on the jacket; it is a readable and racy inside story of the British advertising industry. After an informative chapter on the antecedents of modern advertising, including Athenian town criers, the birth of display advertising (or as the Tatler of 1710 called it, "catching the reader's eye"), and Lillie Langtry as precursor to today's celebrity ads proclaiming that since using Pears' Soap she had discarded all others, Fletcher concentrates on his main interest, the development of advertising and in particular the advertising business since the 1950s. From here he gives details of the people, agencies and ads from the 1960s to the 1990s that have made the news, fired the imagination, caused controversy and - as in the case of campaigns such as Guinness, Benson & Hedges and Fletcher's personal favourite Heineken, which "refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach" - reached iconic status in British popular culture.
For those of us who remember the nuclear family of Katie and Philip in the Oxo ads of the 1960s along with the 21st-century version in which Dad is asked to rate his wife's bottom against that of Baby Spice, this tour through the iconic ads of yesteryear is a treat. It is a fascinating chronicle of the advertisements and above all the men (women don't feature much beyond Fay Weldon's "Go to work on an egg" campaign) who created agencies such as Saatchi and Saatchi, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Lowe Howard-Spink and the acquisitive Martin Sorrell and his WPP empire. It is when talking about the men behind the agencies, their rise to the top and in some cases the more seedy activities of their "shops", as they are referred to in the advertising world, that Fletcher is at his best. He has worked with these men and gives us his insight into what drove them to create the agencies that bring ads into our sitting rooms every night. Many of them intended to be artists or writers, although Charles and Maurice Saatchi had driving ambition from the start: "Charles's creativity; Maurice's business acumen; their ability to spot a trend and leap on to it; their financial impudence; their elastic integrity". Refreshingly, Fletcher is never afraid to tell you what he thinks of his former colleagues and competitors.
Along the way, he discusses the relationship between creativity and effectiveness, the use of self-denigration in advertising such as Volkswagen's "Lemon" campaign, in which they admitted that their production line was not faultless, and the development of the first masters degree in marketing at the University of Lancaster. He seems less comfortable with other areas, and one of these is the relationship between advertising and consumerism, which he simplifies to "endemically inimical". But perhaps the biggest criticism of Powers of Persuasion has to be of the section "Fatties and Guzzlers", where Fletcher characterises childhood obesity as being as much to do with genetics as with the environment. Similarly, he suggests that the medical profession's assertion that "excessive guzzling" of alcohol may be causing more illness is "not wholly reliable".
Powers of Persuasion is a good read but as with so many adverts, you need to suspend disbelief. This is a book for the advertising enthusiast rather than the scholar.
Powers of Persuasion: The Inside Story of British Advertising 1951-2000
By Winston Fletcher
Oxford University Press
Published 10 July 2008