Ideas that add up #73

Cracknell, an ad man since those heady days [“Madison Avenue’s Golden Age”], agrees with the late creative director Bill Bernbach’s suggestion that while advertising can “vulgarise” or “brutalise” society, it can also “help lift it on to a higher level.”

According to Cracknell, Bernbach’s advertising (as well as that of the countless creatives influenced by his work) achieved this moral elevation by means of light humour and demotic language. Bernbach, says Cracknell, banished straightforward ad copy — beautifully summed up in Kingsley Amis’s imaginary sell-line, “Beer: makes you drunk” — and substituted it with the self-reflexive conceits of a whimsical modernism. Cracknell argues that post-Bernbachian ads say: “Hey, we’re all in this together; you know we’re going to try and sell you something — let’s both enjoy the process.”

Review of Andrew Cracknell’s The Real Mad Men in the FT, August 8th, 2011

Modern advertising does flirt with us, when it can, but only as another stratagem in the playbook. Despite appearances, the other side in this game is at no point interested in having fun with us for the sake of having fun. There is no “let’s both enjoy the process” in advertisers’ calculations. They compute value for themselves, in our enjoyment, because it makes us more receptive to the underlying sales pitch. If the outcome fails to enhance the bottom line then they’ll junk the approach and try something else.

That’s why the quirky, “we’re all in this together” conceit in advertising is an irritating sham.

That’s not to deny the possibility of advertising as a vehicle for beauty, humour and pathos. I remember the swell of euphoria I felt twenty years ago, watching a two-minute Guinness TV ad set to the accompaniment of Louis Armstrong singing “We’ve got all the time in the world.” Only to say that the emotional experience we undergo at such times is corrupted once the creators’ nakedly commercial motives are factored in. No one wants to find themself cast as the pawn in someone else’s game of self-interest.

Another memory, from a basement jazz dive in Taipei in the late 1990’s, belting out Don’t Get Around Much Any More in its Mel Torme makeover with a bunch of gin-soaked buddies. All raucous good cheer, boozy mateship, thinking: “now this is living”. Feeling like one of those eternally youthful healthy happy carousers at a beach bar in some ad for Budweiser or similar shitty brew — but aware too in the moment the thought crossed my mind that the moment was lost. Like I was acting out a pre-packaged scene, dreamt up by “creatives” in an office suite somewhere specifically to colonize the brains of punters like me. Actually felt a bit guilty about it, as if I wasn’t really present with the others…but later wondered if the others, behind those bright loud faces, had stumbled on the same recognition.

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