Brands R Us: How Advertising Works
This article originally appeared in Issue# 51
Hyundai tells us that their cars make sense, Apple Computer offers us the power to be our best, and most of us don't believe a word of it. The fact is, when all is said and done, most people don't believe, don't remember, don't even notice, most advertising. This has always been so and always will be so. The vast majority of advertising is ineffective and inefficient.
And yet, there is a direct connection between a society's (or individual's) levels of exposure to advertising and the levels of consumption. How can this be? If advertising is inefficient, if 90 percent of all advertising is neither seen nor remembered by most people (according to surveys), if two minutes after being exposed to a particular message or brand I can no longer remember either the brand or the message, then where's the connection? How does something so banal and benign impact my consumption patterns and habits?
The message cited above for Hyundai automobiles ("Cars That Make Sense") has little or no effect either upon our personal lives or even Hyundai's sales overall. And we could say the same thing about thousands of other individual and isolated advertiser efforts. But the Hyundai advertising, combined with Apple Computer's advertising, combined with advertising for Tide detergent and Chivas Regal and RCA and Johnson's Floor Wax and the limited -time specials at your local department store or supermarket, has a very powerful collective effect indeed: it instructs us to Buy!
And it gives us, via lighthearted entertainment, permission to ignore the long-term consequences of our purchasing decisions by suggesting to us that we should not take any of this too seriously. (We shouldn't take a spilled glass of water too seriously, either. But a flood is a totally different matter.)
Advertising's real message, to buy and to buy ever more, to replace what we have rather than repair what we have, at one time served us well. When we were smaller in numbers, when we were still growing, still searching for a collective identity, when personal prosperity was touted as the primary reason for being alive, private property the only form of wealth, and when we were naive enough to believe it all, consumption and the ability to consume (choosing our livelihoods on the basis of whether or not it provided us with that ability!) was not only a way of life, it was a respectable one at that.
But we are no longer small in numbers. And we are no longer that naive. We can plainly see that advertising's collective power and our collective response to it has had, and continues to have, a profound and adverse effect upon our personal lives and upon the planet we share.
But pointing a finger at the advertising industry will change nothing. Wishing and hoping that the advertising industry will lose its innocence and suddenly leap into modern times in recognition of the situation we are all in is futile. And while the advertising industry is part and parcel of an industrial civilization now in decline, this doesn't mean we should expect the number of advertising messages and collective power of those messages to also decline in the very near future. If anything, it means we can expect an increase in the number of those messages. For the advertising industry, along with the main body of industrial society, is struggling for survival. It may be drowning, but it has not yet sunk. And in a last-ditch effort to save itself, it will flail about more wildly and make more noise than ever, as we might expect from any drowning individual.
No, what must change is us. What must change is how we see advertising in the context of the modern moment. We must recognize that its influence upon our lives and our well-being is in direct proportion to the amount of exposure in our lives, and that this exposure is an event unto itself, an experience separate from whether or not we respond to or believe individual messages.
High consumption has far more impact upon our environment than type of consumption. Buying much less and driving much less is better than just switching from plastic to paper or from "normal" unleaded to "super" unleaded. One of the first steps we must take towards consuming fewer goods is to consume less advertising.
Six Ways to Reduce Advertising in Your Life
Greater awareness of advertising's role in your life can help make you a conscious, instead of an automatic, consumer:
- Don't be a walking advertisement.
Remove those labels, tags and other symbols from your jeans and steer clear of T-shirt advertising, "alligator" shirts and clothing with designer logos. Why should you be an unpaid billboard?
- Keep your counter clear of brand names.
Whenever possible, transfer liquid soaps, cereals, cookies, nuts, juices and the like from their brand-identified store-bought containers into plain, general-purpose jars and cannisters. Or remove brand I.D. labels from store containers (but make sure the product is still clearly identifiable).
- Take the road less traveled.
Avoiding main highways and using local streets can help you sidestep the major arteries and commercial avenues in your locale. This will go a long way towards reducing your exposure to outdoor advertising and may even help you get to know your town or city a little better.
- Reduce or eliminate junk mail.
Department stores and local merchants will stop sending you flyers and other advertising if you ask them to. Many local direct-mail associations will also serve as clearinghouses for a request to eliminate junk mail. Check your phone directory for local listings or write to the national organization, Junk Mail Busters, Ste. 5038, 4 Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, CA 94111.
- Divest your possessions of brand names.
Applicances, stereo components, computers, TV sets, tele-phones, sometimes even furniture almost all display prominent logos, but you don't have to live with them. Often you can cover them with tape or water-soluble colors, unscrew them or peel them away without damaging the item. (When resale value and slight damage are not concerns, you can obliterate them.)
- Keep your branded items hidden.
Store toothpastes in the medicine cabinet, detergents out of sight and return everyday foods or other frequently-used items that can't be transferred to alternate containers to cabinets immediately after use.
There are probably dozens of other ways to lower advertising consumption. See how many you can think of. Remember: the idea is to keep exposure to logos and brand names in your household as low as possible and to reduce it whenever and wherever possible.
It's impossible to totally eliminate advertising from your life completely, and if you could, you wouldn't want to. Much advertising serves a useful function by providing information about products and services, supporting mass distribution and helping to keep prices of some products affordable.
But ad consumption reduction can start to change the consumption-oriented mindset that makes brand names a source of status and an end in themselves.
Implementation of just one or two of these suggestions can help you begin to learn how to consume products, not advertising. And after all, isn't that the idea?