At end of the 20th century British advertising creativity ruled the world. Brilliant campaigns – like those for Smash instant mashed potato (Martians); Heineken beer (‘Refreshes The Parts Other Beers Cannot Reach’); Benson & Hedges cigarettes (Surrealist Posters); Levi’s jeans (‘Launderette’); the Health Education Council (Pregnant Man); John Smith’s Bitter (Arkwright); Hovis bread (Boy on a Bike); Carlsberg beer (Dam Busters) and a galaxy of others garnered garlands galore at international creative festivals. In 1978 in Cannes, for example, Britain won the Grand Prix for both television and cinema – a rare occurrence – and snitched a massive 80 Gold, Silver and Bronze Lions.

But none of this cut much ice with advertising’s enemies back home. In the 1970s the advertising trade paper Campaign invited 21 influential opinion leaders to publish essays titled ‘What I Think About Advertising’. The list included leftist Labour MP Christopher Mayhew, economists Sir Roy Harrod and Joan Robinson, moral crusader Mary Whitehouse, television dramatist Ted Willis, academics John Cohen and Raymond Williams, and a newsroom full of top journalists including Richard Clements, Richard Ingrams, Brian Inglis, Peter Jenkins, Jill Tweedie and Peregrine Worsthorne. The series provoked outrage in the admen’s favourite watering holes, from Soho pubs to St James’s clubs.

Nobody pretended the 21 were representative of the population at large. But they represented a fair slice of then current British intellectual opinion. And few of them liked advertising one iota. Twelve were extremely hostile, four were mildly hostile, four saw a few pros buried among countless cons – but only Peregrine Worsthorne was broadly enthusiastic about the contribution advertising makes to society.

Defaced benson and Hedges ad

The criticisms ranged from a fundamental disapproval of advertising as a phenomenon, to individual dislikes of certain of its characteristics. Christopher Mayhew contended that advertising had a wholly corrupting effect on society. Mary Whitehouse said it degraded women. Tribune editor Richard Clements believed it to be economically wasteful (echoing the views of the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson). Many of the 21 insisted advertising encourages materialism. Christopher Mayhew - who in the 1950s had fought the launch of commercial television tooth-and-nail, supported by Tory as well as Labour leaders - argued:

“‘Advertising introduces you to the good things of life’. Such was the slogan plugged by the Advertising Association a few years ago. That is to say, the good things of life, according to the Advertising Association, are the things we see advertised, the things we can buy – not honesty, friendship, kindness or good manners; not loyalty, respect for law or sense of duty; but cars, perfumes, chocolates, deodorants, aperients and aperitifs.”

The other widespread criticism was that, as Professor John Cohen put it, advertisements only tell ‘half the truth’. Almost all the contributors said they wanted advertisements to give more information, to be more factual, more honest.

When the series finished, Campaign magazine invited J Walter Thompson chairman Dr John Treasure, and me, to respond. In briefest summary, Treasure replied to Mayhew’s argument, while I replied to Professor Cohen’s. Treasure pointed out that nobody had ever claimed advertising promotes all the good things of life – there are numerous areas of life in which advertising is not involved – but for most people the good things in their lives include food, holidays, clothes, comfort and material possessions – and being able to choose between them. I argued that advertisements could not include all the facts about any product – the very notion is preposterous. So they select those positive facts in which advertisers believe consumers will be interested, and consumers are well aware advertisements are partial, biased in favour of the advertiser.

But their essays revealed how sharply the critics’ opinions differed from those of the general population. Just about every market research study on the subject has shown – then as now – that around 80 per cent of the British public feel advertising to be a good thing. A survey at that time, Europe Today, showed 79 per cent of Britons believed advertising to be informative, while 70 per cent believed it to be essential. In Britain, during the last half-century surveys about advertising have been remarkably consistent, and remarkably favourable. (This is not true in all countries).

Intellectuals disagree with the public about many things, but the intellectuals are usually aware of the conflict. The Campaign articles made clear the critics felt their views to be so obviously correct that everyone in the country must surely agree with them. This was not so. But understandable

Hostility to advertising among British intellectuals goes back a long way. In 1843 Thomas Carlyle dubbed it a “deafening blast of puffery,” and at the end of that century the Society for Controlling the Abuses of Public Advertising (SCAPA) included among its members such notables as William Morris, Rudyard Kipling, Holman Hunt, Arthur Quiller-Couch and Sir John Millais – as well as Sydney Courtauld and the Fry chocolate family. But even then the public did not follow their leaders. 500 copies of SCAPA’s polemical leaflet were printed. Only 30 were sold.

Still, the critics kept up their fire. Many of the attacks were well-worn retreads. But in 1980 Professor Raymond Williams took the arguments a stage further. Williams – an influential Marxist academic, social commentator, critic and novelist - published an essay called Advertising: The Magic System. Far from being too materialistic, Williams argued, modern advertising is not materialistic enough, because the images with which advertisements surround goods deliberately detract attention from the goods’ material specifications: “If we were sensibly materialist we should find most advertising to be an insane irrelevance” he averred. In the 19th century he said, more or less accurately, advertising was generally factual and informative, except for fraudulent patent medicine and toiletry advertisements, which had already adopted the undesirable practices which later became commonplace. In other words Williams was not attacking all advertising, just most present day advertisements.

Why, he asked, do advertisements exploit “deep feelings of a personal and social kind?” His answer: because the concentration of economic power into ever larger units forces those units to make human beings consume more and more, in order for the units to stay operative. “The fundamental choice... set to us by modern industrial production, is between man as a consumer and man as a user.” He argues that usage is continuous – today we might say sustainable – but consumption is inherently destructive. So the emphasis on consumers and consumption, rather than on users and usage, is inherently an emphasis on destruction. This emphasis occurs because destruction is necessary to keep the wheels of industry turning. (How we could use Liquorice Allsorts without consuming them Williams neglects to explain, but we’ll let that pass).

Like Christopher Mayhew (and J K Galbraith), Williams contended that many laudable human needs – “hospitals, schools, quiet” – are out of phase with an industrialised society. So the industrialised society uses advertising to focus attention on its industrial output, and to detract humanity from its non-industrial aspirations. This, he says, is why modern advertisements usurp our sexual and emotional desires, attaching them to goods and services. It is akin to the voodoo of the primitive magic man – hence the essay’s title: it diverts the tribe towards inessential needs.

At first glance this is a seductive argument. But it is wrong. While the usage of some goods – spectacles, say, or paintings – does not destroy them, the usage of most goods – like Liquorice Allsorts – does destroy them. And this is perhaps fortunate, because the “the fundamental choice” is not, as Williams posits, “between man as consumer and man as user”, but between man as consumer and man as producer (the male chauvinism is his, not mine). Williams correctly says advertising keeps the industrial wheels turning. But if the industrial wheels stopped turning there would be mass unemployment.

Above all, Williams is wrong because insofar as advertising emphasises emotional and sexual desires – far less than he supposes – this is not merely because human beings inevitably have emotional relationships with material goods, but because most material goods have no intrinsic value: they are merely means to ends. His emphasis on the specifications of products misses the point: it is functionality which matters. Primitive man did not make spearheads because he needed spearheads: he made spearheads because he needed food and protection. People do not buy drills because they want drills, they buy drills because they want holes. Specifications are only important insofar as they deliver the required benefits. And the benefits may be material, or may be emotional.

Today few critics take issue with advertising as a phenomenon. Instead they focus on individual sectors – alcohol, fattening foods, financial credit or whatever – where the issues are specific, and rather different. Today almost everyone who has examined the issues accepts that advertising does indeed help keep the wheels of industry turning, and hence keeps people in jobs. Today almost everyone accepts that by subsidising the media, advertising helps keep them relatively inexpensive and relatively free from government control. (This, too, is not true in all countries).

The area where contention still rages is how advertising benefits consumers (if at all). But the great French essayist Montaigne hit the spot in his 1595 essay "Of a Defect in our Policies". How, he asked, can sellers and buyers successfully communicate with each other? And like many other early commentators he believed the principle loser from the lack of communication to be the buyer. Unless buyers know about all the goods on offer, they miss out. And nobody since Montaigne (since ancient Athens come to that) has devised a better way than advertising to bridge this knowledge gap. If consumers did not benefit from advertising, it would not work.

Happily, in Britain we get two-for-the-price-of-one: an economic service – with added creativity (which, again, is not true in all countries). And maybe the creativity is catalysed by the criticisms.

Benson & Hedges advert
Winston Fletcher chairs the Advertising Standards Board of Finance and is a former director of the advertising agency DLKW, and on the board of the Rationalist Association. His book Powers of Persuasion, an insiders history of British advertising, is published by Oxford University Press in July 2008.