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Advertising as propaganda

Published on August 18, 2010 by in InSite Review

THE AGE OF PERSUASION by Terry O’Reilly & Mike Tennant. Alfred A. Knopf, Toronto, 2009. Reviewed by William Sheridan.

This book provides a fascinating history and interesting insights about advertising [mediated sales pitch], and I heartily recommend it.  However, it also contains some profound fallacies that wise readers should watch out for!

“…the thousands of works critical of the impact of advertising and marketing on modern life and culture are created, almost without exception, by people who have never worked with the advertising business.” So what!  Most doctors have never had all the ailments they diagnose – does that make them any the less competent?  Most crime reporters have never been members of the mafia – does that make them any less qualified to investigate and report? Etc., etc., etc.

“My observation, after some thirty years in the business, is this: we’ve brought the age of persuasion on ourselves.  We are – all of us – its creators and its practitioners.” I don’t think so! This is a classic example of “blaming the victim” that social scientists has justifiably castigated throughout their work!  By taking the position of “blaming everyone” the authors can avoid blaming anyone in particular, specifically themselves and their clients.

Advertising is actually a particular variant of propaganda, as defined by social philosopher Jacques Ellul – contrary to popular perception, propaganda is NOT simply lies!  Rather, propaganda is “half-truths,” specifically the half that presents a proponent’s case in the best possible light, and that simultaneously ignores the other half of the truth that would cast doubt on the proponent’s interpretation or motivation, or both!

In other respects however, the book is a valuable source of information:  an excess of advertising does produce clutter; there is an implicit contract between producers and consumers of advertising; Clark Gable did make the undershirt sexy; persuasion has many facets, etc., etc., etc.  Lastly, “false advertising” has increased cynicism – but that rarely leads to the authors’ “once bitten, twice shy” outcome.  Advertisers continue to make “suckers of us all” by creating new wrinkles for new media, to replace “old saws” for tired media.

The radio I prefer to listen to does NOT run advertisements.  I still prefer movie theatres that show few or no commercials before showing movies.  I read few magazines or newspapers, in part to avoid advertising.  I tolerate ads on TV because I get some programs I like, but I wish they would employ a “stupidity meter” to weed out the dumb and offensive stuff.  I read books because they do not, by and large, include advertisements except for other books, which I do regard as an information service.  This book shouldn’t need excuses for bad behaviour – just call it crap and be done with it! Sound reasonable?

William Sheridan has been building an immunity to propaganda over the years.  His response to over-hyped advertising is that “It’s only a (name your category), not God’s gift to humanity!”

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One Response

  1. Those were great, except the Tampax one with the sharks which is probably the most offensive thing I have ever seen. Message? Women are dirty and unclean. Menstruation is dirty and unclean. As a woman, you should be afraid. You are in danger simply because you are a woman. Disgusting.

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