The Great White Elephant

Advertising In Modern Life


When they talk of the marvels of modern times and the loftier race that welfare reforms have brought to being, it is interesting to browse through the ads. in the papers and the television channel. Here, dress-suited prigs sit amid fake period furniture eulogizing cheap tinned soup; pasty youths sip their tonics and slick their hair in hopes of catching the boss’s eye; fagged-out, rushed and noise-ridden people by the score swallow pellets and powders by the ton for the noise and rush to continue. Here, in fact, is as great an indictment as could be made of civilization in the mid-twentieth century.


Pure and simple, advertizing is salesmanship: convince the man and he buys your goods. In 1788, toothpaste makers were claiming that their stuff would “faften fuch as are loofe, keep fuch as are already decayed from becoming worfe, prevent the Tooth ach, perfectly cure the Scurvy in the Gums . . .  likewife render the Breath delicately fweet, and remedy all thofe diforders that are the confequence of fcorbutic Gums and bad Teeth.” Sixty years ago the most popular soap powder was boosted as “possessing high detergent properties in a concentrated and effective form. Cleanses without injury to skin, fabric or texture.”


It has long ceased to be as simple as that Then—years ago, a hundred and seventy years ago—you take it or leave it. Now, to leave it is impossible (except for the blind and the recluse). The advertizing man is no longer a huckster seeking new additions, one by one, to the satisfied buyers of Bloop. His aim is whole social groups, even whole generations, for whom life without Bloop would hurt or be shameful He is sociologist, psychologist, con-man, poet and maker of dreams, with nowhere private and nothing inviolate to him—not the innermost thought nor the smallest room.


There are a hundred means to this assault on social consciousness. Appealing to snobbery and prestige: it is smart to drink this, superior to smoke those. Linking prestige with pride in home or person: clean your home the modern way—and surely you don’t still shave with the old soap-and-brush method? Evoking authority with tit-bits of pseudo-science, or vague references to clinical knowledge: the hair is a tube with roots, the intestines are twenty-six feet long, doctors and nurses know all about Blobbo.


The cornerstones of most advertising, however, are Fantasy and Fear. The strip-drawn advertisements for cosmetics, beauty soaps, beverages, and the rest, are explicit, deliberate fantasies of romance or success. In the best-known of them all the strips are peopled by an entire mythology of seemingly real characters: masterful executives, paragon wives and paternal fathers and, of course, the family doctor, benign and wise, sitting back recommending the hot drink that will send Henry bounding up the ladder of success. Or there is the fantasy in prose and a single picture, setting forth a desirable world with which buying some product will somehow put one in touch. Drink Crossbread’s, and you commune with Old England, oak beams and dray horses; or Washington’s, to be in spirit among the big-thighed footballers and six-hitting batsmen; open an account at the Lowland and enter the semi-detached realm of bowler hats and deference, chequebooks and U-conversations with the Manager.


And there are the sexual fantasies, the dreams of allure, enticement and capture. First shy glances drawn by white soap, first embraces made inoffensive by pink soap; erotic spells cast by shampoos, face creams and cheap perfumes with expensive names (Nuit dans l’Ecurie, one-and-three). Dreamiest, most voluptuous of all are the corset and underwear advertisements, with their Vie Parisienne pictures and their lyrical lore


“The line forms . . . in at your waist,
With a gentle lift of pride up there.
Dance Time, new summer guile . . .
With padded undercups,
And low-hugging Lastex round your back. . . .”


It is wrong to suppose, however, that the sales depend only on those who can share these fantasies. Equally, they set standards for the rest. For every girl who daydreams enslaving Fred by Gluggo, another girl fears the consequences of not using it The advertisements, in fact, make the consequences clear; before the happy ending to the strip a wise friend takes Jean aside and tells her why Fred avoids her.


This is one kind of fear played up by the ads.; fear of social or matrimonial failure. It hardly needs building- up, in a world of perpetual insecurity where most people know only too web that jobs and sweethearts are easily lost. There is fear of disgrace (someone isn’t using Pungo —see the offending noses wrinkle); fear of general inadequacy, of being talked about for remediable failings. This is the secret of the great soap-powder campaigns of recent years. In terms of competition, one may wonder how much is achieved by persuading housewives to change from Diz to Duz, particularly when both are produced by the same firm; but that isn’t the real point The effect of seven years’ competitive insistence that each soap powder washes whiter, adds brightness, is whitest of all, is whiter and brighter than white itself, has been to make whiteness a social value, something which no woman dare neglect for fear of censure and shame.


The strongest theme of all is fear of harm or deprivation to loved ones. Somebody’s mum isn’t using Gippo; somebody’s baby girl has to ask if the jakes has been made safe for her with Fizz. The wake-up beverages play heavily on this, too; tiredness threatens a man’s income just when his daughter has won her scholarship or his widowed mother looks to him for help. It is wrong to sneer at this kind of fear and say people shouldn’t be taken in by it. Nobody wants to be lonely or unpopular, still less to have his children deprived of companionship or opportunity. The advertisers find their material in natural, sensible feelings which are whipped into fears because our world is an insecure and frustrating place.


In a buying-and-selling society, the realm of advertising is unlimited. It goes far beyond the hoardings, the advertisement pages and the television commercials. Thus, in any woman’s magazine, where half the space is taken up by advertisements, much of the remainder goes the same way:  fashion pages, beauty articles, stories grounded in the same dream-world as the adverts. The same applies for most magazines and papers. Holiday guides, technical pieces, the Christmas spirit; even the chit-chat about a personality may be, indirectly, advertisement of what he sells.


What are the effects of all this ? There is, of course, the known influence of advertisers on the Press. Large-circulation papers draw about half their revenue from advertisements, the smaller-circulation ones about two-thirds; half a page in the Daily Express costs £3,000. It would be surprising if newspapers did not defer to their advertisers’ interests. Mainly the influence is indirect, a standing deterrent to certain kinds of criticism: “A newspaper that receives a large revenue from company prospectuses may have an unconscious bias in favour of our present financial system; and the paper carrying frequent advertisements of patent medicines may, without any conscious deviation from rectitude, give too little weight to the medical profession’s views on such goods. A famous editor has, indeed, written unashamedly of ‘such needless folly as putting the report of a fatal motor smash alongside of a motor advertisement’.” (“The Newspapers,” Oxford Pamphlets on Home Affairs, 1944.)


Occasionally, more direct pressure has been brought to bear. An ex-editor of the Daily Herald stated that his paper’s policy during the Munich crisis was modified on account of the advertisers. In 1938, a British Medical Association advertisement, headed “Is All Milk Safe?” had to be modified to avoid prejudice to the milk industry’s campaign. In his American Freedom and Catholic Power, Paul Blanshard gives several instances of coercion by advertisers in the U.SA Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think (as some people seem to do) that newspapers would be substantially different without this influence; after all, the newspapers support capitalism and the advertisers are the capitalists.


The social effects of advertising go much further. Implicit in all of it is the commercialising of every human relationship: people are valued in terms of their possessions and buying habits, the dentifrice they use, the gleam of their shirts. In this world, as E. S. Turner remarks in his amusing Shocking History of Advertising, “loyalty means always buying the same hair oil. . . . A bride is not a young woman on the edge of a great adventure; she is a conditioned consumer, who, by buying the right cosmetics and the right brassiere has captured her man.” A generation ago, How to Win Friends and Influence People was the salesman’s obsession; now, it is the customer’s.


Half-a-dozen minor revolutions in social consciousness—none of them making anyone better off—have been effected or assisted by advertising. The whiteness-phobia, the speed-craze, the conception of beauty and, newest of these, the odour-phobia. In recent times the deodorant business has extended its target from bad breath and strong perspiration to skin smells, cooking smells, “sudden smells” and vegetable smells. It seems on the cards, in fact, that in a few years all natural smells will have been outlawed and abolished, and nothing will be left except the scents of disinfectant and furniture polish. What is worth mentioning about the odour-ads. is that they are easily the lowest, nastiest and most objectionable of all advertisements at the moment (and that, by the way, is really saying something): where, one wonders, are the good taste and culture of which the capitalist class—and, no doubt, the artists and copywriters, too—has always claimed so much ?


The supreme social myth to-day, and the one which runs through all advertising of the last ten years is that of “standards of living.” Most symbolic of it, currently, is the cigarette advertisement which says “I’m raising my living standard” — by changing to a slightly dearer brand; though this writer’s favourite is the television commercial where the woman spreads a margarine-and-paste tea for her family, standing in a five-hundred-pound kitchen. Perhaps the most explicit of all is the American advertisement (quoted by Colin McIver in The Anatomy of Advertising), which says


“I know my husband loves me.
“As surely as I know the sky is blue, that dreams come true, that to-day is my birthday . . .  that surely do I know my husband loves me.
“The soft gleam of our very own Gorham Sterling tells me he is thinking of me at wife, mother, hostess—dreaming and planning for our future together.”


Modern advertising is the folklore (nursery rhymes and all—hear the children sing the ad.-men’s jingles) of the “standards of living” age. It would be funny if it were not so tragic. While the success of a marriage is judged in Gorham-Sterling terms, the collapse of marriage is a major social problem; while people in to-day’s hire-purchase paradise see themselves as far, far better off than ever before there are far, far more social difficulties than ever before. For all that has to be said about advertisements, the real criticism is of the society whose values and failures they reflect. Is there any substantial difference between the German general who said “Guns before butter ” and the rest of the world which puts commercial before human needs?


The only sensible way to organise society is for the satisfaction of human needs—that is, on the basis of ownership by everybody of the means of life and access for everybody to everything there is. No advertisements, of course, in such a world; only then, in fact, would the fine, rich wood of humanity flourish free from the dark, parasitic trees of commercialism.


Robert Barltrop