1990s >> >> no-1046-october-1991

Reaching where other propaganda can’t

Yesterday I was helping to wash my two-year old daughter in the bath. I picked up a toy boat and asked her what it was. “It’s a big red boat”, she replied.Then I held up a bottle. “And whats this?” I asked. She hesitated for a moment so I said “It’s shampoo, isn’t it?” “No!”, she corrected me, and with her tone changing slightly to the undulating phrases of airport tannoy announcements, she told me that “’This is Wash and Go—not just shampoo, it’s shampoo and conditioner. Why bother to take two bottles into the shower. Just wash and go!”

I found this sudden fluent echo of a television advert quite funny, but then afterwards thought about the contempt that the manipulation and deceit of advertising deserves.

Building societies have repossessed more homes from “mortgage defaulters” than at any time on record. Families are ruthlessly evicted on to the streets. Lawyers and bailiffs are brought in to do the dirty work and then the Building Societies casually move on to pay Advertising Agencies to dream up a few slow-motion, black-and-white trendy adverts to portray them as the warm, beneficent friends of anyone who needs setting up with a loan for a home. A wolf in sheep’s clothing would, perhaps, be a more suitable image for such institutions.

As a source of ideas and prejudices about our society, advertising plays an important role. It has proliferated to such an extent that it now permeates every pore of social life. Today people are indoctrinated into the ways of the society into which they are born by a number of sources: their families, their schools, but predominantly the communications media. By the time most children leave school they will have spent more time watching television (10-15,000 hours) than in the classroom. During those hours they will have been exposed to approximately 20,000 commercials. They will have heard, perhaps more than 10,000 radio commercials and read thousands of adverts in newspapers and magazines.

Advertising has moved from the occasional bold and simple street poster to a continuously multiplying profusion of forms. Everywhere we go or look or listen we witness the selling game. From “Silk Cut Snooker” to “The Royal Shakespeare Company courtesy of Royal Assurance”.


The unavoidable message of advertising is to inculcate people with a frame of mind which is prone to regard the rat-race as a fundamentally unchangeable feature of society. Adverts do not directly advocate capitalism. Imagine one which did. The viewer might be addressed by a well-fed man or woman from the capitalist class, holding a glass of the finest Champagne. “Well now. you are a wage-slave. You have nothing to sell but your mental and physical energies. You have to keep working all your life just to get by. I am a member of a class who live in luxury as a result of your efforts. You fight my wars for me and sometimes pray to the skies for better things. Probably the best system in the world, for us. Support capitalism. You know it makes sense.”

Party political broadcasts are adverts for capitalism whose claims about how the parties will improve our lives are about as meaningful as stating that a soap powder washes whiter than white. Advertising really imparts its social message by omission. It sets an agenda of “important” concerns, occasionally with wit and style, which project the basic way in which we live in a way which is forever out of focus. You should be thinking about what to rub into your legs, what to rub into your face, 20 good reasons to read The Sun. What toilet paper is best, which building society you should rent your home from, which music to plug into your cars, and whether the man and woman from the coffee advert saga will ever stir more than each other’s coffee?

Within the context of the society we inhabit—a class-divided society working in the interests of a parasitical minority—there is a necessary role for advertising in its current form. As with all other problems generated by the profit system, it cannot be resolved by legislative reform. Socialists do not hold a brief for the Advertising Standards Authority. We do not want adverts to be “legal, decent, truthful and honest”, as these ideas are measured by the barbaric standards of the profit system. Soliciting men to join a violent gang and to use weapons to kill strangers is a criminal offence unless you are advertising for recruits to the army.

Selling game

Advertising and marketing are the glossy, glamorous facades on a society of starving children, the carnage of war, 35 million refugees and the menace of insecurity for everyone. Advertising aggravates the problems of workers by tempting people with merchandise which poverty precludes from our legal grasp. The society of the hard sell and the soft sell is also the society of the prison cell.

The only way to genuinely escape from the culture of commodities is to transform society from one based upon property to one based upon common ownership of the means for producing and distributing goods and services. Only when the means of communication have been put into the control of the community will they be operated in a way which can inform people about goods and services without the deceptions and trickery that flow from vested  interests.

The children’s educational programme Sesame Street uses a skilful mixture of imaginative techniques to teach young children basic numeracy, literacy and points of nature and culture. The originator of the programme once said that she realised how powerful were repetition and short musical jingles as teaching aids when her child demonstrated the ability to sing lots of television adverts. It is a reflection of the disingenuous aims of the advertising agencies (and their paymasters/mistresses) that they attempt to shape our lifestyles and outlook by techniques that exist where nursery rhymes meet mantras.

George Orwell once described advertising as “the rattling of a stick in a bucket”. As the volume of those beats grows and the cacophony worsens, thundering and screaming to obliterate the noises of social misery, it becomes imperative to organise a society with a break from commercials.

Gary Jay