Ever since I’ve been in adver-tising, I’ve been told by disapproving friends that, any minute now, somebody’s going to write a book that blows the whole business out of the water. I wasn’t around for The Hidden Persuaders but, 50 years on, it doesn’t seem to have done much harm. Then there was No Logo. Why do we seem to keep getting away with it?
It’s one of the great unacknowledged ironies of our business that marketing (by which lots of people mean advertising) attracts much of its criticism not because of what it does but because of what it claims to do. Social commentators – often the people who pride themselves on taking marketing programmes with a healthy helping of salt – take marketing’s claims for itself at face value: and then go on to find the practice deeply regrettable.
Everybody knows that The Hidden Persuaders (1957) was about subliminal advertising. And everybody is wrong. The Hidden Persuaders is entirely about something called motivational research. Motivational researchers were mildly fraudulent social scientists, often with impressive titles and awe-inspiring Austrian surnames, who sold their suspect skills to merchandisers – as marketing men were called in those days.
When listening to a presentation by Dr Ernest Dichter, for example, you would be asked to note that it was common practice for people, having blown their noses, to examine the contents of their handkerchief. Here, in front of your eyes, was evidence of the deep and subconscious pride that humans take in their productive capacity – and therefore why Mary Baker’s Cake Mix had achieved such excellent sales through its simple instruction to "add an egg". (Motivational researchers used the word "therefore" much as Tommy Cooper liked to say "jus’ like that".) To a middle-American, the family saloon was his wife while the two-door coupé was his mistress, and that will be $25,000, thank you.
The Hidden Persuaders was a forceful exposure, not of what motivational research was actually doing but of what motivational researchers, in hot pursuit of lucrative consultancies, claimed it was doing.
In No Logo, Naomi Klein took great exception to the artificial creation of brands; so that guileless people were persuaded to choose and value products not for their intrinsic, demonstrable features such as price and utility but for wholly emotional, extrinsic connotations that were the cunning creations of marketing men. Not once did Klein concede that the creation of brands, centuries before the word was used in its present sense, had been an instinctive and satisfying activity carried out entirely naturally by just about every human being on the planet. But she’s not to be blamed for this omission, since very few marketing people mentioned it either. We talked as if we’d invented the whole concept of brands from a blank piece of paper. We boasted of our ability to be able to build a brand for our clients as if it were a virgin birth. We took all the credit – and Klein’s principal error was to believe us.
Brands exist not because desperate manufacturers had to find spurious ways to differentiate their me-too products from those of their competitors. They exist because people want them to exist and enjoy the satisfactions they deliver. They exist whether or not marketing has a part to play.
On 2 April 1993, Philip Morris cut the price of Marlboro by 20 per cent and the marketing world lost its collective nerve. We’d been rumbled. Stock prices crashed. Consumers had finally seen sense. Brands were dead.
In fact, Marlboro had simply pushed its luck on pricing and rightly paid the penalty. It soon bounced back.
If we stop claiming that we can sell just about anything to anyone and, what’s more, at a premium price, we just might be spared another book that expresses legitimate concern that we can sell just about anything to anyone and, what’s more, at a premium price.
Do you think people who have two or more mobiles are likely to be dodgy, domineering and divorced, or credible, collaborative and constant?
Almost certainly the former. But, even so, greatly preferable as company to those who send me smart-alec questions airing their adolescent addiction to alliteration.
‘Ask Jeremy’, a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via firstname.lastname@example.org or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE