Powers of Persuasion: The Story of British Advertising by Winston Fletcher
The impression you get from reading this book, which covers post-war advertising until the present, is of a chaotic, self-serving, occasionally brilliant, but ultimately shallow business. It is full of accounts of crassness, of overstated promise, of meaningless awards, fly-by-night companies, promotion of the semi-talented and clashing egos. It’s quite comprehensive and at times entertaining, as we hear of the hubris of the ridiculous Saatchis, the naivete of politicians and the endless attempts by ad agencies to carve out a little philosophical niche for themselves, be it the derided USP or the idea of account management. Fletcher also includes a rather dutiful section on advertising in history — Montaigne noted it, Johnson liked it — and a tour d’horizon of early exponents of the dark art.
The one thing you won’t find in this book is any comprehensive or interesting theme: the problem is that Fletcher has for a very long time been an insider and a practitioner. His credo is that creativity is what makes advertising worthwhile, although he cannot find an absolute link between creativity — whatever that is — and sales. But you also get the overwhelming sense that advertising operates mostly for the benefit and fulfilment of the operators, which chimes with my own youthful experience. So the book falls somewhere between a gossipy account of what’s been going on in this world, and an analysis of the imagined benefits of advertising.
My first, and only, proper job was as a copywriter in the Seventies, in what Fletcher, I see, describes as a kind of golden age, when British creativity was at its height, British ads set the standard, and young directors like Alan Parker, the Scott brothers and Hugh Hudson were cutting their teeth on commercials. Almost the first television campaign I wrote, for an agency that thought awards were a sign of frivolity, won a Lion d’Or at Cannes. I was almost trampled in the crush of my colleagues jumping on the stage in Cannes, as the trinket was handed out. It all seemed too easy. Very soon I was promoted and found myself in endless meetings. The male clients were always very interested in what the female actors or models were going to wear. I quickly saw that advertisers were concerned with an alternative universe, where kitchens were tidy, women were cheerful, children were charming, and lots of products washed whiter. The last thing advertising wanted to think about was the state of society. Any benefits that accrued from consumer choice were, I thought, largely accidental. Advertising, the product of capitalism, can only justify itself on the premise that the market is a force for good. That weasel word ‘choice’ looms large.
I became involved with the Liberal Party and the SDP. We made what were in effect television ads, but often dressed up as serious political announcements. The air-time and rudimentary production facilities were afforded free, but Saatchi introduced the standards of television advertising — expensive — to the mix on behalf of the Tories. Huge amounts of money were spent on posters and television production. The truth was, as the University of East Anglia revealed, that the Tory party did a great deal more for Saatchi and Saatchi than Saatchi and Saatchi did for the Tories. Advertising people, I came to see, believed that there was some quick fix for politics, as there was for Smash or Smirnoff; it was a category error. Ad agencies were much more successful in the rash of privatisations that followed Mrs Thatcher’s election triumphs.
I have gone on a little about this because I saw something else: an advertisement, unless you are very young or perhaps of limited intelligence, is unequivocally selling you something. In a way advertising, for all its shallowness, its love of design, its modishness and its self-justification, is curiously innocent. The idea of the hidden persuader or the manipulator is largely absurd. The subliminal message was an urban myth. And British advertising, as Fletcher makes clear, is the best regulated in the world. The claims made in party and election broadcasts are barely regulated.
So what you get, at the very best — and Fletcher is good on this — are elegantly or amusingly designed ads, written by people like David Abbott (L. P. Hartley), and stylishly produced commercials, like the Guinness horses, apparently voted the finest commercial ever made. But what can never quite be reconciled is the gulf between the client, who wants to sell stuff, and the advertising agent, who wants to sell himself. The successful advertising agent is the one who can convince the clients that he knows something they don’t. This book is proof that in 60 years of advertising this fundamental gulf has never been bridged.