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Beware the lure of the ad-man

You are asked to believe some remarkable things these days: that a foodstuff can “give your children the confidence to face the future”; that a toothpaste will make very attractive members of the opposite sex flock around you in helpless abandon; that once you buy a certain type of life assurance you are protected from all the calamities that life can throw at you.

This is the purest type of hogwash. So why is it fed to us in the form of advertising, and why do we pay any attention to it? And worse, why do we allow such drivel to actually manipulate us into buying these products?

Advertising is meant to have a serious economic purpose. It is meant to provide information about products to the consumer, who can then make informed buying decisions. It is meant to allow producers to invest in their brand equity – which in turn protects consumers, because it means that any drop in product quality has disastrous financial consequences for the producer. In other words, the theory is that advertising actually empowers the consumer to buy better.

Oh yes? Theory and reality seem to have parted company some time ago. Better people than me have let loose on the practices of advertising, many years ago. The author H. G. Wells called it “legalised lying”. George Orwell went even further: advertising, said he, “is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.”

Strong though these sentiments may be, it is difficult to disagree when we see what advertisers are up to these days. The principal preoccupation of advertising is to elevate mundane products up from their banal surroundings and into rarefied realms. A shoe, for example, is just a shoe. It is something you put on your foot to protect it when you walk or run. Period. But if you listen to advertisers, a shoe is not just a shoe at all. Hell, no. It’s a lifestyle statement. The right shoe tells people where you are, and where you’re going. Buying it catapults you into the premier league of the hippest people on the planet, with whom you share something far better than values: you share a logo. The shoe will carry you to ultimate fulfilment.

It’s still a shoe, people. You can spend as many hundreds of dollars as you want on it, it’ll still remain a commonplace thing; and, if you haven’t changed anything else in yourself, you’ll still remain a sad sack, searching for meaning in all the wrong places. But now you’ll be a sad sack wearing some rather expensive shoes you didn’t need.

This is the problem with modern advertising: it’s trying to turn shoes, toothpaste, deodorants and mobile phones into objects of nobility. It’s sliding merchandise slyly into the arenas of philosophy and spirituality. That is why you will see adverts with children who gaze serenely into a future filled with joy, simply because their parents opened a certain bank account for them. Or a man whose soul is apparently stirred by the wonderfulness of his financial advisors. Or a fizzy drink whose consumption seems to have the power to unite the world and free it from strife.

Oh, please. You can give ordinary objects of consumption all the spin and polish you like: they remain mere objects. If we are going to improve our lives and our values, we will need to do more than just buy more stuff. There is more to the search for meaning than letting adverts lead you by the nose straight into the shopping mall. Yes, advertising and shopping are mainstays of the modern economy, but nobody ever said they have to be devoid of value and sincerity.

The modern world is a non-stop kaleidoscope of manipulation. From the pages of magazines, the screens of televisions and the faces of the hideous billboards that disfigure the streets, the message is shouted out at us. Buy this mobile phone to find love in your life. Buy this soft drink to confirm the love you have for your children. Buy this detergent so that your family becomes cool and confident. Buy this, become that. Buy junk to become a hunk. Buy litter to become a hitter.

This kind of emotional manipulation debases the enterprise culture. It promotes intellectual laziness. It floats us away from solid ground and into a meaningless ether. We can now say anything about any product, and be believed. We can bestow nobility on the trashiest of goods, merely by saying so – as long as we do it with style and panache. We no longer have to work as hard at making our products better and our processes efficient; merely hiring the right witchdoctor is often enough. Having the best advertising campaign (however divorced from reality) is the true competitive advantage. And quite often the consumer is left holding on to mere froth.

That is why the landings are so hard and the disappointments so bitter. When the political party that promised the rainbow delivers the rungu, we are left ruing the waste of five years in the life of our country. Many organisations often claim to have a vision for Kenyans – but one that is hatched in the trendy offices of the ad agency, not one that is thought through and developed painstakingly by the institution itself. An agency should be a partner, an ally, a translator of your message – not the originator of the essence of what you (purportedly) stand for. The writer Raymond Chandler was on to something when he called ad agencies an elaborate waste of human intelligence. We surely have more to do on this earth than construct intricate webs of delusion, designed to keep the foolish buying the unneeded.

If we accept this state of affairs, we are the dupes. Our despiritualised society is seeking consequence in bottles of perfume. Our buying classes are being led like rats by the seductive tunes of the new pied pipers. The mall is their place of worship, the product logo their deity. Where will it take us? There is no meaning to be had in conspicuous consumption. Meaning comes from honest toil, from an understanding of the value of kindness and compassion. Meaning comes from creating things of lasting value. Meaning comes from making investments in future generations, with no thought of present and personal reward.

No one wants to point this out, because everyone has a vested interest in the system. We all have jobs to protect, clients to service, targets to meet. The system lines our pockets, so we will do nothing to question it. But at some point in every person’s life, the dream ends. The smoke clears, the mirrors crack, the curtain comes down. Then, we all have to start sifting through the debris of reality, seeking meaning in our soon-to-be-ended lives. What will we have to hold on to then?

Aldous Huxley, the great British thinker, recommended: “Our business is to wake up…one must find a way of living in this world while not being of it.” Resisting the ad-man’s wiles would be a great start.

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