You see the goods and wonder how and when it could happen. For example, tea blends: Happy Nature, Soul Balm, Inner Harmony, and Women’s Tea. When and how did this happen, that the promises of marketing emancipated themselves from the products, that moods or status claims became names? And, following on from that: how these promises became second nature, i.e. a fundamental part of the products.
This will be a difficult task, probably almost impossible to solve; let’s content ourselves with placing the 20th century under blanket suspicion. To get a sense of what happens when marketing takes off from products, the terrific – fictional – primal scene of this moment, as suggested by the series Mad Men is of help.
It goes as follows: The cigarette brand Lucky Strike faces the problem towards the end of the 1960s when the public slowly understands that fags cause cancer and other deadly diseases. Reality puts pressure on the product; its effective “factual” quality is henceforth classified as destructive. The verdict on cigarettes is spoken and can no longer be removed.
A delicate situation for advertising, whose task is to present the product’s intrinsic added value for the consumer’s life. But if this added value does not exist, if it even turns into the opposite — what can be done? Do you address the issue? Do you act on it in any way?
There is no reason to do so; after all, we are still in a market, and selling is the only thing that matters there. The countdown to the society-wide abolition of smoking itself may have begun, but there’s a long way to go before that happens, and there’s still plenty of money to be made. And despite the foreseeable long-term difficulties, there is comfort in the fact that all cigarette companies are affected by the problem. The job of advertising agencies is still to differentiate the appearance of the brand and get it noticed.
Now the factual arguments are void because they counteract the central truth of the product — its lethality. So how can one cigarette stand out from another when the outcomes are adverse per se and references to inner qualities are forbidden?
Chief advertiser Don Draper recognizes the real opportunity in this supposed problem (from 4:10 in the clip):
The advertiser passes over the lousy qualification of the product so that at the end of the presentation, there is the almost empty claim, “It’s toasted “. Draper abandons the register of objectivity and sneaks in an innocuous banality because the competition’s tobacco is toasted the same way. The marketing sets up a fictional difference with no justification within the product. 1
So what may initially sound like a threat to product and advertising — all products are the same — doesn’t matter at all. Instead, it results in an excellent opportunity to eliminate the constraints imposed by the reality of products. The advertising takes off; from there, it’s not far to the shower gel that bears the name “freedom.”
But the real trick, the artistry of the advertising, lies in the comfort it gives through the implicit message to the customer that they are okay. The claim “It’s toasted” transcends in its banality the product’s material. Whatever I do, however I think, according to whatever criteria I act or buy: I am okay, and I am okay just as I am. I have little money and can only buy cheap meat? You are okay. It is important to me that no cocoa farmer is exploited? You are okay. I want to be different from the rabble and perform that with my possessions? You are okay.
Advertising works like a soothing whisper that encourages me. The being-in-the-world of a product and its advertising reflect that I am not alone with my values — be they dominated by financial need or the desire to show off. When an entire industry decides to operate under aspects that apply to me, I am validated in my existence. A commodity is a form that realizes my cultural values in the medium of consumption.
In this way, companies and consumers stabilize each other and immunize themselves against outside criticism. Advertising is like a magic spell that envelops goods and consumers, creating an intimate atmosphere for them. Against all reason, products and consumers become accomplices who don’t have to care about the consequences of their economic activity.
- Side note: The series itself also takes leave of the truth, namely the historical one – the claim “It’s toasted” already existed significantly earlier).