I’ve been thinking about advertising. And in particular I’ve been thinking about two memorable UK ads from the past. The first one had a jingle which went:
A million housewives every day
Pick up a tin of beans and say,
Beanz Meanz Heinz.
And the second one went:
Heineken refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach.
Now the only thing I want to point out about both of these slogans is that neither of them are true. Because a million British housewives never did pick up a tin of beans and say that. And Heineken does not refresh the parts other beers cannot reach. So they’re both false claims. They are, if you like, outright lies. There isn’t a shred of evidence supporting either claim.
But in the world of advertising, truth doesn’t matter. The whole point of advertising is to bend the truth, or be highly selective about it. Yes, Jaguar sells sports cars. But no, they don’t all come with busty blondes in bikinis lying on their bonnets. And anyway, the busty blondes only look that good after being airbrushed into shape (which is another lie).
But if it helps sell baked beans and beer and sports cars, the ad men have done their job. Because their job is to get people to buy things. And if they have to twist the truth to do it, they will. And nobody’s much bothered if they do.
I remember laughing at one of the Heineken ads, and reaching for my can of lager as I did so. It was a can of Heineken.
But now I’d like to think about ad men who’ve been given a different task: they’ve been asked to get people to stop buying something. I’ll call it “anti-advertising.” How would they set about it? They’d do what they always do, and twist the truth, but this time not to make something seem attractive, but to make it seem ugly.
The anti-advertising that I have in mind is tobacco anti-advertising, of course.
I started thinking about this a week or so back when I remembered that in 2004 Sir Richard Doll had addressed a bunch of people who’d been working on the British Doctors study for the previous 50 years, and told them that the purpose of the study had been “to advertise the link between smoking and disease” (The quote is from memory. I wish I had the link to the BMJ article, but I know I’ve got it somewhere). At the time I read it, I thought the 50 year “prospective” Doctors study had done a brilliant job of “advertising” the link, year after year, decade after decade, for 50 years. It was an ad campaign that had run for 50 years.
And in that campaign, the whole aim was to get people to stop smoking, and to do so by presenting them with a highly selective, distorted, and untruthful image of tobacco. That smoking causes lung cancer, and smoking causes heart disease, and smoking causes ageing skin (even though there’s little hard evidence that it does any of these things).
There’s no science behind this. There’s none at all. Or at least there’s no more truth or substance in any of the anti-smoking advertising than there is in those advertising claims about Heinz beans and Heineken lager: i.e. none at all.
Antismoking campaigns are anti-advertising campaigns.
In support of this thesis, I’d point out that one of the first things that got banned in the UK was tobacco advertising. And if you’re running an anti-advertising campaign, the first thing you’ll want to get rid of is the competition pushing the opposite message. So tobacco advertising had to stop before anti-smoking advertising really got started.
Also in support of this thesis, I’d like to point to Tobacco Control’s fixation on seemingly unimportant things like display bans and “plain” packaging. They worry about them because they’re a form of advertising. They’re ad men and they want to replace them with their own anti-ads. The plain doors behind which the tobacco is now hidden will soon be covered in hideous pictures of tumours and rotten teeth. And the packets in which the tobacco is packaged will be covered in the same obscene images. What better place is there to put an anti-ad than on the product itself? Soon, when you light up a cancer stick, it’ll actually look like a stick of cancer.
The War on Smoking is an ad campaign. Or rather, an anti-ad campaign. And it got the assistance in the 1960s onwards from the master himself, Edward Bernays:
After his semi-retirement in the 1960s he worked with the pro-health anti-smoking lawyer John Banzhaf’s group, ASH, and supported other anti-smoking campaigns.
And it’s been a very successful campaign. Most people now really do believe that smoking causes lung cancer. And they even think that secondhand smoke does too. Even though all of it is based on lies just like Heinz and Heineken’s “innocuous” lies.
And if anyone should ever protest that antismokers have roped in doctors to push their anti-ad campaign, they’ll just turn around and say: “The tobacco companies did it first!” And so they did, as this Camel ad shows.
And now, because it’s been such a successful anti-ad campaign, they’re doing it with everything. Alcohol, chocolate, all kinds of food. And carbon dioxide. And anti-advertising is in use in politics, as opposing parties or politicians are subjected to attack ads (while political parties are promoted as brands).
Now the point of all this is that exposing the antismoking “science” lies simply isn’t going to help. Because to do so would be no different from exposing the lie that a million housewives every day pick up a tin of beans and say Beanz Meanz Heinz, or the lie that Heineken refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach. “So what?” people would say. In advertising, truth doesn’t matter. Just like in fiction facts don’t matter. It doesn’t help to point out that Donald Duck is an imaginary duck, or a completely fabricated duck. People aren’t going to stop watching, stop suspending disbelief, just because it’s untrue.
If there is any real difference at all between dishonest positive advertising like Heinz and Heineken, and dishonest negative advertising like anti-smoking advertising, it’s that they have very different effects. The Heinz and Heineken ads boost consumption, while anti-advertising cuts consumption. Positive advertising stimulates the economy, and negative advertising chokes the economy. After all, the one tries to get people to buy something. And the other tries to get them to stop buying it.
And given the levels of anti-advertising we now have, is it really very surprising that the global economy is sinking into depression (with its attendant deflation)?
Furthermore, anti-advertising is predatory in nature. While positive advertising brings increased sales and profits, negative anti-advertising works by stealing money in the form of punitive taxation. Tobacco Control’s “business model” is one of sufficiently demonising a product and its consumers to the point where politicians introduce bans and impose punitive taxation, some of which money finds its way back to Tobacco Control, which then demonises and defames the product and its consumers even more, in order to win even higher taxes. Smokers are made to pay for their own persecution. And the same business plan is then used with other products. The economy eats itself.
So I think that as we sink deeper and deeper into austerity and depression, there are going to be louder and louder calls to stimulate the economy and boost consumption. But how is that going to be possible when people are being told to stop buying tobacco, stop buying alcohol, stop buying soda, stop buying “junk food”, stop buying sugar, stop buying salt, stop generating carbon dioxide, stop using cars, stop flying away on holiday, and recycle everything?
Something’s going to have to give, and it’s going to have to be the negative ad campaigns. They’ll have to stop. And they will stop when tax revenues dry up, and the money fed to the anti-advertisers dries up with it.
Positive advertising is sustainable. Negative advertising – anti-advertising – is unsustainable.