Sunday, 6 February 2011

Dear Mr de Botton, if you're going to attack advertising, try to understand how it works

The popular philosopher, Alain de Botton, has had something to say about nannying fussbucketry – he titles it: “In defence of the nanny state.” Now I was tempted to take the entire piece and especially its central premise and point out it flaws – although no genuine liberal would get past this:

Modern politics, on both left and right, is dominated by what we can call a libertarian ideology.

Once I had picked myself up, dusted myself down, stopped giggling and become thoughtful again I was able to read on – mindful that at any point a further statement of such mindboggling stupidity might spring from the page again. And lo, such a phrase arrived – slightly better wrapped this time but just as wrong:

We don't currently live in a "free" society in the true sense of the term. Every day, our minds are assaulted by commercial messages that reach us from all sides. The whole billion-pound-a-year advertising industry runs counter to any assertion that we're currently free and un-nudged as it stands.

Mr de Botton falls into a very familiar trap when talking about advertising – that its messages are somehow different from the millions of other messages we receive, process and respond to in our lives. And our philosopher goes further to suggest some kind of balancing of advertising – doubtless under the control of Platonic Philosopher Kings or maybe just the vanguard of the ‘general will’.

Advertising messages are mere communications – of course they seek to nudge us, at least insofar as their objective is to affect our behaviour. Most commonly the purpose of advertising is not to sell you something but to persuade you to carry on buying the thing you’re already buying. The promotion of brand loyalty – the core purpose of much advertising – is, if anything, anti-nudge.

Now Mr de Botton, I hope, will understand the meaning of ‘heuristic’ – how our minds develop techniques to speed up decision-making in a world of (inevitably) imperfect information. That is what brand marketing does – create heuristic responses in consumers. But advertising is not alone in doing so – we seek short cuts from other sources, from experts (the philosophers of consumerism, if you will) and, above all, from friends, neighbours and family. The brand does not sit in isolation within the individuals recall but fights for space with a load of other information, good, bad, right and wrong.

A great deal has been said by well-heeled, intellectuals such as our friendly philosopher about brands, advertising and marketing but nearly all of it has been predicated on a profound misunderstanding of where advertising messages sit in the wider communications environment. Despite the seeming ubiquity of advertising, such messages are a very tiny proportion of the messages we receive. Advertisers would love their messages to be as effective as Mr de Botton thinks they are!

I don’t wish to comment on Mr de Botton’s overall message – except that it is deeply depressing. What I can say is that he doesn’t have the first idea about advertising.


1 comment:

SadButMadLad said...

I don't think Alain de Botton has the first idea about libertarianism either.

His article needs to be roundly condemned otherwise many will get the wrong impression of Libertarianism.

I only heard about Libertarianism around about a year ago and originally lent to the left before "I saw the light", but even I know more about Libertarian ideals than he does.