Ads of Our Times

“ Historians and archeologists will one day discover that the ads of our times are the richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities.”  Marshall McLuhan


If McLuhan is correct—and I believe that he is—how dismayed he would be at the debased and irrelevant advertising we see today.  As a reflection of our society, he would say we have the advertising we deserve, advertising that does, in fact, reflect the shoddy moral attitudes of our times.  It’s a sad assessment.

There was a time in my own career when advertising aspired to be more than simply the engine driving sales for products or services.  Of course that’s what the majority of clients want.  Creative agencies have had other goals: to create advertising that becomes an iconic reflection of a moment in time, a page in the history of ideas, a symbol so powerful that it becomes inseparable from the brand it advertises.  There are ads that resonate in our memories long after they crease to exist in the media.  “Think Small,” “We Try Harder,” “Think Different” are slogans that still link immediately to the brands they once supported.


I don’t own a television.  When I travel I channel surf from one abomination to the next.  In one evening last week I saw three different commercials that either directly referred to, or dramatized, defecation.  I realize I must sound like some out-of-touch curmudgeon, but honestly, toilet humor?

I work with two of the best creative directors in the industry.  Both are friends.  Paul is the only copywriter to have won AdWeek’s Writer of the Year Award twice.  Steve Jobs once said that our art director Marcus was one of the most elegant art directors in the business.  These are brilliantly talented men.  Nonetheless, we have shared a client that consistently takes the best of their work and turns it into the worst.  While minor in the scheme of things, one classic example was when this client directed Paul to find a superlative adjective to modify the noun “unique.” When we pointed out that “unique” doesn’t take an adjective,  they nevertheless insisted.  So Paul suggested “utterly unique,” only slightly less ungrammatical. The response back was, “Utterly.  That’s an odd word.  We’ve never used it before.  It might stand out.”

Given the drift towards mediocrity and worse, is it any wonder that traditional advertising is losing its influence year by year?  More creative and memorable advertising is found on YouTube, websites, in social media.  It’s shared on Facebook.  Dollar Shave Club has successfully disrupted the razor blade category with its price-cutting proposition communicated by one of the best online video ads out there.  No traditional advertising launched the brand.


Still, the decline in television advertising is a double-edged sword.  Advertising pays for programming.  As ad revenues decline, so does the quality of network content.  In depth news reporting and educational programming  are nearly things of the past,  freely available on a regular basis solely on PBS.  For families who cannot afford cable, PBS is their only option.  (If Republicans had their way, there would no government funding for public radio or television. Mitt Romney joked–on PBS–“I like Big Bird,” but was more than happy to deny its access to millions of households.)  Network entertainment programming is as bad as the advertising that supports it. “Desperate Housewives…” of whatever city?  The Kardashians?  “My Shopping Addiction”?  I can imagine the nightmares children must have from watching most episodes of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Even porn may be less damaging than repeated images of mangled, blood splattered, acid burned, broken women.  Reality doesn’t always have to be shown on TV.

There’s no turning back the clock.  We have the advertising our society deserves and demands.  We have the programming most of the country wants to watch.  I can choose not to watch. I can contribute to NPR. I can subscribe to the daily paper edition of The New York Times.  I can tell myself I’m occupying the moral high-ground.  Still, advertising is all around me, around everyone. It’s part of pop culture. We can neither avoid nor escape it.

We could choose never to buy the products supported by offensive advertising.  It’s an act of will worth considering.


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