After a career in advertising (which continues as I freelance my way into life’s twilight), I’m a bit torn about my feelings about the business. As a kid in high school and college, I hated advertising, believing it got people to buy stuff they didn’t need or want. Of course, that’s sometimes true. But more often than not, advertising is just trying to persuade people to buy something whether they need it or not — and oftentimes they do. There’s no arm twisting of the sort one might experience on a used-car lot. There’s just a company with stuff to sell that needs some help selling it to people who need it or who might otherwise do without it. And ad agencies are there to help. Themselves and others. They helped earn me a living, raise a family, pay my mortgage, buy stuff the fam needed, and get by.
Advertising, actually branding, has been around ever since one human tribe encountered another human tribe who had goods or game they needed but didn’t have. When one tribe did have a surplus of grain or pelts and then found a way to trade and make up the difference, modern-day capitalism was born. And if that arrangement didn’t work out, they could always fight over what one had and the other didn’t — which, as we know, they did with some regularity. Over time, the clunky bartering in grain for pelts or whatever was replaced by money, which has taken all sorts of forms, everything from salt to cocoa beans to beer to gold. Gold, which to be honest, serves no real physical need, but which its status as a rarity (not to mention its sunny brilliance) allowed it to serve as common means of exchange. But I digress.
Advertising and branding are necessities in a world of competing items that bear no significant differences. Pepsi and Coke. Nike and Adidas. Infinity and Lexus. Lays and Ruffles. If we’re upfront about things, either of these alternate brands would fit the need they actually serve: something sweet to drink, something to cover one’s feet, something to get from point A to point B, something salty and greasy and fattening and therefore delightful. Naturally, their brand followers would insist on some difference, but marketers know better, seeing as how they readily jump from one marketing division or ad agency to another with some regularity in the interest of advancing their careers and increasing their salaries.
Advertising by itself lost its heft to communicate discernible value a while back. Nowadays, when it comes to mass-market products, advertising is nothing but the promotion of brands. The old tools of advertising — sales, couponing, today-only, two-for-one deals, no interest till the Pope marries — still have their place. But the real business of advertising (the advertising people talk about at Cannes and that fills award-show books) is the promotion of brands — products with comparable alternatives — brands that need to attach unknowable, indiscernible, and unquantifiable value to a company’s products or services.
Today we are enamored of brands. And for many, they have replaced longstanding attachment to church or party or country club. As a kid, I knew dudes as a Chevy or Ford guy and somewhat later as a Nike or Adidas or Columbia or North Face guy. And in these raucous times, I also know rightwing or leftwing nutjobs — Trumpeters and Berners or whatever — but those aren’t brands, just secular religions whose gods will, like all gods, eventually die. In some ways, the very idea of branding and how it works is, at best, a cataloging schema. It’s the sort of schema that Russian, Chinese, Facebook, and Instagram, and the world’s varied brand trollers rely on to influence your purchase or your vote. If we can put people in a brand box, it’s just fucking easier to get them to do shit, whatever that shit might be.
For descendants of Western Civilization — civilization being a generous description of the last several millennia seeing as civil is its root meaning — a long-running belief in a life hereafter has been replaced by a life right now. We want to be cool right now! We want to be envied right now! We want to be wearing the brand to die for right now! This is leading to all sorts of problems, not the least of which is the depletion of the ozone, ocean fisheries, fresh water, and landfill locations, along with the appearance of Pacific islands of floating plastic three times the size of France.
The lost love of the Cross and its replacement by the gauche idolatry of stuff — basically the replacement of a willingness to forego want for a better hereafter with I want shit now— doesn’t bode well humankind. None of this is to say that branding and buying and having stuff is evil. It’s just a plea for moderation. Once the race figures out how to live within its means, things will improve. But whether it will or not is something the current want-it-now crowd doesn’t give a fuck about. The secular crew I share faith with live in hope, hope being the only brand that gets me through the day.
© 2019 John Hofmeister. All rights reserved.
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me.