First published June 13, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
A few years ago I was invited to a conference on advertising at a major university. The attendees were a fairly illustrious group of advertising professionals, including several senior executives from major agencies. There was also a healthy sprinkling of academics with impeccable credentials. I was in privileged company.
The organizer of the conference asked me to come up with a “dinner topic.” She explained that she wanted to generate a lively discussion at the various tables as we dug in and broke bread. It was okay if it was a “little” controversial. I must have ignored the qualifier, because my suggestion was, “Is advertising evil?” I have never been one for half measures.
As the ad illuminati settled at their tables, I set the stage by providing two opposing points of view:
First, the positive side of advertising. It can be a way to touch the very core of what makes us human, sometimes moving us to greatness. It can unify communities, create bonds and motivate us en masse. Not only can it be a social “lubricant” but, at its best, advertising can be a powerful change agent as well.
Now, the “evil” side: Does advertising take all this power and fritter it away to drive pure avarice? Does it short-circuit our Darwinian behavioral wiring, chaining us to a hedonistic treadmill where we constantly want something we don’t have? Regular readers will detect a theme here.
It wasn’t difficult to read the mood of the room as I was wrapping up. My dad has a saying that, despite its off-color nature, sums up the atmosphere of this particular gathering better than anything else I can think of: “It went over like a fart in the house of worship.” I cautiously headed back to my table to take part in the planned “lively discussion.”
My tablemates didn’t know where to start. It seemed that it had never crossed their mind that advertising could be anything but the highest of callings. To have a debate, you need to at least have an abstract understanding of the opposing viewpoint, even if you don’t agree with it. At my table the most common question was, “What do you mean, ‘Is advertising evil?’” I had apparently introduced an entirely foreign concept.
I swallowed and forged ahead, sketching out the basis of my hypothesis. I tried to stay in the abstract, hoping to generate a philosophical debate and avoid getting caught in an emotional catfight. It seemed, though, that I had not only hit a hot button, but had taken a sledgehammer and smashed it to smithereens. Advertisers, at least based on this particular sample, seemed unwilling to discuss the philosophical pros and cons (or at least the cons) of their profession. I just wanted the whole evening to end as soon as possible.
My purpose here is not to reopen the debate. I use this story to illustrate an unfortunate human tendency. We live in a world of grays, but we like to think in black and white. I doubt that advertising is totally evil, but I also doubt that advertising is totally good. The truth lies between the two extremes; advertising is most likely a rather dirty gray. If we’re willing to consider alternatives to our beliefs, perhaps it will move us a little closer to reality. I think advertising would do nothing but benefit from a deeper evaluation of its moral standing.
But we often forego a search for the truth, content to stick with our beliefs, which often bear little resemblance to reality. If those beliefs are attacked, we defend them vociferously, turning a deaf ear to counter-arguments. We don’t listen, because open minds require the burning of a lot of energy.
In a simpler evolutionary environment, beliefs were a heuristic shortcut for survival. But today, they often polarize us at either end of a moral spectrum, with no middle ground left for discussion. Case in point, the current American political landscape.
I have spent most of my adult life trying to fight this natural tendency. I have tried to keep an open mind and not let my beliefs blind me to an opposing viewpoint — at least, not when it comes to those things I believe to be truly important. Morality, religion and politics are just three arenas where open minds are much harder to find than staunchly held beliefs.
And, apparently, you can add advertising to that list as well.