Page views 10498

The Purpose of Advertising

Businesses have always had a need to let the world know of their existence. For most of history, that meant a sign above the door. If you were a milliner or a hosier, you would put up a lamb, a barber shop meant a pair of scissors, a glove shop involved a hand, and if you were a Parisian delicatessen in the rue de Cossonnerie in the 1780s, you might opt for a large pair of inquisitive looking snails. So numerous were the signs and often lax their fixings, city governments fought ongoing battles with shopkeepers to take greater care with maintenance, especially in the gusty winter months: in late 17th century Amsterdam, eight people (two of them children) lost their lives in one season from collapsing signs in the crowded alleys around the Warmoesstraat . 

William Hogarth, Four Times Night, 1738

Because hardly anyone could read, the only alternative was to employ a crier to go around town for the day letting others know of your existence. In a moment of particular irritation with the ensuing cacophony, Samuel Johnson remarked that ancient thinkers had been so much more productive than modern ones chiefly because they hadn’t been disturbed by the shrieks of passing oyster sellers and haberdashers. 

‘Knives, combs or ink-horns!’ Town Crier, London, 18th century.

Then, in the early nineteenth century, a new option appeared. Thanks to innovations in printing, it became possible to produce ever larger posters. Outdoor advertising began to appear all over cities, on the sides of municipal buildings and taverns, in temporary hoardings on the entrance of parks and on the flanks of stage coaches and omnibuses. The urban horizon became at all times subtly but decisively fettered with beseeching calls: for Empire clothes wringers (‘Turns so easily, I can help Mama!’), for Harness Electric Corsets (‘The very thing for ladies of all ages’), Baker and Co’s Breakfast Cocoa (‘Admirably adapted for Invalids as well as persons in health; Gold Medal, Paris 1878’) and Eau Malleron for Gentlemen (‘Baldness is Curable’).

John Orlando Parry, London, 1835 

As the century progressed, technology further expanded the possibilities. It became affordable to place gigantic reminders of one’s products in nature, fixed to standalone wooden structures or to the sides of bridges, cliff faces or promontories. The trend was greatly enhanced by the development of railways. When in 1869 the first transcontinental railway linked up the eastern and western seaboards of the United States (with a connection at Council Bluffs Iowa), firms raced to pay the two main rail companies, Central Pacific and Union Pacific, to position their adverts along the route. During the three and half day journey from New York City to San Francisco, one was afforded a chance to encounter thousands of reminders of domestic items, strategically placed along some of the world’s most beautiful territory – that had only a generation before been the hunting grounds of the Pawnee, Sioux, Arapaho, Crow, Blackfoot, and Shoshone Indians (now largely exterminated or herded in reservations). Along the north bank of the South Platte river, heading into what would eventually become the state of Wyoming, one might catch a glimpse of a gigantic billboard for Sprage’s Can Opener (‘Leaves no Ragged Edges’); crossing over the remote Laramie Mountains, teaming with pronghorns, deer and elk, one might be jogged into thinking about Woodward’s Hop Beer (‘Beneficial in cases of Dyspepsia and Indigestion’) and as one dropped down into the Weber River Canyon, formed during the breakup of the supercontinent Rodinia in the Neoproterozoic age 700 million before, one’s attention might be seized by a comprehensive evocation of Garibaldi’s Macaroni (‘Artificially Colored – from Pennsylvania!’).

The Delaware Water Gap, 1910
A.1 Steak Sauce, New Jersey, 1916/7
Atlantic City Meadows, 1916

Moments that once been left to free association, for processing particular anxieties or regrets or plotting the course of the next stage of one’s life, were now brought into contact with the commercial realm. Memories of childhood or nostalgia for a friend might collide with an 8 metre high rendering of a bottle of A.1. Steak Sauce. The nineteenth century art critic John Ruskin remarked that to understand what any particular age really believes in, one need only look out for the largest object on the horizon. That had once meant God, civic government or the glory of a monarch; now it was likely to mean a hair pomade or an elixir to aid digestion.

It was not that the majority of new commercial products were unnecessary or superfluous; their success indicated otherwise. Rather it was that their very success afforded them an opportunity to build a place in our lives and in our eye lines that appeared at points wildly out of proportion with their overall contributions to our welfare. Or, put another way, their commercial importance had grown out of synch with their human importance; they did not wholly deserve the sort of prominence that they could now pay for. At the same time, they were elbowing out other elements that had long had a claim on our attention – a role for solemnity, love, forgiveness, reflection, modesty, tenderness – that lacked a budget for thirty metre high billboards that could be positioned on an appropriate turn in an apricot grove on the rail route out of Roseville California. 

A feeling of claustrophobia might descend at the thought that one would never be able to escape the dominion of carbonated water or the claims of hair-softening shampoo, that there would always be messages affixed somewhere in the vicinity, even in the palm trees along the Nile between Aswan and Luxor or in the lanes leading up to Angkor Wat, or across the Falls at Niagara. The billboards, and the commercial culture that lay behind them, resembled a nagging child, who is so anxious that it has not been heard and is so unimaginative about how it might be so that it settles on constantly repeating itself in the same blunt way: in Jefferson Iowa and again in Big Spring Nebraska, in Rock Creek Wyoming and again in Ryanston Utah, in White Plains Nevada and again in Shady Run California. 

In the harried atmosphere of commercial culture, the increasing temptation for businesses was to shout. No one remembered that a voice might stand out precisely because it was not screaming. The English artist Ben Nicholson, who began his career in advertising (the author J. M. Barrie used his drawing to promote a production of Peter Pan), spent the 1930s producing immaculately muted and reticent white canvases, which explored how tiny variations in the visual plane and in shades of white might effect and move the viewer. He discovered how quietening his canvases could attract attention far better than heightening their contrasts. He achieved something that the advertisers of modernity had overlooked: that the true goal of communication is to be listened to rather than just noticed – and that this may best occur when one has been bold enough to whisper.

Ben Nicholson, White Relief, 1935

Advertisers also forgot what artists had taught them about exaggeration. One of the people Rembrandt thought most appealing in the world, and whom he repeatedly advertised in his work, was his partner Hendrickje Stoffels.

Rembrandt, Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, 1654

Importantly, she was not in a conventional sense entirely beautiful. Her neck was rather fleshy, her cheeks were puffy and her mouth small. She was not very thin either. And yet she remains one of the most appealling figures in the history of art precisely because of her imperfections. Rembrandt’s portrait hints that she would have known how to laugh at her absurd sides, that she was clever enough never to have to pretend she knew things and that she would have been forgiving and kind from a keen awareness of her own frailty and need for reassurance. She had no need to boast or exaggerate and nor did her portraitist; there was no need to declaim in superlatives or cap an idea with exclamation marks. As Rembrandt knew, we can reserve our deepest love for those who are flawed, vulnerable and not always as thin as they should be.

‘Visit Britain’ is a government organisation tasked with encouraging visitors to travel around the United Kingdom. In order to fulfill its task, it has opted to advertise blue skies, perfect green meadows, banks of flowers, neat hedgerows and a complete absence of cities or people. It has been particularly enthusiastic about using the name of the nineteenth century painter John Constable, who has a reputation – especially among those with a passing acquaintance with his work – for painting idealised bucolic scenes of England.

But given what Britain is actually like and what one might eventually find to love about the place, it is a pity that the organisation did not look more deeply into Constable’s work, for they would soon have discovered that, the odd obviously pretty scene aside, Constable spent most of his career painting England the way it actually is: beaten up, sodden with rain, miserable, dank, chaotic, but in its way enticing nevertheless. Many of Constable’s canvases show us appalling weather, run down buildings, fallen trees, broken walls and people struggling against the ordinary frustrations of life.

John Constable, Hampstead Heath, 1820

Importantly, our response isn’t to turn away in horror. Constable is confident enough to guide us to what is worth noticing even in a less than pristine scene. He teaches us about the beauty of rain showers and mud, broken railings and smashed tiles, about the nobility of working lives and of unheroic efforts unfolding under leaden horizons. The task of art, and of advertising in turn, should not be to highlight impossible ideals, but to render us more attentive to, and more warm-hearted about the odder but still very real attractions of people and things as they truly are. 

There was another problem with modernity’s advertising: its relentless good cheer, its refusal ever to countenance the creation of something that is as wise as it sounds farfetched: a melancholy advert.


The conditions of life are in essence tragic. Few days pass without a brush against substantial grief or loss. We would need to be very privileged, or simply very blinkered, not to have noticed the fundamentally grief-stricken nature of everything. And yet adverts insist on greeting us as if good cheer, calm and optimism might be our customary state – as if we were not constantly misunderstood and thwarted and did not have to die. Their work is premised on a terror that any dip in spirits might prevent people from buying, as though any recognition whatsoever of a state of mind other than euphoria could collapse the whole of commercial society at a stroke. But this brittleness forgets how grateful we are – whenever we are sad – at those who can bear to join us in our mood without panicking, those who don’t feel obliged to try to jolly us along and can acknowledge the legitimate place of sadness, loneliness and confusion within a decent life. 

Those who have mounted the most vociferous objections against advertising have accused it of outright deceit. In its nineteenth century manifestations, there was no shortage of evidence to this end. The commercial world abounded with cocaine toothache drops, herbal potions to make one thin, creams to make one young, belts to restore one’s sex drive, lights to make someone fall in love with one, electrical equipment to reduce headaches – and batteries to cure deafness. It would have taken a committed innocent to believe more than a fraction of what was plastered to the walls.

But by the early twentieth century, legislation in all the major economies had stamped out the more obvious forms of chicanery. Products more or less did what the adverts promised they would – or else offered consumers ways to fight back.

Yet that was not to be the end of duplicity in advertising. Arguably it was only the beginning of a more ambitious and subtle phase, this one leaning not so much on the language of magic as on the insights of a rigorous new discipline: psychology. In so far as the adverts of the twentieth century misled and confused their publics on a grand scale, they did so in far quieter and more intellectually sophisticated ways than their predecessors. They didn’t need to tell straight lies any more, for they had learnt how to master and gently exploit our fatefully weak understanding of our own minds.

The most influential figure in American advertising in the post-war period was the psychologist Abraham Maslow. In a paper entitled ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ published in 1943 in the academic journal, Psychological Review, Maslow laid out nothing less than a philosophy of the essential functioning of our psyches. He proposed that all of us are, first and foremost, powerfully motivated to fulfill a range of basic physiological needs: basic needs for food, housing, heating, clothing, transportation and communication. But no sooner have these needs been appeased than we are also driven to attend to a range of ‘higher’ needs: these focusing on love, understanding, connection, freedom, a sense of possibility, meaning, purpose, individuation and peace of mind.

A: Basic Needs B: Higher Needs

Love: romantic, familial, Friendship-based
Sense of Possibility
Meaning, Purpose
Peace of Mind

Maslow’s delineation of needs (and his later elaboration of these in his book, Motivation and Personality of 1954) was to have a decisive impact on a generation of advertisers in large American firms like J.Walter Thompson, Leo Burnett and Craig & Kummel. 

These advertisers knew that their clients were almost all in the business of fulfilling, as Maslow defined it, their customers’ ‘basic needs’: their trade was in shirts and overcoats, heating oil and mortgages, business travel and telephones. No one who ever stepped into their marble and glass offices in Madison Avenue was likely to be interested in selling love or peace of mind, meaning or freedom. 

This was – at one level – extremely inconvenient, not least because Maslow had proposed that once humans had fulfilled their basic needs, they would quickly move on to thinking only about their higher needs: once they had a car and some summer and winter clothes, they would – if left to their own devices – naturally aspire only to what Maslow cryptically but tantalisingly called ‘self-actualization.’ This appeared to presage economic disaster for advertisers and their clients. If someone already had a slightly battered but roadworthy 1948 Tucker Torpedo in the garage, there would really be no way of interesting them in a 1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner or an Oldsmobile ‘Rocket’ V8. And if someone already had a few quite serviceable clothes, they would legitimately have no interest in a new grey flannel suit from Eagle or a couple of summer jackets from Springweave. By so efficiently catering to humanity’s basic needs, America’s mass production industries were in danger of engineering their own demise.

But fortunately for them, there was an important suggestion of salvation lurking in Maslow’s work. At points, Maslow had implied that when they are distracted or insufficiently guided, when their spiritual ambitions have been thwarted or left fallow, humans may neglect their higher needs and develop disproportionate appetites for lower ones instead. 

This provided an extremely promising opening to advertisers. It now seemed that the way to get customers shopping was not to emphasise the capacity of a product to fulfill a basic need, as advertisers had always naively assumed. The basic need was likely to have been addressed a long time ago already; the customer probably already had a car, they almost certainly had enough clothes to keep out the elements. So the move was to try to elicit an ambition to buy a product catering to a basic need by alluding to a higher one. It was to imply an offer of a solution to a vital spiritual hunger while in fact – at the last moment – swerving to direct the customer to a shirt or car, a washing machine or breakfast cereal. So long as the possibility of fulfilling a higher need was conveyed with sufficient artistry, customers might not notice the sleight of hand. They would merely register that a passion and intensity that might once have been associated with the development of their soul had settled on an aspiration for a lawn mower or moisturising cream.

A so-called ‘good’ advert now became a very specific proposition; a piece of communication which could delicately connect up a ‘basic’ object to a vaguely relevant or compatible ‘higher’ need. A car might be twinned with a search for love, through imagery of an embracing couple, perhaps setting off to orgasm on a phallic rocket; a suit advert might be twinned to a search for career fulfilment through the use of actors who appeared self-possessed and authoritative. One would unconsciously think one was acquiring love and meaning, while practically investing in a motorcar or cotton suit. It sounded simple, but the move has powered consumer capitalism ever since.

Nearly every advert one now cares to consider is selling us one thing while, beneath the surface, hinting at the appeasement of another higher need. It may look like one is buying a bag or a pair of shoes, a stay in a hotel or a kind of drink – but really what is tickling us unconsciously is a secret promise of spiritual goods we ache for a great deal more than we ever do for material possessions: a need for love and meaning, connection and calm, understanding and freedom…

It is the bag one buys; it is the love one craves.

It is the hotel one pays for: it’s the family harmony one was after.

It’s the drink one takes home; it’s the self-assurance one hoped to connect with.

It’s the Bacardi that’s on offer; it’s the friends one would want to have.

It’s the pair of shoes one is told one needs; it’s the sense of freedom one craves.

Modern advertisers have a very good sense of what we really want: it’s just, rather strangely, that – without admitting it – they refuse to sell it to us. What seems to be on offer isn’t for sale. This isn’t out of evil, simply because capitalism has not yet managed to produce companies interested in addressing the ingredients in the ‘higher’ category of Maslow’s account of our needs. This isn’t to say that such companies will or could never exist. There is nothing inherently impossible about a company dedicated to providing people with suitable friends or the skills they would need to build a connection with them. It is entirely plausible to imagine a vast corporation devoted to helping people to have more successful relationships or to discover more meaningful ways of leading their lives. It is just that capitalism currently lags beneath our best understanding of our own needs; the products and services we tend to buy and sell one another fulfill only one part, and arguably not the most important part, of the spectrum of our needs. We are still waiting for entrepreneurs who will be able to move the aspirations of capitalism towards the higher spectrum, who will be able to build vast and ingenious corporations to tackle our spiritual appetites – and thereby honour the aspirations of capitalism to make us profoundly rather than only partially satisfied, and to do so not through the deceitful merchandising of superfluous things, but through the genuine satisfaction of the complete range of our needs.

We may in the meantime grow very weary of the energies of the selling industry. The central districts of all the world’s largest cities are covered in outsized illuminated displays, many of them ten storeys high, drawing the attention of consumers to items of questionable relevance to the facts of the human condition. At Shibuya junction in Tokyo, a million people a day glance up at gigantic renderings of hair products and ice lollies, lipsticks and whisky bottles. The night sky is lit up with incantations to deodorant and clothes’ softener. 

It is tempting to conclude that we have – as societies – developed a preposterous obsession with selling. But the reassuring fact is that we have always been interested in selling; it is simply what we are selling that has slightly changed. In the second part of the twelfth century, the largest effort at outdoor illuminated advertising ever undertaken began to take shape across Northern Europe. In Canterbury and Worcester, Wells and Salisbury, Chartres and Rheims, Metz and Cologne, master builders started work on cathedrals that had vast stained glass windows, many times brighter and taller than the signs in Piccadilly Circus or Times Square. But rather than trying to interest us in hamburgers and lip moisturiser, these illuminated windows, filled with glittering squares of reds and greens and dazzling petal-shaped arrangements of lilacs and buttercup yellows had different messages to impart. To audiences below, these illuminated billboards spoke of love and charity, redemption and melancholy. When fully lit up by the rising and setting sun, they spoke in resplendent brightness of kindness and a concern for those weaker or more troubled than us, they wished us to be modest and thoughtful, open-hearted and tender. 


We may – for very good reasons – have no time for the specifics of the religion that sponsored these cathedrals. But it is the ambition that is worth noting. The cathedrals were in the business of selling and yet they had their sights on the advertising of the most complex and noble aspects of our nature. The medieval Christian church was a multinational business, no less so than a modern corporation, yet it was one explicitly focused on fulfilling, in Maslow’s sense, our higher needs; it combined financial acumen, managerial discipline and psychological intent which, for all the church’s many faults, remains a provocation to our own times.

We could start to imagine a more dignified version of advertising for the future; one that was no longer so interested in badgering or shouting, in nagging or jollying and most importantly, no longer needed to excite our attention by seeming to offer us one thing while in fact selling us another. This kind of advertising would have a different sort of client base: some of whom might still make shirts and haircare products, but others of whom might be pioneering solutions to our higher needs as well. There might, in the shopping districts of the future, be gigantic illuminated billboards promoting aids for loneliness, cures for broken hearts and strategies for calm. We remain at the dawn of capitalism – and therefore of knowing how honourably to buy and sell one another the many things that we truly need to flourish.

Full Article Index


Get all of The School of Life in your pocket on the web and in the app with your The School of Life Subscription