The 2015 “Are You Beach Body Ready?” campaign highlights the depths bad advertising will plunge to. The campaign was banned in the UK – but not the US! – for it’s callous body-shaming method.

In advertising there are two fundamental methods: advertising that informs and advertising that persuades. In the early days, advertising was informative. Whilst the majority of advertising is still like this, since about 1930 there has been an ever growing amount of advertising that is a deliberate attempt to persuade people into certain behaviours by manipulating their emotions.

Bad advertising

In theory the market system is about selling goods and services to informed customers who can then make rational choices. Yet, in practice, a lot of advertising is really persuading potential customers, using emotional enticement, to make irrational choices. Persuasion is not bad, per se, but it is when it preys on people’s insecurities, ambitions and rivalries in ways that range from subtle grooming to blatant emotional blackmail. Bad advertising’s deceit is to insinuate that people are inadequate or incomplete, and that whatever the advertisement is peddling will fulfil them – even though it can’t.

In short, advertising that allows for informed and rational choices is necessary and proper. Advertising that manipulates people’s emotions and behaviours is insidious and immoral.

Edward Bernays (1891−1995) is considered to be the instigator of the propaganda style of advertising and public relations. In Bernays own words:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

Bernays, an Austrian-American and nephew of Sigmund Freud, was a very successful and influential public relations consultant and educator in the middle part of last century. Bernays described humans as irrational and prone to herd behaviour. In his books, Bernays outlined ways in which skilled practitioners could use crowd psychology and psychoanalysis to control people’s behaviours. His ideas and methods are still being used and further developed today.

Example of bad advertising

A cigarette advertisement from the 1950s targeted at young women.

The problems with advertising

It is everywhere

Advertising messages infiltrate people’s lives, and no-one is immune; their pervasiveness and invasiveness can be overwhelming. Whilst it is possible to consciously block out some of it, people still absorb and process advertising messages unconsciously. This is especially corrupt in advertising for children, whose critical faculties are not fully developed to analyse, interpret and discern what they are being told. For this reason alone there should be no advertising targeted at children.

Example of bad advertisingIt leads people away from well-being

Research indicates there is a correlation between advertising, consumer debt and the number of hours people work. People who are influenced by advertisements more than others seem to save less and spend more time working to pay for their purchases. Advertising which supposedly helps people to fulfil their lives can actually lead people in the opposite direction because it steers them away from achieving intrinsic needs like relationships, autonomy and competence.

Also, self-image is negatively affected by advertising. The aforementioned “Are You Beach Body Ready?” campaign is just one blatant example of body-shaming-for-profit that is rife in advertising. Advertising portrays an alternate reality that people aspire to but can’t obtain. For instance, advertising routinely uses sex and fast action to make products appear cooler and more desirable. Most men in ads have chiseled bodies with six-pack abs, bronzed skin, perfect hair and gleaming white teeth. For women it’s even more extreme, the standard of beauty and lifestyle portrayed in advertising really is unattainable for nearly all people – and yet people still buy into it and are ultimately disappointed.

It persuades people to buy things they don’t need

To sell unnecessary goods and services businesses must keep persuading people that they have unmet needs. Advertisers cause people to feel dissatisfied with what they have, even when they have more than enough. To be attractive, happy, up-to-date and cool people must buy what the advertisers are selling. Anything you buy/consume adds to your ecological footprint. If you don’t need what you buy, you are increasing your (and the overall) footprint for no good reason.

Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today.

– Victor Papanek – Designer, educator and author of Design for the Real World

Good advertising

As mentioned, advertising that informs is necessary and proper. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the advertising is good.

Judging if the advertising is good or not depends on the answers to two questions. First, what is being sold? If it’s handguns, cigarettes, petrol or useless junk, for instance, it’s not good. Secondly, is the information provided true and complete? Advertisers will push the benefits of what they are selling, of course. However, you are not likely to see an advertisement for petrol/gasoline that says “Causes climate change!”, or one for a fizzy drink that says “This will rot your teeth!”, or one for running shoes that says ‘Made in a sweatshop!’.

For this reason, all advertising should be looked at critically, the onus is on the consumer to judge what is good and what is bad, the producer certainly isn’t going to tell you.

The ‘good advertising’ challenge

Imagine if all the creative talent and effort that goes into bad advertising went into promoting and encouraging personal, social and environmental well-being.

A group of designers (first in 1962 and then updated in 2000) railed against their clients wasting their talents “manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best” and they suggested a better way in their First Things First manifesto:

Commercial work has always paid the bills, but many graphic designers have now let it become, in large measure, what graphic designers do. This, in turn, is how the world perceives design. The profession’s time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best.

Many of us have grown increasingly uncomfortable with this view of design. Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.

There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. Many cultural interventions, social marketing campaigns, books, magazines, exhibitions, educational tools, television programs, films, charitable causes and other information design projects urgently require our expertise and help.

– Excerpt from the First Things First Manifesto 2000