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.
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.