Ad Infinitum

Article excerpt


ZIAUDDIN SARDAR says that life is now just one long commercial

The distinction between advertising and news has dissolved. This, in essence, is the message of the "Improperganda" exhibition at London's Proud Galleries, a collection of attention-grabbing images celebrating the advertisement as a media stunt. The unruly, orange-coloured slapper, who turned cheek-smacking into a brand statement for Tango, rubs shoulders with French Connection UK's exploitation of the British horror at the four-letter word "fcuk". Henry, the famous canine of the-dog-food commercial, generated miles of column-inches, we are told, when it was revealed that he was a bitch; and cat-food manufacturers generated extra coverage by creating the myth that their product was laced with addictive substances. But does all this give us any insight into advertising?

"Improperganda" itself looks like a desperate attempt to generate publicity. It displays only one aspect of a far larger usurpation. Advertising has not just become news, it has, in fact, become everything. Advertising is now the eminent domain of our existence, dissolving all categories and boundaries within its imaginative grasp. The sovereign rights of advertising in the 21st century are a quantum leap beyond needs and desires.

Desire, as "Improperganda" shows, has long ceased to be a practical thing. Affluence in post-industrial society has put practicality as last on the list of our desires, where once it was the essence of advertising. Advertising became the bedrock of our existence in the 20th century. Whether it developed to fulfil the needs of economic forces or shaped how economic forces were experienced, advertising is the medium through which the history of that awful century is best told.

The 20th century did not invent advertising. Historians claim that the rich backgrounds of Renaissance paintings were self-promotions for their subjects, adverts of their credit worthiness and importance. Ancient monuments and artefacts advertise. Ancient and early modern poetry consists mostly of praise poems to the leader, a kind of nascent party political broadcast. So, advertising has always been there. But it was the 20th century's discovery of distributive abundance and artificial needs without limit that launched advertising on a new trajectory.

The greatest event of the 20th century, outstripping even its horrors, was the invention of a mass market for consumer goods: the apotheosis of the industrial revolution. Desiring the accoutrements of a lavish lifestyle is probably primordial, yet only in the 20th century did it become practical. And it was not a hard sell, as advertising from the early part of the century clearly demonstrates. It was largely text-based, lacked strong visual imagery and dwelt on informative illustrations of the actual products. The text made large claims for products, reflecting a sense of wonder at the possibilities of new technology. But the greatest wonder of all was the Model T Ford phenomenon: mass-produced products that every ordinary person could realistically aspire to own.

The explosion of consumer culture in the 1950s quickly exhausted the provision of basic needs, and advertising found its true vocation. It became a science -- incorporating the conditioned reflex theory of Ivan Pavlov and John Watson, Freudian not ions of motivation, and the whole battery of psycho-social behaviourism. Consumerism lost touch with practicality; advertising never could -- it was the vehicle that kept economic growth on track. These were The Hidden Persuaders of Vance Packard's bestseller of the late Fifties. The purpose of advertising became the creation of desire without discrimination, a yearning for something without discernment, a cultural exercise in stimulating false desire and artificial need.

The other great development in advertising was entertainment. In the Fifties and Sixties, when television became the main vehicle for advertising, we learnt to enjoy it. …