2015 marks the 65th anniversary of George Orwell's death. By the time he died he was living on the remote island of Jura, isolated from a consumerist society that he saw as plagued with problems. For Orwell, advertising was to blame for many of these issues since it inflamed consumer desires for materialistic goods. As he so memorably stated: "Advertising is the rattling of a stick in the swill bucket of society".
Unfortunately, it seems that Orwell is not alone in this view. In a study conducted by ZenithOptimedia amongst 452 students, only 24 per cent thought advertising benefited society. But was Orwell's opinion justified or an example of groundless moralising? Cyril Connolly, after all, wrote of Orwell "He couldn't blow his nose without moralising on the conditions of the handkerchief industry".
At the core of Orwell's argument is the accusation that advertising creates a desire for products that consumers can't resist. There are two parts to this argument. Firstly, let's look at the irresistibly part. Anyone working in advertising knows this isn't true. It's hard to change opinion and harder still to change behaviour. Consumers don't have the Pavlovian reaction that Orwell insinuates as they are aware that adverts are biased. Ads are interpreted with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Whilst this is a fair defence of most advertising it does raise questions about the rise of ads masquerading as content. From an ethical perspective brands need to ensure consumers are aware they're being advertised to as otherwise how can they interpret the messages accordingly? Enlightened self-interest backs this up. IAB research has shown that consumers feel misled when digital messaging is not clearly identifiable as advertising. Devious communications might bring short-term benefits but in the long term they risk the wrath of consumers.
The second part of his argument is that advertising creates desire for products. However, stimulating demand by improving the appeal of products doesn't seem much of a crime. Would a chef be blamed for making tastier meals? A chemist for concocting more effective painkillers? Probably not.
The comparison with medicine might seem over-kill, even bad taste. However, it is apt. Brands improve the experience of products in the same way that the placebo effect boosts the performance of painkillers. This has been shown by a study on analgesics by Branthwaite and Cooper in the BMJ. They conducted a double blind test which looked at the effectiveness of branded versus unbranded pills. The results were clear. Branded painkillers were 30 per cent more effective in reducing pain than unbranded tablets with the same ingredients. Critics might claim these effects are illusory. However, if a user finds a product more effective surely this is the only criterion that matters?
But is this argument contradictory? If it's so hard to change opinions doesn't this mean that huge sums of money need to be spent on advertising thereby raising prices? This argument is half right. Huge sums are spent on advertising. In 2015 £20 billion will be spent on advertising in the UK. However, the assumption that this leads to higher prices is baseless. The most authoritative study into the impact of advertising on price was conducted by the Federal Trade Commission in the US. They compared the prices of glasses in states where advertising by optometrists was allowed against those where it wasn't. They found that identical glasses cost 30%-40% more in states where ads were outlawed. Counter-intuitive? Maybe, but the UK Monopolies and Mergers Commission have supplied an answer. According to them the restrictions on advertising: "(a) deprive the public of helpful information; and (b) reduce the stimulus to efficiency, cost saving, innovation, new entry to professions, and competition." Or as Jeremy Bullmore says "If you aren't allowed to shout about it, why be bothered to think of it in the first place?"
However, this isn't to say that ad spend doesn't impact society. Most of ad money, much to creative agencies chagrin, goes to media owners. This income is used by media owners to subsidise their prices thereby making news providers, whether that's online or in print, more accessible. The benefits of a well-read press can't be over-stated as it helps keep those in power in check. As Brandeis, Justice of the US Supreme Court, said "sunlight is the best disinfectant". That disinfectant only works if it's widespread.
So is all well with advertising? Of course, there will always be instances of dubious advertising. However, rogue ads should be brought to account by the regulatory body, the ASA, if they aren't "legal, decent, honest and truthful". But in general the impact of advertising is positive as it reduces costs, improves the experience of products and helps support a free press. Or so I would suggest. Would Orwell agree? In his phrase from '1984' he'd probably suggest this argument tries to make "two plus two make five".