A sinning formula for TV ads

What drives the flower of our nation to commit burglary? Unemployment? Poverty? Boredom? According to one sage northerner, TV advertising is the source of all evil

The home of jackpot lottery winner Terry Benson is ransacked and burgled while he is away in London collecting his 20m cheque. Who is to blame?

In an age given to psychological analysis the obvious answer, namely the burglars, will not do. On the evidence of statistical probability, the culprits are likely to be young men. The figures also suggest they are unlikely to be caught, and, if they are, that their punishment will be ineffectual. So, powerless to address the question in any practical fashion, we fall back on philosophical speculation as a pleasure to accompany the chardonnay and salmon en croute as the warm evening sunlight filters through the security grilles of our North London fenestration.

That society is to blame is so obvious as to command universal and tacit acceptance. Of more interest is exactly where we have gone wrong. What is it that compels young men to break and enter other people’s homes and grab whatever is not nailed down? Are they driven by hunger and poverty? Are they drug addicts feverishly financing a habit? Are they merely bored and find alleviation in danger and excitement? Are they exacting revenge on a society that denies them opportunity? Is burglary a cry for help?

In the case of the burgled lottery winner, his cousin Mr John Scarah offers a explanation to thrill the North London sophisticates since he implicates them personally in his relative’s loss.

“The people from Camelot make me sick. They come up here in a flash limo, whisk them off to London and wine and dine them, without a thought for the security of the house. I don’t think it’s a case of folk being jealous, but more of kids being opportunists because they are bombarded by ads.”

There, in a couple of sentences, is enough for several dinner parties to chew on. The flash limo, ever a hateful object, and as powerful a symbol of corruption and metropolitan decadence as one could wish to set eyes upon. The swift journey of the innocents from their Hull home to the meretricious world of corporate hospitality where nothing is for nothing and the smiles are as cold and steely as a fish gutter’s knife. The bland disregard for the safety of the hearth and home so carelessly left behind.

Then there are the Northern “folk”, good people lacking the canker of jealousy but harbouring kids who, through no fault of their own, are given to opportunistic impulses conditioned and triggered by advertising.

This, of course, is our old friend, the false want. The argument is that through means both subtle and bold, and with a persistence that is irresistible, advertising makes people yearn for needless things they cannot afford. At bottom, those who talk of false wants, yearn for a distant Arcadian dreamland in which all that man could want – a roof over his head, sufficient food, and companionship without friction – is freely available without the agency of political economy. It is a world without salesmanship, huckstering, or insidious persuasion. In Arcady, you may stroll to fields running alongside the sun-dappled waters of a mountain stream and gambol with fallow deer amid waving buttercups without some kid crawling through your window and nicking your stereo.

We are so fallen from this state of grace that only short-term solutions are available to us. Plainly, the obvious answer – ie, to ban all advertising – though not without its advocates is unsound since it would deprive whole swathes of North London of the income needed to finance the dinner parties at which these issues are discussed.

The heart of the problem is that some advertising – quite a lot, in fact – is reaching people for whom it is not intended. It is a waste of the advertising spend to stimulate the appetities of penniless youth, especially since some become so inflamed by the desire to own and consume that they commit crime.

The answer is simple: take away their televisions. At a stroke, they would no longer be exposed to the glamorous blandishments of adland. Nor – and this a quite incidental and uncovenanted bonus – would they absorb the brutish tastes and values of John Birt and Michael Grade. Futhermore, their financially hard-pressed families would be spared the increasingly onerous burden of the TV license fee. Who knows, the cat burglars of Hull might be induced to pick up a book or two.

To remove TV from the least privileged of our society would be to bestow upon these unfortunate people a genuine Arcardia, a gesture made more noble by the requirement placed upon those of us better off financially to continue to suffer its banalities.

In the meantime, another exciting experiment is stimulating the dinner party circuit, and that is the attempt to make the advertising message so subtle, so enigmatic, that it is accessible to only a few.

A recent example is “Polo Sport Ralph Lauren The Fitness Fragrance”. The web of mystery is immediately spun by the absence of punctuation of any kind. The reader is drawn deep into the riddle: “Polo Sport is undoubtedly a modern statement, yet clearly maintains part of the Ralph Lauren tradition…a tradition that encompasses a gracious yet casual sporting heritage.”

Those of us for whom the fragrance of sport will for ever be the heady blend of liniment, unwashed towels, and sweaty jock straps, wonder if that, too, is part of the Ralph Lauren tradition and if not, why not? What, in this context or indeed any other, is “a modern statement”? What is a casual heritage?

These questions are, in their own way, every bit as exacting as those concerning the troubled minds of young people who steal to buy trainers but never train.

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