Winston Fletcher: Without any advertising, we’d all be listing badly

Liberals and lefties carp and cavil about the insidiousness of advertising, but the alternative – as shown in the 17th century – is far, far worse. By Winston Fletcher

Advertising stops everyone going bonkers. Not a lot of people know that. Interrupt, if you will, a fashionably balaclava’d Womble lobbing a nice big brick at a nice big plate glass window, get chatting to your average ageing left-winger, or even talk to a hostile interviewer on the Today programme, and you’ll find they all think the opposite. They think advertising sends people round the twist. They think the barrage of ads which constantly bombards us is driving us barmy. They think that advertising makes people desperate for things they cannot afford. That advertising makes kids pester their parents relentlessly, fraying nerves, tempers and cerebral neurons beyond endurance. Above all, they think advertising bewitches people with images, so they stop caring about objective reality. And, as everyone knows, when you stop caring about objective reality you are well on your way to the funny farm.

Any moment now I expect to see walls covered in graffiti screaming: “Advertising drives you nuts”. But it’s not true. Advertising keeps you sane, and always has done. That is why it has been around since ancient Greece and Rome, if not before, and exists in every country where it is allowed to. Advertising exists because people – the public, the consumers, the punters, you and me – could not cope with life without it.

At this point, you may be excused for wondering whether advertising has, indeed, driven your poor columnist batty. “Poor old chap,” you may be thinking. “Having spent his life working in an agency, bats have entered his belfry. All those botched business presentations, all those invoice queries, all that not-very-entertaining entertaining and all those missed copy dates have traumatised his little grey cells beyond repair.”

But stay with me. Try to think of ads not as communications that persuade people to buy things, but as communications which help people find their way through the plethora of goods and services that engulf them.

The difficulties human beings face in choosing from the immense galaxy of goods and services available was first noticed by the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne in 1595. How, Michel asked in his essay Of a Defect in our Policies, can the public and the producers stay in touch with each other, so that the public always knows what is on offer and the producers find ready markets for their produce? That question is, to this day, the crux of what advertising is about.

The answer, the philosopher suggested, was the regular publication of detailed lists of everything on sale. And – as the older among you may remember – this idea was niftily taken up in England in 1611, by Sir Arthur Gorges and Sir Walter Cope. Believing they had spotted a gap in the market, the two good knights obtained Letters Patent for a business to be called The Publicke Register for General Commerce. The Letters Patent reads, in part:

“A great defect is daily found.for want of ready meanes to give general notice and publicke intelligence to many who would (if they knew thereof) as willingly buy as the others would willingly sell”.

You will notice that Art and Walt perceived, as had de Montaigne, that the lack of “publicke intelligence” was as much of a disadvantage for buyers as for sellers. None the less, The Publicke Register proved a no-no, and was soon dead as the dodo would be a few years later. Similar schemes were launched by others later in the 17th century. They, too, fell off their twig.

These pioneers had the right problem but the wrong solution. There are occasions when consumers are willing to plough through lists, but such occasions are relatively few and far between. Human beings have neither the time nor the energy to consult lists of every drink and detergent, every petfood and potion, every soup and soap on the market. If they did so, they would never have time to do anything else. The enormous, all-encompassing lists would need to contain information about everything in the world. Besieged with information, the entire population would end up nutty as fruitcakes.

But that would not happen. Instead, we would ignore the interminable lists, taking us straight back to Montaigne’s dilemma: how would the public know what is on offer? Enter advertising, stage centre. Instead of asking people to hunt through lists, ads tell people about products quickly and simply. They make products and the information about them attractive, intriguing and tempting. If ads did not make products and product information attractive, intriguing and tempting, the public would ignore them. (Advertisements which are not attractive, intriguing and tempting are dull indeed – and the public does ignore them).

The fact is, there is far too much product information in the world for individual human beings to deal with. Consequently, we absorb and digest the merest fraction, and we ignore the rest. We could not do otherwise. By making product information attractive, intriguing and tempting, advertising helps us thread our way through the maze, the morass, the myriad of goods and services on offer. That is how it keeps us sane. What is a commercial break but information about a list of products – made attractive, intriguing and tempting?

Iain Murray is on holiday

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