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What that Nokia ad was really about

2012 September 9

Optical Image Stabilisation is the name of a piece of mobile phone software to reduce shaking in a hand-held video. But it could equally be a piece of PR jargon for the strategy executives at Nokia have just had to employ to steady the wobble that was delivered to their reputation when it emerged that an advert for their latest flagship product – which purported to be shot on a shaky bicycle using the new device – had in fact been shot with a high-tech professional camera from a smooth-running white van just behind the cyclist. A sharp-eyed techno geek spotted a reflection of the real cameraman in a window when Nokia put the video on the internet.

It was a PR nightmare. The launch of the new Lumia 920 was supposed to arrest the dramatic decline of Nokia, once the world’s biggest mobile phone maker, whose share of the market has plummeted thanks to the launch of the iPhone. Instead the firm’s advertising gurus have joined greedy bankers, expense-fiddling MPs, paedophile priests, dodgy journalists and bribe-taking policemen in the dubious pantheon of professions which the public can no longer trust.

Many might think the advertising industry did not have so far to fall. After all, as we all know from Mad Men – with its bacchanalia of smoking, drinking, sexism, adultery, homophobia and racism – this is a ruthlessly debased world alienated from the values of basic human decency.

But in the past there were respectable arguments of advertising apologia.   “Advertising nourishes the consuming power of men,” said Winston Churchill. “It creates wants for a better standard of living… It spurs individual exertion and greater production.” It informs consumers about the existence of new products, provides incentives for innovation and stimulates economic growth. And it employs large numbers of people.

But even in those early days it had a more sinister aspect. The Harvard economist J K Galbraith saw advertising as the unnecessary creation of artificial wants. Indeed it deceives people into buying things they don’t need and shouldn’t want. Vance Packard’s seminal book The Hidden Persuaders, in 1957 explored the dark arts of motivational research, deep psychology and subliminal advertising.

The difference between information and persuasion was eloquently set down by the crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers, who began her career as an advertising copywriter. In one Lord Peter Wimsey story, set in an advertising agency, the detective is instructed how to conceive an ad for margarine. Write “just as good as butter but half the price,” he is told. In which case, he replies, what is the argument for butter? Butter doesn’t need an argument, he is told, because eating it is natural.

The creation of unnatural tastes is a specialism of the advertising industry, as anyone who remembers the 1980s carpet freshener Shake ‘n Vac will recall. Until recently there was no cultural tradition which conceived of sticking a wedge of lime in the neck of a bottle of lager. The practice was deliberately invented, according to Martin Lindstrom’s study of marketing, Buyology, when an advertiser placed a bet with a friend at a bar that he could make the masses stick a slice of lime in a bottle of Corona.

There is a more metaphysical reservation however. It is that manipulative advertising overrides our autonomy. It does so with techniques which influence us subconsciously on emotional rather than rational grounds. The philosopher Kant would not have approved for it robs us of our rational judgement by underhand methods.

Advertising regulators might complain that they remove misleading ads from the public sphere. Indeed the Advertising Standards Authority had a record 4,591 ads changed or withdrawn last year. But we all know that adverts nowadays persuade by form not content. The ad as entertainment has reached such heights that I know of two junior school girls who rush to the television as soon as the adverts come on, and turn away when the programme recommences.

But however amusing or engaging ads may be, to our unreflective minds, they never have that quality of pure gift that genuine entertainment, or art, offers its audience. The intent of commercials is always to seduce, for their primary obligation is inevitably to serve the financial interests of their sponsor. At their most subtle they are not selling the product so much as the association of that product with something more intangible that we desire: svelte young bodies, taut and tanned, alluring images of glamour, success, vigour, power or prestige. Such ads bypass conscious reasoning or cloud it with bogus emotional appeal.

Advertisers know that, though they deny it. That is why ‘creatives’ who sell alcohol or tobacco insist to social activists that their ads have very little influence on consumers – and then wink to their clients that they can influence consumers strongly.  And they play to something negative in our nature. Psychologists call it the “margin of discontent”. It is the gap between what we have and what we want.

Advertising increases the margin of discontent by making us feel dissatisfied and in need of something else to be happy. The creation of unhappiness is at the heart of advertising, for it plays on desires which cannot be sated. But in the end it offers only an abundance of meaningless choices between variations of things that we didn’t need in the first place. A Buddhist master might suggest that the correct response to advertising is to give up wanting.

Nokia’s executives stressed, when their bogus video was rumbled, that it was “never the company’s intention to deceive anyone”. They win either way. The error in which they have been caught out has won them far more publicity than a properly-shot ad ever could.

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