The Unreality of Advertising
White lies, black lives and the apologetics of privilege
I wrote the following essay exactly four years ago as a thought piece for our advertising network. While I shared it with fellow strategists, creatives and clients at the time, I was reluctant to publish it widely. An honest discussion of realism and representation in advertising inevitably shines a light on the elitist assumptions and racial biases embeded deeply in the operating system of the global advertising industry. And I’m sorry to say I didn’t have the courage to fight that fight.
It’s now June 2020 and a full-throated conversation about systemic racism is sweeping across the world. When confronted by a botched pandemic response and racist policing that are literally taking our citizens’ breath away, our silence becomes complicit in our collective asphyxiation. The time has come for advertising practitioners to openly discuss the role advertising plays in normalizing inauthenticity and inequity as a prerequisite for creating a truly inclusive and just world.
Because for black lives to matter — as lived by real people, right here, in the real world — reality must matter. And for reality to matter what is inherantly fake, elitist, and rapacious about the consumer culture advertising has created must be undone. If left unchecked, the unreality marketing and advertising have unleashed on the world will highjack even our best efforts to take on institutionalized injustice and transform those efforts into just another highly rated, though far more deadly reality TV show that it can sponsor. And then not even Katlin Jenner and her magic Pepsi can will be able to undo what we have wrought. — TF
In 1996, as I was making fruit bongs and playing Mario Cart with my Swarthmore dorm mates, ad legend Jeremy Bullmore was penning a timeless little screed called Why Reality in Advertising is to be Avoided. Twenty years later the core logic of Bullmore’s argument continues to inform not just much of what we do in advertising but our culture’s tortured relationship to reality itself.
Jeremy Bullmore started as a copywriting intern in 1954. By the time he retired in 1987, he had become chairman of J. Walter Thompson, London. The global advertising behemoth WPP has this to say about Bullmore.
Jemeny Bullmore has been described by Campaign magazine as “quite possibly the most admired man in advertising” and “ad land’s greatest philosopher.” Marketing magazine simply observed “When Mr. Bullmore speaks, the world listens.”
If that’s the case we need to take seriously the philosophy articulated by the man who defined the fundamental role of advertising as “polishing apples.”
Fifteen years into my career as an advertising strategist, I want to take this moment to resurrect this classic, reexamine its assumptions, and hold up Bullmore’s 1996 worldview to the realities of 2016 by asking a fundamental question — what (and, more importantly, who) are we distorting, excluding or exploiting when we deliberately seek to avoid reality in advertising?
Polishing apples in the desert of the real
Bullmore begins his short essay with a clear foil — reality in advertising.
Of all the time-honoured accusations leveled at advertising, its refusal to reflect a true picture of the real world is one of the most familiar. It is, we are told, a failure to face up to reality.
In fact, of course, what immediately becomes even clearer is Bullmore’s alarm at the thought:
In fact, of course, advertising is absolutely right to avoid featuring the real world. Its most common function is to bring out the best in things. The real world is full of dirty fingernails, derelict housing estates and dog turds. These are unwelcome associations for personal equity plans and freeze-dried coffee granules.
In short, the advertising ideal — aspiration, itself — cannot survive its encounter with the dirty, the derelict, and the shitty, that is, the real. What is most delightful in this patrician picture of reality is its sunny Hobessian conviction that life-as-really-lived must be something nasty and brutish, something not “at its best,” something lacking some minimally adequate modicum of decorum that advertising exists to provide. As “unwelcome associations” these things must be purged from advertising’s picture of society. Out of sight. Out of mind.
Bullmore goes on to define the proper role for a generation of advertising professionals in this way:
Advertising people should not see themselves as courageous chroniclers of gritty, social truths. Rather, they should model themselves on costermongers, cosmeticians, auctioneers, wedding photographers and taxidermists.
There’s something surprisingly humble about this ‘lipstick on a pig’ conception of adverting. Something self-denying and submissive that lovers of Mad Men’s somewhat-still-sentimental take on creativity may have failed to notice. The necessarily inauthentic nature of it all.
Because here’s how the true virtues of a career in advertising manifest to Bullmore in 1996:
Apples look better when polished up a little.
The lumpen husband will think it money well spent if the boil on his neck is away from camera, and he comes out looking like Hugh Grant.
An auctioneer who adopted the Roy Brooks school of advocacy (‘This hideous painting is almost certainly a fake and would be over-priced at a guinea’) might soon have to take his children out of private school.
And who, in the interests of truth and documentary realism, wants their old, dead poodle to come back from the taxidermist looking like an old, dead poodle?
Looking back on this expertly written passage, one can’t help but admire the effortless elitism at play here. In fact, class assumptions color every single one of these points. Sometimes twice.
For those who skipped out on their tutor to go play cricket, “costermongers” were poor 19th century London street hucksters who bought fruit wholesale, polished the damaged goods, and resold them as a way to scrape by.
The “lumpen husband,” — yes, as in lumpen proletariat — is Bullmore’s gleeful dig at working class efforts to hide their blemishes and appear to be more like their Oxbridge betters as embodied by the lovably foppish Hugh.
And the Roy Brooks reference is to a colorful London real estate agent who in the ’60s famously held to an “unvarnished truth” approach to describing the homes he sold.
FASHIONABLE CHELSEA. A dreadful working-class terrace house of sinister aspect in one of the meaner streets at the bitter end of CHEYNE WALK… Time and decay have not softened the hideous aspect of this typical example of Victorian speculative building, 6 rms., kit. (generations of women have looked out, over the shallow sink with its one cold tap, slap onto the crumbling, claustrophobic backyard and outside lav.) CHELSEA IS FASHIONABLE, that is why it attracts predatory business men, with their awful wives & poorer envious detractors.
How’s that for truth in advertising!
And if the class discrimination seems to be working the other way around in Roy’s listings, that’s because Roy Brooks was not just a realtor. He was a Communist. What Bullmore doesn’t tell us is that Brooks’ truth-telling ways made him a national celebrity in the UK and embarrassingly wealthy for a lefty.
The irony here is that behind Roy Brook’s ugly truth there was a real charm and real homes that real people flocked to and bought. Behind Bullmore’s auctioneer there are only fakes, overpriced at any price. These forgeries are apparently more like the products we advertise.
In Bullmore’s telling, you have to think of a job in advertising as hawking damaged goods. Peddling in “fake” and “over-priced” things, lest our failure to collude in the fraud threaten our children’s educations and our social standings. Selling distortions and delusions meant to artificially hide lower-class blemishes while protecting the proletariat from the reality of death and decay. Helping things “look their best” like hospice workers presiding over a distastefully déclassé and necrotic world. Dignity and decorum to perfume the crematorium.
There is an innocent and valued role in life for those of us who try to help things look their best. We should not allow ourselves to be bullied into feeling guilty about it.
In 2016, such a sentiment is usually most eloquently expressed by a Game of Thrones eunuch, a House of Cards chief of staff, or Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games. Helping things look their best to the masses on behalf of elites who would sell them fake, dead things can definitely be positioned as a small moral price to pay for never having to join those masses. The difference, of course, is that in the 21st century this call to dutiful dissembling is most often articulated by villains in dystopian young adult fiction or at climate change denier conferences.
As the bullies of unreality take center stage in American culture, we should pause to ask if advertising’s allergy to reality is as guiltless as we would like it to be. This “innocent and valued role in life of those who try to help things look their best” has now become a form of anti-ethics that has transcended its roots in advertising aspiration, PR talking points, and political spin.
It is the thick layer of bullshit that coats most of what we call ‘reality TV’ and social media managed ‘personal brands.’ It is the televangelical power of positive thinking, the Secret and the Promise, the bright-siding of everything and all other Santa-Jesus schemes that elevate delusional optimism above a true encounter with reality. It’s No Income No Job sub-prime loans turning the American dream of universal home ownership into a nightmare of foreclosures and economic collapse falling disproportionately on people of color and the poor. It is the tobacco research logic behind bullshit climate science and the NFL’s denial of a concussion epidemic. And it is the hostility to ‘reality based communities’ that allows raw ideology to shock and awe on-the-ground realities with emerald cities and deceptive declarations of mission accomplished in trumped up wars against brown people in far off places.
Last year, a 4As study found that only 4 percent of Americans think the marketing industry behaves with integrity. That’s 4 percent. And dead last, just under Congress and Silicon Valley at 6 percent and lawyers, big pharma, and the Federal Government at 9 percent. And in an age where the journalistic lines between church and state have been brutalized by talking heads on the take, ‘native content’ and ‘sponsored stories’ it’s no surprise that nearly half of people surveyed say they don’t trust any news source.
Here’s why Americans think media personalities lack integrity:
Twenty years on from Why Reality in Advertising is to be Avoided it has become painfully clear to 69 percent of the American public that media personalities and their marketing patrons lie to “sell more effectively,” because “apples look better when polished up a little.” They lie to “make themselves look better” by “trying to help things look their best.” And, they sell things they know (or choose not to know) to be fake or rotten to avoid trouble in their career and private lives lest they have to “take their children out of private school.”
We get that now. After decades of millions of exposures to the practical application of Bullmore’s innocent cynicism in commerce and politics the mask has slipped. The formaldehyde in which the American dream has been pickled is starting to stink. And everyone now knows that if it’s on a screen, it’s probably bullshit.
But this is not to say that these taxidermists of reality have been exposed or refuted. The thing about bullshit is that it’s always useful to someone. And we can now pick from and inhabit any number of delusions as “empowered consumers” in this country. Reality, itself, now comes in a hundred different flavors, formats, and SKUs. And, in this tower of babble reality shopping mall, people have literally lost the ability to discern what is real from what is not.
A recent Facebook poll revealed that up to 10 percent of the people who saw the movie The Martian were convinced it was based on a true story. You know that time we left that funny potato guy stranded on the red planet?
From the perspective of the passive American spectator, is there a real difference between the moving images of The Martian and, say, Apollo 13? The special effects and human drama are amazing in both. Or is Apollo 13 the fiction? About as many Americans believe we stranded Matt Damon on Mars as believe that we never landed on the moon. Someone out there probably holds both views. Choose your own reality and have a side of fries with that.
But when 62 percent of Trump supporters believe the leader of the free world is a Muslim and less then 10 percent correctly identify him as a Christian, you start understanding the true danger of pick-your-own-reality mongering. Is Trump the world’s most successful business man or did he just play one on TV? Is there a difference anymore? We now have the most polished rotten apple ever to enter American politics a few months away from getting his tiny hands on America’s very real nuclear launch codes. Trump, no doubt, just wants to look his best. And his self-promotion, PR, and reality TV training (and WrestleMania cameos) have clearly made him a world-class costermonger. Should he allow himself “to be bullied into feeling guilty about it?”
[2020 Note: Five months later, Donald Trump won the presidential election. Three months after that he called CNN “fake news” and claimed he invented the term. He had not. That too was a lie. “Fake news” was first coined in 2014 by Craig Silverman at Buzzfeed to refer to, wait for it, fake information spreading through Facebook about the Ebola virus. Ooof.]
It doesn’t have to be this way
The flip side of all this, amazingly, is the resurgence of reality in advertising and marketing’s truly progressive sectors. The “unvarnished-truth” approach pioneered by Roy Brooks continues to prove itself not just instantly compelling but remarkably profitable.
When Dominos said, “Sorry, we know our pizza sucks. We’re fixing it” in 2010, the universal reaction was captured by this post: “I haven’t eaten Domino’s in ages, but now I’m semi-curious to try it, just to see if it sucks less.”
And the results are captured by this stock chart:
[2020 Note: By the end of the decade Dominos had become the second best performing stock for companies with a makert cap over $10B, just beating out Netflix.]
When REI said enough is enough to the national embarrassment that is the consumerist hysteria of Black Friday, its #OptOutside was used over 1.4 million times that Friday and their online sales traffic spiked by 26 percent. CEO Jerry Stritzke explains, “We think that Black Friday has gotten out of hand and so we are choosing to invest in helping people get outside with loved ones this holiday season, over spending it in the aisles.”
When almost 80 percent of holiday shoppers say they don’t enjoy Black Friday but rather find it stressful and dangerous, it pays to get real. And when consumers know that Black Friday is bullshit, with 63 percent skeptical that the deep “best discounts” are real, it pays to get on their team.
In my time in advertising, I’ve had the pleasure of working with creatives and clients who understand the power of being honest with their audiences, the power of telling it as it is. Several years back, when I was head of brand strategy at the ad agency Droga5, we were able to bring back some reality to a discredited financial category on behalf of Prudential. In the wake of the housing collapse and financial crisis Prudential decided to hit flush on all the ad-land salt-and-pepper retirement actors and their fake yachts and confront retirement in America as what it had truly become — a national crisis.
Here was literally a seller of “personal equity plans” in a world surrounded by “derelict housing” doing something amazing. Telling the truth. The reality is that two out of every three baby boomers retiring today (and there’s 10,000 retiring each and every day) will outlive their retirement savings. That number is over three in four for people of color. That’s not yachts. That’s poverty. And, that’s a challenge to overcome, not a wedding picture to Photoshop.
Droga5 spent two years shooting documentaries of the “gritty reality” of real Americans on their actual first days of retirement. Yes, as strategists, clients and creatives we saw ourselves “as courageous chroniclers of gritty, social truths” and we derived a sense of real purpose and professional pride from sharing the reality of retirement with the nation. It proved to be a beautiful reality, a celebration of those who had achieved true financial security, and an inspirational goal for younger generations.
The Day One ad campaign and documentary series was deeply moving and revelatory, taking us into the homes and family lives of Americans of all walks of life. When the campaign featured Mujahid Abdul Rashid, a Muslim, the hateful trolls came out of the woodwork #becauseracism. But they had no moral standing when confronted with the humanity of their actual next door neighbors. And everyone could see that.
The next year we delved deeper into the underlying causes of our retirement crisis. We partnered with Harvard psychologists and behavioral economists to explore the reasons why we all suck at finance. Though real world demonstrations, experiments, and documentaries with real people we worked hard to help people understand the psychological biases that make us all pretty terrible at planning for the future. Notice that I said, to help people understand their biases, not use their biases to manipulate them.
What did this buy Prudential? Financial Marketer of the Year. TED’s Ads Worth Spreading Award. The Gold Titanium Lion at Cannes. And the envy and imitation of an entire industry.
Bullmore concludes his essay with the following passage:
We are most commonly mocked, of course, for our portrayal of families. There have never been families, our critics say, like the families we put in advertisements: daddy and mummy, he in jacket and tie, she in her pinny, sitting around the breakfast table with one small girl and one rather bigger boy, sunshine streaming through the window — and milk decanted from the Tetra-Pak into a blue-and-white striped jug.
What a travesty, what a parody, what a lie!
This month, as you must have noticed, research has once again revealed that the cause of our continued national decline is the disappearance of the British nuclear family, and with it the structured meal.
But did you also notice the photographs that accompanied these stories? They were all captioned ‘The Family — as it used to be’ and they showed daddy and mummy, he in jacket and tie, she in her pinny, sitting around the breakfast table with one small girl and one rather bigger boy, sunshine streaming through the window — and milk decanted from the Tetra-Pak into a blue-and-white striped jug. Look even more closely and you could find a smaller caption — ‘Photo: Advertising Archives’.
So it seems the cause of our continued national decline is that we no longer have families of the kind that everybody knows we never had in the first place. A bit of a failure to face up to reality, if you ask me.
That’s super clever. Devilishly clever.
Here, in 1996, we have a real world Mad Man presaging the sentiment expressed by TV-land’s Don Draper: “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” What you call family was invented by Jerry, advertising and news media (the distinction already blurring) to sell fake powdered milk.
In a world of “dirty fingernails, derelict housing estates and dog turds” we must be grateful or at least resigned to the fact, we are told, that the family has always been just another ad-land construct. Not once does the obvious thought enter into this logic — instead of defaulting to racist, classist and sexist stereotypes, why not show real families as they really are? And not once does Bullmore entertain the possibility that broken families were indeed on the rise in the UK at the time…due to racially motivated mass incarcerations that were exploding on both sides of the Atlantic in the mid-90s.
Is it true that “facing up to the reality” of families as they really are is so frightening we must agree to comfort ourselves with Leave it to Beaver caricatures? Fuck no. Showing families as they really are is exactly what Mondelēz International and Droga worked to do.
For a 185 year old cracker.
It was called the Honey Maid “This is Wholesome” Campaign. And it took place in the real world.
Because this is what mummy and daddy sometimes look like:
And sometimes they look like this:
And sometimes there is no mummy:
And yes, sometimes when you show reality as it really is intolerant people have a shit fit.
Which is OK, if you take all their hateful posts, build a sculpture out of them, and demonstrate that ten times more Americans embrace this truthful depiction of the love all kinds of real parents have for their children.
What did this Roy Brooks-like “unvarnished truth” approach buy Honey Maid and Mondelēz? Brand love that was unimaginable for a dusty graham cracker. Unprecedented earned media including the most shared article in the history of the New Yorker. Adweek’s 2015 Brand Genius award for Honey Maid’s brand manger. And a bunch of metal, including the coveted Gold Cannes Effectiveness Award.
[2020 Note: It gets harder to keep it real every year. It’s understandable to hear “But what if my creatives think this product is garbage and just want to shoot celebrities on islands?” Or, “The category my client plays in is just plain evil.” Any client and any agency who values the truth and respects their audience can choose to turn away from ad-land bullshit. All it takes is an ethical commitment to representing reality as it truly is. For example, working at Forsman & Bodenfors with Goldman Sachs (!) we were able to document their real world efforts to support women business owners in developing countries in a campaign called 10,000 Women. It won best in show for corporate social responsibility at the 2019 financial communicaton awards.]
Starting to see a pattern? When we stop thinking of reality as something ugly that needs to be dressed up, we discover powerful, beautiful, human things. Really real, true things. And in so doing, we earn the real love, trust and admiration of a public we should be serving as advertisers.
The alternative? The submissive cynicism of the subaltern, pacifying the proles with happy delusions in order to ingratiate ourselves to the rich and powerful. Racial and class elitism that would rather idealize a white, middle-class norm that doesn’t exist (with our without diverse actors) then actually engage with the world and the diversity of its people as they really do. A sexism that resents ‘shopper mom’ even as it holds up ‘aspirational’ and unattainably anal caricatures of who she should strive (to appear) to be.
Ultimately, you get the battered advertising industry of today and the culture it has made in its image. Much of advertising today marches on powered by these old school assumptions about its proper role in culture. And though the industry is decades beyond so eloquently (and dangerously) articulating these assumptions, it most definitely continues to embody them.
White lies, black lives
Finally, to understand this rejection of reality is to understand advertising’s broader gender and racial diversity problem. What self-respecting outsider to this masquerade ball of let-them-eat-cake buffoonery would commit their careers to porcine cosmetology? How can anyone committed to the truth and real depictions of their own actual, non-aspirational lives (perhaps having grown up in an actual “derelict housing estate,” that is, a project) ever fit in with a dress-up-and-play-make-believe dissembler class? What Millenial lumpen Katniss Everdeen of any race would willfully join the grotesque pageantry of those innocent promoters of The Hunger Games?
Because if you can’t even acknowledge the world as it truly is, allowing real people and their real lives to break through the polished apples, talking ducks, and armies of aspirational celebrities, how can you ever begin to change anything?
The reality is that you can’t. And that’s exactly the point.
It’s remarkable to consider that there remains a class of people today for whom the emperor’s new clothes is a horror story. What could real diversity and its courageous, lived experience of gritty, social truths possibly be worth to these morticians of reality?
Only 3 percent of advertising creative directors are women. Only 7 percent of people employed in advertising are African American. Ten percent are Hispanic. By contrast, the New York City that hosts Madison Avenue is 27 percent African American and 27 percent Hispanic.
[2020 Note: Through the work of industry groups like The 3% Movement, the number of women CDs has risen to 29% in just four years. But the proportion of people of color lags far behind. When only 3% of CMOs — the actual decision makers and paying clients of ad agencies — are black and only 5% are Hispanic the problem reveals itself to be systemic and entrenched at the highest levels of global capital, itself, not just its aspirationally enthusiastic but ethically empty Madison Ave costermongers.]
David Goerlitz, the model who played the Winston Man in ads for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, was once at a shoot with company executives. When all the executives declined to take home any of the cigarette cartons on set, Goerlitz asked “don’t any of you smoke?” The reply: “Are you kidding? We reserve that right for the poor, the young, the black and the stupid.”
The cigarettes were the pig. David Goerliz was the lipstick. Could anyone fault these advertisers for simply wanting things to look their best? Pretty polished apples…rotten to the core and fed to the disenfranchised and deceived. Just some harmless white lies…simultaneously distorting, excluding and exploiting the reality of black lives.
By now it probably seems like I’m faulting poor Jeremy Bullmore for all the bullshit in the world. I’m not. But as “ad land’s greatest philosopher” it’s only appropriate to engage with that philosophy and the logic he so cheerfully and clearly laid out 20 years ago. The logic of the entitled bullshit artist, the enthusiastic pusher, the lovable grifter.
Because here’s the kicker. Jeremy Bullmore doesn’t even need to actually believe that “reality in advertising is to be avoided.” Not really. Its turns of phrase are just too much fun. Its style too playful. Its false modesty itself a disguise for a role in culture that understands itself to be so powerful it seems to be suggesting it invented the family. The whole thing has a joyful plausible deniability. A laddish “just kidding!” or an “oh, now don’t take this so seriously!” In fact, of course, behind all this bonhomie is a threat; a subtle aggression that preempts any questions of integrity or representation with an accusation of unfairness verging on bullying.
There is an innocent and valued role in life for those of us who try to help things look their best. We should not allow ourselves to be bullied into feeling guilty about it.
Choosing not to feel guilty for dissembling for money and power is not innocence.
In a world devoid of reality or even the value of reality, the shameless are free to sell dead, fake things to masses of the deluded and deceived. And if called out, they can say it was all a joke. And believe it.
This, in short, is how the powerful and the privileged enforce their right to be shameless.
Advertising doesn’t have to be this way.
The world doesn’t have to be this way.
It’s long past time to get real.