It is difficult to refute David Ogilvy regarding advertising's place in American life. It is difficult, simply because -- at least as he explains it -- Ogilvy was an ethical practitioner of the art of letting people know what goods, services and ideas were available for their pleasure. And he seems to think most of his colleagues were, as well. If it is possible to refute his very balanced argument, it would be on the basis of the changes in the advertising marketplace that have led to non-sensical excesses of every stripe, excesses Ogilvy would doubtless have abhorred had they been obvious when he wrote "What's Wrong with Advertising?" (Ogilvy, date unknown, page n/a).
An article in The Atlantic Monthly in 1997 explained communications professor Joseph Turow's attitude against advertising. Turow proposed that in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, "marketers, advertisers, and media companies developed a view of American society that was not only strikingly different from the grand theory that had preceded it but also opposed to the national interest" (Atlantic Monthly, 1997, pp. 113-120). No longer did they view the American marketplace as a single mass that was predictable in its reaction to various information and entertainment sources: rather, Turow noted that their pecuniary interests were divided, often along lines of race, class and gender, and that by encouraging these divisions -- emphasizing them -- marketers, advertisers and media could make more money with less trouble " (Atlantic Monthly, 1997, pp. 113-120).
Turow had, the article pointed out, discovered a "revolutionary shift" obviously unknown to Ogilvy when he wrote his essay. Turow believes that advertisers and the media companies they employ are forcing "a breakdown in social cohesion" (quoted by Atlantic Monthly, 1997, pp. 113-120), which will virtually end the American ideal. He predicted that alienation and anger would be the result, and that in the new media world, the citizen would lose out to the advertiser. That does seem a far cry from Ogilvy's concept of advertising as a relatively neutral activity that results in repeat sales when the product is worthy, or a single sale and death of the product if it is not.
Turow's argument is cogent. It is undeniable that mass media publications such as Life and Look, publication that appealed to a broad spectrum of America, have disappeared. Any trip through Barnes & Noble or Borders reveals an enormous multitude of publications reaching niches from dog owners to xenophobes. It's difficult even to find the same magazines, at least the smaller circulation ones, month to month. This fact alone supports Turow's claims that advertising is a destructive force, as opposed to Ogilvy's contention that advertising is neutral at worse, helpful at best.
Turow contends that the current marketing/media world is "determine" to replace the "society-making media" (quoted by Atlantic Monthly, 1997, pp, 113-120) that was obviously the status quo at the time of Ogilvy's essay. Instead, we now have "segment-making media" (Atlantic Monthly, 1997, pp. 113-120) that could:
Zero in on the demographic and psychodemographic corners of our 260-million-person consumer marketplace -- the nooks that have been illuminated by such research systems as the Yankelovich Monitor and the Values and Lifestyles (VALS) Program. Three national television networks and a short list of mass magazines were overwhelmed by myriad print and electronic vehicles, from Rolling Stone to Black Entertainment Television, whose editorial content -- following Madison Avenue's obsession with niches -- stressed the contrasts between their own audiences and those of other media (Atlantic Monthly, 1997, pp. 113-120).
Another area in which Ogilvy seems to have been living in a childlike dreamworld was that of ethics. In Ogilvy's world, only politicians ran misleading advertising, but only for themselves and against opponents. Ogilvy might have argued that even doing that, they weren't reaching into citizens' pockets and stealing from them (an argument that could be fairly easily refuted, but is not the subject at hand at the moment). But Blake Fleetwood, a seasoned reporter writing in The Washington Monthly in 1999, takes the anti-advertising argument from the Child's Garden of Verses that described it in Ogilvy's heyday to the Garden of Good and Evil it inhabits today. Advertising has become manipulative not only of people's votes, but of their daily lives, in very fundamental ways, ways that do threaten the fabric of American life and the quality of life of its citizens.
Fleetwood makes his point using a few 'real life' stories in which he was personally involved. The first one occurred while he was a member of the metropolitan staff of The New York Times. Tiffany, the famous jeweler, was getting a $4.5 million tax break to stay in New York. Of course, Tiffany was not the only company being offered a tax break not to move to New Jersey, or Sioux City for that matter. The editors wanted the story, but as the finished article moved "up the chain of command, things began to get funny. I suddenly realized that Tiffany was one of the largest and oldest advertisers at the Times, always in the favored position: upper right, page three" (Fleetwood, 1999, p. 40).
The story did run, and on the front page. However, the punch had been removed from it, a boring lead applied, and any information about Tiffany moved to the 19th paragraph. Few people scanning a newspaper read more than the first paragraph or two of most stories, which is the reason news is written with the five (and sometimes six) elements in the first paragraph: who, what, why, where and when, and sometimes how. The lead did have all those elements: "A New York State Plan begun in 1968 to help small manufacturers create jobs in impoverished urban areas has evolved into a program awarding a broad range of corporations tens of millions of dollars a year in tax relief" (New York Times, quoted by Fleetwood, 1999, p. 40). It was just terminally boring and not likely to encourage readers to form opinions based on the facts.
Fleetwood believes that it was advertising, Tiffany's expensive advertising, that gutted his story.
The Daily News is guilty of being suborned by advertisers, too, according to Fleetwood. In the winter of 1998-1999, a team of reporters published results of a three-month investigation of the local phone company, Bell Atlantic. "They found that phone service was ten times worse in poor areas than in wealthy neighborhoods, that the phone company routinely misses 500,000 appointments a year, and that it overbills customers" (Fleetwood, 1999, p. 40). The first part of the series, which had been promoted by the paper, ran on the front page. And then the unethical, advertising-based behavior began. Ivan Seidenberg, head of Bell Atlantic, called Mort Zuckerman, publisher of the News. "Seidenberg sits on the Board of Directors at Boston Properties, Zuckerman's parent company" and, in addition, "Bell Atlantic is one of the biggest advertisers at the News, which is not exactly making wads of money these days. Millions of advertising dollars were at stake" (Fleetwood, 1999, p. 40).
Parts of the story still to come were presented to Bell Atlantic for 'preview,' something that had long been forbidden in news; the result was that the phone company quashed the News articles and released a less damning (and arguably less truthful) version to a rival paper (Fleetwood, 1999, p. 40).
Major newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Boston Globe and other big city newspapers "have a long history of publishing fearless muckraking articles. They set the industry standard" (Fleetwood, 1999, p. 40), but if they area often bamboozled by advertisers, the effect of advertiser pressure on smaller papers must be infinitely worse. Fleetwood contends, however, that even during Ogilvy's heyday, newspapers (and arguably magazines and radio and TV stations) were also intimidated…
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