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Confessions of an (ex) advertising man

AdvertisingThe ubiquitous commercials, print ads, and online and offline billboards that litter our symbolic landscape cater to only our basest values and our most narcissistic tendencies writes former advertising professional Tony Kelso.

11 June 2011

I hate advertising. No, I mean, I really hate it. And not just because it interrupts the TV show I’m watching at least six times an hour, even though I’m already shelling out $100 a month for the privilege of receiving a basic-cable signal.

Nor because, before reaching the article I’d like to read in a magazine, I have to thumb through dozens of glossy spreads featuring emaciated models in various contortions who look pissed off at the very idea that somebody might want to glance at their representations. (Wouldn’t you be too if you had to starve yourself and twist your body into positions that defy anything you’ve ever seen in everyday life?)

And not only because while I’m perusing the New York Times online a large rectangular ad often descends like a two-car garage door and temporarily blocks me from viewing the content I’m actually interested in. No doubt, I share these annoyances with the rest of the population. But for me there’s more to it than that. You see, I used to work in the business.

For over a decade, I was an advertising professional, first as a TV commercial producer, and later as a copywriter. There were, of course, things I truly enjoyed about the field. I certainly appreciated the paycheck (although in the early years my pay was so low that I lived with a roommate in a low-income neighborhood one block outside an especially blighted section of Detroit and often had to skip meals to make ends meet.

The creative part of the process was undeniably fun. And I loved being asked to travel to both exciting cities and charming towns that wouldn’t have come under my radar otherwise (yet I must admit I would have preferred to take in the sights with a friend or significant other rather than dine in white-table-clothed restaurants with always-on account executives, self-centered clients, and fawning suppliers).

Yet I could never take the job seriously. That all my colleagues seemed to convey the impression we were engaged in an activity of monumental importance only functioned to intensify my sense of alienation.

Using sardonic humor to mock the advertising enterprise (without pushing it too far—I developed a knack for making co-workers laugh without crossing the line) occasionally assuaged my restlessness.

But it could never paper over the conviction I held that, at the end of the day, we were devoting 40 to 60 hours a week (sometimes more) to generating utterly vacuous expression.

When I reflected on the hundreds (thousands?) of men-women hours that went into analyzing the market; researching the consumer; devising a strategy; and creating, executing, and placing the advertising materials; in addition to the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of dollars needed to support the whole unwieldy endeavor, all in the service of producing a campaign for, say, a chocolate candy bar with peanuts, well, I couldn’t help thinking how much human energy—passion and talent that could be put to far greater use—was going to waste.

Please don’t think me a crank. I know we need to make, sell, and buy goods and services to sustain our way of life. But when such a disproportionate amount of effort and resources is invested in a never-ending, hollow carnival—in giving a platform to myriad forms of the proverbial man in the plaid suit invasively barking at the crowd—at the expense of more fully addressing the pressing problems we face as a people (I needn’t enumerate them—you know what they are), how can I not conclude that something is seriously out of whack here?

At the same time, the ubiquitous commercials, print ads, and online and offline billboards that litter our symbolic landscape cater to only our basest values and our most narcissistic tendencies:

Never mind the children sewing in Vietnam, forget about the heaps of toxic electronic refuse in China, pay no attention to the breaking glaciers—you deserve yet another summer outfit, an upgrade on your cell phone, a few more inches of headroom in your SUV.

Well, okay, maybe I am a bit of a crank.

I remember once participating in a meeting in which a handful of groups, comprised of several employees each, were pitching campaign approaches for a new style of Wrangler Jeans. One of my peers—a guy I looked up to, actually, because I felt he could write circles around me—was describing the archetypal member of the target market for these rugged pants.

Earlier, he and his teammates had transformed the conference room into what was essentially a diorama symbolizing the male purchaser we were being asked to consider and all he stood for. The memorabilia adorning the walls captured a stirring slice of a mythic America and the everyday heroes who populate its plains and valleys.

In the midst of this moving display to the national spirit, my colleague portrayed a hard-working man, a family man, the kind of person who, if you asked him for a hand loading the truck would without prompting go still further out of his way to help you remove the cargo at the other end as well.

This was a morally sound man you could count on, a man who put others before himself without expecting anything in return, an exemplar who quietly shined a light on some of the most meaningful things in life.

At one point in the middle of the presentation, I noticed my eyes beginning to moisten with tears. That’s when I caught myself. “For God’s sake, what’s wrong with me?” I thought. “Why am I becoming misty eyed over an Average Joe and a pair of blue jeans?” It was like I was sitting in a Christian evangelical service right before the blow-dried-haired Billy Graham wannabe invites the congregants to come forward and give their lives to the deceased spiritual teacher he claims is a savior: “Yes, yes! I believe in Wrangler Jeans! Wash away all the times I farted through my Levis on a friend or a person in need! Please make mine in faded denim!”

When I was cutting my teeth at my first agency, I struggled to spark an inner flame for the profession by reading David Ogilvy’s classic text on the trade, Confessions of an Advertising Man. I was thoroughly impressed by his integrity and, truth be told, did in fact feel inspired for a while.

But I came to realize I simply wasn’t cut out to be an ad man. Eventually, then, I quit my career and moved to New York to pursue my PhD at New York University. (Things were financially hairy for a while—it wasn’t long before I was so desperate I took a job as a bike courier, which lasted all of a week, ending the night I was sideswiped by a cab while delivering, of all things, two advertising portfolios.

Soon afterward, however, enjoying a last laugh of sorts, I was able to fund my education by securing freelance work as a copywriter—I guess my professional experience?finally yielded something fruitful after all.)

Today I am an Associate Professor of media studies and have found my calling. And you’ll never guess what I was originally hired to teach. Yep, you got it.

But that’s a story for another day.

Tony Kelso is an Associate Professor of media studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. He is the co-author of the Encyclopedia of Politics, the Media, and Popular Culture, as well as co-editor of and contributing author to Mosh the Polls: Youth Voters, Popular Culture, and Democratic Engagement. He blogs at Open Salon.


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