This rant first appeared in Financial Management the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. (Real Business editorial note: For those of you in agreement with Ruth’s sentiments, do also check out Charlie Brooker with this rather more foul-mouthed assessment of modern advertising.) According to H L Mencken: “No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” If anyone doubts that this is as true now as it has ever been, I suggest that you start watching more channels that have commercial breaks. If you haven’t watched any for a while, I offer a health warning: some of the things that you’ll see will shock you. They display a level of stupidity, misinformation and poor taste that’s likely to damage your sense of humour, positive attitude to world progress and faith in human nature. Worse still, some of these horror stories may be promoting your company’s products. I have no idea whether the standard of TV advertising has fallen or whether I used to be more tolerant of poor examples. I suspect that some have got less interesting as they try to work in many different languages and across national cultures, but I can’t prove it. They are a hugely expensive way of communicating the merits of your brand to a vast number of people, yet too many firms seem to believe that the best way of doing this is to portray consumers as greedy, envious, constipated morons obsessed with cleaning products and miracle cures. I find this surprising. Even if their assessment were correct, I would have thought it a more sensible policy for them to present a flattering view of their customers. Political correctness means that we are, quite rightly, becoming increasingly aware of the pitfalls of stereotyping people by ethnic origin, religion, sex or sexual orientation. But many advertisers seem to have no qualms about portraying women simpering over softer toilet paper; working themselves into near mania to prevent their loved ones from encountering any germs; admitting that their social life depends on the quality of the air freshener they use; or discussing their bowel problems with friends in the middle of a busy restaurant. In what way has our society progressed if women who can hold down demanding jobs, raise families and deal more than capably with their finances are still portrayed as going to pieces about the state of their chopping boards? Similarly, these modern women – some of whom, I assume, earn their money as accountants, doctors, lawyers and scientists – are supposed to relate to someone waxing lyrical about how a beauty product has changed their life. One company is currently advertising a foundation that is 15 per cent oxygen at a price that seems a hefty mark-up on air. Others employ the age-old technique of bludgeoning us into submission with pseudo-scientific terminology and lectures by spurious “experts”. This patronising approach has extended to food. Life-enhancing yoghurt drinks promise to absolve women from the sin of feeling full after a meal – so they’ll have enough energy to force omega 3 pills down their children’s gullets after having fed them a KFC bucket. There’s one company at the moment that claims to filter its milk to make it purer, which prompts the question: purer than what? What else had they put in there to start with? Men don’t always come out of ad-land looking much better, but at least they tend to star in classier-looking adverts for high-tech cars and quintuple-bladed razors, or as part of a good-looking, high-achieving, non-threateningly heterosexual couple. Even when they behave stupidly – think of James Nesbitt in the Yellow Pages ads – they do it in a lovable, blokey kind of way. Don’t get me wrong: I like adverts. I am one of those people who gets to the cinema when the programme starts just so that I can see the ads and the trailers. I like to be shown images of the beautiful life that could be mine if I bought the right clothes, perfume, make-up and lived in a parallel universe. Show me Twiggy crossing continents in M&S outfits or Smirnoff purifying the sea by lifting out all the junk and I will abandon my critical faculties and beam happily. I admired Citroën’s ice-skating car and the Levi’s couple who ran through walls in 2002. What I don’t like is being linked by the powers of mystical consumerism to silly women making old-fashioned boyfriend jokes and bonding through shared tips on bleach and bifidus digestivum. I don’t want Michael Winner telling me to “calm down, dear”, and I don’t feel more affectionate towards a multinational because it thinks it has a right to tell me how to live my life because it’s a “family company”. I cannot be alone in this, surely. I have disposable income. I buy clothes, make-up, food and drink. I go to the cinema, I take holidays and I like bubble bath and chocolate. I like being sold to. So why am I so much more likely to be alienated than attracted by so many of the ads I see on TV?
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