Ethan Decker PhD, The Integer Group
There are many reasons advertising is seen as a dirty profession full of snake oil salesmen. But the object of people's ire isn't quite on target. It's not advertising's fault. And oddly enough, the explanation comes not from inside the world of business, but from the great outdoors.
Now, not all advertising even looks evil. Some is inspiring, some is heartfelt, and some is just plain entertaining. Think LeBron or Serena pumping you up, or Jean Claude Van Damme doing a split between two semis to the soothing Celtic music of Enya (an inspired choice of music).
And some advertising is helpful, like Lowe's "Fix in Six" videos on Vine, or the Clorox wipes in the grocery store lobby to wipe off the shopping cart.
But there is indeed plenty of snake oil salesmanship. Companies regularly stretch the truth and sometimes, outright lie. Recently, for example, Volkswagen ran a huge campaign about their "clean diesel" engines. Turns out they were programming the microchips in their cars to trick emissions tests into thinking they were clean diesel, when in reality they'd belch out ten times as many pollutants out on the roads. Das Evil.
As a former ecologist, I've felt dirty at times for being in advertising. But, then, being an ecologist in advertising, I got to thinking about things in an atypical way.
For instance, I used to study Western forest ecosystems. They are full of American Elk, which are pretty large: adult males can weigh up to 800lb. To gear up for the mating season in the fall, they grow a new set of antlers, which can weigh up to 40lb. That's 40lb of bone they have to grow in just 3 months. Antlers are used to fend off other males and show off to the females. Antlers are a big, resource-intensive way to say, "Hello ladies. Look at your man. Now back to me." In other words, antlers are advertising.
And elk aren't alone: almost every species on the planet does some kind of advertising. The peacock's huge, beautiful tail feathers are advertising to females. Those big colorful rose petals are advertising to pollinators that there's some pollen or nectar available. The Western Diamondback's rattle says, "If you try to eat me, I will kill you."
So everywhere you look, animals and plants are advertising to each other. But why? Why spend so much energy on antlers and feathers and flowers and rattles?
The explanation comes from seeing the situation from the "buyer's" point of view. What female elk really want in a mate are good genes. But genes are invisible, so they use the antlers as proxies. What pollinators want is nutritious food, but nutrient quality is invisible, so they use the flower petals as a sign. The poisons in venom are invisible, so predators use the rattle to help them guess. In other words, what matters most in life is invisible, so they use the visible to grasp at it.
The same is absolutely true with humans. What matters most in people is their character: are they trustworthy, caring, intelligent, brave, loyal? All invisible traits. The main difference with humans is that we can sometimes buy our way to bigger antlers and prettier flowers. So we use our clothes and cars and watches to try to symbolize our values. A Wall Street banker will wear an Italian suit and a big Rolex to symbolize he's smart and tough and good with money. An ecology professor will wear loose-fitting cargo pants and sun hats to show she's a scholar, a scientist, and a subject matter expert. Neither are "superficial." In fact, in the light of the rest of the species on the planet, the truth is we are not superficial creatures; we are symbolic ones. We're just trying to symbolize different qualities using different symbols that carry the right social currency for our "buyers."
This happens when we're buying things as well. Standing at the grocery store in front of 90 linear feet of laundry detergent, what matters most to us is something invisible: whether the detergent will get the stains out of our clothes. So we use the visible--the packaging--to grasp at this. You can't tell whether organic, cage-free eggs are really healthier than normal eggs by looking at them; what matters most is invisible. So we use the ads to guess.
Advertising is as common as flowers and as useful as a snake's rattle. So it's not advertising itself that's evil: it's deception and lies that are. Hate on liars and punish the snake oil salesmen, but don't throw advertising itself out with it. Because advertising isn't evil; it's nature.