Diving Into The Ever-Evolving Ad World With Ken Auletta

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A crowd at Times Square in New York. (Kevin Rajaram/Unsplash)
A crowd at Times Square in New York. (Kevin Rajaram/Unsplash)

With Robert Siegel

From Mad Men to memes, the advertising industry is undergoing epic changes. Bestselling author Ken Auletta shares the inside story.


Ken Auletta, staff writer at The New Yorker. He’s written The Annals of Communications column since 1993. His new book is "Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else)" (@kenauletta)

From The Reading List:

Excerpt of "Frenemies": 

Not liking advertising has a long history, certainly in America. Both in the Progressive era when the muckrakers exposed false marketing claims, and again during the Depression, when corporations and advertisers were in bad odor, federal agencies were forged to police false advertising.

Perhaps the most renowned critique of advertising and its manipulative powers was a book written by Vance Packard, previously an author of such fluff magazine pieces as “How I Lost 15 Pounds in One Month.” Moved by a genuine sense of outrage, Packard published The Hidden Persuaders in 1957, and it quickly shot up to number one on best-seller lists. He lambasted advertisers for treating consumers as gullible children. The heart of Packard’s thesis was this:

This book is an attempt to explore a strange and rather exotic new area of American life. It is about the large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences. Typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness; so that the appeals which move us are often, in a sense, “hidden.” The result is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives.

David Ogilvy granted ammunition to critics of advertising when in a 1955 speech to the American Association of Advertising Agencies he admitted, “There really isn’t any significant difference between the various brands of whiskey, or the various cigarettes, or the various brands of beer. They are all about the same. And so are the cake mixes and the detergents and the margarines and the automobiles. And, I might add, the different brands of salt.” The difference, he said, is found in the advertising and the emotion it creates. Or as MediaLink’s Wenda Millard says, “At its heart, advertising is about creating desire.” Creating desire is what alarms James Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a children’s advocacy organization focused on the harm media can afflict on children. He worries about advertising that promotes unhealthy sugary drinks or fast food, but he said his fear could be defined more broadly: “The ubiquity of advertising can turn little children into overly commercial human beings. They think of being defined by material things. Little kids don’t know the difference between ads and programming. My twelve-year-old son constantly wants new sneakers.”


Wanton consumerism has forever been blamed on advertising. Michael Schudson, who taught a course at the University of Chicago called Mass Media and Society, says he would freely assert in class that advertising was usually ineffective. He was inspired to study the impact of advertising because “I did not have an adequate response” to students who asked why companies would spend so much on ads if they got little return. In the book he would write about the industry, Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion,* Schudson explored advertising’s sins. He compared advertising to the art of socialist realism because “it does not claim to picture reality as it is but reality as it should be.” He labeled it “capitalist realism” and said ads are designed, whether successful or not, to “subordinate” messy reality in order to spike sales of a product.
Among the hidden efforts of advertisers, critics most often latch on to how marketing manipulates our emotions. Industry leaders don’t deny this, they extol it. Jack Haber, who retired as CMO of Colgate in 2017, says, “I’m a believer that consumers make decisions emotion- ally.” As proof he cites Daniel Kahneman’s esteemed best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, to demonstrate that most human decisions pivot on emotion. “If you look at how people make decisions to buy things, people make decisions emotionally. That’s why we try to build an emotional connection to a brand.” Colgate spent $5 million for a thirty-second spot in the 2016 Super Bowl that didn’t mention tooth- paste but instead urged viewers to save water by not leaving the water running. “Colgate is the most trusted brand in the world,” he says, and he believes this Super Bowl ad reinforced the emotional connection people have with Colgate.

One of the most celebrated ads ever was the Coca-Cola commercial that was the final scene of Mad Men. It featured children of all colors from around the world giving viewers goose bumps as they harmonized on a hilltop:

I’d like to teach the world to sing In perfect harmony
I’d like to buy the world a Coke And keep it company
That’s the real thing

The ad tells nothing of the product, or its ingredients, or why it’s “the real thing.” Keith Reinhard defends the ad and the emotions it evoked because “the ad is part of the brand experience,” whatever that means. “We have always known, intuitively,” he explains, “that people make their brand decisions—by the way, the same way they make their political decisions—emotionally, with that lizard part of the brain, the reptilian part.” Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer of Procter & Gamble, tersely explained to an Advertising Week audience why his product, Old Spice, had rebounded: The advertising for “Old Spice is about ridiculous masculinity. And it works!”

It certainly worked for CBS, owner of broadcast rights for the February 2016 Super Bowl. The annual event offers the biggest audience of the year to advertisers, which is why CBS was able to charge up to $5 million for each spot. It was not exactly edifying fare. Bud Light had comedians Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen paired up to disagree whether the nation was divided this presidential year and to agree to canvas America to promote the “Bud Light Party.” Audi was praised for its storytelling in their ad, “Commander,” in which an elderly, utterly depressed former astronaut will not eat or talk and just stares ahead. His son enters the room, takes his hand, they walk outside, and in the driveway is an Audi R8 sports car that can reach 205 miles per hour. The father takes the keys, to the sound of David Bowie’s “Star- man,” and he magically smiles. “There is no way for an Alzheimer’s family to watch this without gasping” in shock, wrote MediaPost columnist Bob Garfield.

One explanation for advertising’s constant stretch to transfix audiences is that advertising is really a form of show business. Randall Rothenberg, CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau and a long- time student of advertising, suggests as much: “Contemporary advertising is based on the deliberate, playful, wink-wink of P. T. Barnum. It’s based on the idea that if you shout loud enough, tell clever enough stories, you can get people to do anything.” No question, many marketing pitches are brilliant, and more than a few advance a social good, as P&G’s Ariel detergent ads did in India, Unilever’s Vaseline did for Syrian refugees, Nike’s “If You Let Me Play” ads did in promoting Title IX and girls participating in team sports, and as R/GA’s inspiring antibias public service ad, “Love Has No Labels,” did. But if one acknowledges that many marketing pitches are hyperbolic, then one holds hands with “truthful hyperbole,” the phrase Donald Trump described in his book The Art of the Deal as “an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.” From here, the distance to “alternative facts” is a mere step or two.

So as is often the case, two opposing things are true at once: the social mobile data revolution has made consumers more skeptical of advertising, even as ever more immersive and intimate technologies have given advertising more and better purchase over our emotions. And we’ve barely glimpsed the impact of virtual reality on the world of marketing. As Daniel J. Boorstin famously wrote in his 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.” More than fifty years later, this is still not a comforting thought.

Excerpted from Frenemies by Ken Auletta. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Ken Auletta, 2018.

Time was a company with something to sell paid an advertising agency to make some creative ads and figure out where to place them. Well, author Ken Auletta says: forget about those days. Today’s advertising industry is one in which ad men, media outlets and clients work together very suspiciously. His book is called "Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else)."

This hour, On Point: Ken Auletta on what all that disruption means for us.

- Robert Siegel

This program aired on June 5, 2018.


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