By Elana Rabinovitch

Elana Rabinovitch runs Propaganda Ink and is the Administrator of the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

“KIDS AND ADVERTISING: MOMMY, THAT’S MY BESTEST BRAND” yipped a recent headline – leaving parents everywhere shooting no-logo, fair–trade coffee out their noses. Decades ago, research suggested children understood commercials by the age of seven or eight. Yet, a recent study showed that children as young as three have no trouble identifying a brand and decoding its message. There is after all a reason why slogan inventors and jingle creators make big bucks and advertisers net big profits – they know the power of a good meme, and no consumer is too young to target. One of the enduring axioms of the ad game – keep it simple – helps target the lowest common denominator. Think ’Coke Is It’ or ’Snap, Crackle, Pop.’

If toddlers – and I say this with no judgment except for the one rendered here – are watching commercial television, then surely exposure (like possession) is 9/10ths of the equation. Still, given the ubiquity of advertising, should we really be surprised that our offspring can mimic aggressively focus-grouped sound bytes and fall prey to the pleasing computer-generated sounds and colours of the latest tchachkes being sold?

No longer just for traditional media, ads have invaded sidewalks, escalators, the skies, floors, benches, packaged goods, and green space, making it impossible to escape the onslaught. We’ve become accustomed to their face. Stand still on any bus or subway car and watch how people’s eyes scan the vicinity until they light on an image to be taken in, then flit away to another. Our ever-shrinking attention spans have made us ripe for the picking and no image or icon is too sacred. TV and film celebrities, real and animated, have been turned into merchandizing shills. Having always thought I was too smart to be influenced by advertising, I nonetheless went ahead and bought my son plates emblazoned with the logo and titular characters from the Hollywood movie Cars. He also has Dora and Diego flatware. Not my proudest moment, but all is forgotten when little Spike’s face lights up with joy. That’s the thing about advertising – they get you where you live.

The power to persuade people to identify with a product (McDonald’s tasty food) by embedding imagery (golden arches) and sound (da da dat da da, I’m lovin’ it) below the conscious level, and, further, persuade people (or their parents) to buy that product (over 47 million sold) is the age-old art and science of the advertising racket. Over the years, the style and reach of advertising has evolved, gotten slicker, but its primary purpose – to convince a whole lot of people to buy/wear/eat/drive your stuff instead of your competitor’s stuff – remains the same.

However frightening that may be, Terry O’Reilly and Mike Tennant’s book The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture (Knopf Canada) is anything but. Tennant & O’Reilly are co-creators – with O’Reilly as host – of the outstanding CBC Radio show of the same name. The program, like the book, is a terrific primer on the art of advertising from the telegraph to the internet. It’s a delicious insider’s guide to the back room war stories of how (mostly) admen created some of the most successful commercials ever (often by accident); debunks myths (advertisers really aren’t trying to annoy you into buying something); and why the human voice is often an advertiser’s best weapon. As an instrument to demystify advertising and make the whole venture enormously entertaining, this book is essential reading.

The authors skillfully weave advertising’s past into modern history itself, illustrating the rise, fall, and rise again of branded entertainment where the sponsor is also the content creator. In what may be the modern apogee of this trend, in 2007, Geico, the gecko commercial pitchman for Geico Insurance, was spun off into a 30-minute sitcom. And summarily canceled soon after. But branded entertainment really began in 1930’s era Great Depression when soap operas on radio were actually created to sell soap to housewives by the same companies that produced the shows. Back to the future we go.

Tennant and O’Reilly make the point that marketers have to constantly up their game to connect with today’s savvy consumers who, especially with social media like YouTube, have become content creators of their own and shun conventional media. To reach niche markets in a multi-channel universe and stay ahead of the tech curve, it seems inevitable that ads will continue to proliferate.

Our best defense, as with most things, is a good offense. Understanding how advertising works, where it came from and where it’s headed will make us smarter consumers. Think what you might about the perniciousness of advertising, it is here to stay. Resistance is futile.


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