Does Advertising have a branding problem?
Capitalism's sock puppet or a shallow, manipulative venal business? Either way advertising doesn't receive the best representation in popular culture
17 March 2022
When agencies speak earnestly of their role in “creating culture” they probably aren’t referring to the way that the advertising industry itself is reflected in popular culture. Just consider the way that advertising has traditionally been shown on TV and films as, at best, a silly and shallow business and, at worst, venal, vapid and manipulative.
Hollywood is probably most guilty of using the advertising industry as shorthand for the uglier side of consumerism – films such as Thank You For Smoking, What Women Want, Kramer vs Kramer and How To Get Ahead in Advertising show Madison Avenue as a place of insidious business that is self-obsessed and lacking in moral authority.
But in the UK the history of representing advertising in a negative light arguably goes back further still – the 1979 film Quadrophenia features the anti-hero, Jimmy, played by Phil Daniels, trying to escape his pointless and dull job in the post room of an ad agency by taking amphetamines and fighting with Rockers. Incidentally, it’s also worth noting that the protagonists in such films are usually always white and middle class.
British TV hasn’t been terribly kind either – short-lived UK sitcoms such as The Persuasionists and The Creatives were built around the simple conceit that advertising is a punchline in itself, while BBC’s W1A lampoons the concept of marketing with stereotypes that draw on the worst excess of every preconception of branding and advertising. And while many will look back on Mad Men with some fondness for its apparent glamour, it can hardly be held up as a realistic mirror.
It’s little wonder, then, that when factual TV comes knocking, producers can’t help but reach for the lazy stereotypes and the easy shorthand: most of us will have found our faces redden in embarrassment if we’ve ever watched the “advertising task” on The Apprentice. Richard Huntington, the chief strategy officer at, Saatchi & Saatchi is one of them. “Like all of us, I cringe every time I see our world depicted in popular culture. For me it’s The Apprentice advertising task that leads to an hour-long stream of invective towards the TV,” he says. “But what trade is really portrayed with absolute accuracy in culture? I’m sure bomb disposal operatives everywhere despair at the goings on in Trigger Point. And while we need to be mindful that the way we are represented has an impact on our attractiveness to new talent, we can be over concerned about our appearance,” he says.
Well, to some extent. Ed Palmer, the managing director of St Luke’s, has borne the brunt of the public’s perception of advertising. He explains: “My own experience was going to a standup gig a few years back. The comic asked what I did for a living, and it was open season after that. When I came back from the toilet midway through his set, he said ‘oh look, the ad guy’s just come back from the loo with a renewed sense of confidence’. And so it went on.”
While Mad Men applied a veneer of glamour of which the industry mostly wholeheartedly approved (which agency didn’t host a Mad Men-themed party at the turn of the last decade?), and its protagonists may have had depth beyond the broad brushstroke caricatures of Nathan Barley a decade before or Clem Fandango from Toast of London now, they were hardly saintly – or role models.
Carly Avener, the managing director of Leo Burnett London, thinks that advertising is often portrayed as exciting, glamorous, consumerist as well as mysterious because so few people outside the industry really understand what its employees really do. And as for Mad Men and some of the more famous films about advertising they are from, or of, another era. “How much of it is about the period rather than the industry?”she asks.
According to Palmer from St Luke’s, there are three key reasons why advertising gets such a bad rap: it looks easy, so people believe there must be a lot of 'The Emperor's New Clothes’ going on; its fundamental commercial purpose is hard to ignore; and its reputation for manipulation has always outweighed its positive impact on society.
“Ad people must just knock out a few snappy slogans, then spend the rest of the day indulging in inanity, or off their faces,” he says. “Unlike, say, accountancy or management consultancy, we’re surrounded every day by very public examples of the commercial reality of the industry. It therefore appears to be more nakedly venal than many other careers.” Equally, high-profile scandals ranging from the publication of Hidden Persuaders back in the 1950s to the more recent Cambridge Analytica affair have meant that advertising’s perceived attempts to manipulate have always outweighed its many successful attempts to be a force for good.
But if Avener is right, Tom White, the chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, thinks it could augur well for the future representation of advertising in culture.
“The point here is that how our industry is seen will always be a function of the times we live in. In the Nirvana era 90s, when to be regarded as a corporate sell out was the worst sin of all, it's easy to see how the person in advertising was usually an avatar for someone with more malign motivations. But the wheel turns, so maybe we're about to see all that change again. Nowadays when so much of the culture around us is about chasing likes, sponsorships, and selling your own brand, perhaps our profession will be treated in TV and film as a little less cringe, a little more noble.”
But why does all this matter? Well aside from our own bruised egos and negating the positive contribution advertising can provide to the economy and society, it doesn’t seem to be doing anything to help us recruit the most interesting or diverse talent.
Most agencies already have schemes in place to attract new talent to the business that might otherwise have preconceived ideas from the way it is represented – or hadn’t even considered it as a career at all. VCCP recently opened a campus in Stoke to attract such people.
Lindsey Monroe, head of learning and development and joint head of D&I at the agency, says: “At the core of the branding problem is misunderstanding created by people with little working knowledge of the industry. People are shown an industry that isn’t relevant to today’s society - showing a lack of cultural and socio-economic diversity, only accessible in large cities, no clarity on how to get into the industry and that you have to just be ‘traditionally’ creative to be in it.”
Burnett’s Avener agrees: “Along with better representing the industry as a vibrant hub for ambitious professionals and its role in contributing to UK plc, advertising also deserves greater attention and recognition for the good it does. While there’s always going to be a commercial element to the work we do as employers, we’re not driven by dollar signs in our eyes above all else and indeed many in our industry are putting their skills to good use to make a difference in the world.”
Quite whether this filters through to advertising’s representation within popular culture anytime soon, we’ll have to wait and see. But it’s sadly likely that we’ll all be hiding behind our sofas when the advertising task appears on The Apprentice for the immediate future at least.
Huntington concludes: “It shouldn’t need saying but the most direct way to influence what people think of us and what we do, is our work. As a trade, we may be profoundly mistrusted but to be clear our output is not. Indeed, if the Advertising Association is to be believed, trust is strengthening in advertising output. Especially when we eschew bouncing QR codes and knock it out of the park creatively.”