The Subtle Ubiquity Of Marketing

Welcome to my blog.  Not having done this before, I had a little look at the kinds of blogs that got successful, what I need to do to gain maximum traffic with certain key words and themes, and promptly decided to do the exact opposite.  I’m going to write about a broad range of subjects, niche and mainstream alike, I’m going to write about them in the way I want to, and I’m not going to be particularly funny.  I will, however, be British — occasionally very British indeed — which appears to be a decent enough substitute for some people.

This week, I have mostly been considering advertising, because I’m the kind of person who will quote the Fast Show at you, and thus I am also the sort of person who will sit down on their own and try to seriously think about what advertising means to them.

I’m not good at parties, is what I’m saying.

Oh — and the blog’s name is “learning to get older” because “getting older” appears to be the only skill I have acquired in my twenty three years on this planet.  I don’t even know whether or not you hyphenate “twenty three”, and my degree is supposedly in English Literature.  I had to have someone read the certificate out to me because all those funny little squiggles on the page just enraged me.

In the past, I have often considered myself to be “above” advertising in many ways.   Adverts have been irritants that intrude upon my consciousness, occasionally entertain me, but never really seem to change the way I live my life.  The utter shitness of certain adverts, trying desperately to capitalise on the quirky, human, accidental-seeming charm of genuine originals by itemising their key features and processing them into a nutrient-free grey slurry of derivative jingles, puerile humour and useless mascots, just reinforced my belief that people who work in advertising are frequently less suited to selling product than the average lichen.

And even those “good adverts”, I believed, didn’t affect me.  I have never bought from the natural confectionary company because I don’t like food that is shaped like dinosaurs any more (I am, despite my writing style, somewhat older than seven), I don’t use comparethemeerkat because it simply doesn’t offer the best deals for my demographic, and I would never consider using moonpig unless I wanted to tell someone that I cared about them just enough to hit a button on my laptop, but certainly not a single ounce more than that.

Or for Father’s Day, perhaps.

The world's greatest dad is apparently an overweight idiot who didn't even want the kid in the first place. Because even companies whose livelihoods depend on it think that Father's Day is a stupid holiday.

The reason that I thought the ‘good adverts’ didn’t affect me, personally, was that they were too memorable.  Show me a bag of sweets from the Natural Confectionary Company, or a pint of Guinness, and I think of the adverts.  They’ve succeeded in making physical, desirable products into abstract concepts like “fun”, “depth” or “darkness”, and dammit-all if those things don’t appeal to the perky goth in me, but I just don’t want to drink them.  Or maybe I do, but I’d need some sort of pulsating “fulminating tenebration” gland to properly appreciate them.

The mediocre adverts, or the equally pointless “artsy” adverts just drifted past me, I thought, becoming part of life’s grouting.  Grey and invisible, plugging the gaps in between the important bits. I genuinely believed I was the proud owner of the world’s most boring superpower; immunity to advertisements.

Two years ago, I was fresh out of a BA, working part-time for a pittance, and filling the rest of my time scrabbling for money on the internet, on sites such as ciao, yougov, etc. – sites which paid you a very small sum for writing reviews or completing surveys.  The surveys were what interested me, because I have always been mystified by how exactly marketing does its job.  They were very interesting indeed, because they appeared to reveal a marketing world that was utterly out of touch with  reality.  Stella Artois wanted to ask if I found their drink (known as wifebeater, where I come from) sophisticated, Domestos wanted to ask if I particularly identified with their brand’s unique style, while Guinness wanted to know to what extent I saw their product as fun-loving and fancy-free.

The surveys were so unscientific, the questions so leading, the thought processes of the intern who’d drafted them so transparent, that I doubt that they had any use at all to the people who were hoping to get some information on their target audience.

Most prominent was the fact that advertisers clearly wanted me to associate their products with abstract ideals, the very thing which I thought was stopping me from finding their products quite so attractive.  Infuriating questions like “If the Skoda Medioka was a person, what attributes would you associate with them?”.  These were inevitably answered with, for instance, “carbon-fibre body” and “alloy wheels”, which has probably by now resulted in advertising execs seeking to tap the coveted “irritating smart-arsed douchebag” market for their products.

This was further proof of my secret powers of immunity to advertising. Advertising, and its ways.  Soon I would be able to unleash them on the world, fearlessly staring down billboards, sitting through ad breaks while other people (who would otherwise be unable to resist the allure of reasonably priced sanitary towels and miniature cheese snacks) brought me tea, and of course knocking off the tiny little hats of aging hipsters moments before they could monetise a viral something something channel-neutral blah.

Hipsters are powerless without their small hats.

But then recently, I started buying Lucozade.

Yeah, that is pretty much what this whole article has been building up to, why do you ask?

Normally the energy drink that I buy comes in packaging that is unabashedly attempting to hide the greenish-yellow fluorescent goop inside, real bottom-of-the-range own-brand stuff in big, fuck-off opaque bottles that look as though they have to be an inch thick just to stop the stuff inside from eating its way through to the floor and making good its escape.  Recently, however, it has been drawn to my attention that this might not be the healthiest way of living.  And Lucozade, with its relatively wholesome orange colour (it’s a fruit, dontchaknow) and see-through bottle seemed to be, quite simply, a more healthful option.

I’m not going to bash out the merits of generic energy drinks versus Lucozade here, because that would probably tip the balance of this blog over into “stupefyingly dull” territory.  However, having looked at the ingredients of each, I’m pretty sure that even if Lucozade is better for you than the generic swill idiots like me consume, it’s not better by much.

Yet for several weeks I was utterly convinced that I’d made a significant, lasting, healthy change to my life for the better, by switching brands.  I could suddenly rattle off several traits that Lucozade had which no other brand could offer, making it uniquely suited to my lifestyle: Lucozade is athletic, it helps you concentrate on your day, it has electrolytes or some shit, um, something about salt?

Fig.1 (a): Artist's impression, interior of the Lucozade Bottling Plant

Actually, as soon as I started asking myself why I felt better about drinking Lucozade than any other caffeinated diabetes-bomb, I realised I had no convincing answer.  It was, of course, all advertising.  I had been well and truly suckered.  But not by any individual advert.  Lucozade has consistently been marketing itself as a healthy drink for sporty types at least since I was young enough to skip Games lessons.  And obviously, individually, I don’t believe any of those adverts.  Show me any one of them and I’ll dismiss it with a derisive snort.

However taken all together, those ads had had such a powerful effect on me that I genuinely believed that sugar (plus various flavourings, colourings and preservatives) could suddenly be a healthful thing to imbibe by the litre.

It went beyond me.  It had become a truth widely acknowledged in my social circle, as well, and I suspect in society at large – by sheer dint of repetition a lie had made the transition into unassailable fact.  A drink cannot be sporty, in and of itself, but the brand positioning had been in place for so long that my mind had just given up without my noticing, and accepted the personality of this beverage.  I was stunned.  Those surveys I’d thought so very stupid had been on the right track after all.

I don’t have a broader point to make here.  I can’t extrapolate from my own experience and say that this sort of brand positioning, like some kind of water torture of unnoticeable adverts which establish a Brave New World-style slogan in your mind, is the most powerful form of marketing. Obviously, good adverts have a positive effect on sales, and many people do react well to individual adverts*.  Nor can I say that no-one is above adverts.  I haven’t met everyone.  Probably a fair few people who work in advertising are so well-acquainted with the whole sad exercise that they forego any kind of product whatsoever, living in the forests and tricking squirrels into grabbin’ range by dressing up as sexy female squirrels.  Probably.

However, what I can say is that this steady drip-drip-drip of branding has had a noticeable effect on me, that I am far less immune to marketing than I thought, and that people who work in advertising do appear to know what they are doing.

I can also say that this leaves me feeling thoroughly perturbed.

All of my feelings about the surveys and adverts trying to get me to assign abstract qualities and personalities to products were sort-of valid.  However, ultimately, these abstract qualities, when carefully instilled over years if not decades, of brand positioning, are what enables a brand to transcend its competitors, to present itself as a genuine alternative instead of the same shit with a different label.

In some ways this kind of thing is the blunt weapon of marketing, relying as it does on bludgeoning repetition and a constant miasma of consensus about the product being marketed.  However, I consider its actual effect to be incredibly subtle.  When I can consciously ignore the message of every single advert your company makes, and still be very strongly affected by the message I’ve picked up subconsciously in dribs and drabs, that is a sneaky, subtle sort of omnipresence.  The effect can be contrasted with the more immediately striking, gimmicky, attention-grabbing advertising campaigns.  It builds up like background noise until you’re not even sure why you consider Guinness to be a dour, intelligent sort of fellow with an understated artsy side, while WKD Blue is a vapidly grinning moron with roofies in his pocket and his underpants on his head.  That’s just who they are.

*Obviously, some ‘good’ adverts also backfire.  “Yo quiero Taco Bell“, a series of ads in which a Chihuahua expresses its fondness for Taco Bell, became utterly embedded in a nation’s consciousness to the extent of being quoted ad nauseam on playgrounds everywhere, thus in theory doing its job perfectly.  However, it also implied that Taco Bell was only suitable food for dogs and stoners, which, while true, is not what the company wanted to say.

I am aware that tenebration is not a word.

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