Thursday, 27 December 2018


The Fine Print

Advertising is my personal poll of the zeitgeist, accurate 19 times out of 20, plus or minus a few percentage points. There was a time when four out of five doctors were particular about their brand of cigarettes. When plastic wares and frozen foods were modern miracles and artificial fabrics never wrinkled. The war had been won and the road ahead was paved with the cardboard cartons of new-fangled consumer durables. Advertising is an era’s barometer.

Times and mores, along with the century, have changed, as they will. Luxury advertising has a small but growing demographic; people will always pay too much for stuff they don’t need if they can afford to. Companies that make leotards in Bangladesh, shoes in China and bottle our free municipal water for resale exhort us to Olympian heights of personal achievement. And the shiny, happy people depicted in print ads reflect an awareness of society’s diversity; there’s always room for a trans-gendered Muslim with a physical disability amid the buxom babes and the square-jawed white men enjoying their staged moment of commercial bliss.

But there are other signs of the times in contemporary advertising too, down at the bottom of the message near the logo and slogan. Years ago there was an address an interested consumer could write to for more information. The post office boxes in Battle Creek, Michigan or Chicago area code 60619 were replaced by more convenient toll-free phone numbers. These 11 digits soon began to share space with web addresses. The advent of wireless phones equipped with cameras led to an early indicator of the internet of things, QR codes or binary short-cuts. Shortly thereafter social media revived the always mysterious # symbol from the telephone dial thereby engineering a deviously insidious form of customer and brand engagement.

Progress is dizzyingly relentless. The advertising industry, like its sister, porn, is part of the technological vanguard, up to the minute or just a half second behind, always ready to exploit the latest and greatest as a vehicle for its white noise. I was reminded of this last week while perusing my latest issue of The Economist where I came across a full page, Christmas-themed ad paid for by the Salvation Army. 

The graphic was attractive, sort of Norman Rockwell filtered through a New Yorker cartoonist: ring that bell, put a penny in the drum… snow – a clever use of white space. WE CONQUER HUNGER WITH COMPASSION. LOVE HAS AN ARMY. The pair of headers were complemented by a combative hashtag: FightForGood. The ad’s execution touched me, so I lingered over it. Logo? Check. Slogan? Check. Toll-free number? Check. Website? Check. And then… Say what!? Right down there with the phone and the URL: “Alexa, make a donation to The Salvation Army,” a scripted digital assistant prompt and not to just any digital assistant.

Amazon has come a long way from simply distributing pre-existing books and music. Alexa is a fine example of its evolution. At the moment the AI tool seems pretty benign, assembling songs, lording it over household appliances and distributing alms to the needy. The day will come when it will be less passive and begin to make suggestions on behalf of advertisers. Ultimately, there aren’t that many steps between taking orders and giving them, a simple promotion will suffice. I suspect we’ll reach that existential chasm soon enough.     

Copies of my latest novel The Garage Sailor are still available and ready to ship. Get aboard at

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