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Advertising: The poetry is becoming

Theodore Levitt
Advertising! Whats a civilized person to make of it?
Lets face it, advertising gets on everybodys nerves. It intrudes
everywhere, invariably and by design. Its job is to get at you, whether
youre ready or not, in the mood or not, especially when youre off guard
and in places you least expect or want it.
Even some of commerces most ardent practitioners get annoyed and fed
up. For most people, the idealized vacation does not mean getting away
from it all, like to a desert island without commercial comforts or
diversions. It means escaping only from lifes regular hassles and
responsibilities, from modernitys pervasive commercialism, of which
advertising is, by design, the most visible and relentless. Even if
advertising were less tasteless than it so often is, pandered less to base,
ignoble, and questionable values, and never appeared where it is not
wanted, not just in front of our children in the living room and everywhere
in raucous constancy and offensivenesseven then, on the desert island,
it would be unwanted.
It is not a requirement of being a professional businessperson that we
always be fond of everything that we do or advertise. Only an auctioneer
can be enthusiastic about all forms of art, Oscar Wilde said. So it is with
products, ads, corporations, religions, entertainment, and whiskey.
Everything gives offense to somebody sometimes. Some things give
offense to everybody, sometimes even a child to a mother whose love is
otherwise unconditional.
All of us get annoyed sometimes, irritated, frustrated, offended,
distracted, angry, even when we like the product or service or have been
otherwise amused, informed, or agreeably stimulated by the ad. What
gets us in the end is the ubiquity, the repetitiveness, the invariable
Of course, people willingly put up with a lotand understand that
advertising is a price we pay for choice and free access. Things could be
worse. They also know that advertising can help in a lot of ways. It
informs, entertains, excites, and alleviates. Yes, it intrudes, but it also
adds variety and changes the pace. How much back-to-back drama, news,
sports, commentary, and MTV can anyone stand, or unrelieved printed
text, page after page? Nor are silence or a blank screen acceptable. When
people stop doing something, they dont start doing nothing. Advertising
helps fill the void.

Actually, advertising is the least harmful form of propagandaprecisely

because it is so conspicuously in the service of its source, the sponsor. It is
effective on behalf of the advertised product precisely because the
sponsor exists to assure the customer of the reliability and credibility of
his or her promise, because the sponsor is visibly, eagerly, and reliably
there to stand behind the product, to give customers the assurance they
need to buy in the first place.
People may not always be able to take care of themselves against
conspiratorial acts committed by consenting capitalists, or smart
advertisers marshaled aggressively in pursuit of patronage. But people
dont have to be especially smart not to be dumb. Recall Mark Twains
celebration of the protective shrewdness of the country bumpkin in
encounters with educated strangers from the city.
Everybody knows, without help from Ralph Nader, that commercial
communications are not engineering descriptions of the real thing.
Nobody wants to hear that a perfume is a complex concoction of extracts
from the lining of the mollusk and urine from the civet cat, or needs to be
told that it performs certain practical functions. As with many purely
utilitarian products, people seek not just what they deliver operationally
but also (perhaps especially) what they promise emotionally or suggest
symbolically. In much consumption, we are motivated by hopes greater
than what can be delivered reasonably, by wishful possibilities that go
beyond the ordinary and transcend reality. In response to such
motivations, advertising supplies exactly what the painter with an easel
supplies, not simple photographic reproduction.
Advertising, like the artist, traffics in symbol systems and metaphors, not
literality. Both art and ads embellish systematicallythey elaborate,
enhance, and modify to make promises for our wants and wishes. Every
early homo erectus who scrawled a crude figure on the wall of a primitive
cave, built a fire beneath a protective ledge, or threw a hairy animal skin
over his shoulder attested to the rude and hostile animality of nature in
the raw, to early mans urge and need to reshape his environment and
enhance his life. In modern times, commercial consumption expresses the
same urge and need, as do commercial communications and the fine arts.
Human behavior is almost entirely purposive. Products are tools people
use to get results, to fill needs or solve problems that are not merely
technical. A washing machine doesnt just clean clothes, just alleviate
drudgery and heavy labor, just save time. It also creates opportunity to do
other, more satisfying and perhaps more worthwhile things, to help one
look, feel, and be better. To raise ones spirits, to help one become what
one wishes to be. The same may be said of the personal computer, the
tractor, the mutual fund, and almost everything else.
The 1896 Sears, Roebuck catalog was celebrated as a wish book for the
country folk who lived remote from modernitys alluring possibilities.

Today the rush of advertising images across the screens of our eyes is a
wish book of invitations to become what we want to be. If the product
pushed is a tool the consumer can use to fill a need, fix a problem, stop a
headache, then the advertisement provides a context, invites the user
into a world where that need is fulfilled. Advertising is the poetry of
becoming. And when it invites the frumpy to be Jane Fonda, it does far
more than her doctor to invite her to healthy exercise. Even the junk food
it promotes is certifiably hygienic and, by the standards of whats
routinely consumed in most of the world, nutritious and wholesome,
probably no less harmful than the representations of Michelangelo or Mr.
Robert Mapplethorpe.
Almost all advertising is, like art, representational, not the real thing, a
distortion, literally a falsehood. That is why Plato objected to art so
strongly inThe Republic, a treatise on governance. By comparison, Senator
Jesse Helms is benign. The consumer understands that since advertising
cannot be the real thing itself, and since it is in the service of the
advertiser, its representations must be discounted. In the worst case,
when a child pleads for an irresistibly advertised toy, the parental
response is likely to be, Dont believe it, its only advertising. A
falsehood, that is, a lie. Does that help explain the cynicism and hostility
toward business from Americas first generation of television children as
they crept into early adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s?
The point is beside the point. Not even Plato required saintliness for
admission into the human community. It should certainly not be required
of people who manage, who engage in commerce, who do and pay for
To speak approvingly of the functions of business, of the social legitimacy
of advertising, or of the profession of people who manage requires no
special philosophic premise, no creed or moral justification, any more than
does riding a bicycle. There is only the simple recognition that things exist
and get done because that is what people have found convenient,
effective, and generally acceptable for a great many years in a great
many circumstances. There is no need to make more of things than what
they naturally are. Sigmund Freud, who said a lot of weird things, in
exasperation with followers who made much symbolic ado about all
things, finally said, Sometimes a good cigar is just a good cigar.
In these permissive times, the practice of advertising is remarkably
restrained and harmless, even dignified when compared with what
appears in the spaces between the ads on TV and in the press.
Advertising tries openly and without pretense to persuade people to
believe or do things on behalf of the advertiser. It engages in the same
kinds of specialized urgings as do the painter, poet, preacher, professor,
or panhandler. All try to affect your mind and actions in the directions they
narrowly espouse. And of all these, advertising engages in the most

innocent pursuit. It comes closer than the others to urging on people what
they naturally want anyhow. In an up-front offer of exchange, advertising
is after only your money. The others, by invidious contrast, are after
higher goodsyour sympathy, your mind, your soul. None is in a morally
superior position to cast stones at another, let alone to cast the first
stone, and certainly not at advertising.
On the other hand, this moral neutrality does not require the justification
or defense of advertising practices that, however rarely, may seem sleazy,
tricky, noisome, tawdry, immoral, unethical, or unfair.
Life is not a morality play. It is above all existential. All species everywhere
have engaged always in a ceaseless struggle against nature. Everybody
seems to have had the same wish, perhaps even need, for alleviation,
diversion, ease, and transcendence, everybody in his or her own way
always wanting more. Even the fabulating antimaterialistic hippies of
unlamented recent history, earnestly asserting that less is more, wanted
more of somethingmore of less, except for pot, and aluminum canoes to
take them with less effort to remote locations to grow commercially
superior cannabis.
Some years ago, I wrote that if you dont know where youre going, any
road will take you there and noted that nothing is more wasteful than
doing with great efficiency that which should not be done.
People in business are professionally and commercially engaged in helping
shape and provide a good deal of what people want in their lives. They
know, or learn, that fabrications unconnected to what people somehow
want and wish cannot succeed. Success requires fathoming what these
wants and wishes really arejust like the requirements of the successful
artist and preacher. Except that people in business are engaged in
enterprises that are functionally and profoundly different. In the process of
succeeding (indeed, even in failure), they help create opportunity and
employment, spur innovation, and, especially, facilitate what Adam Smith
so compellingly referred to as the system of natural liberty.
This is not to raise business and advertising artfully to a special or
uniquely elevated moral plateau. Everyday evidence testifies that people
want and hope for a great deal on this earth, much of it being wish
fulfillment. If people in business can respond professionally to those wants
and wishes without violating societys generally accepted standards of
decency, taste, and appropriateness, and their own moral codes, so they
can go home at night to their families without guilt, apology, or
embarrassmentconfident and comfortablethen that is all anybody can
rightfully ask of anyone.

Theodore Levitt, a longtime professor of marketing at Harvard Business

School in Boston, is now professor emeritus. His most recent books
are Thinking About Management (1990) and The Marketing
Imagination (1983), both from Free Press.