Ad Nauseam

A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture

Edited by Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky

Faber and Faber, Inc.


How Advertising Works

The Evolution of Advertising

ADS ARE PREDATORY. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as some of my favorite cats are predatory. But ads are not only predatory, they’re mercenary: hired guns paid to hunt down our desires and bag them for dollars. Like any good predator, advertising evolves along with its prey. Ads in their primeval form merely needed to alert a potential buyer of what was being vended—a shoe or a dismembered pig, for instance. Just enough to get the idea across. As competition grew, so did the need to create demand; hence modern advertising was born. If we start the modern era of advertising around the late 1800s, an evolutionary path can be plotted and expressed as a series of broad caricatures.

The Polite Pedant (Late 1800s to 1900s)

Print ads from this early era have the tone of a helpful, avuncular acquaintance, someone who is humble about taking up your precious time but feels compelled to describe in great, tedious detail the relative benefits of a particular product. You can almost imagine him, dressed soberly but very dapper, hat in hand, earnestly and a touch apologetically enumerating every possible item of worth about face soap or bolts of cloth. You’d likely smile and nod, not offended, with every fiber of your soul fighting off the warm blanket of sleep.

A bold choice for a camera company, the complete lack of images. The sober, informative tone of this 1891 ad is indicative of the era, and of special note is the motto: "You press the button, we do the rest," followed by "or you can do it all yourself." This is a company too polite to even insist upon its own slogan.

The Expert (1920s to 1940s)

It didn’t take advertisers long to realize that a well-reasoned argument was still just that: an argument. And arguments can be lost, which begs the question: Why do something unless you know you can win? Why bother presenting facts to make a case when you can neatly circumvent all that messy reason and appeal directly to emotion? With the popularization of Pavlov, Freud, and the nascent field of psychoanalysis, advertisers realized that you can give people reasons to do things that don’t really make sense, as long as they play to a person’s deep-seated drives and insecurities. It’s kind of like being able to hack into brains: say the right thing, from a position of authority (perhaps wearing a white lab coat), and you can create an army of self-conscious zombies, ready to buy anything they can to get rid of their horrible breath or coarse hands.

In this 1941 Listerine ad, that speckled circle resembling a diagram of samba steps is in fact a scientist’s-eye view through a microscope, showing the many wee beasties that do abominable things to your scalp. And since it’s through a microscope, you know it’s from a scientist, and you’d better damn well listen. He’s so very much smarter than you, and you’re only hurting yourself by not, um, rubbing mouthwash on your head.

Pretty as a Picture (1940s to 1950s)

People aren’t that crazy about reading long blocks of text about products. Better to show them! Advertising, while never afraid of images, starts to realize their true power. Make them big and colorful. And don’t focus on the product; focus on the consumer, who is by now enjoying the wild, unrestrained happiness that can come only with choosing a quality drain unclogger or a pair of insoles.

Smoke Viceroy and you’ll look as tough and cool as a Formula One racer. Viceroy, like highspeed auto racing, is exciting. And it’s especially exciting when you think of smoking in a racetrack pit, surrounded by high-octane racing fuel. Lung cancer ceases to be much of a worry when there’s a possibility of your lungs being turned into a ruddy mist by an exploding fireball.

The Double Agent (1960s to 2000s)

Blatant advertising styles were becoming a joke, but where there’s a joke, there’s laughter; and where there’s laughter, there’s either a recording of laughter or, better yet, people—people who can be made to buy things! So why be laughed at when you can laugh with.

And so was born a new persona for ads: an intelligent friend, a pal who’s a bit smarter, hipper, and more attractive than you but likes you anyway. He tells you, in a witty way, why you might want to buy a Volkswagen as both of you laugh at those ridiculous Chevy ads with their smitten bimbos and tailfins. The fools, you and your pal laugh, right before he suggests what kind of vodka a young, urbane sophisticate such as yourself may enjoy. The Double Agent is cunning. He’s genuinely funny and engaging, but deep down he only wants you for one thing.

This ad of Volkswagen’s legendary 1960s campaign is iconic. It popularized a style of hip self-deprecation that flatters the consumer for his resistance to advertising—all the while selling to him. Call it the anti-gimmick gimmick.

The Mystic (1990s to 2000s)

Recent changes have made ads the most effective consumer-consuming creations ever known. Building on over a century of experimentation, ads now work from deep within your mind. Ads no longer need to engage in such mundane activities as showing the product, telling what it does, or making any claims of value. Sellers catch more prey by blurring the boundaries between advertising and not-advertising. Product placement, viral marketing, and friend-to-friend shilling is all part of the new form—a being that has reduced itself down to a single cell that permeates the air you breathe, the sounds around you, the classrooms you endure, and the movies you watch. It’s a fully ingrained part of the fabric of life.

There’s no ad here, just homework. We’ve got our McGraw-Hill math textbook andwe’re learning how to divide wholes into parts, and those parts are M&M’s—small, convenient, tasty, fun to eat, melting only in mouths, not hands, available in peanut as well as plain varieties.

The Psychology of Advertising


IN ORDER to understand how advertising works, we need to first realize how it doesn’t work. Many people assume that commercials succeed or fail based on whether viewers rush out to buy the particular product. They assume that if they don’t like an ad, can’t remember the brand, or consider the whole affair inane, they’re not affected by it. All of these assumptions are based on an outdated model of advertising as a form of persuasion. But advertisers discovered long ago that persuasion is terribly limited in its ability to push product. Persuasion engages rational thought. When your potential consumers start thinking, they’re as likely to consider the bills they need to pay, the crap they can’t fit in the closet, the calories they need to count, or the appointment they’re going to miss. In other words, thinking consumers buy less. Persuasion is also a relatively slow process. In a sped-up world with zillions of ads competing for attention, there’s no time for it.

The vast majority of consumer advertising today, then, isn’t designed to convince anyone of anything. Rather, advertising relies primarily on the power of suggestion (or association) to create a psychological link between some favorable image and one’s product. Nike = inspiring athletics; Lexus = luxury; Marlboro = manly. Unlike persuasion, suggestion doesn’t require our active attention. If some guy in a suit said to you, "Wear these Nike shoes and you’ll be like an athlete," you’d never take him seriously. Such a claim is verifiably true or false, and the question of whether something is true or false prompts that troublesome habit of thinking ("Is it true?" "What does that mean?").

Suggestion, however, inspires belief by not asking for it, by averting the questioning process. Nike’s ad agency produces jaw-droppingly beautiful images and emotionally rich, provocative commercials punctuated by contained moments of rebellion. Repeated often enough, the linking of Nike with inspiration and triumphant athleticism gets drilled into your brain, becoming more accessible than your father’s birthday.

The basis for association is Pavlovian. We consumers are like dogs who dance excitedly when someone pulls the leash out. Advertisers take greatest advantage of us by capitalizing on our animal behaviors—and by "animal" I mean rooted in our biology, behaviors that are innate. Much of what we consider to be advertising clichés are strategies based in these biological drives: the human appetites for food and sex (not necessarily in that order). I’m talking phallic beer bottles, mouthwatering "money" shots of hamburgers, and big-breasted models pitching everything from skateboards to kitchen gadgets. Appeals using sex or food are among the most obvious tactics, yet people seldom recognize their unconscious effect. In a classic study, a group of men was shown a car ad featuring a sexy young woman and another group of men saw the same ad without the sultress. The men who saw the ad with the girl "rated the car as faster, more appealing, more expensive-looking, and better designed than did men who viewed the same ad without the model." Naturally, these men later denied that the presence of the young model had any influence on


Food and sex are just the tip of the iceberg. Advertisers aim to reach our inner animal through instincts more subtle than our appetites. For example, humans are much more likely to notice an object if it moves. A cockroach could remain on a wall in my office for hours if it stayed in place, but I will scream bloody murder when it crawls, even if it appears only out of the corner of my eye. Darwin tells us that this tendency is a holdover from our hunter-gatherer past, when we needed to spot prey and potential enemies alike. Alas, in the modern office or home, this inclination is decidedly less helpful, protecting us from cockroaches and falling light fixtures but not much else. Instead, it renders us vulnerable to marketers, who exploit it with flashing banner ads, gigantic video billboards, and TV "news" crawls.

Advertisers similarly exploit humans’ animal instincts by taking advantage of our inner copycat. Humans—even some of the most rugged of individualists—look to others for clues on how to act. Our copying begins at infancy, when we acquire language, the ability to walk, and social skills from family members. Things aren’t much different as adults: we yawn when someone around us yawns, look up at a building when we notice others doing so, and laugh more when others are laughing (whether live or canned for lousy TV sitcoms). More often than not, we’re unconscious of our copying. Ever find yourself applauding a show and pausing to think, "Wait. That sucked"?

Marketers love to appeal to our animal instincts, be they for plump, juicy burgers or pea-brained, scantily dressed blondes. The image at right is taken from Paris Hilton’s once-controversial Carl’s Jr. commercial.

A Brief History of Advertising Suggestion

Stage 1

In the days before Pavlov, ad men didn’t quite "get"how suggestion worked, as is demonstrated by this unappetizing visage (above left) of insects surrounding Royal Seal brand oats, from the 1890s. Apparently, the Great Western Cereal Company thought that nothing said breakfast like a roach infestation. Similarly, a misguided attempt to scare parents off of cow’s milk (above right) had the unfortunate side effect of scaring them away from Nestlé’s Food as well. As Charles Austin Bates pointed out in Good Advertising (1896), the copywriter would have been much better off with a headline such as "Save Babies."Consider, for example, how this ad must have appeared to a barely attentive newspaper reader who merely glimpsed the large headings.

Excerpted from Ad Nauseam by Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky.
Copyright 2009 by Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky.
Published in First edition, 2009 by Faber and Faber, Inc.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.