George Walford: Read Any Good Adverts Lately?
We are increasingly coming to suspect that when reading adverts for goods of which you have experience, it is well to bear in mind a strong probability that what is promised is precisely what you won’t get. This is how it seems to work:
The features you particularly want are those you’ve not been getting.
If it paid the advertiser to supply these you’d have been getting them already; if it doesn’t, then you’re not going to get them in future either.
But an advert has to promise you what you want.
Take motorcar advertising as an example. Back in the 1920s there were hills that the cars of that date could not climb. (There was a persistent rumour that some motorists did manage to drive up Porlock, but backwards, using the reverse gear which was the lowest of all). Adverts of that date commonly announced that the car in question would climb any hill. That was what the motorists of the time had not been getting, so that was what they wanted, so that was what the adverts promised.
What is it that the motorists of today have not been getting? For one thing, cars that are proof against rust. And what do the car adverts of today promise? Just look at a few, and you’ll see.
But is it that adverts are now to be relied on? Is it that advancing technology has in fact produced cars proof against rust? For the answer to that one, look at the small print of the guarantee against rust that comes with the car.
If they ever do manage to beat rust, then rust-proofing will quickly become something motorists take for granted, not something they specially want, and the manufacturers will stop advertising it.
Another thing today’s motorists demand of their cars is that they should not use much expensive petrol. Again, this is what the adverts promise; there are not many, including any technical description, that do not quote performance figures with the clear implication that petrol consumption is extremely low.
And do we get what these adverts promise? Well, what was your feeling last time you had the tank filled?
There is, of course, the Advertising Standards Authority, to whom you can complain if you feel an advertisement has misled you. It puts up posters announcing itself, and the last time we noticed one of these it was the centre one of three. On one side was a poster saying you could put a bank in your pocket, on the other was a poster showing that the bottle of milk you got for your twenty pence or whatever was about twelve feet tall. In the centre was the poster of the authority, asking you to complain to them if you saw a misleading advertisement.
from Ideological Commentary 18, June 1985.