The ultimate guide to brand awareness

Advertising wants us to believe its un-fictional demons are sentient. How else could they thank the NHS or encourage us just to do it? Taken at its word, the prognosis isn’t good.

Malignant uselessness

With capitalism on life support, advertising is increasingly irrelevant, risk averse, stale, and, as mediocrity inexorably rises, bad.

Agency share prices have long been in decline. In order to hold the illusion of value, M&C Saatchi resorted to a “misapplication of accounting policies” going back to 2014. A review last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers knocked £11.6m off their books and share price slumped 73%. Ooops.

As advertising comes to terms with its mortality, it’s experiencing the five stages of grief identified by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

The idea advertising is conscious may be absurd, but all consciousness is. We are disparate senses and automatic drives, grouped under a ‘self’. The only difference is advertising has economic imperatives, us (assuming the reader is human) organic.

The free will, apparent in your choices, is illusory. You cannot choose your choices. Your drives and desires are beyond your command. Real control would have to come from a deeper autonomous self within you, which must have its own deeper self ad infinitum, or into a collective consciousness. ‘You’ are a spectral appendage which ideally would have been whipped out at birth. Don’t dwell on this, or you may you discover are a nothing and there’s nothing to discover it. Good luck with that.

A consciousness advertising entity, even if subordinate to a deeper, pseudo-self, ‘capitalism’, is no more fanciful or deranged than you. Regardless, advertising is the voice of capital and it wants us to believe. That want is a dim flicker of awareness.

Thank you for your service

With lockdown, the depression advertising was drifting into; (cognitive impairment, guilt, hopelessness, lethargy, despair), intensified. Several brands ran the same ‘tactical’ ad. The ‘big idea’ was increasing the distance between letters or elements of their logos, to show how much they appreciated us trying not to die.

Coca-Cola became C-o-c-a C-o-l-a, and offered us this platitude: “staying apart is the best way to stay united.” McDonald’s scaled new heights of banality by separating their golden arches. Nike did some bollocks. VW moved the V slightly away from the W and thanked us. Audi’s interconnected rings became o o o o.

By positioning themselves as authorities, brands assume a right to instruct and therefore control us, and shift our actions into their service by thanking us for them.

But death is not brand collateral. No matter how much they want to lean into and really own it, they can’t.

Every brief must go: “How can [BRAND] take advantage of unprecedented times and hero these key verticals?” The responses are likely ubiquitous, “provide a platform to give artists exposure and donate profits to [CAUSE].” Or a “real stories real people ad.”

According to Kübler-Ross, the stages are not uniformly experienced. But looking at them in order will help make sense of this writhing mass of wretched cloying.

I’m Loving It… Aren’t I?

Denial helps us avoid thinking about ‘it’.

In the 90s, when capitalism managed to pass itself off as a pyramid scheme that worked, denying reality was a full time job. People convinced themselves Oasis weren’t shit, they got Tangoed, Guinness surfed, etc. But with the credit crunch, advertising briefly came down from cocaine psychosis and glimpsed the writing on the wall. Denial turned to rage.

It didn’t last long though. Cadbury’s drumming gorilla ad set off another period of wacky denial, (to which I am guilty of contributing). But the seeds of anger were sewn.

The main method of manipulation was ingratiating fake matiness, but false bonhomie can’t hide contempt forever. Recently they’ve used shame, fear, weaponised castration anxiety etc. to get to us. In order to move past denial, brands had to face the fact, they are not your friends.

You actually like oat milk? Wow, fuck you. Loser

The ‘anti-ad’ is a nihilistic expression of pure shame and horror. It sublimates its self-loathing by attempting to dissociate from itself. It’s cool, it gets it, it hates itself too. It hates everything. It would never actually be what it is.

According to Campaign magazine, Oasis’ ‘refreshing stuff’ “takes a “brutally honest” look at the marketing nonsense consumers are subject to every day.” Let’s take a look.

YOUR FAVOURITE CELEB WOULD DRINK THIS IF WE PAID THEM.

FIND A LUNCH THAT OASIS DOESN’T GO WITH AND WIN NOTHING BECAUSE YOU’RE WRONG.

PLEASE DON’T STAND IN FRONT OF THIS POSTER IT COST A LOT OF MONEY

JUST ANOTHER POSTER TRYING TO SELL YOU SOMETHING

IT’S SUMMER. YOU’RE THIRSTY. WE’VE GOT SALES TARGETS.

And try and keep your repulsive sugar water down while reading this tube poster.

WE KNOW YOU DON’T REALLY LIKE ADS.

IN FACT, RESEARCH TELLS US YOU’VE PROBABLY STOPPED READING BY NOW.

BUT IF YOU’RE STILL HERE, WE’VE GOT A DEAL.

WE’LL STOP ADVERTISING IF YOU KEEP BUYING.

NOPE, THAT’S NOT A TYPO.

IF YOU HELP US REACH OUR SALES TARGET

WE’LL STOP INTERRUPTING YOUR DAY.

SO BUY AN OASIS AND HELP STOP OASIS ADVERTISING SOONER.

AND IF THIS ALL GOES TO PLAN,

YOU COULD BE LOOKING AT THE LAST EVER OASIS POSTER.

(BETTER SHARE A PICTURE OF IT THEN).

It’s not the obnoxious, smug un-funniness, it’s the ‘REALLY’ in the first line that gets me.

Oatly have also been grappling with difficult emotions.

WE SPENT AND INSANE AMOUNT OF MONEY ON THIS FANCY BILLBOARD. HOPE SOMEONE INTERESTED IN OAT DRINK SEES IT.

YOU ACTUALLY READ THIS? TOTAL SUCCESS.

BrewDog mask their shame with edgy ads like the headline only, ADVERT ON A BUS on the side of a bus. Cool. The lack of effort leaves their naked hatred dangling like distended testicles in an open bathrobe.

But we can change!

As realisation dawns, panic and bargaining set in. We’ll stop being evil bastards, says advertising, we can make the world a better place. Conscious consumerism and purpose driven advertising are born.

In the 2010s, the plight of migrants and refugees was briefly fashionable, so brands got involved. Grey Singapore made an app to help (win awards), called I Sea. Users scoured satellite images for refugees drifting in the ocean and reported the location for rescuing. But it was fake. The satellite images were old stock photos, no one was saved.

MasterCard gamified child poverty. “For each goal scored by Messi or Neymar Jr” declared the poster, “10,000 children will receive a meal.” Where do you start?

An Iceland ad featuring a baby orang-utan sad its habitat was being destroyed for palm oil, made the laudable promise to stop using it in their own name products. But more convenient than removing the ingredient, was removing their name, so that’s what they did.

For international women’s day, BrewDog changed the colour and name of their ‘Punk’ IPA pink. But the solidarity was paper thin. Consider the copy on their ‘Trashy Blonde’ beer.

“A titillating, neurotic, peroxide, punk of a pale ale. Combining attitude, style, substance and… low self esteem…

…no additives preservatives, pasteurization or strings attached.”

But women aren’t all they exploit. Ostensibly protesting homophobia in Russia, they photoshoped make-up on an image of Putin perpetuating a homophobic stereotype. It rang especially hollow, considering a previous ad featured the founders mocking trans sex workers in a red-light district window with #DON’TMAKEUSDOTHIS.

LGBTQ+ is not ‘emotional equity’, nor can it simultaneously be the butt of jokes and a reason to ‘join the conversation.’

Corporate melancholia

Virtue signalling and fascism got big around the same time. Ece Temelkuran’s excellent book How to Lose a Country: 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship talks about horror vacui, terror of the void.

The ethical vacuum of neoliberalism, its dismissal of the fact that human nature needs meaning and desperately seeks reasons to live, creates fertile ground for the invention of causes, and sometimes the most groundless of shallowest ones.”

Democracy is reduced to tinkering round the edges. It doesn’t matter who’s in power, nothing changes, nothing matters. Life is like swallowing washing up liquid, a walking oesophagus stripped of the warm mucous of meaning; raw, painful and pointless.

Alternatives offer to fill the void, but only fascism is tolerated because it doesn’t threaten hierarchies or seek to redistribute wealth (apart from upward).

Fascists invoke ‘legitimate concerns’ where brands leach off ‘good causes’, only getting on board when not doing so is a bigger risk. They celebrate Pride, clap for carers, do ice bucket challenges, raise awareness but never tackle the problems they claim to address. Although I was actually quite moved when the comrades at Shell changed their name to She’ll for international women’s day (at one petrol station). My unborn daughter really appreciated the gesture. Advertising and fascism both exploit the void, but fascism has a better marketing team.

If advertising confronts its terrible truth — that it is the problem, it will be unable to bargain for its existence or tolerate the alternative, and will slip further into depression.

There are glimpses of acceptance in absent and fallow 48 sheet billboards. The concept may realise its consciousness is impossible, an abomination, and, with any luck, cease to be.