Advertising Is Not a Plot: A Reply to Vance Packard

A recognized leader in his field and well qualified to speak for responsible advertising executives, FAIRFAX M. CONE graduated from the University of California in 1925, He served on the staff of the San Francisco EXAMINER and in various advertising agencies in New York before settling in Chicago, where in 1942 he organized the firm of Foote, Cone & Belding.


THAT there are irresponsible people in advertising can no more be disputed than that there are unscrupulous builders, manufacturers, retailers, and even doctors and lawyers. This is unfortunate. However, to assume that the reprehensible are in greater proportion in advertising than in any other field of endeavor is certainly questionable.

In “The Growing Power of Admen” (Atlantic, September, 1957), Vance Packard has collected and collated a number of accusations of base advertising manipulation that add up to a vastly disturbing total picture. To be specific, Mr. Packard states that advertising executives have become the selfish masters of our economic destiny, our most powerful taste makers, major patrons and demeaners of our social scientists, dictators of the content of most of our radio and television programs, and judges with life and death power over most of our mass-circulation magazines.

This power, Mr. Packard believes, comes from $10 billion spent annually by the advertising industry to persuade the American public to buy goods, 40 per cent of which are unnecessary in terms of any real need.

The terms of real need are something I cannot argue. I am certain that few women I know need a home permanent wave or five colors of lipstick or an automatic dishwasher or a rotisserie. Few men I know need an electric shaver or a power lawn mower or a wardrobe that includes twelve nervejarring sports shirts. Few families I know need a 21-inch television set to replace an electronically satisfactory 14-inch television set, or need to belong to a book club. Nevertheless they do indulge in just such things. And while it might be interesting and perhaps useful to speculate on what would happen to the American economy if 40 per cent of consumer goods of almost any kind were to be deducted from our gross national income, the subject here is the irresponsibility of advertising people rather than the role that advertising plays in an economy of abundance.

In the first place, of the $10 billion spent on advertising in the United States every year, the total spent through advertising agencies is some $4 billion. Mr. Packard fails to make this distinction clear, and by implication accuses the agencies — which spend little more than a third of the money — of becoming “a great sociological battering ram.”This is only one of Mr. Packard’s mistakes. A much bigger one, and one that shows a curious lack of understanding of how advertising comes to be, lies in the statement that the expenditure for advertising is entrusted to the agencies.

This is something, I am sure, that many an agency man and woman has wished for, even dreamed of: professional responsibility. But advertising in most businesses is everybody’s business and there are no cases on record where any considerable sums of money have been entrusted to anyone for expenditure. Advertising budgets, like advertising plans and advertising messages, are no less subject to management scrutiny than expenditures for plant and equipment and payroll.

The advertising agency in which I am a partner is retained by forty-three advertisers. Their expenditures through this agency in 1957 totaled almost $100 million, and not a single one of these dollars was spent without advertiser authority and without advertiser approval of advertising text as well as schedules. Moreover, the shares of a large number of these companies are listed in the New York Stock Exchange. All are under the constant surveillance of stockholders and security analysts. None entrust advertising expenditures to either inside or outside advertising executives, nor to both together. Chairmen, presidents, and executive committees must pass every advertising budget proposal; and every budget that I know of is presented complete with detailed copy recommendations and layouts for printed advertising and proposed text and storyboards (precise pictorial outlines) for television commercials.

As TO the claim that advertising executives dictate the content of most radio and television programs, it need only be said that no half hour of time on any network or independent station is controlled by any advertiser or any advertising agency; nor does any advertiser or any advertising agency dictate the programing. Networks and stations allow only two options: not to buy either a time period or a program that is offered, or not to renew it. Now, to be sure, many an advertiser has dropped a program that someone wanted him to keep on the air. Various reasons are ascribed every time this happens; punishing a performer for failing to hew to some line has often been given as a reason, and I am sure that this has happened. But tune-in is the basis for almost all program decisions. Tune-in guides networks and stations alike in programing; and advertising goes where circulation is, where people in the greatest numbers want to look and listen. Advertising can afford to pay for programs just so long as advertising is effective in selling; it has no other purpose.

Before I come to the role of taste making and the subornation of the social scientists that are ascribed to the advertising industry by Mr. Packard, I think it should be noted that his charge that advertising executives are “judges with life-andcleath power over most of our mass-circulation magazines” is made with no shred of evidence, or even an implication, to support the allegation. Our ten largest mass-circulation magazines are the Reader’s Digest, Life, Ladies Home Journal, TV Guide, Look, Saturday Evening Post, McCall’s, Better Homes & Gardens, and the weekly newspaper supplements, This Week and the American Weekly. It would be interesting to have Mr. Packard tell us just which of their editors and publishers are held in advertising bondage; or, better still, tell us one who has ever brought up for advertiser or advertising agency discussion an editorial item or feature that he himself questioned, pro or con, on principle.

There have been many disputes by advertisers and their agencies about articles published in magazines to which they took exception, and scheduled advertising has been canceled. But I can see no difference between this and the action of an irate individual who cancels his subscription because of an article or story that he doesn’t like. America’s periodical publishers, large and small, like the broadcasters and the newspaper publishers, go their own highly individual and independent ways, and advertising follows them; it never leads.

The only “evidence” Mr. Packard submits to sustain his claim that the executives of the advertising industry have become our most powerful taste makers is the assertion that “In 1957 they made millions of Americans suddenly feel somehow inadequate because they did not own hightailed automobiles.” But Mr. Packard charges on. “Advertising men,” he says, once again without quoting any source for his statement, “now ponder the advisability of making the ‘entertainment’ portion of their TV sponsored programs a little dull so that the commercials will seem more exciting by contrast.” This is fantastic. What advertising men? Who? Where? And with the connivance of what network or station officials who must suddenly have decided that commercials and not programs attract the audiences by which they live?

The absurdity of most of Mr. Packard’s charges should be patent. And nowhere are these more ridiculous than in giving as standards of general advertising agency operation and practice a number of experiments and experiences in so-called motivational research, amateur and professional.

Many, many years ago advertising was defined as salesmanship in print: showing your customer why it is in his best selfish interest to buy the goods you have for sale. This, I submit, is neither dishonest nor demoralizing. American industry has grown great by producing goods that are in many people’s selfish interest to buy, and advertising has become the principal means of communication between the maker and the potential customer.

Advertising is not a plot. Nor are most advertising people wily plotters. They are salesmen, in print and over the air. And just as most good salesmen-in-person seek to know all they can about their prospective customers, so do most manufacturers and their salesmen-in-advertising undertake to learn all they can about their prospective customers. Motivational research is done primarily for two reasons: first, to find out what people know about products (and services), and second, to find out what people want in products (and services) that may not currently be there.

Frequently, motivational research is done to find out why a certain product isn’t selling or why another, competitive, product is selling much better. Sometimes the reason is only that the advertising is stressing a point that the advertiser thinks far more important than the consumer, omitting the real point of difference. In such a case the advertising may be changed to make the important point clear. Or, if there is a lack in the product, the product may be changed.

There is another important use of motivational research. As Mr. Packard points out, in alarm that I cannot share, many competitive products today are very similar in quality and performance, or taste, or appearance. Some critics of our system hold this to result from a concerted effort on the part of many people for standardization in everything we have and think and do; and I think no premise could be more false. Products are more alike today than ever before because few manufacturers can long hold any great advantage of research; competition is knowledgeable and alert and fast on its feet. The result is that more and more products and services are bought as a matter of personal choice than for reasons of large variations in quality or performance or value.

Motivational research is one of the methods used to discover the elements in choice in specific instances and to build products and design services and advertising — to merit the choosing. To be sure, motivational research has utilized techniques used also in sociological laboratories: the depth interview, projective picture and word association tests, galvanometers, and even, perhaps, hypnosis, as Mr. Packard states. But what Mr. Packard infers is that their use is reprehensible, and this I do not believe. Hypnosis in research is a new idea to me; I can only think that its use (if it has been used) must have been as tentative as the instance cited of a nameless Chicago advertising agency which “rounded up eight leading social scientists in the Midwest (two psychoanalysts, a cultural anthropologist, a social psychologist, two sociologists, and two professors of social science) and had them spend a twelve-hour day in a hotel room watching television programs in order to glean new insights into the appeal of the sponsored programs and the commercials.” Not many advertising agencies could afford so fantastic an undertaking, even once; and none that I know of could rebill the cost to its clients.

The use of depth interviews is valuable in many businesses. Projective picture and word association tests are standard in schools and colleges and in the hiring and placing of people throughout industry. And the galvanometer (lie detector) principle is only something that many people have experimented with to measure accurately reactions to parts of radio and television commercials that are lost in recall tests.

I repeat, there is no advertising plotting here. To know more about people and how they think, and what they want and why, is only to make advertising serve better. And now, if I can hear someone say, “serve whom?” I will say, “everybody.”The plain fact is that advertising to be affordable must sell the very same products and services to the very same people again and again. If it lies to them or if it builds up false hopes it can only fail, and so must the advertising people who make it, and the advertisers who pay the bill.

No one in business would ever use advertising if he could call on all his prospects in person. In selling many things to many people across the whole United States, the cost of personal selling is obviously prohibitive. The essential thing about advertising is that it is a multiplier of sales messages. It adds very little to the unit cost of most things we buy. As a result, advertising is one of the most important elements in mass production, for it makes mass selling at reasonable cost possible.

No advertising executive that I know wants to debase it. And, fortunately, those who do debase it commit their sins in public. What almost guarantees the honesty of advertising and advertising people is advertising itself. Punishment for sinning is swift and sure. It comes from a public that deeply resents being fooled and that will not buy any product again that has failed to live up to its original advertising promise.