The Open And Shut Mind

Sometimes I’m stupid. Let me tell you about one of those times.

A few years ago I was invited to a conference on advertising at a major university. The attendees were a fairly illustrious group of advertising professionals, including several senior executives from major agencies. There was also a healthy sprinkling of academics with impeccable credentials. I was in privileged company.

The organizer of the conference asked me to come up with a “dinner topic.” She explained that she wanted to generate a lively discussion at the various tables as we dug in and broke bread. It was okay if it was a “little” controversial. I must have ignored the qualifier, because my suggestion was, “Is advertising evil?” I have never been one for half measures.

As the ad illuminati settled at their tables, I set the stage by providing two opposing points of view:

First, the positive side of advertising. It can be a way to touch the very core of what makes us human, sometimes moving us to greatness. It can unify communities, create bonds and motivate us en masse. Not only can it be a social “lubricant” but, at its best, advertising can be a powerful change agent as well.



Now, the “evil” side: Does advertising take all this power and fritter it away to drive pure avarice?  Does it short-circuit our Darwinian behavioral wiring, chaining us to a hedonistic treadmill where we constantly want something we don’t have? Regular readers will detect a theme here.

It wasn’t difficult to read the mood of the room as I was wrapping up. My dad has a saying that, despite its off-color nature, sums up the atmosphere of this particular gathering better than anything else I can think of: “It went over like a fart in the house of worship.” I cautiously headed back to my table to take part in the planned “lively discussion.”

My tablemates didn’t know where to start. It seemed that it had never crossed their mind that advertising could be anything but the highest of callings. To have a debate, you need to at least have an abstract understanding of the opposing viewpoint, even if you don’t agree with it. At my table the most common question was, “What do you mean, ‘Is advertising evil?’” I had apparently introduced an entirely foreign concept.

I swallowed and forged ahead, sketching out the basis of my hypothesis. I tried to stay in the abstract, hoping to generate a philosophical debate and avoid getting caught in an emotional catfight. It seemed, though, that I had not only hit a hot button, but had taken a sledgehammer and smashed it to smithereens. Advertisers, at least based on this particular sample, seemed unwilling to discuss the philosophical pros and cons (or at least the cons) of their profession. I just wanted the whole evening to end as soon as possible.

My purpose here is not to reopen the debate. I use this story to illustrate an unfortunate human tendency. We live in a world of grays, but we like to think in black and white. I doubt that advertising is totally evil, but I also doubt that advertising is totally good. The truth lies between the two extremes; advertising is most likely a rather dirty gray.  If we’re willing to consider alternatives to our beliefs, perhaps it will move us a little closer to reality. I think advertising would do nothing but benefit from a deeper evaluation of its moral standing.

But we often forego a search for the truth, content to stick with our beliefs, which often bear little resemblance to reality. If those beliefs are attacked, we defend them vociferously, turning a deaf ear to counter-arguments. We don’t listen, because open minds require the burning of a lot of energy.

In a simpler evolutionary environment, beliefs were a heuristic shortcut for survival.  But today, they often polarize us at either end of a moral spectrum, with no middle ground left for discussion. Case in point, the current American political landscape.

I have spent most of my adult life trying to fight this natural tendency. I have tried to keep an open mind and not let my beliefs blind me to an opposing viewpoint -- at least, not when it comes to those things I believe to be truly important. Morality, religion and politics are just three arenas where open minds are much harder to find than staunchly held beliefs.

And, apparently, you can add advertising to that list as well.

5 comments about "The Open And Shut Mind".
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  1. louis ursus from ag, June 13, 2013 at 1:21 p.m.

    "Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket." George Orwell
    Anyone who doesn't see the humor in that is taking him/herself too seriously.

  2. Roger Dooley from Brainfluence, June 13, 2013 at 1:29 p.m.

    Great post, Gord - it's a great illustration of the cognitive biases we all have to fight, both in our own behavior and when trying to engage in dialog with others.

  3. Pamela Horovitz from Internet Video Archive, June 13, 2013 at 2:48 p.m.

    Thanks for sharing this one, Gord. It would be nice to think that the discussion really got going after that dinner was over. At least you introduced the idea.

    I remember that for years within the music industry executives would argue vociferously that controversial music played no role in suicides, rapes, or any 'evil' behaviors. But the next day they would argue that music had the ability to influence consumer behavior in an ad campaign. A bit of hypocrisy in which even contradictory beliefs were staunchly held.

  4. Cece Forrester from tbd, June 14, 2013 at 9:42 a.m.

    Why not reopen the debate? I think it's a good one to have.

    IMHO: Advertising, as a combination of economic activity and communication, is not inherently evil. Both, after all, are part of civilized life. Making a deal is not necessarily avaricious; it's a form of peaceful cooperation. But it is entirely possible to bring evil attitudes to it and incorporate them in execution--more so than in a simple sale because there's more going on. Those attitudes typically include disrespect and deception, attempted shortcuts to what you want, which can work in the short term. If these things are seen as traditional, that doesn't make them inevitable, but a phase we are trying to grow out of.

    Applying their opposites (treating the audience as you would want to be treated, being transparent about your mechanisms, claims and offers, giving good value) does not guarantee success, but those factors are often key to successful campaigns.

    Perhaps the urge to deny reality stems from the dilemma between wanting to be honest and an obligation to serve some party who does not want to be honest. Would that it were easy to prove the advantages of the high road. Maybe the place to start would be to recognize that there is such a thing and it is always an option whether or not it is chosen.

  5. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel, June 15, 2013 at 2:22 p.m.

    A few years back there was a magazine titled Gray (or Grey), which tried mightily to deal w/ all kinds of issues -- maybe ALL issues -- that were/are not simply black or white. It folded quickly.

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