Advertising takes one of its periodic trips into the spotlight – but does it really matter that much?

With a new series of Mad Men on our screens and the death of Margaret Thatcher (indelibly attached to the UK adland of the 1980s), advertising has made one of its periodic trips over the wire; entering mainstream debate as opposed to a minor role on the business pages.

So do ads change the world?

Actually ads as we know them – thirty or sixty-second spots on TV – don’t even though they boost the sales of a washing powder or mobile phone (if they don’t the ad agency usually gets fired).

But advertising, like lots of other businesses, is more often defined for most people by what it does occasionally as opposed to most of the time.

Like banking. Most people who work in banks don’t foist incredibly complicated financial ‘products’ on their customers that even they barely understand. But some bankers have done; so all bankers are pants.

It’s the same with ads.

Advertising is just something you do when you want to sell something: like using Ebay.

Its proponents says that it allows new companies into markets; which, to a degree, it does.

So logically, If it wasn’t for advertising the detergents market would be wholly controlled by Procter & Gamble and Unilever, who’ve been around since ever.

But is still is. But that’s because they’re better at advertising (and have more money) than their competitors.

OK, that’s a drawback in terms of the access to markets rationale.

Now to Mad Men and Margaret Thatcher.

Mad Men is based on the big Madison Avenue agencies of the 1950s and 1960s.

They were based on research and the business of producing ads that never frightened the client. There was nothing much very ‘creative’ about it.

Don Draper in Mad Men is a brilliant presenter, he isn’t a brilliant creative director. He would never have produced this:

That was produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach (now DDB, part of conglomerate Omnicom). Draper would have been much more interested in Cadillac.

Anyway, there you go. What we remember about ads in the 1960s now ain’t what it used to be like then. And Mad Men reflects then.

Now to Margaret Thatcher.

The most important ad in British advertising was Saatchi and Saatchi’s ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ for Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Party in the run-up to the 1979 General Election when she became dominatrix of the UK.

But the ad was almost a complete cock-up. Charles Saatchi didn’t want anything to do with the Tories and this but his managing director Tim Bell (later Lord Bell and Mrs T’s favourite adviser) did.

Even so Saatchi the agency had to round some not very willing Young Conservatives from Enfield to come down to Charlotte Street and form a (heavily retouched) queue.

And the poster appeared about once, because there was no budget. Maybe Saatchi paid for it.

But Labour deputy leader Denis Healey made a huge fuss about it in the House of Commons and, all of a sudden, it became the ad that made Mrs Thatcher prime minister – even if it didn’t really.

Which, if you like, is what social media is all about these days.

So what are we to make of all this?

1/ We overestimate the importance in our daily lives of advertising: if you don’t want the product you won’t buy the ad.

2/ customers, consumers, just people actually make an ad a success.

3/ Big bucks still matter though. If you can spend $1m on a YouTube film supporting your political party you have an advantage over your opponents – whatever the merits of your argument.

And that’s when (other people) should make a fuss about advertising.

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.