I love Grady Powell's opening paragraph in this week's Books and Culture review of The King of Madison Avenue. I'll hold off on giving you the subtitle for a moment to give you time to guess the king's name. (Hint: The book is about advertising.) Here are Powell's observation and a helpful question:
"[M]ost people would struggle to identify a national advertising agency, much less any of the copywriters, designers, or directors that produce our daily intake of commercials and billboards—with the possible exception of the fictional characters in Mad Men. The more advertising becomes central to our society, the more we take for granted its power to shape the way we think. Advertisers, like op-ed columnists, are trying to change your mind. Shouldn't you know who they are?"Yes. But he's right: we don't.
I guess this isn't much different than not knowing who brings water into my home. Except for this: At least I know the water company's title and can reach a representative with a 1-800 number. Same with the men (and one woman) who pick up my trash. I don't know them, but I've seen them there in the alley and maybe even said "Thanks" a time or two when I ran out late with the recycling bin. The work these folks do has an enormous impact on my daily life. Imagine no more garbage haulers. Or no more water service.
It's different with advertising because there is no 1-800 number; no occasional vision of workers in the background, nobody to know. And yet they have and use "power to shape the way we think."
Maybe this is part of advertising's problem. If you've ever imagined being invisible, you've probably imagined a few bad things you could get away with. Even if it's just to be that invisible fly on the wall to overhear a dying-to-know conversation, invisibility is powerful and potentially dangerous.
What accountability is there in advertisers' relative anonymity?
Anonymity on the loose
Consider this: How would advertising change if every ad ended with customer service contact information? Not for the product, of course, but a number or address to reach the copywriter and art director behind the ad. Would it raise the bar? Would people actually call? Would consumers demand more honesty and better treatment? Would SimGospel advertising diminish?
There are good agencies out there. And there are Christian and non-Christian advertisers who exhibit the attributes of Christ in their advertising work. But Powell's observation reminds me of the importance of accountability and what good might come from having more of it.
Read Powell's review here.