John Lanchester has a brilliant article in a recent London Review of Books called ‘Marx at 193’. It’s very well worth reading. He talks a little bit about Marx’s attitude to that which we call ‘common sense’. For Marx, common sense was absolutely not ‘common sense’ – rather it was a way in which an elite tried to present its own particular construction of reality as value free, without history, somehow neutral. And like a lot of Marx, it’s something we don’t pay much attention to. However, even if most of us don’t read a lot of Marx, advertisers and advertising agencies present our own constructions of reality all the time – to our own advantage.
The classic example (thanks to the brilliant Ella Parry Davies for turning me on to this) would be Gillette’s ‘Reveal the goddess in you’.
Rather than present the product’s benefit – smooth hairless skin – as what it actually is – the mechanical removal of perfectly natural adult female body hair, it presents it as an act of ‘revealing’, hence normalising a ‘natural’ female state of hairlessness. Although this is clearly a pretty perverse construction of reality, it is obviously far more powerful as a way of talking about a benefit: I doubt many women want to be reminded that what they’re doing is ripping out their hair because once upon a time people (I’m guessing men) decided they preferred women that way. Quite the opposite in fact –what modern, empowered woman wouldn’t want to ‘reveal the goddess’ in herself?
To an extent the same observation could be made of Persil’s ‘Dirt is good’.
It’s perhaps not as sinister, but again it’s reframing the product benefit, subtly shifting ‘common sense’, to the advantage of the advertiser. Before washing powder was about restoring dirty clothes to pristine almost-newness, because dirt was an enemy that had to be expunged because people and clothes were meant to be clean. With ‘dirt is good’, the normative idea being suggested is that in fact kids (note that you won’t find an adult in their ads, that’s probably going a bit far even for Persil) are meant to be dirty because this means they’re doing all the kid things they are meant to, yet which we as adults feel guilty about denying them. In this sense, Persil are reflecting (and probably helping to drive) the contemporary obsession with and indulgence of young children (at least in England the little darlings can scream the place down in restaurants, roll around in mud etc etc with impunity).
There are doubtless more examples, (and I’m not saying these are both perfect executions either) but what they show is how powerful and memorable advertising can get when it gets under the skin of the value systems we accept as ‘common sense’. Much is made of ‘insights’ in advertising but in fact this kind of thing isn’t about insights at all. Stuck in front of people on a board in a focus group people wouldn’t agree that dirt was good, or that being hairless was more ‘natural’ than being hairy. Rather an entire creative execution works to change peoples’ minds, with them barely noticing it. It’s absolutely pure Marx – but he certainly wouldn’t have approved of it.