Ad infinitum

Advertising - Ziauddin Sardar says that life is now just one long commercial

The distinction between advertising and news has dissolved. This, in essence, is the message of the "Improperganda" exhibition at London's Proud Galleries, a collection of attention-grabbing images celebrating the advertisement as a media stunt. The unruly, orange-coloured slapper, who turned cheek-smacking into a brand statement for Tango, rubs shoulders with French Connection UK's exploitation of the British horror at the four-letter word "fcuk". Henry, the famous canine of the dog-food commercial, generated miles of column-inches, we are told, when it was revealed that he was a bitch; and cat-food manufacturers generated extra coverage by creating the myth that their product was laced with addictive substances. But does all this give us any insight into advertising?

"Improperganda" itself looks like a desperate attempt to generate publicity. It displays only one aspect of a far larger usurpation. Advertising has not just become news, it has, in fact, become everything. Advertising is now the eminent domain of our existence, dissolving all categories and boundaries within its imaginative grasp. The sovereign rights of advertising in the 21st century are a quantum leap beyond needs and desires.

Desire, as "Improperganda" shows, has long ceased to be a practical thing. Affluence in post-industrial society has put practicality as last on the list of our desires, where once it was the essence of advertising. Advertising became the bedrock of our existence in the 20th century. Whether it developed to fulfil the needs of economic forces or shaped how economic forces were experienced, advertising is the medium through which the history of that awful century is best told.

The 20th century did not invent advertising. Historians claim that the rich backgrounds of Renaissance paintings were self-promotions for their subjects, adverts of their credit worthiness and importance. Ancient monuments and artefacts advertise. Ancient and early modern poetry consists mostly of praise poems to the leader, a kind of nascent party political broadcast. So, advertising has always been there. But it was the 20th century's discovery of distributive abundance and artificial needs without limit that launched advertising on a new trajectory.

The greatest event of the 20th century, outstripping even its horrors, was the invention of a mass market for consumer goods: the apotheosis of the industrial revolution. Desiring the accoutrements of a lavish lifestyle is probably primordial, yet only in the 20th century did it become practical. And it was not a hard sell, as advertising from the early part of the century clearly demonstrates. It was largely text-based, lacked strong visual imagery and dwelt on informative illustrations of the actual products. The text made large claims for products, reflecting a sense of wonder at the possibilities of new technology. But the greatest wonder of all was the Model T Ford phenomenon: mass-produced products that every ordinary person could realistically aspire to own.

The explosion of consumer culture in the 1950s quickly exhausted the provision of basic needs, and advertising found its true vocation. It became a science - incorporating the conditioned reflex theory of Ivan Pavlov and John Watson, Freudian notions of motivation, and the whole battery of psycho-social behaviourism. Consumerism lost touch with practicality; advertising never could - it was the vehicle that kept economic growth on track. These were The Hidden Persuaders of Vance Packard's bestseller of the late Fifties. The purpose of advertising became the creation of desire without discrimination, a yearning for something without discernment, a cultural exercise in stimulating false desire and artificial need.

The other great development in advertising was entertainment. In the Fifties and Sixties, when television became the main vehicle for advertising, we learnt to enjoy it. The bits between the programmes became as memorable and are as fondly remembered as the programmes themselves. Advertisements were soap opera (from Katie and the Oxo family to the black horse sagas of Lloyds Bank), "naughty but nice" (cream-cake ads) and situation comedies ("for mash get smash" instant potato ads). Then there were the simple delights of Murray Mints ("too good to hurry mints") and Esso Blue ("boom boom boom"), or going to work on an egg.

But simple enjoyment, whether of ads or the economics of material abundance, was not enough. So, in the Eighties, we moved to conspicuous indulgence, and advertising became the symbolic style zone par excellence. It sold images of potential lifestyles we could indulge: Levi jeans were not just a commodity, they were advertised as symbols of freedom, originality and independence. To buy the product was to buy the idea of yourself - the product encapsulated your values.

In a world ruled by style and image, it is ideas that sell. Advertising, the art form that cut its teeth on political messages earlier in the century ("Your Country Needs You"), had an infinite repertoire of expertise to sell the idea and styles of conspicuous consumption. Think how subtle and subliminal it became in all those cigarette advertisements with never a cigarette or a brand name in sight - just a field of gold or shimmering grey cut by a swathe of pink silk. We all knew it was Benson and Hedges, and were immediately aware of Silk Cut.

This was sophisticated advertising for a sophisticated audience. As savvy consumers of the "medium is the message" world-view, we were alert to all the inferences of cultural reference. In fact, we were being prepared for the wheel to complete the full circle: advertising returned to the political domain and thereby expressed the future we would all inhabit. "Britain Isn't Working", Saatchi and Saatchi's election-winning poster for the Tories, proved that politics had to survive within the logic and eminent domain of advertising. Politics became a commodity, and the suffragette posters and daring ads demanding social justice of yesteryear were replaced by political parties and their leaders marketed as products. The full circle was reached with the long-running Benetton campaign, with its bold photographs of Aids victims, newborn babies and death-row victims, where product recognition made political points.

In the Nineties, advertising was transformed wholesale into the business of reality replacement. We entered an era of living our dreams in material terms, so advertising led us forward with dream enhancement. Remember those Guinness ads where Rutger Hauer morphed through impressionist paintings? Or the visual effects wizardry of the British Rail commercials where even the chess pieces settled back with a sigh to enjoy the ride. But once you have gone beyond reality, what is there?

In the 21st century, advertising need no longer sell things. What it must do is merchandise our continued existence. We are fast becoming the mouthpiece of advertising. When the market is all - the means through which even our moral, political and social conscience is expected to express itself - advertising then becomes the ether we breathe, the matrix within which we exist. And we, the people, are its greatest artefacts, its ultimate artifice. Advertising is now all about our state of being and existence; its goal is to manipulate our innermost desires of becoming. And should you doubt it, just pay attention to the ad for spicy noodles. A brute of a bloke comes home from the pub desiring a late-night snack. Once upon a time, that would have been enough. Now the spicy noodle snack, perhaps the lowest form of food one can eat, so liberates his existence that he can don ladies underwear and indulge his desire to be Madonna, and even his two, initially dubious, sidekicks will join in unabashed.

This historic progression is not what we should call progress. But it is clear from all the available evidence that the kingdom of advertising is now not just with us, but within us.

"Improperganda" is at the Proud Galleries, 5 Buckingham Street, London WC1 (020-7839 4942) until 12 August

Ziauddin Sardar's The Consumption of Kuala Lumpur is published in August by Reaktion Books (£17.95)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Tony Blair is a Bobo