You lookin' at me?

Advertising - Graham Bendel asks whether aggression is the new whiter than white

Convicted criminals, a scowling Vinnie Jones, an irate Geoff Capes, domestic arguments - for a while now, there has been a tendency in advertising to favour aggressive images.

Thomas Pink's latest campaign, dreamt up by M & C Saatchi, offended the Police Federation by featuring two convicted criminals, Tony Lambrianou and Freddie Foreman, looking "well moody" while modelling shirts. The Renault Clio "size matters" woman let out her aggression before driving by smashing up the furniture. In Reebok's latest campaign, a man is savaged by his own sofa.

Remember the condescending smile of the Seventies, the laughter and convivial air-punching of the Eighties? What happened to all that?

Originally, advertising's brief was uncomplicated, positive and wholesome. The "customer" was always right and the idea was to create demand, dispel negative associations and sustain brand loyalty. Advertising was born out of a traditional respect for - and fear of - the "customer".

This was the age of bright white smiles, great teeth and perfect families. The products were supported by human mannequins, who were optimistic to the end and light on emotional baggage. After the mid-Sixties, advertising fostered a more sophisticated concept of lifestyle, and subsequently delivered more challenging images. Marketing hasn't looked back since.

These days, a product must be promoted with emotion, vigour and a certain amount of risk in order to ensure the client's voice is heard. And as audiences linger ever longer in the youth market, a little attitude, or "geezer chic", shouldn't turn any of them off. But would a smile?

These are cynical times, in which a smiling face can be met with suspicion or indifference - unless the smiling face belongs to the sophisticated irony of, say, the Haagen-Dazs "Path to Joy" campaign. Here, the brand's TV spots feature seemingly "brainwashed" recruits in a sensual eating paradise - their mindless endorsement of the ice cream a nod to the contrived "niceness" of the past, perhaps?

Fay "Go to work on an egg" Weldon finds it hard to believe that anyone would buy anything on the strength of such advertising. The author of The Bulgari Connection, sponsored by the eponymous jewellers, is fed up with the "inbuilt cynicism" of the marketing industry today. The ad-makers "are doing a lot of social damage. They have a lot of power and not much responsibility. They should take some kind of Hippocratic oath," she says. She blames the excess of aggression on the cocaine lifestyle, and advocates "drug testing" for creatives.

Matt Beaumont, an ex-adman and writer of the bestseller E, thinks that a bit of rough can sometimes be a good thing. He imagines that M & C Saatchi must be exceedingly pleased with the campaign for Thomas Pink, a relatively small advertiser compared to, say, Marks & Spencer. In hiring "a few old lags", they have achieved "column inches way above their media spend".

The aggressive stance is common of many smaller (challenger) brands, which tend to channel their own competitiveness and determination directly into their marketing, resulting in harder-hitting images.

Some believe that ads can offer a feeling of catharsis, similar to drama, albeit on a much smaller scale (soundbite catharsis, if you like). When the Renault Clio "size matters" woman smashes a piano with a sledgehammer, how do we feel? Is she removing our aggression as well as her own? According to admen, using emotion to market a product is a good way to "bond" with the audience. Ever the unbeliever, Weldon claims that it is a "rare woman who would smash a piano. Most would sell it."

Ikea's ". . . or we'll come and see you" campaign has taken aggressive posturing to an extreme. If you don't shop at Ikea, the company's heavies will come round and sort you out. One TV ad shows a woman's husband tied up by Ikea's henchmen in a field. The campaign is brave inasmuch as the consumer is the recipient of the aggression, and is shown a lack of respect of which shop assistants can only dream.

There are darker implications underlying the jokey nod to "persuasiveness" in advertising. When the power and influence of consumers is on the decline - as the burgeoning might of corporations removes some of our choice - all of a sudden, the boot is on the other foot. The consumer has become a victim, powerless and at the mercy of the brand/product/advertiser. And the irony, in this "brutish" age of commerce, does not go unnoticed.

However, if an industry wants a customer's attention so badly, it wouldn't hurt to show the customer a little courtesy once in a while. Remember, even a conman smiles before he takes your money.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world