What We Thought We Wanted, Bought, and Now Sell



Originally published in MISC Magazine, 2015



The notion that desire is a child of industrial necessity has been with us for a long time. From the concept of planned obsolescence pioneered by Alfred P. Sloan during his early days as CEO of General Motors to the unapologetic product naming of a Dolce and Gabbana perfume in more recent times, the idea that consumption must be fuelled by the conscious creation of desire is as hotly contested today as it was back in the earliest days of mass production. 

Any history of marketing will tell you that the efficiencies created by mass production back in the latter half of the 19th century resulted in a new urgency: surplus inventory that had to be distributed and sold in order for producers to remain in business. The challenge was to get people to buy, and it was that challenge that gave birth to the business of advertising.

Concurrent with industrial efficiency and the resulting need to advertise and distribute were other technological breakthroughs – principally those of telegraphy, photography, and high-speed printing – which provided new platforms for advertising messages. Thus, in his insightful text The Image, Or What Happened To the American Dream, historian Daniel J. Boorstin describes how the speed of industrial innovation not only generated the need to sell more and more consumer goods, but more importantly, it generated the need for more and more imagery.

Boorstin points out that it also created the need for more news, which transformed the act of news-gathering into one of news-making. Just as factories needed to unload inventory in order to keep the machines running, so did newspapers – and later, radio and TV – need the constant production of news in order to keep the presses running and the studios humming. It was Marshall McLuhan (later famously paraphrased by Mad Men’s Don Draper) who claimed that there is a symbiotic relationship between news stories and advertising imagery, in which the news – which is usually bad – needs the ads, which are always good. As Draper pointed out to his tobacco client in an early episode of the hit TV series, advertising is not about truth, but about happiness. There is no such thing as bad news in advertising.


But what does this have to do with desire? If we follow McLuhan’s line of thinking, just as news need the happiness promised by advertising, so too does advertising need the threat of bad news to trigger the desire for what ads have to offer. As in all storytelling, the desire for a happy ending would not be necessary if not threatened by a clear and present danger.

This idea is also central to the final essay of John Berger’s critical classic, Ways of Seeing. In it, Berger posits that all advertising works upon anxiety, and that its purpose is to make the consumer marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life: “It suggests that if he buys what it is offering, his life will become better.” As such, it never depicts the present – but the future, a future in which not only your desire can be satiated, but that by buying what is on offer, you yourself will become a more desirable person.

Jenny Holzer  Art Car

Jenny Holzer Art Car

But it does not end here; it can’t. Unlimited growth demands non-stop consumption. Thus, as Berger also suggests, our achievement of the future promised by advertising is endlessly deferred. This is because its truthfulness is “judged not by the real fulfillment of its promises, but by the relevance of its fantasies to those of the consumer.” This lines up perfectly with Alfred P. Sloan’s invention of planned obsolescence. As a justification for the production of a “family” of products ranging from entry-level to luxury models, Sloan sought to stoke the desire for ever more expensive automobiles as customers climbed the social ladder and could afford them. This thinking also inspired annual model changes: an idea that left his rival Henry Ford in the dust and made GM the world’s largest industrial enterprise until well after Sloan’s death in 1966.

There is perhaps nothing more expressive of desirability – both of itself and its owner – than a luxury car. In these times of growing income inequality and declining social mobility, affluent drivers seek the means to define themselves as being above the crowd of middling consumers who struggle to keep up. Indeed, a Porsche commercial currently running on North American television claims that the iconic car’s far-famed German engineering will “isolate you from the world around you.” It’s difficult not to speculate as to the customer insight that led to this pathological proposition. Brand maven and marketing professor David Aaker would call Porsche and other brands like it self-expressive, in that their purchase is motivated by the consumer’s desire to show the world that he or she has achieved the status of desirability coveted by everyone else.

Jenny Holzer,  Art Car

Jenny Holzer, Art Car

Of course, there are cheaper ways to do that. A Prada suit or a Hublot watch will do in a pinch; perhaps even something as prosaic as an air freshener will suit the purpose. Advertisers go to great lengths these days to bring your attention to the fact that while your house may not smell bad to you, your neighbors might think otherwise. It could be your penchant for salt cod, or smelly pets. Or both. The point is, you don’t want people judging you on the basis of how your house smells. In this instance, your desire is simply not to be embarrassed.

How do you manufacture desire for a product that is essentially the same as the dozens of others like it? Storytelling has come to rescue us from the rapid commoditization of everything from breakfast cereal to personal computing devices, and has done so in the guise of something called ‘sadvertising.’ These well-crafted narratives all share one thing in common: they are designed to make you cry before you've even had a chance to think about it. They are leveraging an automatic, limbic system response, almost impossible to prevent. There’s no stopping your tear ducts. But the tears often give way to the feeling that you’ve just been punk’d.

This new breed of ads appeals to our desire for things like community, intimacy, and transcendence. We are now way beyond the products themselves – and into the realm of believing that by buying a pair of running shoes, we are fulfilling our desire for physical supremacy and transcending the reality of our expanding waistlines. Or that by buying a tablet, we can turn ourselves into auteurs or community-building masters of social media.

It’s as if the objects of our desire themselves possess the power to transform our unenviable present into a more desirable future. But if, as Berger claims, that future is endlessly deferred, then our desire puts us on a treadmill of endless consumption. Like the Tantalus figure of Greek mythology who was doomed by the gods to spend eternity grasping for food and water that were endlessly pulled out of his reach, we grasp at objects that we hope will fulfill the desire for what we lack: whether that is love, belonging, or comfort. But objects have no such power. The need for those higher states remains unfulfilled. In the end, that unquenchable desire remains as the default setting of consumer culture; the treadmill that keeps the wheels of commerce turning.


It should be easier to stand out in a commoditized world, but it seems that ever more heightened degrees of hyperbole are required to do so. Earlier references painted the prosaic air freshener as an example of the extent to which advertisers will go to demonstrate the efficacy of their products. In one current commercial, actors empty piles of stinking, rotting garbage into the back of an unsuspecting consumer’s car, then spray the cabin with their brand of air freshener. The blindfolded owner of the car is brought inside and asked to take a sniff; she responds with, “Hmm. Smells fresh.” They remove the blindfold and expose her to the ‘reality’ of the festering trash, to which she responds with ‘shock.’ A pretty standard trope, thanks to a long tradition of ambush comedy from TV shows like the old ‘50s creation Candid Camera and the more currently running Just For Laughs.

Another very prosaic category is chewing gum. The brand ‘5’ by Wrigley has managed to push the limits of CGI-fuelled hyperbole to new heights. The gum is known for its run of commercials in which people are transported, teleported, and magically transformed by increasingly intense and elaborate hallucinatory experiences, which we are meant to associate with the act of popping a stick of gum into our unsuspecting mouths. Now that anything is possible with special effects, anything goes in TV spots. And given our repeated exposure to the unimaginable but very real-looking scenes in today’s sci-fi adventure films, it was only a matter of time before ads accessed the same animation software.


Manufacturing desire for this brand of chewing gum illustrates what appears to be a new law of advertising: the more mundane and prosaic the product, the more elaborate the hyperbole required to sell it. But the pyrotechnical wonder that we see in the ‘5’ spots described above is just a prequel to new experience-based campaigns that dare consumers to participate in contests in which the winner will be given the opportunity to do something they have always dreamt of, but were either too scared or unable to do: things like base jumping, heli-boarding, or samurai-training with a master in Japan.

The latter was part of a 2013 campaign in which ‘5’ teamed up with Marvel to promote the latest Wolverine film. Utilizing Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the brand created a social gaming platform based on the movie plot to drive consumer engagement and promote both the gum and the movie. It pushed the product’s Facebook page to over 6 million likes.

As the one-way communications of Madison Avenue’s pre-internet glory days give way to the digital forces of collaborative marketing, social media challenges marketers to both manufacture desire and persuade consumers to distribute it for them. In a 2011 McKinsey article, American Express CMO John Hayes called this a marketing revolution: “We’re going through a revolution a whole lot like the Industrial Revolution. The change is that profound. I had a conversation recently with an employee about this new age of marketing. Basically, it went like this: ‘As we try to go to market with your idea,’ I said, “the world is going to decide whether or not this has real value, talk about it, and then position it pretty much how they want to position it.’” The communications brief is no longer about reaching target x, but about making x excited enough to share the game or the video with y – and every other letter in the online alphabet besides.

Robert Montgomery,  The Slow Disappearance of Meaning and Truth

Robert Montgomery, The Slow Disappearance of Meaning and Truth

John Berger claimed that a brand’s truthfulness will be “judged not by the real fulfillment of its promises, but by the relevance of its fantasies to those of the consumer.” Putting the marketing joystick into the consumers’ hands turns that on its head – especially for service brands like those of airlines or telecoms. For many years now, marketers have had to come to grips with the fact that consumers are wise to the wiles of acquisition marketing, in which what is promised is not often delivered. Lunchbag letdown is less and less tolerated, and customer experience is more and more regarded by consumers as the reason to believe. Messaging alone is no longer trusted. Nowadays, if you don’t deliver, the bad news travels far and fast. If she is no longer in full control of the process, how does a marketer prevent desire from turning to disdain?

Marketing is no longer enough. This is a wicked problem, and wicked problems require cross-functional, multidisciplinary collaboration. In other words, the marketer’s problems are now everyone’s problems. Desire is no longer manufactured by the magic of the marketing communications department alone. That kind of magic is increasingly powerless in the face of these new forces.

Desire is now created by the quality of the customer experience, and the customer experience is shaped by more than what the marketing folks alone can throw at it. Hence we see the emergence of a new title in the C-suite: Chief Customer Officer. Though in some companies that represents no more than a kick upstairs for the executive who was once in charge of customer service, in others it is recognition of the broader role of experience in keeping customers loyal enough to distribute desire for the brand’s products or services, and the shared cross-functional responsibility for making that happen.

In most organizations, this begs for a cultural transformation. The legacy model of vertical integration is built to resist this kind of disruption. As a bundle of parallel but separate silos of specialized activity, the vertically integrated corporation is ill-equipped to facilitate the kind of cross-organizational collaboration required to address the wicked problems of contemporary marketing. The notion that the customer belongs to everyone – not just to marketing or customer service, but to finance, IT, legal, and logistics – is profoundly counterintuitive. Even more counterintuitive is the notion that the corporate kimono must now be opened to allow the customer into the process. Customer experience cannot be fully designed; a company can only create, to the best of its collaborative ability, the conditions in which a favorable outcome is most likely to occur. The rest is up to the customer. The loss of control inherent in this is another huge challenge for companies as they struggle with the pressures of the new normal.

Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer

Though it may not appear this way to anyone who still watches network TV, the classic 30-second TV spot is in its death throes. According to the CMO Council, by 2018, internet advertising will be poised to overtake TV. TV advertising generated $173.7 billion worldwide in 2014 and will grow to $214.7 billion in 2018 – an increase of almost 24%. During the same period, internet advertising will grow from $133 billion to $194.5 billion – an increase of over 45%. CMOs are expecting to spend more on new product and service introductions, while also forecasting an increase in budgets devoted to customer relationship management. And we haven’t even talked about big data.

What these figures tell us is that product and service innovation and a focus on customer experience are the new platforms for the cultivation of desire. The hyperbole of post-industrial advertising is a last-ditch effort to keep boomers on the treadmill of consumption – but digitally native, ad-proof millennials are repositioning the default setting. They are the ones who will decide on how desire gets manufactured and distributed, leaving marketers on the real-time treadmill of engagement, trying to keep up. wn

will novosedlik