Author Talk with Hugh Mackay
Talks / Lecture
Hosted by the Australian National University and National Library of Australia, prolific and well-known social researcher, writer and commentator Hugh Mackay, discusses his latest book Selling the Dream with Alex Sloan.
Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (K), Alex Sloan (A), Hugh Mackay (H), Lucy Neave (L)
Location: National Library of Australia
K: Hello and good evening and while Alex and Hugh make themselves comfortable I’d like to welcome you to the National Library this evening. I’m Kathryn Favelle and it’s my pleasure to look after the Library’s community outreach activities which includes events like this evening.
As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land, the Ngunnawal people, it’s been a wonderful week I think of conversation and anniversary and remembrance and I would like to thank the Ngunnawal people for the privilege that I have to be able to live on this beautiful country that I call home.
Tonight we’re here with Hugh Mackay to talk about his seventh novel and I think you may be a little surprised, as I was, I was saying to Hugh just a minute ago, he keeps messing with our heads. Just when we think we know what he’s writing he turns up with something different. It’s been wonderful to have Hugh back with us this evening and I’m particularly grateful to the ANU and to Pan MacMillan Publishers for supporting tonight’s event. We couldn’t do what we do without the publishing and writing community of Australia.
Now Hugh is known for his insights into the human condition and his extensive list of works cover themes of ethics, human psychology and social behaviours but tonight we’re talking about advertising, a subject very dear to the Library’s heart. Some of you may have seen our exhibition, The Sell, which closed at the end of April. Thirty thousand people came to see that show to look at how the advertising world had changed in the last couple of hundred years and to reminisce and to imagine what life would be like if all of those ads were really true. Hugh of course is going to set us straight, I’m sure and he’s drawing on his experience in the advertising industry.
Joining Hugh is another very dear friend of ours, Alex Sloan. Alex shocked us all when she decided to retire from broadcasting with the ABC last year but we’re very, very delighted that she hasn’t retired from our microphones, not yet anyway. Have a lovely evening and please join me in welcoming Hugh and Alex.
A: Thank you. Thanks so much for turning up on a pretty rugged Tuesday night, let’s face it but don’t we love the cold? Actually we need to welcome Hugh ‘cause he’s a new Canberran, he’s one of us –
A: And I truly think I’ve tapped into this whole selling the dream thing because about midway through last year I got a phone call from Hugh and his lovely wife, Sheila, and it was very you know don’t say anything but we’re thinking of coming to live in Canberra. And so it took a bowl of soup and my lovely husband, Rob’s, special Canberra tour and the whole dream was sold, wasn’t it?
H: That’s when it fell into place, that’s right. It’s wonderful.
A: First impressions of being an actual resident here now?
H: Well we’re still in love, of course so it’s not fair to ask us, we just love everything about Canberra. And I’m sure a lot of people who’ve been here for 50 years love everything about it. But it’s magical and autumn of course has been stunning.
A: Are people asking you to justify yourself –
H: Oh of course.
A: What –
H: Why did you move here? They say as though are you insane? That’s Sydney people saying that. No, many reasons. As usual there’s never a simple explanation for something like this but the official story which is one of the many factors is that my wife is giving up her clinical medical career and is going to be teaching in the medical school at ANU. So –
A: It’s a neat deal so it’s a win, win, really, it’s a win for us too, we get Sheila.
H: Well yeah, you get Sheila, she’s the – yeah, she’s the star of the couple and ANU are apparently very happy to have her. Our two youngest grandchildren also live in Canberra, that’s a bonus but we’re certainly not saying that that’s the reason we’re coming to Canberra or they might think that we intend to be babysitters.
A: On to this fantastic book and, Hugh, I’ve read so many of your books, both your nonfiction and in fact spoke about –
H: Yes, Infidelity.
A: Infidelity as well. And I think I’ve read another one of your novels too but this one, it was suggested – tell us the story about how this book came about, for you to be writing satire.
H: Well I mean the background is that my future – actually I heard another writer saying a couple of years ago that his latest novel he felt had been published under the Official Secrets Act, it had so little publicity. Well mine have never been quite that bad but it’s true to say that the reading public have comprehensively ignored my novels in favour of my nonfiction so I shouldn’t complain ‘cause people do buy the nonfiction books. But after Infidelity, which sold very badly and it was a book I was really pleased with, I said to the publisher well I think that’s probably it, is it? You know will I do – and she said no, we think you should have a go at satire ‘cause I had written some comedy scenes in several previous novels and as soon as she said the word satire I was gone, I mean I was just off the leash. I thought that’s exactly what I want to do, I really – and more or less that was over lunch, she said that. By the end of the lunch I had the key characters in my head, I knew it would be set in an advertising agency, the perfect place for a satirical novel. And the general trajectory of the story came very quickly.
A: So you’ve always loved satire as a –
H: Yes, I have.
H: Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean I like humour in general, I like funny stuff but satire I think is – it goes an extra step. What I love about satire is its capacity to make you laugh at the superficial level, it’s always about it – good satire is almost always very contemporary, it’s almost always skewering something, a sort of foible that we identify in contemporary life but all comedy does that to some extent. But satire does that and at the same time I think there’s always a shock of recognition with good satire, that people say well we’re laughing at those people in that advertising agency but hang on, this is actually about us. And that was true from Jonathan Swift on, the satirists that I’ve really loved, people like Kingsley Amos and Anthony Powell – [Evelyn Moore], perhaps my favourite satirist, you can’t escape the feeling that this is really about what human beings are like and it just happens to be set in this or that contemporary location.
A: So it tells us the truth.
H: Yeah, I think it does. And it’s not simply funny, you know? In writing this book there were many – this is probably an embarrassing thing to admit but there were many scenes which made me laugh when I was writing them, I thought actually that’s very funny and then in the next moment I thought is it funny or is it deeply sad? You know is this a tragedy or –
A: Well they’re not far apart, are they?
H: No, no, they’re not and especially not in satire because we are exposing something about what we’re really like.
A: And it’s a bittersweet with a beautiful – I don’t know if everyone’s seen the front cover but John Clark has beaut – the late – the much missed – if someone asked me who should write a satirical novel about the advertising business, someone with inside knowledge who could write well and was extremely clever and amusing, I’d say see if Hugh Mackay is available. I mean that’s – what an extraordinary –
H: Well he loved it.
A: - gift that was for you.
H: He absolutely loved it and offered to the publisher to write an endorsement so that was kind of like - that was a dream come true ‘cause no doubt in my mind he’s Australia’s and New Zealand’s master satirist – was. And then within just a couple of weeks of this being printed he was dead. So there was that awful feeling you know will people see that and think gosh, are we exploiting the memory of John Clark? Well of course not at all but I – it’s very poignant for me, I you know I regarded him as a friend and to get that kind of endorsement, well –
A: Yeah and to have him and Brian Wheatley just shining that light on just the nonsense that we get blamed for actually here in Canberra but usually going on up there on – you’ll get blamed for that now, Hugh, just as a Canberran.
A: You say – I love in the acknowledgments at the back and I don’t know if it’s a kind of protection measure you know some of my best friends have worked in advertising, none of them are in this book. Tell me about that.
H: Well yes, six or seven really good friends who I’ve met at various stages of my life ‘cause I was kind of close to the industry. My father was in advertising, he was an advertising copywriter and because I was in the public opinion, research and social research business many of the clients who bought my research were advertising agencies and marketing companies, also political parties and others but in particular people from the marketing industry. So I saw the whole th – in fact for eight years in the ‘60s before I started my own research business I ran an opinion research business that was actually owned by an advertising agency so we were housed in the belly of the agency, I saw the whole thing from the inside but yeah, six or seven of my – people I’d regard as really good friends have worked in the advertising business at various stages. I sent them all a complimentary copy of the book just to sort of defuse this. I haven’t heard from any of them. I’m still waiting.
A: There’s none here tonight.
H: No, none here tonight. Actually a bloke who I barely knew who used to run – was the creative director of a very large agency at Melbourne wrote to me just out of the blue, I haven’t heard of him for 30 years, to say that he’d bought it and loved it but it had made him physically cringe at various points so I thought that was pretty frank.
A: That can almost go on the front cover too, I think –
H: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it could, yeah.
A: - you know there’s – that’s – you obviously got your arrows straight in.
A: You told – actually just speaking of your dad you told a beautiful story on ABC Canberra yesterday about road trips as a kid.
H: Oh yes, well my father lived and breathed advertising you know and if you grow up in a family where that’s the breadwinner as it was that kind of family, as in advertising, we’re all incredibly advertising-conscious but he would bring new products home that he was going to be writing ads for, we all had to try them. A memorable example of that was a cosmetic – a mud pack product that –
A: You do have beautiful skin, Hugh.
H: - my mother was forced to try and she put this thing on and it stung and she was sort of screaming get this off, get this off. Anyway she did her duty and tried it and then he wrote a campaign about how wonderful it was. But yes, the highway thing, whenever we would go driving, in those days traffic signs were all in words, they’re now all in symbols but if you came to a curvy bit of the highway there would be a sign that says curves. Every time we passed that sign my father would quote one of his own slogans, Curves, beautified by Burley.
A: It’s ingrained.
H: It’s ingrained, yeah, yeah so I – that’s why I was sort of slogan-happy as a kid.
A: I'm going to think that now. So you know there was no doubt when they were whole – when this was thrown over the lunch, satire, you just went straight to advertising, it was just fertile ground.
H: Yes, that’s interesting, I – yeah, I suppose because I knew it so well. I think one of the other characteristics of good satire, and I hope this comes into that category but people will make that judgement but I think the author you know has to be in a sense part of the target you know it has to be your tribe. That’s one of the things about [Evelyn More] you know one of the great things about his – it’s his own class that he’s skewering and so he’s right inside it. And people in the advertising and marketing business certainly think of me as one of their tribe. I don't think of myself in that way but they do and as they pay the bills I suppose I should be more grateful. But – so I feel as though it’s – yeah, it’s kind of my drive, it’s not as though they’re strangers to me and I’m standing at a distance and chucking rocks at them, not at all.
A: Now I won’t give away – just so Hugh doesn’t panic to say she’s going to give away the ending or anything like that but in Selling the Dream we have the agency of KK and C, you deliberately stayed away from KK and K –
A: - KKK so you’ve got Bob, John – John as spelt J-h-o-n – and Markus Craven – you couldn’t resist that one.
H: No, I couldn’t, no. Well the partner – the three partners of the agency are sort of stereotypes, I suppose and it’s true that none of them are based on an actual character but they’re all composites. Bob Kellman who’s the senior sort of suit, account executive type and the managing dire – senior partner of the agency, one of his colleagues describing him and trying to praise him, says you know the thing about Bob is he keeps his drinking problem really well hidden. And then there’s the finance bloke, John Cornfield, who - of whom it is said, every agency he’s worked for he makes them look as though they’re incredibly profitable in ways that seem to bear no relationship to the business they actually do. Markus Craven, the creative director, who was Markus with a C and became Markus with a K, I had a lot of fun with them all changing their names ‘cause advertising is like a branch of showbusiness where people are always fiddling with their names. A famous Australian example was a creative director called Simon Reynolds who put an extra I in Simon so he became Siimon Reynolds.
A: The grim reaper –
H: Yeah, the grim reaper man, yes and why did he do that? Because it was numerologically advantageous to him to have a double I in Simon. That’s the kind of thing that goes on in advertising agencies. But Markus, he’s known as a strategic weeper because he's capable of bursting into tears with almost no provocation which is a major selling point in the agency, partly because clients think he’s incredibly sincere ‘cause he’s always dabbing his eyes but also because when new work is being shown and Markus starts weeping at the sight of some of his own commercials and so the clients are inclined to think it must be powerful stuff if it’s moving Markus to tears so he’s famous as a strategic weeper. But the key character in the agency is a man called Linc, Lincoln, the hunter. I won’t describe why he’s called Lincoln, the hunter but he created the as his middle name so he would be Lincoln, the hunter and – can I just read you a paragraph about Lincoln?
A: Yes, you must read us Lincoln.
H: This will give you a sense of him. I mean he is the arch – archetypal conman. People describe him as a force of nature that – people who talk to him say you just feel like buying something from him, even though no-one likes him but someone’s summarising his recent activities in the past 12 months alone, he’s said to have revolutionised the global marketing of so-called clean coal technology for the rebadged Blue Skies Energy Corporation, consulted to several governments on ways to improve their country’s happiness index, mainly by changing the way it’s measured and booked out the first commercial spaceship bound for Mars in 2030. No refunds. He was also behind the – he was also the brain behind the launch of King Neptune’s kelp burgers made from farmed seaweed and those microwaveable frozen krill fritters. That’s him too. But here’s the big one, he’s grooming one of the Kardashians to run for the US presidency as the first step in establishing another Kennedy-style political dynasty.
A: And this was before Kanye announced –
H: Yes, yes, yeah, that’s right.
A: So you weren’t far wrong.
H: No, no, that’s right. That’s right. They didn’t have that president then.
A: He doesn’t actually have any ideas himself, does he? Lincoln.
H: No, oh no, he’s a complete bower bird. He has strategic ideas, most of which are crazy –
A: About money.
H: Yes, yes and ways of – I mean at one stage he’s flirting with an airline that’s considering appointing this agency as – to do their advertising, it’s an Asian budget airline called Budjet Express, budget spelt B-u-d-j-e-t so there’s a little scene where Linc, drawing on something that was given to him by someone else, I mean as you say these ideas are never original, he’s always recycling someone else’s idea and he’s urging this airline to make sure people don’t just say Budjet Express, they’ve got to say Bud-jet Express so all the emphasis should be on buds, everyone should receive a rosebud when they get off a flight, they should paint a rosebud on the tail of every plane etc, etc, that’s the –
A: I fell for it, I thought it was brilliant.
H: Well it never happened.
A: Then there’s Otis which probably gets quite close to as you say –
H: There's a bit of me in Otis.
A: Yes, there is a bit of you, he’s about the <inaudible> 18:55 and he's about –
H: Yes, he’s the research – strategic person. He’s a German who’s a frustrated academic. He has a PhD and he wants to write a book about how the mind is actually located in the gut so he even has a title for it, Gut Feelings but anyway that’s –
A: He works with –
H: Can I tell you?
A: Yeah, please.
H: Can I read you something about Otis? When Otis left university with a glittering PhD in behavioural science he’d dreamt of securing a job in a university department awash with sufficient grant money to support cutting edge research into Otis’ favourite subject, the mind body fallacy. With his idealism burnished to a bright glow Otis wanted to prove beyond all doubt that the mind was nothing more than a useful metaphor and some of the most significant drivers of human behaviour could be found in the digestive organs, especially the gut. He didn’t discount the significance of the brain and central nervous system but he felt the role of the gut had been seriously underestimated. His search for such a post had been fruitless etc, etc, I’ll edit this a bit but then he responded to an ad for a job that he could hardly believe, it was looking for someone to perform cutting edge research into the principal drivers of human behaviour which just sounded like Otis. Everything about the job sounded perfect except that it was in the research department of a company that made haircare products. He was duly interviewed, he got the job etc. Stunned by the devotion and skill of his colleagues he found himself caught up in the work.
Away from the lab he found it difficult to explain to family or friends that he was working on the development of a placebo gel that would be sold as a treatment for the wider centre parting effect in middle-aged women suffering from stress. The product had begun life as a hormonal gel but when early research found no statistically significant difference between the effects of the gel with and without hormone content it was decided to eliminate the expensive hormonal ingredient. When he once hinted in conversation with a colleague over coffee in the staff canteen that given the distress experienced by women affected by this type of hair loss there seems something morally dubious about designing and promoting a product known to have no therapeutic properties, he was met with a blank stare. Ah, his colleague finally said, I see what you’re driving at, you do not yet understand. We’re in the business of influencing human behaviour, not curing wider centre partings. We are unlocking the mysteries of human motivation. Who gives a fig about vanishing hair? The women who suffer from this problem? Otis ventured. We are facilitating their capacity for self-healing at best but that’s a collateral benefit, my young friend, what we’re really doing, at least this week, is determining whether a little more mauve in the pack design will enhance purchase intention.
So Otis gets caught up in all that stuff. He develops a theory - and this is one of these points where I think the satire has something for all of us - he develops a theory called the law of inverse significance because he’s noticed, as indeed I noticed earlier in my career, that the more trivial the product the more sophisticated and expensive will be the research that goes into it. Pet food is his favourite example he talks about, the German – a German pet food company where the finest minds in Germany are bent to the task of separating pet owners from their money and so he comes up with this law of inverse significance, the more trivial it is the more significant the research will be and I think that’s actually an almost universal law. It’s not just in the marketing business, we’re all a bit like that. The things we obsess about most are often the least significant things in our lives.
A: And that’s true satire, when you’re laughing, you then stop and nearly weep because it’s – you – we’ve named all the blokes and this is deliberate. There’s men running KKK –
H: Men are running KKK although in fact the two strongest women in – two strongest characters in the novel are both women. We won’t say too much –
A: No, no, we’re not getting –
H: - about them except they are admirable people in many ways. And you can’t really say that for any of the blokes.
A: Do you think that is still the same? It’s still the blokes –
H: Women have become much more present in the advertising and marketing industry. It’s still the case - and this is an old, old story, isn’t it? Well it’s a new story - most of the chief executives are males but by far the majority of the staff of most advertising agencies and marketing companies these days are women but they’re still not mostly in the chief executive role.
A: If we can – and I won’t give away this but there is to be a new product called the ripper.
H: Oh yes, yes well the ripper is an accident. Like many new products it’s a snack food product to be directed at teenagers. It was accidentally discovered in an Indian laboratory where they were trying to produce a curry-based dry snack food and they introduced some rhubarb into it and came up with an extraordinary sensation in the mouth, as though the skin is actually being ripped off your throat. So they decided that this was – that was part of a global – it might be a national corporation called GBH - I won’t tell you what GBH stands for – so they decided they would call the product the ripper for that reason and they were doing all kinds of taste tests. Otis was involved in some of the research and developing the campaign for the ripper. It had - the effect was so violent that kids who were testing it would sort of run from the room to throw up and it became a contest between the kids in this rather animated group discussion, the sort of focus group that I described, to see who could actually retain the contents of their stomach after having swallowed one of these pellets.
And one of them encouraging the other one to have – oh it says on the pack may contain traces of poison because rhubarb contains traces of poison as you know, oxalic acid, and that’s regarded by GBH as a major, major selling point because you know it takes kids right to the edge of danger. They say you know products like alcohol and cigarettes have all the advantages over us ‘cause they you know can cause so many health problems so may contain traces of poison will be a huge selling point. But as one of the boys in the group remarks when they’re – when he’s trying to encourage one of the other kids who’s read this and doesn’t want to have a bar of it, to say go on, go on, have a go at this, it won’t kill you. And that actually becomes the big selling point for the product, it won’t kill you.
A: Just to read a little bit with the – this is going to be textbook BSUF, you love the acronyms in the adverti –
H: Well the marketing business is full of acronyms, yes.
A: Big spend upfront, we want everyone under the age of 24 to know about the ripper within one month of launch, Linc cuts in, and Gerry, if I may, will want everyone over the age of 40 to think it’s disgraceful and disgusting –
A: - which is exactly what happens, isn’t it?
H: Yeah, oh yeah, I mean that’s –
A: The outrage that can go on for the middle-aged and it runs away.
H: Yeah, absolutely and there are many marketing organisations that do market food and drink products to young people who are determined that older people will think it’s all outrageous and will hate it which will enhance its appeal to the younger consumer, of course.
A: It did remind me, my daughter once bought one of those lollipop things that was blue and her tongue actually went bright blue and all the skin came off the tongue and of course I said we’re never getting one of those again and of course that’s all she ever wanted so I thought –
H: That’s right, yeah and her friends were saying hey, cool, can I get one of those?
A: Yeah and rips her tongue off. So I’ll probably open it up to questions in a minute ‘cause this is a nice intimate little room and we’ve got Hugh Mackay, Canberrans, sitting here so get ready with your questions but I suppose advertising is a key element of capitalism, isn’t it?
H: Yes, it’s the handmaiden of capitalism, really. One of the things that I think is important for us to – I mean what this book exposes, I suppose, if it’s news to anyone is that people in advertising have an enormous amount of fun, I mean they really love what they do and they take it absurdly seriously. But what the research into the effect of advertising on all of us says very clearly is that both the great advocates for advertising and the harshest critics of advertising both get it hopelessly wrong, they both assume that it is this insidious, pervasive influence that’s making us do things we don’t want to do, changing our attitudes, shaping our behaviour in all kinds of ways. The evidence for that simply doesn’t exist. Almost all advertising has the effect, and this is the intended effect, of reinforcing the existing situation so marketing companies do all sorts of things to get us to try their product in the first place.
Once we become users they’re prepared to spend millions or billions annually reinforcing our contentment, our connection. The people who read luxury car adver – this is an old piece of research but still valid – the people who read luxury car advertisements most avidly are the people who’ve just bought one because it reinforces why did you spend $140,000 on – ah, it was to get the zero offset steering or something. So – and that’s true all the way through to Coca-Cola, I mean the target audience for almost all advertising except a new product, the target audience is the people who already love us. It’s trying to get us not to change but to stay the same. They do other things to try and get us to change, cut the price, hand out samples, change the pack, all of that but advertising itself is a – I mean I wouldn’t say it’s a benign thing, I mean I think the intrusion –
A: From smoking or alcohol ads it’s –
H: No, no but see even there –
A: Gambling –
H: - did smoking advertisements persuade people to take up smoking? That controversy will never go away, we’ll never really know the answer to that because the social pressure to take – if you see a program like Mad Men where everyone’s smoking all the time, that’s how it was, I mean when I was working –
A: But the fact that the cigarette companies fought it so hard, didn’t that just reinforce that it worked?
H: Yeah well that’s how it appeared but most of what they were doing was reinforcement advertising, they were trying to keep their loyal consumers. But obviously that’s not the total story, there is some persuasion that goes on, some conversion but 95% reinforcement, maybe 5% conversion and the whole idea that advertising could be influencing us without us knowing like all the controversy about so-called subliminal advertising where people think gee, are they getting at us even though we don’t know? That was all based on an experiment that was done in an American cinema I think in the 1950s where the word popcorn was flashed subliminally on the screen, subliminally meaning below the threshold of perception so you couldn’t actually – you might have thought you saw something but you weren’t sure what it was. And when they flashed the word on the screen sales of popcorn went up at interval. And this was published in a respectable research journal as an example of subliminal advertising, the term was coined in that article. The whole thing was a hoax, it never happened, the experiment did not exist and other people tried to replicate it and of course no-one could because you can’t be influenced by something you haven’t perceived, there is no such thing as subliminal messages. So you know that was a very nasty – I don’t know the backstory, I don’t know what the motivations were but certainly the social effect of that was to spook people about the fact that propaganda might be influencing us without us knowing. Not possible.
I think the worst – the thing I worry about most with advertising is the way it has infected the political process. I think the application of commercial marketing techniques and especially advertising to political campaigning, I don’t worry about it being influential, what I worry about it is that it trivialises the process. If you’re going to promote brand Turnbull, brand Shorten, brand Liberal, brand Labor etc, if you’re actually going to have strategists in the back room thinking like that and controlling talking points for the day and slogans and all that and creating campaigns particularly at election time, the net effect of that –
A: Is Donald Trump.
H: - on the electorate - well the end point is Donald Trump, absolutely right, Alex. If you're going to market a – politicians and parties like brands you will end up with – I mean Donald Trump is a brand, that’s what he is, brand Trump. It’s like electing Coca-Cola President of the US, you know, for a can of soft drink he’s not doing too badly. But what it does here is trivialise the process so the voters start to think it’s brand A and brand B and if you treat it on the political side, if you treat it like consumer mass marketing then on the voter stroke consumer side it’ll just look like –
A: Because see you know some – you’ll hear some arguments that we’re seeing the last days of capitalism and you know if advertising is that key part, we have got Trump as the ultimate salesman, that we’ve all bought into this dream in some way.
H: Yes and that will be salutary. I mean I think a lot of Americans, and people around the world, are thinking how did this happen? Well we know how it happened, it happened for all the reasons that I explore in here. And it could happen here, you could end up with you know a completely vacuous –
A: Clive Palmer or Pauline Hanson.
H: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I mean there are some things that save us in Australia from some of those excesses that we fear like One Nation. Compulsory voting and what I think is still a bit inadequate but nevertheless by world standards a reasonably generous social welfare system which means we don’t have vast tracts of really disaffected people like in America, the millions and millions of people who are really trapped with declining real incomes, no serious social security, they were absolute sitting ducks for the Trump story. Now we don’t have that, I think we can be proud of our welfare sys – should be a lot better but it’s good by world standards. And even though I’ve over the years equivocated about compulsory voting –
A: Have you?
H: - the more I think about it the more I’m a passionate advocate –
A: Yeah, no, I’ve always been rock solid –
H: - for compulsory voting.
A: - just – let me open it up now to – you’ve got in this nice intimate room, Hugh would love your questions like you might just solve the state of the world for us but yes, you’re handing over the microphone. Have you got any questions? Come on, open up, here we go. At the front here.
Au: Thank you very much. My question is do you think advertising is an art form?
H: Yes, it’s an art form in the sense that words and pictures and music are created by creative artists serving a commercial purpose. It’s extraordinary how many people who’ve gone on to be – I mean Sydney Nolan was a commercial artist in an advertising agency, Peter Carey ran his own advertising agency before he became a novelist, he was a copywriter. I think –
A: Ray Lawrence. Ray Lawrence.
H: Yes, Ray Lawrence.
A: Not happy, Jan.
H: Yeah and many of the world’s most famous novelists spend some of their apprenticeship writing copy for advertising so it is an art form in that sense but it is of course a peculiar art form in that it’s not in the service even of politics, it’s in the service of commerce. Does that make it ugly? I’d rather it were in the service of commerce than politics, frankly. I mean one of the things – I said this to a group of people in Sydney a couple of weeks ago and there was an almost audible hissing and booing protest at such an outrageous statement but I believe it to be true and that is that advertising has a kind of naïve integrity about it. Advertisers actually have to tell the truth, politicians don’t but if an advertisement can be found to be untrue then the company responsible can be prosecuted. I wish we could do that with political promises. So generally speaking – I mean of course they’ll gloss everything and you know it’ll be –
A: Coke is the real thing. Coke –
H: Coke’s the real thing, yes, yes. Well what does that mean? But it’s not a lie, I mean if you want a highly acidic, heavily sugared carbonate soft drink, well Coke is that and it’s not really pretending to be anything else. And that’s generally speaking the case, you know? They’re selling you a product – oh the other thing that I think gives it this kind of integrity is no-one is in any doubt about the purpose, no-one is in any doubt about why – I mean if you don’t like advertising, you don’t tune in, you don’t read the ad, you don’t watch commercial television or you mute the sound or something. But if you watch it you know what it is, it’s Unilever trying to sell you soap. Well no-one’s pretending that it’s something more insidious than that so in that sense quite naïve. And Linc, Lincoln, the hunter, this – the antihero of this book – he’s actually the sort of walking embodiment of that. There is a kind of naïve integrity. He’s an appalling person but at least everyone knows where they stand with Linc, he’s always on the make, he’s always trying to persuade and sell and influence power plays etc and that transpar – so he is a kind of personification of what I think about advertising.
So I think you know – and from a very – I mean we worry about the number of commercials that little kids are exposed to. Two things to be said about that, one is parents have always had and continue to have infinitely more influence on what their children’s attitudes and behaviour are like than commercials do unless the parents have abdicated their responsibility. And the other thing is that because kids are so exposed to all this thing at an early age they’re very cynical about it from a very early age you know I think we don’t have to worry too much – I mean very young children, yes, I wouldn’t like to think they were being exploited by – and I always refused to do research on young children for that reason. But generally speaking I think it’s easy to exaggerate the effect. But back to your question, yes, it’s an art form, yes, yes so it’s a blend of art and science because there’s an art – there’s a lot of art goes – creative work goes into the words, the picture, the music and there’s a lot of science that goes into the strategy.
A: Rob, did you want to ask a question? And put your hand up if you want to –
Au: I was interested in your comment on subliminal advertising. How effective is product placement?
H: Extremely effective. Oh sorry, product placement, not sure, I was thinking of product sampling. Sampling is the most effective marketing technique there is, in other words giving you a sample of the product for nothing, you clean your teeth with it, it’s either terrible or it’s good and you’re much more likely to try it if someone’s given you a free sample than if they just advertise to you.
Au: I was thinking more –
H: Product sampling – yes, the incidental business of placing products like seeing that people are drinking Pepsi or Coke or that they’re driving a Lexus or a Cadillac or something, no-one knows. But the marketing companies of course will pay a lot of money for those product placements because that’s all they have to do, they don’t have to create a commercial or a campaign, they just have to get the product in the movie and the probability is that it contribut – I mean I’m equivocal in this answer, Rob, because it is complicated. The single most significant factor impelling a person to buy a product, a brand – not a product, that’s another question as to why they get into a category but within a category the single biggest factor impelling a person to buy a brand is that when they think of that category that’s the first brand they think of.
Now for most of us the first brand you think of is the one you bought last ‘cause that’s the one that’s in your cupboard, that’s what you’ve been eating or drinking or washing with or whatever it is. So that first brand awareness – Linc explains this whole theory in the book and he’s right but that first brand awareness is a huge predictor of what people will buy. So product placement – like billboards on football grounds etc - is all just designed not to make out a case or put forward a selling proposition but just to get the brand into people’s heads so that it might be the first brand they think of when they’re in that category next time. Incidentally, without giving away too much, I should say in the epilogue to this book there’s a bit of an interesting twist where we encounter a clergyman who uses product placements in his sermons funded – his ministry is funded by commercial organisations in return for product placements in his –
A: There’s a really obvious one at Christmas time. Something you wouldn’t think but might have something to do with nappies but – a question up the back here? Just raise your hand and our lovely helper will –
Au: Hi, Charles Doig, he works I think on The New York Times wrote a book about the power of habit and he sort of expressed this idea that most of what we buy is deeply habitual –
Au: - once you start shopping at Coles you will never ever stop except – and this is where one of the retailers in America started looking at what point do habits break when you know in your life? The first target point oddly enough, not when you get married but when you have your first child. There was another target point at divorce but whatever and then the advertiser started trying to find the point where individual consumers were going through this and target them. Now if you couple that with tools where most of the traditional mass market advertising is dying, we don’t physically shop, we don’t read newspapers, we don’t watch television, it’s all over –
H: Well it’s not all over, we still spend more time on television than on the net, strangely enough.
Au: The second most richest public company in the world is Google, 97% of their income comes from advertising.
H: Yes, absolutely.
Au: They sell your eyeballs so the whole idea is they customise and profile every eyeball they see and sell it to the highest bidder. At what point does your sort of comfortable statement that advertising hasn’t changed anything –
H: Well I didn’t quite say that, did I?
Au: - gets down to this point of vulnerability that – as Hal Varian, their Chief Economist, said if I know enough about you, it won’t be an ad, it will be a helpful suggestion at just the time when you’re most susceptible.
H: That’s very true.
Au: At that point you really have to worry, don’t you?
H: Yes, that is very true.
A: I’ve got funeral plans coming up on my Google –
H: I heard about your retirement.
A: Retirement, you know.
H: Yeah. Look now it’s an extremely important issue and thank you for raising it ‘cause of course we haven’t talked at all – there is talk in the book about the social media thing and it’s a completely new world of advertising, I mean traditional advertising agencies are dying out if they don’t get the new way of doing it and as you say it’s very tailored. I mean the more we hear about what governments, media companies and commercial organisations, marketing companies know about us the scarier it gets, I mean it is the case that your smart phone is like a walking autobiography, in some cases including recording your conversations. Now that’s going to be more and more the case in the future. Uber can tell a lot about the customers who’ve called from data retrieved from the phone on which the call was made including whether the phone – I’m not sure that this is Uber or another competitor but one of those companies - I don’t want to defame Uber – it can tell for example if you’re a female and if your phone is almost dead and so if it’s late at night and you’re a female and your phone is almost dead the price can go up almost limitlessly because you’re desperate for a cab.
Au: <inaudible> 48:01.
H: Yeah, that’s right so that I regard as absolutely pernicious, appalling manipulation of a person’s circumstances, different from advertising. Where advertising pops up in Facebook or on Google or wherever, again I think I would argue that almost always it’s about the brand, not about the category. In other words I get – for some reason Alex has been getting –
H: Funeral plans, I’ve been getting spring handbags.
A: It’s your natty dressing, you know?
H: Yeah, I’d never thought that I needed a new handbag for spring but I'm getting this message repeatedly. Well it has absolutely zero influence on me, I’m not about to become a handbag carrier. So most – if it’s going to influence me it would be about a brand in a category where I already shop and if some alternative brand is offering something that attracts me then I might be tempted. But here – this is the main thing about advertising, that it’s about getting you to change brands, not getting you to adopt a new category and by the way –
Au: <inaudible> 49:26 which really becomes the issue. Most online advertising is crude, you’re quite right, it’s only five years old. I worry about online advertising in 20 years’ time when an extra 20 years with some of the smartest brains on the planet start applying themselves to each of us as individuals and what we are susceptible to and when because at that point it won’t be spring handbags, I'm sorry, it will be tailored precisely to a situatio –
Au: - and they’re wanting to sell you some kind of scarf because you’re going to go outside tonight and it’s going to be cold.
H: Yes. Oh that’s true –
A: It’s almost getting there now.
H: Yeah, it is. You know I remember reading 10 years ago about how when you're walking past a retailer you will get a message on your smartphone about something that’s on sale in that – well that’s now already – that’s not science fiction, that now actually happens. So I agree with you, 20 years from now who knows? You know we may be getting messages beamed directly into the chip located in our head instead of a smartphone. I mean the only way to stay pure from all this of course is at the moment don’t have a smartphone. And in fact I read someone recently saying if you want to have a confidential conversation with someone leave your phone at home, go out into an open space somewhere, keep your voice down and talk. It’s like old spy movies and even then you can’t be sure that the person you're talking to isn’t wired. So it is a spooky scenario when you try and imagine how this will all go. If we’re talking about commercial advertising via these media it will still be the case that to the extent any influence occurs almost all of it will be influencing me to buy Rosella rather than Heinz and I don’t regard that as something that threatens Western civilisation. If it was forcing me to consume more tomato sauce than was healthy for me rather than switching brands I’d be worried.
A: Yeah, you're right in terms of that, I mean for someone who you know worked as a broadcaster at ABC for 27 years you know constantly being charged with bias where advertising doesn’t have to – it just states this is the side we’re on.
H: We’re biased, that’s why we’re here.
A: We’re completely honest –
H: Yeah. By the way the point you made right at the beginning of your remarks about the birth of the first child being the great change point, still true, absolutely. And of course the average age of the mother at the birth of the first child today is 31.5 so that choice point is coming much later. A generation ago the average age of the mother was 22.
A: That’s when they start listening to the ABC, actually, too. They switch from Triple J to local radio and Radio National interestingly is with the first child so –
Au: <inaudible> 52:30.
H: Yes, it’s true.
A: Are there any other questions? Alright I’ll get you back – oh great.
H: There's one over here.
A: And one over here. Terrific.
Au: I just wondered if you were being a bit generous because one of the things with advertising is it’s designed to sell more, to buy more and I think there’s an environmental argument now that we can’t afford this, we can’t afford this endless pursuit of consumerism –
A: And that was my question about the collapse of capitalism perhaps, that it’s an integral part, yeah.
Au: And advertisers will sell anything, just to sell more and it’s kind – I think it’s slightly naïve to say oh well it doesn’t matter whether it’s Rosella or Heinz, the environmental impact of everything we buy now is so serious and in such numbers that I think we need to hold advertising to account for the impact of whatever they sell. How would you respond to that?
H: Yes. No, I agree with that but I’d go back a stage and say it’s the marketing organisations and their total marketing effort including advertising which is the weakest of the marketing factors but all of their entire marketing effort promoting consumerism which is a way of promoting materialism needs to be called into question. I have ethical difficulties with the whole framework, I regard the part played in that by advertising as tiny because mostly it’s not selling more, it’s doing what I said earlier, it’s encouraging – I mean yes, reinforcement is an encouragement, it’s encouraging people to go on doing what they’re doing and if what they’re doing is a bad habit or a destructive or wasteful habit then that shouldn’t be reinforced but in the – maybe the dying stages but at any rate the current state of capitalist economies, they will do that in the same way as Coles and Woollies will do what they do and Mercedes and BMW will do what they do and will go on this mad way of thinking that consumerism is fun, is good for us, therapeutic, retail therapy is a reality you know people do go shopping to relieve their anxieties. I don’t think that’s good, I think that’s a terrible situation and we are looking at the confluence now of some very, very strong apparently unrelated imperatives.
I mean the global imperative to do with climate change, our biological imperative to be more cooperative and less competitive and the emotional imperative to relieve – I mean here’s a country like Australia in which we have an epidemic of anxiety. One in three Australians will suffer mental health issues in their lifetime, about 25% of people currently suffering from anxiety, epidemic proportions. Now those things come together to say there’s something crazy about the way we’re living so I’m not endorsing capitalism, I’m not endorsing neoliberalism. The satire is of one – the tip of the iceberg, namely the advertising industry so I’m not its advocate, I'm just suggesting that of all the other problems we’ve got this is one of the least.
A: One last question over here and I think we’ll –
Au: To be honest you probably just started to answer my question then. A lot of your nonfiction writing is about I guess the quality of human relationships and you know the scope of the individual for expression and things like this. So do you not see advertising as having a role, not just in trivialising our political discourse but in trivialising the quality of interpersonal human relationships and our communities with its ubiquity or anything else? Just taking up our time, having to sort out the truth from the fiction and the agenda all the time.
H: Yeah, it’s another one of those lovely question, I mean almost impossible to answer but let me just free associate for a minute. Advertising – point Alex just made a moment ago – we all know where we stand with advertising, we know what it’s going to do like anyone who would naively think – I mean if advertising were as persuasive as people fear it is then we’d be changing brands every week. In other words if the last message we got was influencing us to buy something or feel some way we’d be constantly changing whereas as the gentleman at the back reminded us most of us are constantly not changing so that’s the background I think to my answer.
And I think if you’re worried about the loss of relationship time that we give to advertising that’s really a bigger issue as the loss of relationship time we give to the media and most particularly to screens. I mean I think there is a growing serious sociocultural problem about screen time and that’s not really – advertising is part of it but it’s not the primary driver, it’s television programs and it’s the internet, it’s Google, it’s Twitter, Instagram. Put all this together and the serious worry – the most serious worry I have about the rising generation is not whether they’re going to be persuaded to buy X or Y but that they are spending so much time with a screen that as neuroscientists are now telling us, that’s probably affecting their brains and the development of their brains and it’s certainly affecting relationships because the trade-off is too great.
There’s some recent research showing – UK research showing that if kids – this was I think 10 to 15 year olds, young adolescents – spend three hours a day with a screen, any screen, doesn’t matter about the program content, irrelevant, just any screen they will go to bed – their cortisol levels will be raised so they’ll experience anxiety as a result of three hours of screen time and when they wake up the next morning, if it’s been three hours’ exposure the day before, when they wake up the next morning their cortisol levels will be still be elevated and they will still be exhibiting symptoms of anxiety after a night’s sleep and I think that’s a real worry. That’s a worry about the whole information communication technology revolution and by the way the researchers – the researcher who was quoting this stuff, British journal recently published, made the point that three hours is very significantly less than the average for British kids in that age group.
So that to me is the real worry. I think as parents and grandparents to say nothing of kids themselves, we need to be monitoring this screen time question much more seriously than we have been and if we see that our offspring or kids that are in any sense in our care are spending more time with a screen than with humans face-to-face very loud warning bells should ring. And I emphasise that the content is almost irrelevant, it’s the interaction with the flickering screen that’s the real problem.
A: The trouble is, Hugh, I went to one of those sessions for parents telling us all that data and I looked around the room and every single one of the parents was looking at their phone during the talk and I thought there’s the problem.
H: That’s right.
A: I think - Kathryn, do you – Lucy’s going to give us a – this is the fabulous Dr Lucy Neave.
L: Thanks – I’m a senior lecturer in creative writing at ANU and thanks for being here in reality rather than on a screen, it was fantastic to have you here in the flesh. On behalf of the Australian National University I’d like to thank Hugh Mackay, Alex Sloan, Kathryn Favelle and the National Library of Australia and the audience for a really informative engaging conversation so thanks very much, everyone, for coming. Please thank Hugh and Alex –
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