In Defense of Advertising

The following e-mail exchange, edited slightly for space, took place recently between Sara, an out-of-work account executive, and me. Desperate for solace and encouragement, she resorted to contacting me, who she only knows through my quarterly newsletter.


I’m supposed to be getting a job in advertising now, after having been laid off from a boutique agency a few months ago. I struggle with the motivation because I’ve got it stuck in my head that I’ll be selling my soul again no matter where I go. I constantly tell my boyfriend how I would shoot myself before working on this or that account. I can’t stand annoying pop-up ads and I despise how [everything] is cluttered with logos. I don’t even tell people that I worked in advertising. I feel like it’s an ugly word. I’m trying to look for “green” agencies or ones that specialize in health care … just something I can believe in.

Do you have a few words to help me trudge past this wall of guilt for not getting my butt back into this business? What do you love about it?  It isn’t just a necessary evil, is it? –Sara


I feel your pain.

First, enjoy the process. The result is usually a letdown.

I often say I love advertising, I just hate the business. Remind yourself that advertising offers the possibility of affecting another human in a positive way, either by helping that person improve their life or, more likely, by engaging and entertaining them in the process of trying to persuade them. For me, it’s the potential to evoke an emotional reaction — or even an action — in other people that drives me.

Also, advertising presents us with an endless string of opportunities to solve a problem in a creative way. If you can find satisfaction in solving a problem, regardless of what it is, your job gains meaning. Sometimes the problem is seemingly trivial. Okay, often. But if it were truly, cosmically trivial, no one would assign it a budget. So even these seeming wastes of time and energy must have some value. Or so I tell myself.

I once made the argument, in a talk to a high-school class, that without advertising, America as we know and love it would not be possible. I actually believe that, in the sense that advertising is the language of free enterprise and free enterprise is central to the concept of America.

If Theodore Sturgeon is right and 90 percent of everything is crap, then advertising, being advertising, is no doubt more like 95 percent crap.

To derive any personal satisfaction in your work, the key is to beat a path into that part of the world where that other 5 percent happens. Make it your mission to lower that percentage to 94 percent. Easier said than done, obviously. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded in doing that, despite 28 years of trying. But, hey, it’s a goal.

I try to think about this whole issue in a far more limited, compartmentalized way. If, now and then, I get to participate in some project for a worthwhile business (of which there are many, not just in healthcare, education and so forth, but in many other arenas), and if the resulting communication, whatever form it takes, is more human, more engaging, more interesting — even just clearer — than it otherwise would have been, I draw satisfaction from that.

Advertising will never save the world. But it does lubricate the dialog, disseminate information, educate and entertain when it’s done right. These are all good and valuable contributions to our culture.