Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter and Advertising, Plus the Fate of the Free World, Still

Preface: I almost didn't post this. But only one person actually bothered to post about the actual point I made yesterday but a fair number of people, both privately and on my blog or LJ, just defended the books. Which missed the point of my post, but also confirmed my point.

I've got some additional comments about Harry Potter and hype. One of the more common arguments against this applying to Harry Potter is the "stealth success" of Sorcerer's Stone -- how it became a best-seller without any advertising or promotions. This is, simply speaking, untrue. While the UK publisher, Bloombury, didn't have much faith in Sorcerer's Stone (or, more accurately, Philosopher's Stone), and advanced Rowling a mere $4000. However -- and this happened before the UK publication of the book -- Scholastic gave Rowling an advance of $100,000 and about the same as the advertising budget. People familiar with the publishing industry will realize that this is an extremely large sum of money, advanced with the expectation of high sales. Obviously, the book performed, but this is normal when you've got a good advertising budget.

Because -- and I'm surprised that I need to say this -- advertising works. About 1 in 6 dollars in the US is spent on advertising. But even in response to yesterday's post about Harry Potter, what I found is that . . . no one wanted to talk about the hype. Some people were interested in correcting what they saw to be factual errors, and damn near everyone tried to defend the quality of the books, but no one seemed to consider the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, their enjoyment of media was manufactured.

Ironically, the biggest proponent -- at least in public -- of the idea that advertising doesn't work is . . . the advertising industry! Seriously, go and follow any of the arguments that the ad business advances whenever someone wants to regulate advertising. Suddenly, advertising doesn't work. Well, OK, then, if advertising doesn't work, why is 1 in 6 dollars in America being spent on it? Because, to say the obvious, it does work. To say what few people want to believe: it works on you.

You. The person reading this. It works on you. If you're connected enough to the system to be reading my blog, you're connected enough to be effected by advertising. And most of us don't have any idea how sly these bastards are.

For instance, a lot of sneaker sales depend on what people in poor urban areas are wearing -- the guys playing hoop down at the park. So shoe companies have for years paid street ball players to wear their shoes as a mechanism of sales. As advertisement that no one even knows is actually happening. Or how advertisers write up "news stories" and submit them as genuine articles and then news shows show these ads as actual news. Or lean on magazines and TV shows to write favorable articles about the products being advertised.

But even more than that. Look around your house, really look around at the things you actually buy. How often do you buy something because of the label? Recently, a person I knew bought an Ipod Shuffle. It's this 2 GB MP3 player that you can't program. It's always on random shuffle. He paid about a hundred dollars for it. For about 20% less, I bought an MP3 player that has more memory and upon which I can make my own playlists. Why would anyone want to buy an Ipod Shuffle when there are better products for less money? And this is generally true of all Ipods and gear for Ipods. It's pretty easy to find better things for less money if a person bothers to look. But, well, Apple is making a fortune betting that people will not look, that they'll buy the hype, see the adds and won't even consider the possibility of there being different products. They go into a store and buy an Ipod rather than go into the next aisle over and buy an entirely superior MP3 player for less money.

The obviousness of this leaps out at me. Advertising works. But it seems to me that most people pretend it doesn't work on them. And it's partially true. I've never succumbed to the hype and bought a single Brittany Spears album. No matter how cool their commercials are, I don't buy Budweiser. But I look forwards to Grand Theft Auto 4 . . . despite strongly disliking the last big GTA 3 game. And I've seen a number of absolutely terrible science-fiction, fantasy and comic book movies because of the hype. So, while it's true that not all advertising works on everyone, it works on everyone some of the time. It works well enough that at almost no restaurant can a person get anything other than Coke or Pepsi products. Would someone really not order soda if it was RC Cola? How often does that happen? "I'd like a cola." "We have RC." "OH, NO! You don't have Coke or Pepsi! I REFUSE to get a soda!" I estimate roughly zero percent of the time. But, nevertheless, it's almost impossible to get RC as a fountain drink. So, even if the advertising didn't work on you, it's worked on virtually every person who orders drinks for convenience stores and restaurants. Which is another one of those hidden ways that advertising works.

But Harry Potter fans, even when confronted with the reality that Harry Potter books are the most hyped books in the world will consistently attribute the success of the books to the quality. Which is, of course, the same argument that people use about Coke or Pepsi. "They taste better." But why do they taste better? Do they taste better because in a world without labeling or advertisements we'd all choose to drink nothing but those two drinks, or due to the pervasiveness of advertising we define good tasting soda by either Coke or Pepsi? It's the same argument that people use about Brittany Spears -- that it's the best possible pop music, that the music system does, in fact, channel people to the top based on quality (even though the corruptions of no industry are as obvious as the music industry). The media attention defines what is acceptable as good. It makes it's choices based on it's priorities and that's what we get, and it's all most of us get, because most of us don't know where to look for things other than the obvious places. (This is true of me, too, by the way, though perhaps less than many because of my relative media isolation. The TV at our house has neither an antenna to get local channels nor do we have cable, so I miss all TV ads, pretty much, which makes small talk weird, BTW. Until I divested myself of TV with ads I never knew how much small talk is based on TV commercials. Not even TV SHOWS but TV COMMERCIALS.)

I mean, all you Harry Potter readers . . . c'mon! You're liking the most popular fantasy series since Lord of the Rings. You're liking the most hyped fantasy series ever, the most hyped series of books in history. But everyone I speak to about this that likes the Harry Potter books, each and every one, first tries to attribute the success of the books to the quality of them. They usually do this even after at least partially agreeing that the books are, shall we say, flawed. So, they say the books are flawed, but, golly, they're so good, and none of them, even for a moment, step back and analyze why they find the the most hyped book series ever produced to be so good, don't consider for a moment that advertising works on them, too. That advertising's purpose is to create longings that it then fills, and the reason why you're satisfied is because you've bought precisely the product that they've told you fulfills the very longing they've also created in you!

Like I said in yesterday's post, this is a big deal. It's much bigger than Harry Potter or Brittany Spears or GTA 4. Because those advertising tricks I mentioned above? Business and government do them, too. Take, say, global warming. Just the other day, I had a bit of a flame war with a fella who told me that it was unproven that humans made climate change. How could someone take that position? Because primarily the power industry has done everything it can to engage in advertising to make climate change look ridiculous. It has drafted advertisement and presented it as science, it has leaned on news agencies it advertises on, it has put it's shills in legitimate scientific organizations to promote it's agenda. All those tricks people fall for -- that occasionally everyone falls for -- business and government do. So I think it's vital that responsible citizens learn to understand when they've bought into the hype and discuss things clearly, because corporations and governments aren't trying to fool us, they are fooling us. For decades, literally decades, scientists have been talking about climate change, about the precautionary principle, about the long-term social, economic and political effects of climate change would be -- and because of the hype, it took decades for most people to believe there was any problem at all. And most people still don't want to do anything about it! They don't want to stop driving their cars, or eat primarily locally produced foodstuffs, etc., etc., even the people who are absolutely sold on the principle that people are responsible for climate change do very little to do something about it. (The number of SUVs at the farmer's market makes me want to wretch.) Even measures like merely increasing the efficiency of new buildings is met with terrible opposition, because corporations promote the idea that energy efficiency is somehow bad for the economy (which goes with the hype that the economy is the most important thing that there is).

So I find it frustrating, and worrisome, that even about something as essentially frivolous as a series of fantasy novels, I can find almost no one that will acknowledge that the hype has effected them. It makes me worried and somewhat depressed because the same skills that a person would use to identify the hype of Harry Potter novels, or Brittany Spears albums, or GTA 4 games, or whatever bit of hype a particular person might fall into . . . these are the same skills that a person would use to identify when corporate and government propaganda has influenced them. In this, the biggest thing that keeps a person trapped by advertisement is the naive belief that they are immune to it. You're not. I'm not. That's why one-sixth of the US economy is advertising: because it works on you.


Unpremeditated said...

All very true. Even worse is the way that once advertising has got the ball rolling sufficiently, so many of us become engaged in keeping it moving, promoting the myth that we've already fallen for. For instance, it's funny the way Potter peer pressure is now so great that many of those who haven't read a Harry Potter book feel they have to apologise for their "failure". The Harry Potter books are certainly page-turners but thanks, as you say, to the level of hype and the loud voices of the hypees, one is now expected to acknowledge them as being the greatest thing to happen to children's literature since Alice Through the Looking Glass.

L>T said...

From these posts of yours, I realize I hadn't really given the psychology of advertising much thought.

I was watching some of the media "hype" for the new series Mad Men Which is about the advertising business, BTW. & this came up...Advertising doesn't make people want things, it figures out what they want then helps them get it. It's embarrassing to think I didn't even have that simple concept in my head. Now i know why I paid 50.00 for those shoes yesterday. Crap!

Chris Bradley said...


Yeah, I get that a lot. I almost almost constantly told that all my objections to the series would just vanish if I finished it -- that the last two books would lay all my objections to rest. But when I get into the specifics of my objections and the sorts of things I would consider reasonable, they're forced to agree that, no, Rowling does NOT end things up to my satisfaction. But without having read enough of the books to come up with *specifics* I wouldn't be able to say that. There'd be pressure for me to like them and I'd really feel it. Indeed, I do feel the hype. I've almost read the last two books in part to reject them, but that'd be both a waste of my time and juvenile, so I haven't -- but it's hard to get over the notion that you SHOULD have read them.

Oh, well. Perhaps they will be classics, but which I mean books everyone talks about but no one reads.

Chris Bradley said...


OHMYGOD. The very idea of the show Mad Men terrifies me, hehe. How could something like that not be propaganda? I already see some of the fnords, just glancing at it -- by putting it in the past, they are reassuring us that behavior like this no longer occurs. Still, it terrifies me that it exists, hehe.

It also makes me wonder how much of the show is critique and how much is nostalgia. Do the viewers of the show watch because they're intrigued at how things have changed so much, or are they yearning the hey-day of white male domination?

I mean, one of my favorite movies is Stanley Kubrick's anti-war Full Metal Jacket. The first half of the movie is about the dehumanization of Marine boot camp, and includes a sadistic drill sergeant whose abuses are proximate to a retarded Marine's murder of that drill sergeant and then suicide. To me, it's obviously about the dehumanizing brutality of the military that transforms people into willing killers. BUT . . . Marines LOVE the movie. They think the drill instructor is this great guy and they don't consider it to be anti-war. I'm wondering if the same thing goes on with this show -- or is it conscious? How much of the audience is reveling in the naked sexism and racism of the characters, viewing that time with nostalgia as the swan song of uncontested white male authority in America? I suspect at least some of the audience watches the show that way, and I suspect that the producers know this.

BUT, hehe, yes, we are trained by advertising in a variety of ways. One of the key ways we're trained is to believe that our lives are improved by buying things, that a new CD player will make our lives fuller and richer . . . as opposed to taking a walk in the woods, or tending a garden or whatever. Consumption as a component of happiness is one of the first things that is sold, sorta obviously, I think.

Also, the advertising techniques of today are MUCH better than in the 60s, hehe.

But, yes, perhaps the key element of these rants are that no one is immune to this stuff. No one.

L>T said...

I tried watching Mad Men, but frankly you ruined it for me, just like you ruined Harry Potter...you are such a pessimist.

There has to be some good things about popular culture.