There are many ways to judge a society. Some reliable, others less so. A universally recognised one is to consider how a society treats vulnerable citizens. If they are respected and protected, then many other hopes can seem plausible. If not, then less positive expectations seem appropriate.
There are many ways too to try to understand a society. In this age of consumerism and insatiable materialism advertising, its tone, character, and how a campaign respects — or otherwise — its audience seems a trustworthy Rosetta Stone.
Advertising can illuminate how a society sees itself or how one society sees another. A punchline in a car advertisement that seemed inspired in a Bavarian boardroom may seem clunky and flat, even patronising, on the western fringes of Europe.
In some cases, these misinterpretations, these tiny but huge missteps are counterproductive. An advertisement broadcast in Ireland but over-dubbed in a Scottish accent because a faraway agency was deaf to the differences between Dublin or Dundee speech patterns has the same impact.
Advertising, like a river rounding a rough stone over many years, can be a long-term project. It’s over a decade since alcohol or tobacco advertising was curtailed but those campaigns are only now beginning to bear fruit — far, far fewer people smoke today.
Young people have a different attitude to drink than their predecessors who were so beguiled by Sally O’Brien’s come-hither promises — a classic example of the advertising industry promising one pleasure to sell another.
Advertising, in all its forms and colours, is a vernacular that can reveal far more than is intended. As we approach the highpoints of the GAA season, advertisements promoting those games and their sponsors are prominent.
It seems unfortunate that they focus on the physical aspects of hurling or football describing them as the “toughest games”. Apart at all from being unprovable and sounding like a parish-pump fantasy, that emphasis suggests an insecurity that is unjustified.
It seems imperceptive, sad too, that a game as beautiful as hurling is promoted as a team version of one those embarrassing Youtube bare-knuckle brawls where grace is as absent as self-realisation. The skill levels Tipperary and Kilkenny will show on Sunday deserve far more rounded advocacy; an All Ireland hurling final is not a kind of inter-county UFC.
Whether that revealing cheerleading would survive the scrutiny of Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority is an open question but that agency has banned ads in breach of gender stereotyping rules.
Two TV ads, one featuring new dads struggling with a new baby and the other a woman sitting by a pram, are the first to be banned under rules designed to tackle gender stereotyping. New rules ban the depiction of men or women engaged in gender-stereotypical activities to try to stop “limiting how people see themselves and how others see them and the life decisions they take”.
At a moment when advertising wears more and more masks, and often presents itself as something neutral and benign in more and more corners of our lives such interventions are essential — almost irrespective of the issue.
Wake up and smell the codology, as it were.