Forget tapping desire, find the 'need' to flog

Of the more deep and meaningful moments in Cannes last month came courtesy of Ogilvy & Mather’s seminar featuring philosopher Alain de Botton.

It must have been challenging for many to hear de Botton’s take on advertising, media and the future of consumerism – much of it cut right across the way things are done in marketing and media. He summonsed a host of classic thinkers and religious thought in his address, traversing Rembrandt’s painting of

Christ crossing the Sea of Galilee and Epicurean philosophy on living a free and thoughtful life and fostering friendship.

De Botton’s modern take on Epicurus was how advertising borrowed from his thinking to use freedom to sell four-wheel drives and friendship to flog a beverage.
“Now the problem with advertising at its worst is that you end up buying the drink but you don’t have the friends,” de Botton said. “You end up buying the 4x4 but you don’t have the freedom. You end up staying at a luxury hotel and being peaceful but you don’t have a chance to think properly. In other words, you are buying the promise and then, just at the last minute, you’re actually buying the wrong product.” Ouch.

But de Botton didn’t stop there. “We have what philosophers call a needs-desire confusion. There are things we need and there are things we desire. Our grasp on needs is very fragile. Our grasp on desires is very open. And advertising, and more grandly capitalism, has a bad name because it is routinely accused of exciting our vain desires and disguising our true needs. There is a pessimistic scenario which says if we understood our true needs we wouldn’t shop for anything and capitalism would come to a grinding halt.

“I think we are still at the dawn of capitalism. We are still learning to make money from the most important things in life and we haven’t quite got there yet. If I read ahead to the history of the 21st century, I think this is going to be a century where we start to sell people things they actually need and stop exciting desires in areas they don’t particularly need.”

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2012 print edition of AdNews.

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