Books: More soft soap than hard sell

Advertising can glamorise pantyliners. So, Stephen Bayley wonders, why can't it flog itself?; Advertising Advertising by Winston Fletcher Profile Books, pounds 16.99, 232pp
WINSTON FLETCHER has written a mendacious potboiler. If that seems harsh, don't blame me; it wasn't my coinage, but his own. It is one of the brighter expressions in his disappointingly dull new book. The problem is, he applies it to Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, a 1957 classic which is a favourite of mine and ranks with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities as one of the most influential social critiques of the second half of the century. No one is going to say that about this stinker.

Fletcher, from his sagacious seat in The Ivy or Orso, in between brooding on industrial salad cream, dismisses Packard as a "journalist". It is true that Packard won an Outstanding Alumni Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1963 for his potboiling and lying, but it is also true that his books have changed the perceptions of a generation - something which Winston Fletcher's advertisments for Hellman's mayonnaise have yet to do (although they're not bad ads).

Don't misunderstand me: I adore advertising. It is one of our most significant, energetic and fascinating cultural forms. The quality of British advertising - thanks to people like Fletcher - is superb, and its sophisticated symbolism has translated the population from being what Walter Gropius described as "visually illiterate" into adroit decoders of signifiers and signified, with all the felicity and confidence of a Roland Barthes masterclass.

While I would stop short of saying that photographing an attractive Czech girl in a cantilevered bra can be properly compared to some of the greater creative achievements of the century, there is a sense in which advertising can genuinely be compared to historical art forms: Renaissance frescoes and 19th-century opera, for instance. It belongs to what the Council of Trent called "Bibles of the Illiterate".

In that it presents models for imitation, offers aesthetic or moral exemplars, communicates shared ideals, inspires, informs and motivates, advertising has many of the characteristics of popular art. But, since it is a collaborative activity, it can't be defined as art, at least if we require the presence of an individual author to satisfy the definition.

Fletcher makes no claims for artistic status; rather for advertising as a mutual society where consumer and client share benefits.

I have no problem with the central thesis of his book: that advertising is interesting and useful. Everyone knows that. Since 1979, and the publication of Jonathan Price's The Best Things on TV, everyone has known that commercials have higher production values and better scriptwriting than most programmes. My problem is just that this is such a bad book.

It is very curious, but in some way significant, that while advertising is a global business worth pounds 250bn annually which greedily Dysons-up writers, art directors, photographers and cinematographers in a vivid, vulgar, wonderful creative vortex of witty comment and sharp imagery, it seems beyond the industry's competence to produce a decent book about the subject. Only Rosser Reeves's Reality in Advertising in 1961 and David Ogilvy's Confessions of an Advertising Man in 1963 seem likely to pass the time- test.

Even when advertising throws up a genuinely thoughtful individual - JWT's Jeremy Bullmore, for instance - his literary potential is far, far in front of his literary achievements. The rest are, to put it no higher, mendacious potboilers. How odd that a business that can glamorise cat food and excite cupidity about pantyliners can do so little to sell itself.

This is why Advertising Advertising is such an oddity and a disappointment. It looks like the sort of unreadable and unread business book you find in bins in charity shops. Given that Fletcher (presumably) wrote his own brief, his clients should be grateful that they are expected to write their own. Its jacket design is so boring that its wrenches a huge Black Hole in the cosmos of style. I haven't done the research, but my guess is that only the most sensitive methodology could determine how much above zero per cent is its consumer appeal.

Those undeterred by the cover will surely stumble at the prose. There's a tendency to use Dictionary of Quotations-type bits of Shakespeare to fortify the authority of pronouncements. While Fletcher doesn't actually say "forsooth", there is a curiously dated feel about the style, with lazy locutions like "as we saw in the last chapter". If an argument had been crisply presented with economy and wit, those words would be redundant. Alas, they are not.

It's so strange that a business which employs highly educated, very clever people - people like Winston Fletcher - to achieve haiku-like condensation by describing the advantages of an underwired bra in two words can produce such a flatulent account of itself as this. None of the disciplines of advertising - economy, wit, originality, relevance - seem to have been applied here.

Lester Bookbinder once described the creative process in advertising as "turning crap into mediocrity". I think better art direction and better copywriting could have done that for this book.

Stephen Bayley's book `Labour Camp' is published by Batsford