Winston Fletcher: Hard sell, soft options

Does this 'inside story' of advertising from one of its gurus wash whiter? Stephen Bayley hears the pitch
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Opines Winston Fletcher, advertising boosts the economy. No enemy of cliché, Fletcher was born. Appearing in the same sentence, "torrid" and "riven by strife" are expressions he uses. Not averse to annoying constructs, his book is written like this. With offices in London Auckland, Taipei and Madrid, it is published by Oxford University Press. A peerless academic publisher, I wonder what they were thinking of.

Advertising is one of the most distinctive, even defining, aspects of our culture. Like rock and design, it is unique to industrial civilisation. You only have to visit bleak Havana to realise how much animation it adds to city life and how much we miss it when it's not there, Ogden Nash's moan "I think that I shall never see/A billboard lovely as a tree" notwithstanding. And advertising is something at which the British excel to a curious degree. Like prostitution, which it resembles in many ways, it is the ultimate service industry.

Since George Orwell described advertising as "the rattle of a stick in a swill bucket", it has divided opinion. The ethics of the business are seen as questionable, a prejudice the behaviour of its loud, rich protagonists does little to modify. The old joke - Client: "What time of day is it ?" Advertising agency: "What time of day would you like it to be ?" – is founded on the observed inherent duplicity of paid-for-communication. David Abbott was a founding partner of AMV, one of Britain's most respected "creative" agencies whose reputation was based on meticulously conceived, beautifully executed and very persuasive ads for Sainsbury and Volvo. Soon after he retired, Abbott could be seen driving around South Kensington in a shiny new Audi. Possibly on his way to Waitrose.

Winston Fletcher is one of the grand old men of advertising, essentially a young man's business. Not all readers will think it a Gold Standard in author credentials that his jacket blurb cites his unique status as the sole individual to have been both Chairman of the Advertising Association and President of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, but it is revealing of the character of adland. These committees tend to be populated by well-padded individuals who compensate for not having siphoned quite enough moolah out of the swill bucket by occupying portentous positions. Meanwhile, thrusting oiks working towards the "liquidity events" that will take them on a journey through the Caribbean, Courchevel, Porsche, Range-Rover, NetJets and, later, a blonde trophy wife, tolerate the bumptious farts because their presence lends an air of gravitas to the occasionally undignified task of selling dog food or loo rolls.

This is all evidence of a fundamental schism in advertising. It is, as one of their number once told me, sociologically divided between "posh pirates" and "barrow boys". Something essential to British life in the second half of the 20th century encouraged this. The "posh pirates" tend to be the public-school men who run the business of the business, Tories, but irreverently so. Martin Sorrell and Maurice Saatchi are the exemplars here. The "barrow boys" are the wacky, state-educated creatives who get the concepts, do the art, write the copy. Trevor – Wonderbra – Beattie is their patron saint. He votes Labour.

It's an incongruous mix, but they all bizarrely rub along in a clubby and exclusive network. They give themselves awards, pay themselves fortunes. They have created a perfect business system: unaudited, unparalleled and not contained by over-much regulation. Sure, they trade on public credulity and cupidity, but in return they feed the consumer a continuous stream of ever more sophisticated imagery.

The upside of this is a population that is the most visually literate on earth. The downside is the social cost of stimulating desire for excess, a culture where genius is devoted to brainless, unreflective consumption, redundancy and waste.

An additional cost is the human wreckage. There is possibly no other business where the fine, original idea of a "creative" is so cruelly compromised by the vanity or stupidity of the client, plus the gross intrusions of market research and focus groups. The result is cynicism and burn-out. In adland, at 40 you are either rich or ruined. Despite or because of this, the very best are wonderfully honest. Lester Bookbinder said his craft was that of "turning crap into mediocrity". John – "Vorsprung durch Technik" - Hegarty once told me "Remember, I'm just an old tart".

As conventional advertising is threatened by new media and consumer fatigue, its high priests, Fletcher included, are keen to discuss its "effectiveness". This has been in question ever since William Hesketh Lever wondered which half of his money was being wasted on promoting his Sunlight branded soap. No one really knows, despite fortunes spent on bogus methodologies. The only unambiguous fact in advertising is that very few dare not to.

It's a measure of Fletcher's perspective, distorted by personal history, that he seems genuinely to believe that the consumer goods industries depend on advertising, when it is the other way around. With a crisis in consumer goods a mere out-of-town hypermarket away, an advertising crunch cannot be far off. But he does not see advertising as a vulnerable service industry, rather like contract cleaning. Instead, it is an almost ungovernably powerful influence on the economy and taste.

Fletcher's arguments in support of this are based on models of consumer behaviour no longer wholly relevant. The shift in taste from beer to lager, he says, was down to the amusing ads which reached parts other sales techniques could not reach. When, really, the rising temperatures of British homes with double-glazing and central heating, plus the growth of supermarket distribution of six-packs, was as much a part of the phenomenon.

He cites "stunning" campaigns for British Gypsum, LWT, Polaroid, Remington Shavers, Tern Shirts. If these are "stunning" campaigns, then industry can do better without them. These clients are all dead or dying. As evidence, they give off a slightly stale whiff. The relationship between the "creative" advertising which is the focus of adland's self-love and commercial success is by no means linear.

To be fair, Fletcher declares his is an "inside story" and it is a brave attempt to write a serious book on a subject where archival records are sketchy (or protected by commercial sensitivities) and memories are blurred by lunch. But, being a personal view, it lacks the detachment of a serious study. Nor does it have the racy excitement of an indiscreet fess-up memoir. In contrast, David Ogilvy's irreverent Blood, Brains and Beer (1978) is a pinnacle of literacy and erudition. But Ogilvy was a consummate adman, as adroit at crafting his own image as his clients'. This is another way of saying, this is nearly useless as an "academic" study and, for such a scurrilous subject, not very amusing to read.

Since advertising is itself so eloquent, it is a difficult subject to write about well. But there have been better books than Fletcher's. Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, of course. Even Peter Mayle's antic accounts of Provence revealed more essential truths about what it is to be an adman. Rosser Reeves's Reality in Advertising (1961) had genuine insight; to him we owe the concept of a "unique selling proposition". In 1977 George Lois published the visually ravishing The Art of Advertising: a marvellous selling tool for its author and his subject. In 1979, Jonathan Price's The Best Things on TV was a potent and contrarian argument for advertising as art. I do not think Powers of Persuasion will join this list: amazing, to write a dreary book about so exciting a subject.

Stephen Bayley's 'Cars' is published by Conran Octopus in October