What that Nokia ad was really about

They are not selling products so much as association: power, glamour or success

Optical image stabilisation is a piece of mobile phone software to reduce shaking in a hand-held video. But it could equally be a piece of PR jargon for the strategy that executives at Nokia have just had to employ when it emerged that an advert for their latest flagship product – which purported to be shot on a shaky bicycle using the new device – had in fact been shot with a high-tech professional camera from a smooth-running white van just behind the cyclist.A sharp-eyed techno geek spotted a reflection of the real cameraman in a window when Nokia put the video on the internet. (See www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBH9hoiTOhQ)

It was a PR nightmare. The launch was supposed to arrest the dramatic decline of Nokia, once the world's biggest mobile phone maker, whose share of the market has plummeted thanks to the launch of the iPhone. Instead, the firm's advertising gurus risk joining greedy bankers, expense-fiddling MPs, paedophile priests, dodgy journalists and bribe-taking policemen in the dubious pantheon of professions whom the public can no longer trust.

Many might think the advertising industry did not have so far to fall. But in the past there were respectable arguments of advertising apologia. "Advertising nourishes the consuming power of men," said Winston Churchill. "It creates wants for a better standard of living … It spurs individual exertion and greater production." It informs consumers about new products and stimulates economic growth. And it employs large numbers of people.

But even in those early days it had a more sinister aspect. The economist J K Galbraith saw advertising as the creation of artificial wants. Indeed, it tricks people into buying things they don't need and shouldn't want. Vance Packard's 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders explored the dark arts of motivational research, deep psychology and subliminal advertising.

The difference between information and persuasion was eloquently put by the crime writer Dorothy L Sayers, who began her career as an advertising copywriter. In one Lord Peter Wimsey story, set in an advertising agency, the detective is instructed about an ad for margarine. Write "Just as good as butter, but half the price," he is told. In which case, he replies, what is the argument for butter? Butter doesn't need an argument, he is told, because eating it is natural.

The creation of unnatural tastes is a specialism of the industry, as anyone who remembers the 1980s carpet freshener Shake n' Vac will recall. Until recently, there was no cultural tradition that conceived of sticking a wedge of lime in the neck of a bottle of lager. The practice was invented, according to Martin Lindstrom in Buyology, when an advertiser placed a bet with a friend at a bar that he could make the masses stick a slice of lime in a bottle of Corona.

There is a more metaphysical reservation. It is that manipulative advertising overrides our autonomy. It does so with techniques that influence us subconsciously on emotional rather than rational grounds. The philosopher Kant would not have approved, for it robs us of our rational judgement by underhand methods.

Regulators might complain that they remove misleading ads from the public sphere. Indeed, the Advertising Standards Authority had a record 4,591 ads changed or withdrawn last year. But we all know adverts persuade by form not content. The ad as entertainment has reached such heights that I know of two junior school girls who rush to the TV as soon as the adverts come on and turn away when the programme recommences.

However amusing or engaging ads may be, they never have that quality of pure gift that genuine entertainment, or art, offers. The intent is always to seduce, because their primary obligation is to serve the financial interests of their sponsor. At their most subtle, they are not selling the product so much as the association of that product with something more intangible: svelte young bodies, taut and tanned, images of glamour, success, vigour, power or prestige. Such ads bypass conscious reasoning or cloud it with bogus emotional appeal.

Admen know that, though they deny it. That is why "creatives" who sell alcohol or tobacco insist that their ads have little influence on consumers – and then wink to their clients that they can influence consumers strongly. And they play to something negative in our nature. Psychologists call it the "margin of discontent"; it is the gap between what we have and what we want.

Advertising increases the margin of discontent by making us feel dissatisfied. The creation of unhappiness is at the heart of advertising, for it plays on desires that cannot be sated. It offers only an abundance of meaningless choices between variations of things that we didn't need in the first place. A Buddhist master might suggest that the correct response is to give up wanting.

Nokia's executives stressed, when their bogus video was rumbled, that it was "never the company's intention to deceive anyone". They win either way. The error has won them far more publicity than a properly-shot advertisement ever could.