OPINION: How a desire for enigmas and humour can blight advertising

The other day I watched a television programme on philosophy,

featuring someone I suppose was a philosopher.

He was discussing Epicurus, who lived in Athens around 350 BC and gave

his name to the word Epicurean, associated with living well.

Epicurus' idea of a good time was very different from mine. He lived

very simply, didn't drink, didn't wear fancy clothes, didn't attend


In all, he was a big disappointment to me, but not as much as the

programme, which examined happiness and how to attain it.

It featured a Liverpudlian window dresser who spent all his money and

more on clothes, many of which didn't even fit. He was therefore

unhappy, poor lamb.

I was falling asleep when suddenly the presenter said Epicurus believed

that advertising stopped us being happy. This brought me up with a


Advertising? 350BC?

I know advertising existed then; my favourite example is a sign carved

into the footpath in Ephesus giving directions to the nearest brothel.

But did advertising stop people being happy in 350BC? Of course it

didn't. And did Epicurus ever mention advertising?

Of course he didn't. What we had was some bien-pensant imposing his own

views on the infinitely more intelligent Greek.

Of course, a lot of advertising makes me unhappy, because I can't

understand it, and if I can't, neither can lots of other people.

Essentially all it does is take good money out of circulation and waste

it. Even my dread-locked son Mark, who is pretty avant-garde and has an

IQ of about 3000, showed me an ad the other day and asked me if I could

understand it. I couldn't. It was for Volkswagen - but we were both very


This unnatural zest for the incomprehensible can partly be blamed on

that old fraud James Joyce, of whom Irish columnist Kevin Myers said

recently: "I would happily sit down for a few hours over a Korean-Arabic

theological dictionary rather than ever again have to read Ulysses.

Indeed, if there are solid grounds for complaint over the way the

British governed Ireland up until 1922, they lie in the quite monstrous

failure of the British to take James Joyce out and shoot him when they

had the chance. That any Booker shortlist can be guaranteed to contain

at least one work that is incomprehensible, self-indulgent rubbish is in

large part due to the malignant influence of Joyce and the licence he

gave to the fraudulent, the mediocre and the merely imitative."

Another problem derives from our famous sense of humour. People think

advertising must be funny to work. Being funny is not easy, as a joke

told by Joan Collins in a recent Spectator column revealed. Apparently

when the great actor Edward Kean was dying a young actor knelt by his

side and whispered, "Sir, what is dying like?" "My boy," boomed the old

thespian, "dying is easy - comedy is difficult".

But comedy is almost impossible if you're trying to sell something at

the same time.

The current Fiat commercial set in a petrol station is a perfect

example. It's very funny - but it doesn't tell you why you should buy

the car. Odd.


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