“Would Obama Be President?”: Industry Leaders Debate Whether Advertising Leads Culture

“Would Obama Be President?”: Industry Leaders Debate Whether Advertising Leads Culture
B&T Magazine
Edited by B&T Magazine

Powered by Nine’s fortnight of panels and events ended last night with a highly engaging debate on the motion: does advertising lead culture?

While the audience ultimately voted against the proposition – agreeing that advertising is instead led by culture – there were extremely compelling arguments on both sides.

In the affirmative were Rachael Fraser, Head of Strategy at M&C Saatchi, Roshni Hegerman, Executive Strategy Director at McCann Worldgroup, and Toby Boon, Director Strategy, Insight and Effectiveness at Powered (pictured right with Liana DuBois, director of Powered).

Arguing the negative was Andrew Wynne, Principal at JOY, Michele O’Neill, Director of Powered Enterprise, and Camille Gray, Strategist at Rufus, Powered by Initiative (and shortlisted B&T 30 Under 30 award nominee!).
Opening the debate was Rachel Fraser, who questioned where our society would be without the power of advertising.

She began with an image of an advertising-free world: “would Obama ever have become president? Would women still be stuck in the kitchen? Would I have a mum-bob, a side-part, or be aware that my skinny jeans should be replaced by straight ones if I have any chance of not being ‘cheugy’?”

Much of the debate focused on definitions: what is advertising, what is culture and, perhaps most importantly, what does it mean to lead?

The affirmative’s argument largely rested on the idea of leading culture as shaping it. They claimed that “culture is the ship, advertising is the captain”.

All three speakers used the example of smoking – the advertising industry popularised smoking, but is also the reason for its demise in popularity.

However, as pointed out by the negative team’s third speaker Camille Gray, advertising alone was not responsible for the decline in smoking – it was also because the government massively increased the price of tobacco.

“The government actually interviewed and spoke with a massive range of cultures about their relationship with smoking. They used cultural insights to create those ads – the culture lead the ad,” she argued.

For the negative team, advertising does not lead or create culture, rather it amplifies and reflects specific elements of existing culture. In some cases, it does bring niche elements of culture into the mainstream, but it doesn’t truly create.

Andrew Wynne, the negative team’s first speaker, accused the opposition of “[overclaiming] the role of advertising, and [underclaiming] the work of everything else in the world.”

This was emphasised by their second speaker Michelle O’Neil who argued that advertisers sell, rather than lead. The things that actually lead culture are education, war, and design.

While the affirmative team referenced the significance of advertising in our society – with second speaker Roshni Haberman pointing to the ubiquity of slogans like “not happy, Jan” or iconic figures like Rhonda and Ketut – ultimately, the audience was not swayed.

The winning argument of the negative team was perhaps best captured by Camille Gray in her closing remarks, when she made the case that: “A doctor brings a stethoscope to work. What does an advertiser bring? They bring a mirror.”

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