Everyone’s Complain Department: What is Advertising?

The ‘Everyone’s Complaint Department’ series of comic strips began as random doodles and reflection pieces of Alvin Teoh, ECD of Naga DDB Tribal. These little stories featured in MARKETING magazine were originally posted on Facebook and are an ongoing tribute to life in Adland.

I went to art school quite by accident. I didn’t do so good in school and made a mess of my SPM results and was sitting by the side of the road like a hobo on a Saturday evening when something caught my eye. It was a weather-beaten brochure (remember those things?) for an art school. ‘Learn advertising it read. So I said, hey, I could do that, and signed up.
The school was a repurposed old bungalow and worn down. Half the toilet was walled off and if you climbed up the ceiling and peeped in, there’s a dusty bathtub behind that wall. Someone died there years ago? Perhaps. I don’t want to know. And if you entered from the back entrance, there were casual gambling sessions at the mamak and the mamasan of a near-by brothel would be there participating in this community activity.
This was the art school of the 80’s and I spent many late nights here doing last minute work. Oh wait, that sounds like exactly like what I’m doing now, damn.
So what was I getting into? We thought being in advertising meant being as artist. Actually, I didn’t know what advertising was. In my final year, the lecturer had a meltdown midway during class. He said, you think your life is going to be easy? You have no future. You chose the wrong path and he buried his head in his hands.
I took the bus home and noticed a shack that made number plates and signboards and it was called ‘Camel Advertising.’
Fuck me! That’s my carreer?
Well, I eventually got a job. I was an FA artist, a visualizer, a designer, an art director, a temporary suit, a writer, and all the above at once in the dark ages before the Mac existed. It was hard manual work of cow gum, technical pen and air-brushes.
Is that advertising?
Then I got into bigger agencies and it was arguments with suits over things they can’t sell (and neither could I) and devouring award books and dreaming of winning awards after awards and when you don’t, you become suicidal.
Is that advertising?
Then as I moved up and met clients and listened to them, I developed a sense of empathy for their struggles and began to do stuff that they are comfortable with and felt myself dying inside from making too many compromises.
Is that advertising?
And further along the way, the dream of making an impact came back but I was exposed to the reality of profits and losses and I developed a sense of fear from being overtly rational and the frustration grew from the inability to find the sweet spot between a dream and what’s real.
Is that advertising?
Then in the age where data is god we fell in love with it’s power to promise results and so the era of data crunching and data optimized everything became everything and we pretty much ended up doing the same work because everyone was listening to the same data.
Is that advertising?
Then one night, I came home to an upset son who was dealing with issues in his life. I spent half an hour giving him the best advice from my vast experience and wisdom. It was bullshit to him and I was frustrated with his inability to recognize good advice. So I let him talk and I said nothing. In the end, I pat him in the back and said hey, life is harsh, but somehow, someway, it’ll work. Want to watch a movie? He said ok and that was that. By listening, by not judging, by not rushing for an answer, he felt relief and release.
That, to me is advertising.
It’s the opportunity to help people feel something. Perhaps there is a science to it. But without empathy, advertising is bullshit. From the conversations I’ve had with the homeless, and with youths, some of them who cut themselves, with the people who drive for a living, with people who have opposed views on politics, from ex-gangsters struggling to find a job, it is true. People want to feel they matter. Everyone is looking for affirmation.
That is advertising.
So if you asked me what advertising is, I think I can explain it less than ten words: It is the marketing of feelings.
Yeah, that’s advertising.

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