The Hall of Mirrors: Should Advertising Offer Consumers Reflections of Themselves?

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‘When I start out to make a fool of myself, there's very little can stop me. If I'd known where it would end, I'd never let anything start.’

Orson Welles, ’The Lady from Shanghai’

The 1947 movie classic ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ features an Irish Orson Welles caught up in a web of deceit woven by wealthy lawyer Everett Sloane and his wife, a curiously blonde Rita Hayworth.

The climax of the film takes place in a deserted amusement park, The Crazy House. ‘Stand up or give up,’ the arcade posters proclaim. In the Hall of Mirrors the three lead characters confront each other and a multiplicity of their own images and impressions. Neither they nor the audience can discern the real people from their reflections. Truth and falsehood are intertwined. It’s a cinematic tour de force.

When I first joined BBH in the early 1990s I was warned against ‘holding a mirror up to consumers.’ It was suggested that this is a lazy approach for any advertiser to take. ‘Holding a mirror up’ assumes that people enjoy seeing their own behaviours, attitudes, tastes and styles reflected back at them in brand communication; that they like to look at approximations of themselves in advertising; that brands are rewarded for acute observation of people’s musical preferences, fashion choices and figures of speech.

But who wants to encounter counterfeit copies of themselves? Who wants to be regarded as a type or category; to see their private codes and language broadcast for all to share?

So we took a different path. We preferred to shine a light on the brand; to let it present its best self to the world. We liked to let the brand speak.

Looking back on this position in the midst of the social media age, I can’t help wondering whether we were wrong all along. As is widely observed, nowadays we all inhabit echo chambers of our opinions, prejudices and world-views. We live in a Hall of Mirrors of our own making, endlessly self-publishing; craving affirmation and approval; seeking endorsement of how we look, what we do, what we feel, what we think; freely surrendering our personal data in our relentless quest for recognition and validation.

And consequently much of modern advertising pursues the ‘hold the mirror up to consumers’ approach. Our screens are filled with elegantly aspirational metropolitan executives, charmingly chaotic suburban families, fun-loving bobble-hatted youths.

I nonetheless find it difficult to recant. I remain convinced that brands have a responsibility to stand for something; that there is more integrity in selling than there is in pretending to share values, hopes and dreams; that rather than just reflecting consumers’ attitudes, we should seek to change them.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I doubt people will be seduced by this Hall of Mirrors for too long. Ultimately Narcissus’s infatuation with his own image destroyed him.

Back in the Crazy House, Sloane wearily directs his pistol at Hayward.

‘Of course, killing you is killing myself. But, you know, I'm pretty tired of both of us.’

In the shootout that follows, chaos and confusion reign. The mirrors shatter. The glass cascades in crystals all around.

No. 173