Philip Morris stumbles into a classroom to give a talk on advertising.

Critical thinking. Media literacy. Societal dynamics. Market analysis. Consumer behaviour. External factors. Internal drivers. Creative engagement. Strategy development. Campaign generation. Value perceptions. Status referencing. Imitative motivation. 

Will Philip teach these young schoolgirls a thing or two?

Or will they teach him?

2,000 words / 8 minutes of enlightened reading pleasure

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‘People know what they want because they know what other people want.’ Theodor Adorno 



Copyright 2024 Stefano Boscutti
All Rights Reserved

PHILIP MORRIS, 33, ambles through the teacher’s parking lot, rattling a spray can in his right hand.

He’s running late for a talk he’s promised to give students about how advertising works. It’s a favour to the chairman of the advertising agency he works for. She has two daughters in the junior school.

It’s career guidance for Year 10 students before they enter the last two years of secondary school that will determine their trajectory into university, into life.

As a creative director, Philip has been in advertising his whole life. All he ever wanted to do was make ads. Where did that come from? No one had given a talk about a career in advertising at his school. Neither of his parents had ever worked in advertising. His father had no idea what he did no matter how many times he told him.

Crystallising and distilling desire down to a single indisputable thought. An idea so transcendent and self-evident that it perpetuates itself, sells itself.

Wading through the cars, Philip notices there are a lot of older model BMWs. It seems to be the car of choice for teachers at private schools. Those that can do, those that can’t drive BMWs. Philip rattles the spray can.

Do the teachers know the history of BMW? Know how Bayerische Motoren Werke designed engines for Nazi fighter planes? How the logo represent the propeller of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 that devastated the Eastern Front?

How by the end of the Second World War, almost fifty percent of the 50,000-person workforce at BMW consisted of forced labour from concentration camps?

After working on so many automotive brands, Philip knows the persona of a BMW buyer like the backs of his hands. Publicly a BMW buyer is seen as unique, possessing an unmatched set of attributes and character traits that make up a quite distinct personality.

Privately BMW drivers are characterised by higher neuroticism compared with drivers of other German car brands. They also show higher resiliency, both in terms of total score and scores on the subscales of personal coping competences and tolerance of negative emotions, tolerance of failures and perceiving life as a challenge, and optimistic attitude towards life and capacity for self-mobilisation in difficult situations.

On the road this manifests as a sense of entitlement, hogging the centre lane and disregarding other drivers. BMW drivers are more likely to drive through a pedestrian crossing without slowing or stopping and are less likely to stay after an accident.

On the steps leading to the new multi-million dollar wellness centre, Philip notices a YOUNG SCHOOLGIRL softly crying. Navy school blazer, jumper and tie. White satin hair ribbon. White shirt. Navy skirt. She’s all alone.

Philip heads past the chapel and tennis courts to the education centre. Strolls down the hallway on the ground floor until he reaches the door to Room 17. Through the slim glass panel he can see the class of YOUNG SCHOOLGIRLS sitting up straight at rows of white laminate tables. A FEMALE TEACHER at the front of the class is telling a story. He can’t make out what she’s saying but when she finishes, the schoolgirls blush and giggle.

Philip swings the door open and strides in, shaking the spray can. The teacher looks up with a smile.

‘Oh, Mr. Morris, welcome.’

Philip thinks about apologising for being late but thinks better of it. Nods and smiles instead. The teacher turns to the schoolgirls.

‘Mr. Morris has kindly joined us to talk about advertising, a career that some of you may be considering. We were just discussing commercials and it seems most of our students find most commercials rather ridiculous in their overt attempts to persuade us. Some felt advertising to be idiotic, others believed it purposely stupid to make the viewer - make the consumer - feel more intelligent. Is this true, Mr Morris?’

‘Those stupid ads? They’re made by stupid hacks without taste or skill or insight. And approved by stupid clients who wouldn’t know any better. Most people don’t know how advertising works. Would you like to know how advertising works?’

Most of the schoolgirls look attentive, focused, slightly heightened thanks to a cornucopia of ADHD medication. Most have slipped off their blazers as they’re indoors. Although a house captain keeps her blazer on, lapels laden with metal pins in various shapes and achievements. Philip shakes and rattles the spray can as he turns to the face the large blank whiteboard at the front of the room. Shakes it a little more then stretches his arm out. All the schoolgirls lean forward. The teacher’s mouth drops. And Philip presses down the tip.

Instead of a spray of paint, a high-pitched blare screams from the nozzle. Everyone is startled.

‘Any of you familiar with etymology and Latin will know the word advertising derives from the word advertere, which means to turn toward.’

Philip turns and looks over the schoolgirls. He has their undivided attention. They all have laptops open in front of them. Some are typing notes. The more diligent are also writing by hand in spiral-bound notebooks, reaching for coloured highlighters.

All the schoolgirls have long, straight hair. All pinned back with a uniform hair ribbon. Most have teeth aligners although their teeth are already perfect. Philip spots the one schoolgirl on an academic scholarship. There’s one in every class at private schools. Behind the smiles and kindness, is a hidden longing and sense of striving the other schoolgirls will never experience. Never fully see or understand.

‘There are lots of ways of getting attention. But most are cheap tricks. Like this air horn.’

Philip tosses the spray can over his shoulder and it lands in the trash bin by the door.

‘That’s not how advertising works. That’s not even the best way to get attention. How are you going to be heard when everyone is screaming? Scream louder?’

Everyone is silent until the schoolgirl on an academic scholarship answers in a hushed tone.


Philip smiles.

‘Doing the opposite of what’s expected is a good first step to have people turn their attention towards your advertising. A lot of advertising tries to add more and more and more when the secret is to have less and less. To reduce, simplify, distil.’

Philip always seeks out the strivers when hiring creatives. They tend to be hard workers, overachievers. All the better if they come from a broken marriage. The agency becomes their family, their identity.

Those born of privilege make excellent account executives. Their affability and social connections, their congeniality and laziness works for them. They’re happy to go out partying with clients until all hours. Good creatives couldn’t think of anything worse.

‘But gaining attention is just the first step in advertising. How do you hold that attention? How do you deepen and turn that attention to shift moods, to shift minds?’

‘But isn’t advertising designed to merely sell products, Mr. Morris?’

Philip turns to the teacher who asked the question.

‘Perhaps retail advertising. Or digital advertising which is just direct advertising, direct marketing. But real advertising doesn’t sell. It makes people want to buy, want to --

One of the schoolgirls interrupts.

‘Advertising alters consumer tastes, creates artificial product differentiation and locks in brand loyalty. It’s an extraneous cost that leads to higher prices, barriers to entry and anti-competitive behaviour.’

Philip smiles, impressed. This kind of thinking was dominant in the first half of the twentieth century when advertising was seen as a burden on society, a hardship on consumers. Forcing people to buy what they don’t need and can’t afford.

Another schoolgirl adds her thoughts.

‘Actually advertising can make products cheaper overall by providing more information about products and fostering competition in markets characterised with imperfect consumer knowledge.’

A perspective championed by the Chicago school of economics and popularised by the likes of Milton Friedman and George Stigler. A handful of spurious economists who provided the groundwork for neoliberalism and the destruction of social justice that led to catastrophe for small businesses, liberal democracy, the middle class, the justice system, and the economy as a whole.  

Philip looks around the room and wonders how many of these schoolgirls will choose a career, how many will choose to marry, how many will choose to have children.

A schoolgirl with long chestnut brown hair speaks up.

‘It’s a complementary good. Increased advertising, particularly targeted advertising, is associated with higher sales.’

Philip recognises the schoolgirl. Her father is the head of GroupM in Australia and New Zealand. GroupM is WPP’s media arm, spending more than $63 billion a year on behalf of a string of agencies and clients. It’s the largest media sales company in the world.

‘Ultimately it’s about reach and return on investment,’ she says.

‘That’s churn and burn. That’s not really advertising. That’s how media sales works. It’s not how advertising works.’

‘Good programmatic media buying eliminates waste and makes advertising work better for people.’

Philip grins. Wow, she’s really swallowed her father’s company line. It’s the line lobbyists roll out whenever regulators start hovering around advertising and media agency conglomerates. The line that advertising is a force for good. That advertising supports economic growth, job creation and consumer choice.

If that doesn’t work, they reel out the free speech argument that any potential infringements on free expression are unconstitutional and - hands on heart - an affront to God and country.

The teacher speaks up.

‘Surely media is key. Didn’t a famous retailer once say that half the money he spent on advertising was wasted, the trouble was he didn’t know which half?’

‘That was John Wannamaker who opened the first department store in Philadelphia in 1861. He initially wrote his own ad copy, but later hired the world’s first full-time copywriter, John Emory Powers, who doubled revenue with straight-forward ads that used plain English, short sentences and plain twelve-point Caslon text in a single column without any hyperbole, without any illustration.’

Philip looks at the schoolgirls. 

‘Media is not advertising. Media is the delivery channel, the delivery system. It’s just the truck. It’s not what’s inside the truck.’

Philip explains how media and advertising are often confused as one and the same. How the advertisement itself and how it’s created is the most important element because it alone can contain the seed of change. It alone can imprint culture. It alone can sway minds.

‘The media is irrelevant. It’s the creative that can shift culture and thereby shift minds and behaviour.’

The schoolgirl with the long chestnut brown hair scoffs.

‘A substantial media buy with the appropriate targeting and reach is far more effective than any creative expression. The creative is irrelevant.’


‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it even make a sound? How can an ad persuade anyone of anything if it isn’t seen or heard?’

‘Do you think advertising works by persuading us, seducing us, coaxing us towards a purchase?’

Most of the schoolgirls nod. The teacher smiles. Philip continues.

‘It’s a popular theory. The idea that advertising works by creating positive memories and feelings that influence our behaviour over time to encourage us to buy a particular product at a later date.’

This Pavlovian account of ad efficacy seems to make sense. Happy, smiling people consuming a product in an ad become the seed for consumers wanting happy, smiling feelings. Advertising as emotional inception.

Plant the seed, water it with a multichannel media buy so enough people see it and wait for the desire to grow. A call and response model that positions the ad itself as the driver of desire. 

‘It’s a popular theory but it’s bullshit!’

The teacher gasps.

‘Mr. Morris, we avoid invectives and swearing in class.’

Philip smiles.

‘It’s still bullshit.’

The teacher crosses her arms.

‘Perhaps bunkum is a better word, Mr. Morris? Or balderdash? Hogwash?’

‘Perhaps you should be a copywriter?’

The teacher blushes. The schoolgirls giggle. Philip continues.

‘Cultural imprinting is how advertising truly works. Rather than trying to change minds, it changes cultural meaning.’

The schoolgirl on an academic scholarship glances at the other students. Philip smiles to himself.

‘Cultural imprinting changes how you are perceived by others when you use a product. The real job of advertising is to generate social and cultural signalling.’

The teacher asks whether than means social media. Philip shakes his head.

‘Quite the opposite. Social media is far too narrow a media to imprint culture, to change culture. It’s not enough for an ad to be seen by a single person, or even by many people individually. It has to be broadcast publicly and widely, in front of large audiences.’

Philip explains that what many people consider waste in advertising - that is reaching people who will not buy - is the very opposite of waste. It’s actually what makes advertising imprint culture, what makes advertising work. 

‘You have to see the ad but you also have to know that most of your friends have seen the ad too. Billboards, bus stops, subways, stadiums, any other public location. Popular newspapers, magazines, television shows. When you see an ad on Google or on social media you have no idea whether your friends have seen it or not. It has no cultural meaning because it hasn’t gone out wide enough, hasn’t reached enough people.’

Philip looks over the schoolgirls.

‘You don’t want a product because of its features and benefits. You want a product because other people you like want it. This is mimetic desire. You imitate the desire of others. That’s what great advertising can harness and unleash.’

The schoolgirl on an academic scholarship reaches for another highlighter. Philip smiles.

‘Great advertising creates the culture that creates the reality that creates you.’

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Copyright 2024 Stefano Boscutti

All Rights Reserved

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This is a work of fiction. While many of the characters portrayed here have counterparts in the life and times of private school students, media investment groups and others, the characterisations and incidents presented are totally the products of the author’s public imagination. This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It should not be resold or given away. Thank you for your support. (Couldn’t do it without you.)

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