Advertising And The New Sadism

Pain is something that everyone can relate to – which is why ad agecnies are currently so fascinated by it, argues Gordon Comstock

Pain is something that everyone can relate to – which is why ad agecnies are currently so fascinated by it, argues Gordon Comstock

Time was, advertisers dealt in anticipation. Gratification was the juicy worm on the hook on the line which led to the checkout. But as advertising enters its dotage the bait is beginning to look less appetising. The problem is not whether the product delivers on the pleasure it promises, but the suspicion that pleasure itself is disappointing.

“As a rule we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more painful than expected,” wrote Schopenhauer. Never have we had so many opportunities to prove this cheery supposition. Millennial consumers want something that they can believe in. In short they want pain. Pain delivers. I’m A Celebrity… has the only thing the British viewing public like more than celebrities and it isn’t Ant and Dec, although, like Ant and Dec, it is torture.

Where TV goes, advertising will scamper after like an offal-scrounging whippet. We’re not surprised to see human suffering on our screens, but in the past it was only allowed in charity advertising. The Ethiopian child with the flies on his face was Beelzebub’s own key-image. The attitude is ‘You’d rather not look at this? So would we!’ BBH’s Break The Cycle for Barnardo’s (above) is the modern progeny of such thinking. The agency has form for this work – John Hegarty’s breakthrough ad was a charity shocker (smoking toddler, later rehashed as mainlining baby). Break The Cycle is earnestly unpleasant – it provides heightened sensation, but not sensa­tionalism, implying that if you’re shocked, it’s because the truth is shocking. This logic works nicely, so long as you maintain that people don’t want to see cruelty. Presumably you also believe that cinema-goers watched $655 million worth of Saw movies for the jokes.

The truth hurts. Hence the delinquent offspring of Jackass and YouTube and viral marketing. This is omfg-is-that-for-real culture and like a great deal of casual sadism, usually football-related. Mother’s Buy-A-Player virals (one above) which show Oldham Athletic’s fans submitting to depilatory waxing, so much do they want their new player, or Adidas’s viral from 180Amsterdam (below) demon­strating the incredible power of Ballack’s right foot translated into a direct hit to a linesman’s testicles. It’s a kind of male, initiation sadism, based on the old idea that if it hurts, you must mean it. The experience of pain is one form of communication we can all understand. This is not to say that most people are prurient sadists merely that, as author David Foster Wallace put it, “people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests”.

Unsurprisingly then, the latest instance of the new sadism comes from those purveyors of all things fluffy and friendly, Fallon. Daniel Craig stands impassive whilst shards of glass and masonry ricochet off his charmingly ruffled head. In the world of 007, torture is the preserve of insecure regimes, and advertising, particularly tv advertising, is deeply insecure at the moment. So as budgets tighten, I will be personally beating Craig’s ball sac with knotted rope through a hastily adapted chair. 

This article appears in the February issue of CR. Gordon Comstock is an advertising copywriter based in London. His Not Voodoo blog is at

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