Adverts know what we need; they just refuse to sell it to us

Patek Philippe is one of the giants of the global watchmaking industry, with revenues last year of just short of 750 million euros. For years now, they have been running a very distinctive series of ads featuring parents and children. You’re sure to have glimpsed one somewhere.

In one example, there’s a father and son together in a motorboat, a scene which tenderly evokes filial and paternal loyalty and love. The son is listening carefully while his kindly dad is telling him about some aspect of seafaring. We can imagine the boy will grow up confident and independent – yet also respectful and warm. He’ll be keen to follow in his father’s footsteps and emulate his best sides. The father has put a lot of work into the relationship (one senses they’ve been out on the water a number of times, and when the boy was younger, there might have been marathon Lego building sessions in the bedroom) and now the love is being properly paid back. The advertisement understands our deepest hopes. Yet it is moving precisely because what it depicts is so hard to find in real life. Father-son relationships rarely go so well. There is neglect, rebellion and bitterness. Dad was too often away. The son is caught up in a bad group at school. There’s no chance to talk any more. But for a moment, thanks to Patek Philippe, we are afforded a glimpse of psychological paradise; no wonder if we are touched.

Or take this ad from Calvin Klein. The parents and children have tumbled together in a happy heap. There is laughter; everyone can be silly together, there is no more need to put up a front, because everyone here is trusting and on the same side. No one understands you like these people do. In the anonymous airport lounge, in the lonely hotel room, you’ll think back to this cozy group and miss them terribly. Alternatively, you might already miss those years, quite a way back, when it was all so easy. The kids are older now and the stresses are much greater. Only last week, there was a horrific row over drugs and mobile phones. Your relationship with your spouse is suffering too. Calvin Klein knows all this; it too has latched on to our deepest, and at the same time, most elusive inner longings.

Adverts wouldn’t work as well as they do if they didn’t operate with a very good sense of what our real needs are; what we really require to be happy. Their emotional pull is based on knowing us extremely well. We are creatures who hunger for sexual love, good family relationships, connections with others and the feeling that we are respected. Adverts understand.

Yet, armed with this knowledge, they are unwittingly extremely cruel to us. For while they excite us with reminders of our buried longings, they refuse to do anything sensible or sincere to quench them adequately. They show us paradise, then don’t sell us anything with whose help we might reach it.

Of course, ads do sell us things. Just the wrong things in relation to the hopes they arouse. Calvin Klein makes lovely cologne. Patek Philippe’s watches are extremely reliable agents of time-keeping. But it’s hard to see how these products are going to help us secure the goods our unconscious thought were on offer. A watch, or a bottle of scent – however excellent in their own way – don’t have the answers to our true dilemmas. Our troubles are so much bigger than these products seem to understand.

We’re selling each other the wrong things. We’ve pretty much sorted our needs for portable chronometry and personal odour management. But there are far bigger, more meaningful commercial challenges out there for the next generation of entrepreneurs to tackle (a business opportunity is, at heart, just an unattended need; and we have plenty). Collectively we should turn our ambitions to creating new kinds of products – as strange sounding today as a wrist watch would have seemed in 1500. We need the drive of commerce and industrialisation to get behind filling the world – and our lives – with products that really can help us to thrive, flourish, find contentment and manage our relationships well. Only this will help us to make real the lovely ideals which the adverts of today make us gaze at from far away.

The people who work in advertising know in their hearts that they’re usually arousing longings they can’t fulfill. It’s why many of them, particularly the most talented, suffer crises in mid-life. They know their genius has been devoted to making images of happiness that the products they’re selling can’t generate. Struck by the inauthenticity of their lives, with some cash in the bank, many of these ad people tend to leave the field and try out something new: they do a philosophy degree, start a bar, or travel around the world in search of meaning. We invite them to return to work to spearhead a new kind of advertising: one that not only identifies what makes us happy, but also helps us to have a better shot at actually being so.