The Voldemort of Quebec's advertising industry
Former ad exec blasts ad industry for boosting excess consumption

Claude Cossette is the Voldemort of Quebec's adverting industry. For those who haven't read J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, Voldemort is a former Hogwarts School of Magic sorcerer who turned to the dark side. Pupils are not allowed to use his name, and refer to him only as "you know who."

Of course the ad agency that he co-founded and which bears his name - Cossette Communication Group, Canada's largest and arguably most successful agency- is talked about all the time. But Claude Cossette left the agency in 1981 to pursue an academic career. Since then, the industry has pursued an unofficial policy of benign neglect towards him.

Despite Cossette's 20 years in academia, and his vast theoretical and practical knowledge, he is rarely asked to speak at industry events such as last month's summit on the future of Quebec advertising industry. And after reading his latest book Publicité Culturel, (Advertising, Cultural Garbage), it's not hard to figure out why.

Cossette -- like Voldemort - has gone over to the dark side. Cossette has turned his back on the industry he made his name in, to espouse the anti-globalization agenda of other notable anti-markers such as Naomi Klein and Kalle, Lasn.

Among Cossette's conclusions: Advertising is cultural garbage. Campaigns are run and paid for by the rich, and confuse people so they don't understand the difference between needs and wants. Worse, they stimulate excess consumption, which is despoiling the planet.

"I hate advertising," writes Cossette. "Why? Because it is insistent. It finds me wherever I am, hassles me by giving the same message a thousand times, flashes its legs like a whore and spoils my present happiness by promising me future pleasures."

"Commerce and advertising imagery, are succeeding so well, that the 10 per cent of the world's population we are part of, are consuming 90 per cent of its resources," writes Cossette. "We are consuming the resources of poor countries, where adults and children are working like underpaid slaves, so that we can consume goods that end up on the garbage heap."

Oddly, despite its supposed excesses, Cossette doesn't buy the notion that people are turning against advertising. "Studies show the public loves advertising," he told me in a telephone interview from his university offices in Quebec City, citing two TV shows and Planète Pub, which are centered around the ad world. "It's the élites in the universities that are against it."

But according to Cossette, advertising has gone too far. Among the problems his cites are the blurring lines between content and advertising, such as when news casters plug other shows on the same network, advertorials -- publicity pieces disguised as news stories -- and the increasing number of product placements in TV shows, movies and books.

But isn't he biting the hand that feeds him? "I work in the university now, said Cossette. "It's my role to think about these things and to criticize. That's what I am paid to do."

While the general thrust of Cossette's arguments is not new - people have been ranting against advertising for almost a century, two things stand out from his book.

The first is that like Naomi Klein's hyper-successful No Logo, which largely influenced Cossette's book, the work starts out with an attack on advertising, but eventually diverts to its main target: big business, and mass consumption itself.

The fact that two successful authors couched their real attacks -- within attacks on advertising -- indicates that the advertising industry at some point risks being made a scapegoat for consumer demand of which the ads are just a symptom.

The second aspect of Déchet that bears note, is the author himself. Once a successful ad man, Cossette now 64, turns against the industry. Yet it is a well-know fact that as people age, they tend to consumer less.

Is there a connection between his advancing age, and his growing skepticism? "No doubt," said Cossette. "I have less of a need for objects to boost my self image."

And since Canada's population is aging, can we expect a consumption backlash from more of the country's growing number of seniors? "No doubt," said Cossette. "It's a discussion we are going to be hearing much more about in the public place."



Photo caption: Claude Cossette, co-founder of Canada's largest ad agency -- now retired and teaching at Université Laval -- refers to advertising as "cultural garbage" that stimulates over-consumption.

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