Poor old advertising has taken a lot of stick over the years.
From Hollywood - hardly a paragon of virtue itself - where barely a kind sequence has been filmed about the industry or its practitioners, to the world of academia, which has had at its disposal a plethora of tracts, unwieldy communications theories and a lexicon of theory-speak, reinvigorated recently by semiotics and feminism with which to cudgel the image market-place, the Hidden Persuaders have always been an easy and popular target.
In society at large, advertising has traditionally been seen as having little intrinsic merit, being ephemeral, trashy and inconsequential (both as 'art' and as the mercenary ally of grubby-fingered commerce), not to mention disingenuous and pretentious - a view compounded by the way it is has been used to sell 'transient' products in terms of intangible 'durables' such as 'security', 'natural' and 'self-esteem'.
It's surprising, then, that the projections of (primarily us) technology and marketing gurus such as James Snider (The Futurist, Nov. 1992) and Regis McKenna (Relationship Marketing, 1992) have not been seized upon more ardently by those who would see the 'pony-tailed manipulators' fall flat on their face, for that is essentially what these authors predict.
Former Harvard Business Review author Snider wrote that Advertising as we know it will become technologically obsolete. It will never completely disappear, but it will be of decreasing importance in the way that consumers get information about products. Drawing primarily on the experience of Silicon Valley companies, Snider concluded that third-party information sources accessible by home computer would barge the advertising industry into insignificance as more and more products were bought from the home, a trend exacerbated by the emergence of hdtv, broad-band fibre connections, and other new media technologies.
US marketing savant Regis McKenna agreed, also basing his conclusions on an analysis of the computer industry (especially Apple and Dell), that advertising was about to whither into insignificance as technology dictates that companies must turn to constant innovation, intense attention to consumer wishes and full-spectrum marketing to build an enduring relationship with customers.
In an age when ibm can go from being the 'multinationals' multinational' to a crippled giant in a couple of years, no amount of advertising is going to stop it, argued McKenna. The proliferation of messages and new products competing for the attention of an increasingly jaded population was leaving customers baffled and ultimately indifferent.
Future consumers, Snider concurred, would not have to sort our conflicting assertions made by manufacturers and merchants, all claiming their products are the best, but will rely on independent sources.
Besides making their purchasing decisions on home information services, McKenna believes, consumers increasingly look at such factors as company reputations, personal recommendations and e-mail conversations (electronic rumours or an amplified word-of-mouth), and less on advertising. The new 'relationship marketing' seeks to replace the monologue of advertisers to consumers with a dialogue or feedback loop, using 1-900 numbers, ai-based information systems, frequent visits to user groups, and increasingly sophisticated geographically and economically integrated databases for micromarketing, such as vouchers, try-before-buy and direct mail.
The other argument for the technological inevitability of advertising's decline in influence is the 'narrowcasting' angle: that the increasing interactivity and intelligence of our information conduits will result in advertising being sieved out by the smart net of electronic agents cast from our pcs and cable decoders. Pay-per-view tv, personal digital newspapers, smart video recorders - all, according to the Jeremiahs, will hasten the drastic pruning of the advertising industry (as we know it).
I believe such premonitions of advertising's decline are wrong, being based on a too shallow reading of what advertising is and what we use it for (just as academic-critical objections to advertising have generally been critiques rather of capitalism and the commodity fetish)1
1 It has been pointed out that only in West, where we believe ourselves 'superior' to 'primitive' societies do we find the accusation of fetishism offensive. A West African is happy with the term because he is basically happy being West African.
Maybe they are wilfully so, or simply a result of wishful thinking (after all, in the us must one live with the confluence of advertising of stunning inanity and gross abuse of its techniques).
The Good, the Bad, but never the Ugly
Advertising represents a highly suspect epistemology: knowledge through image and emotion, rather than words and reason, infantilising the consumer and further limiting the scope for negotiating with the real world through rationality, and its mirror, plain language, say critics such as Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death). But the idea that image-based communication strategies are somehow aberrations from a plainer, essentialist language use has been one that philosophers have found increasingly difficult to justify, and does more to suggest that what the applier of such an argument is really pissed off about is the decline of the 19th century print-based culture that advertising - for better or worse - has done much to dismantle.
I, for one, will certainly not be throwing out ads -- I'll be trawling for the best. In fact I'll pay to see them. This first struck me a couple of years back when friends would ask me what I missed most about leaving England and I found myself replying the advertising. Anxious to prove (at least to myself) that this was not as shallow a desire as it at first sounded, I wondered why. The best answer I found was The Consumerist Manifesto, by former ad man and BBC Late Show producer Martin Davidson.
The basic thread of his subtle, well-written and cogent argument is that we are all consumers now; consumers of images, products, institutions and ideas - and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. In the 1980s the irrelevance of the old moral antipathy to consumerism was not only becoming apparent in principle, but in practice, 2
2 Davidson based his analysis on uk advertising, and although the country's industry and the mediascape in which it participates is unique, as is its historical attitude to commerce, the arguments have validity to a greater or lesser extent, throughout the West.
with the election of three successive governments committed to 'enterprise culture', returned to power by voters who could not be written off as a privileged elite or a duped proletariat. The old models used to attack advertising were not 'oppositional' but 'denigratory.
The Left belatedly realised that to condemn advertising was to condemn the people who used it, with misleading and obsolete assumptions. Interest in shopping as a social activity had become inevitable (as it began to replace more traditional popular activity, like sport, and as it began to be catered for by larger scale changes to architecture and urban topography, as well as shifting patterns in the economy and the rise of credit and the increase in disposable income).
Postmodern theory also gave us the opportunity to read ads with more bravura and insight than ever before, as post-structuralism's baroque obscurities became the friendlier, party-clothed paradoxes of postmodernism (the non-fixedness of meaning, the constitutiveness of discourse, the relativism of 'difference'), so consumption looked the place where you could both have fun and be intellectually hip.
Magazines such as The Face, i-D, Arena and Elle rejected not politics per se but politics-as-the-opposite-of-consumption. Boring and didactic, boring because didactic, because obsessed with the notion that you can define value with some reference to some notion of the authentic.
As a term, 'commodity' has since Benjamin been seen as something essentially false, inauthentic and politically suspect resulting in a dual view of cultural products in which hedonism is aligned against moralism, a dualism that no longer exists in the pagan postmodern world.
The 'deviant consumerism' displayed by these magazines allows consumers to outdo the advertising process, taking its added values and reusing them for their own purposes. If it is true that objects themselves have no fixed meaning, that consumption is active, that you consume images as well as things, then it is possible for oppositional culture to buy into consumerism without selling out to it, to make consumption rather than non-consumption the opposite of consumerism.
If 'value' is a question of what you get out of something rather than a specific thing you invest in a product, then the emphasis is necessarily on the consumer, or the consumer's ability, or willingness, to create those values. This strikes Davidson as an emancipatory ethic, both in terms of what it allows us to be interested in (i.e. anything we like) and in terms of allowing us to be more important than the commodity. Again and again, products and institutions have had to sell themselves in terms of what people get out of them and not in terms of their intrinsic ability to confer cultural prestige - a development anyone familiar with post-imperial British sclerosis should recognise as a substantial leap forward.
Which still leaves us with the problem: where next? How do we reclaim all those values that used to seem beyond price, but which marketing and research brought to heel? The great advances of 80s culture, new sexual politics, national identity, global cultures, green politics and packaging the aesthetic - all drew their expression from the market place. Wherever you turned it seemed that it was in the ads that you found not just your evidence, but your agenda.
The battle with advertising has been lost, says Davidson - it is no longer possible to knock it out with one iconoclastic generalisation. Consumerism has kept one step ahead of deconstruction, outmanoeuvring the siege-machinery of interpretation, in energy, wilfulness, and chutzpah that make 'having a problem' with it seem intellectually top-heavy.
Advertising no longer stands culpable of being what it is - not high art, wedded to the profit motive, committed to consumption, to selling and to pleasure and the irrational. These categories relied for their judgmental efficacy on ideologies that guaranteed a distance between commerce and culture and between culture and politics. The institutions designed to guarantee those ideologies are in crisis - museums, the academy, the politics of use-value rationality, 'culture' in its old, autonomous sense.
The problem with culture, and the point McKenna et al seem to not realise, is that it is both a literal and a metaphorical concept. Its objects work as both material and communicative icon. Indictments of advertising work by making a simple separation between the two, advocating a benchmark of rationality for judging consumerism and a criterion of functional worth for evaluating production. Their analysis of the power of new media to shape the media ecology inhabited by advertising fail because they separate the social and material aspects of artefacts and practices, when in reality they are interwoven.
The new perspective of advertising rejects the linear sequential model of asking what advertising does to people, with its focus on the properties of the stimulus and assumptions of rational choice. We don't buy things, we buy values, brands not products.
Branding taken to its logical conclusion becomes the largest mythology of all - that our products are our culture, because it is in consumerism that we most express our sense of social belonging. Advertising is the primary source of the symbols with which we structure our social and domestic relationships, and consumption is a most potent (and two-way) crossing point for values between the market (public sphere) and the individual (private sphere).3
3 Sut Jhally, Professor of Communications at University of Massachusetts at Amherst notes: Adverting has come to provide answers to those same questions that religion often raises: how does the world work? Where do I fit in? What is a moral life? It is closer to the fetishism of West Africa in which people believed in God but also worshipped magical spirits that populated ordinary places and which influence the small problems: how to get better, increase your sexual, romantic and family lives. Advertising creates a world in which goods come to play magical roles in our lives ... Buying the right good can act as a sort of passport into a magical world of consumption and style.
Furthermore, he believes ads are the more powerful religion: we pay lip service to these other religions, we may go to religious services for an hour a week, but they don't dominate out lives. We live in the media culture 24 hours a day. Advertising is so powerful because it recognises the real things people want, the things that makes people human: love, friendship, security, some kind of autonomy.
The Church of Buying and Selling sees no separation between church and state: politics and government have been commodified through corporate special interest lobbying and campaigning and this is putting the survival of the human race at stake. What is needed, according to Jhally, is a religious reformation to question the very nature of economic growth, health of society and how to organise it. (Adbusters Vol 2 #3)
Images and symbolic meaning are not merely frivolous adjuncts to a product, but central to it. Consumer behaviour is neither logical or cognitive, but emotional and affective; what objects mean is determined by how they are used, and this is never fixed. Communication is not just the conveyance of a message intact between sender and receiver, via a medium, but a stimulus that prompts a response. Advertising cannot bully people into doing what the client wants, but has to persuade. Adverts pose as games, things we participate in rather than interrogate.
We all know the drawbacks of consumerism, says Davidson, and we all mix 'n match our way around them. It is no longer clear what consumer dissent is in opposition to. It used to be obvious, because Marxism, psychology and feminism told us what: coming to terms with the various hegemonies at work in the world - capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy. How power works was initially dressed in economic terms, then how economics uses images to disguise itself. Consumerism as represented in advertising is clearly implicated in those hegemonies. But all such critical analysis has done in developing ever more sophisticated notions for how images transmit power is supply the creators of those images with more sophisticated blueprints - and supply the rest of us with an arsenal of concepts with which to unpick those blueprints.
McKenna falls down by clumsily projecting the values of us-style capitalism into an emergent and chaotic system. What the new media technologies, from VideoCarts in supermarkets to electronic networks up to and including fully emersive vr are doing is creating a new media ecosystem within which advertising will rapidly speciate into new varieties. Furthermore, it discounts the historical trend that computers are following towards becoming cheap, commodity articles rather than 'high tech products'. Using proven technology and differentiated solely by design and added value, when a laptop computer costs $50, will you be buying Dell or Swatch?
Advertising currently comprises the parasite phylum in today's media ecology: it feeds on living and dead ideas, chopping them up and recombining them with its inherent enthusiasm for the latent aesthetics of language and the power of design.4
4 And I mean this in a neutral way: parasites, as studies from both natural ecology and artificial life have shown, may reduce the fitness of individuals, but also increase the variety and vigour of a population (even sex is believed to have evolved to introduce the variety necessary to avoid annihilation by parasites), just as advertising, though contributing to the reduced fitness of some individuals (by spending all their money on ephemeral tack, for example), has increased the variety and richness of culture.
In the 80s, with consumerism being seen in a more positive light, advertising was given a more creative leash. Letting rip (to an extent), it created and fostered a greater visual literacy, speeding up an aesthetic arms race. Advertising, in communicating with a growing number of 'deviant consumers', will be forced to evolve from a parasitic to a symbiotic entity, to become tactical rather than strategic, to represent difference and not just diversity.
As Davidson points out, the inevitable corollary of brand advertising is that its commercial viability utterly depends on our liking it, even more when there is precious little else with which to distinguish one product from another. Advertising that does not successfully talk to the consumers will have failed, and the power of the consumer to determine what 'successful' advertising is, is enormous.
The symbiotic relationship between advertising and consumers could involve on the one hand, consumers agreeing to take part in advertising in return for the vast resources, creativity, psychographic research and communicative elegance the industry has at its disposal being used, at least in part, to help create the new post-patriarchal, post-linear language(s) that colonisation of multimedia and vr spaces will require. An industry used to packing whole epic stories into 30 lavishly-produced seconds, communicating quite specific messages with mood, texture and ambiance is perfectly suited to this challenge.
Advertising can also play a greater role in granting access to these spaces: just as it has traditionally subsidised print and broadcast media, maybe universal access to the important new media can only be accomplished by advertising subsidy. Smith & Wesson-sponsored shoot-em-up vr environments; test driving the new Nissan through a virtual Switzerland; multimedia subvertisements for Greenpeace -- have we even started asking what we want from these new media?
Any vision of the future must grapple with what we want out of our advertising, which is to say, what do we want, period. According to Davidson, any post-consumerist manifesto has to transcend advertising, or undercut it. He sees two ways of going about this: Our world view is now dominated by reflecting and catering to the fact that we consume aspirationally. All the things that used to stand over and above consumerism have been shoved aside, their self-evident worthiness subjected to scrutiny and challenge. At one level this is cause for concern; on another, consumerism has given us the highest point from which to begin advocacy for other things. It forces the prophets of value to work much harder to demonstrate that their visions of post-consumer cultural values are as coherent and relevant as they believe.
Second, the power and influence of advertising will only be kept in check if the cultural 'product' that the rest of the media industries produces succeeds in being more complex, accessible and interesting than the marketing strategies designed to promote them. If the language of values and dissent is ever going to be relevant again, it will have to do without simply slagging-off consumerism. Both art and politics will have to rethink their relationships to the structures which support them.