Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#3/4 Geert-Jan Strengholt 1 Jan 1994

The End of Advertising? 2

A round table discussion

The New Social Environment

WV: If you look at the way the new technologies evolve... they are moving in the direction of the social networks. I'm an almost daily user of a bbs, where people communicate and work together. Addison Wesley just published a book about Internet, the largest academic network in the world, written by two people who live 3000 km apart... New social relations grow in networks, like Internet and CompuServe, but also go beyond its limits. These people also make appointments and meet, have dinners etc.

JTh: So the technology provokes... the network is the means to something else. It's a catalyst. This is were you come back to the body question, of sharing a physical experience. I went to a meeting where people were discussing the festival of Britain, which was in 1951, which had a spectacular kind of technological pavilions - an expression of modernity and futurism - and was about all the things that technology could do. But what all these people, who had designed or visited these pavilions, actually remembered as being wonderful was being together on the site, the shared experience....the rest was just background.

RM: About these networks and belonging to groups... I think there's something interesting you can see in the development of tv in the Netherlands. When we had one channel the whole country was sitting in front of tv, talking about it the next day... Then when we got the second channel... we had some quarrels about the house, but we still did the same thing. Then the 3rd channel came, a bit more cultural so it was a smaller group of people.... advertisers had problems with the limited distribution of commercial time, so they fought for a commercial channel. When rtl4 came we crossed a critical border, it became choosing between a quantity of channels. Suddenly people were not connected to the same lady on the screen every night, saying Goodnight, loosing the common ground of conversation. It diminished the role of tv, because now it's easier to turn it of. When there were two channels everybody wanted to watch, because nobody wanted to miss the program you could be talking about the next morning. So actually by the growth of tv, the function diminished...

WV: But has the amount of hours people spend in front of tv really decreased spectacularly? Only slightly, so it's not a dramatic event. It simply has become more difficult for you advertisers to catch them. Advertising has become vital, because it gives you time to zap.

JTh: But for advertising the problem is twofold... On the one hand there are more and more channels, but on the other we also watch tv with more literacy, more cynically and filter out the advertising, either physically with a button, or we just mentally block it out.

Cynicism

JTh: There is another area where people are becoming very cynical... Coming back to the relationship between business and art... most of the time it is a matter of expressing the fact that they are not only dull businessmen, that they have a broader mind than that... As soon as they become involved with art that becomes dangerous to the business, they quit... It's a coquettish way of showing 'their good intentions'. Being interested in art shows that you are not only interested in money. But most consumers are cynical, if an oil company sponsors an artform which has nothing to do with their business. It is just disingenuous to believe that we are what we sponsor.

PP: The most important thing, which we have touched upon several times is the growing literacy of the public/consumers and this growing cynicism. We let it happen, we happily enjoy it to a certain extent but there is also this cynicism, that has really changed... and that is something we have to deal with...

RM: On the one hand you are right, but on the other hand... There's this best-seller in the us, called Shopping for a better World, listing all the companies with ratings on all kinds of issues, on racism, on feminism and soon. So people are buying this book, and changing their shopping behaviour, based on ideological criteria. They call it voting with your wallet,

JTh: Levis is stopping production in China, because China has a bad human rights record. They do it for selfish reasons ultimately, but then it is objectively not a bad policy change... So it works both ways. I saw a lecture by someone comparing Lois and Levis jeans commercials which both use rock music etc., and one was badly done and the other was well done... If you don't get the cultural references correct, or accurate, or you sell fake street-credibility it's counterproductive advertising. So there's a sense in which successful advertising is genuinely a response to what the streets or the cultural avant-garde is interested in. If it's accurate, people will respect it for its accuracy... that's not the same as questioning the business. It's like saying do not try and patronise me...

DvW: I thought when you talked about cynicism and the sponsoring business, that the public sort of sees the corporate world that tries to redeem itself...We don't only take, we do some charity too..., as a way of using their guilt! They need my money, but they also need my absolution. Environmental activists sometimes have to go along with or sit next to people they absolutely hate, just because this guy has an enormous guilt or his company has some problem to solve... They don't care, they just get the money and do something they think is socially worthwhile... This is a complete disappearance of ideological loyalty.

JK: There was this article in Omni where a guy defines Costa Rica as a corporation of 3 million shareholders, the product of the corporation is about 5000 species that they have in their rainforest, in stock. He pleads to consider a country, a nation... as a corporation, that should be run and should be profitable... and that has a product in its back yard that can be sold.

PP: He's a conservationist, but feels that there is no use in walking in picket lines. He is dealing in a commodity... he is talking about the fact that the research and development of a single drug by a very big American drug manufacturer involves 200 million dollars. That is many, many times greater than the gross national product of Costa Rica. Now he's dealing, with his ideology, with the big multinational drug corporations.

RM: People have only just realised that there is a corporate culture... In the 50s the local owner of a factory was a capitalist, the bankmanager and insurance salesman were not... Well the banks and insurance companies were the first corporations. Nowadays people realise that it works that way, and it makes them cynical. They may not know how marketing works, but they know that there are guys around trying to play tricks on them.

DvW: But who can also be tricked... now they know!

JTh: The environmental issue is a good example... because that's exactly what the campaigners do. They say, well corporations behave according to their own interest, but corporations consist of tens of thousands of people and they all have families and children... and so their whole kind of campaigning is towards children, who go home and say to their father and mother: Daddy why are you poisoning the ocean... Fifty percent of all children cartoons are about the environment nowadays, villains and bad people who pollute and heroes who save it...

HV: Well there used to be a lot of loyalty from consumers in the past, brand-loyalty... but this loyalty is less nowadays.

WV: But we are talking about why they like you; we are talking about advertising, how and what these companies are communicating. Voting with your wallet or whatever you want to call it has been around for a while, but the issue here is not so much if it works or not.

DvW: What do these companies represent...? If you say people are loyal to a brand they are a more or less passive victim, or they just say yes to the brand or the feeling of comfort. So when they become disloyal, or more individual they see this relationship with the corporate world as a possibility to be active, to choose... because they know that if nobody wants this product of a certain company for whatever reason, then this company is hurt. But what do the good companies represent? If you vote for a certain company, what does it represent?

Business and Ethics

RM: More and more companies get ethical offices, they try to formulate a kind of ideology. At the same time political parties become less ideological and more and more pragmatic... where do I get the voters. They start to do marketing. So the corporations are becoming tomorrow's political parties... I hate the example, but with the Bodyshops - Anita Rudder's Trade not aid campaign - it's the story not the stuff. She's not advertising her products, she's selling her concept...! Anita Rudder's concept for the Body Shop is very militant, but it's a balanced thing. She says that they are trying to get a fair share of living for the people and have more balance between giving and taking, but she's very businesslike... and she's definitely in it for the money. On the other hand there's this company, called Ben and Jerry's selling Hippie Ice-cream, who started as a company but do crazy things. So you have companies that don't do anything on ideological things, then you have companies who do it because they feel they have to, to keep in business and a few exceptions.

JTh: You have to differentiate here between companies in mature markets and companies in new markets. If you are making soap etc. you're in a pretty competitive market and you're all pretty much the same, then all this ethical stuff comes in. But with all these software companies, where what they do is radically different from what the other companies do, they don't have to be ethical. They can have a completely unethical network technology company, because if they are good at what they do they will sell their stuff anyway. The major economy is changing, and thousands of companies are stuck in old businesses, where they compete on these ethical questions, or anything other quality, except the product. Whereas the new technology sector sell really on the product, and it's quite simple...

WV: The funny thing is that all this voting stuff, at least the recent developments in this field, has to do with things to be against. This whole thing came up because of the ecology movement using kids to work on the corporations, an outside party that uses the voting mechanism to fight the corporation policies, or to support.

But they are playing with this fear, being against something and being conscious about things that might be wrong. It's all focused on negative aspects. If the companies are really looking at this way of communicating themselves, they have to find a positive approach.

JTh: I make a prediction that the next ethical thing is that companies make a benefit of employing more people than they actually need to, like companies saying we employ more people than we need to because we make things by hand... There is a point where savings from productivity, are offset by social disintegration. You need someone to buy your stuff! There is always this spiral/circle effect, because there simply is a point where productivity no longer pays for itself... for those reasons, and that's where we are now. Also if you look at the money spent on research and development.... it has just reached a point where it no longer makes a return on the capital. It doesn't have to be conscious... it's just the market slowing it down.

PP: Going back to the notion of movement away from masses... We talked about corporations, but in the end they are us, made up of people. One of the things that I'm interested in is this shift in biological terms, this notion of the social insect in social biology. Looking at the corporation as an organism, the corporate body... Aren't we getting in trouble because we tend to think of the corporation in one sense, and of the individual in another..?

RM: I work for a software company bso...and there structure is based on cells of 50 people, 50 small corporations within a larger corporation. They grow by splitting the cells... The whole feeling behind it is that people should belong to an entity, to be stimulated and motivated. Companies as corporate communities... is also focused on how to attract people to work for them.

WV: Let's go back to the communications aspect of it all... For instance bso, with its cell structure, how do they use this in their marketing...?

RM: We tell stories... we suggest a feeling, so that in the end people think they should get bso because they think these are clever people. They are careful, take little steps, but they try to get ahead. A lot of the people that are now in top functions were young in the sixties, so this appeals to their lost ideals as well. I was talking to a researcher from the university of Utrecht about the social responsibility of companies... and the primary social responsibility of companies is with its employees. So if I start throwing money into ecological projects, and my company goes bankrupt I'm not very socially responsible... It's a very narrow balance between being fair to the stockholders and doing something.

JTh: There's another dimension to this, in terms of the behaviour of companies... the concept of modernity has given way to the post-modern argument of no future and the questioning of progress with a lack of confidence in the future. We've had that for quite a while now and I think those companies that can say that they have confidence in the future, that they believe in change, in innovation...and they welcome it, can create a difference. No longer hampered by tradition or history, bso type companies can also ethically be at the forefront.

Art in Business?

JTh: We talked about companies using art, as a way to distinguish themselves. What about very big telecommunication companies, who have very little relation with art, sponsoring media-artists or their projects - would that be progressive or not? Art is also about exploring things, that cannot be expressed by any other means... These technologies totally change our environment, but artists are totally marginalised in trying to intervene. Important people within these companies don't know what is going to happen, so you would expect that would be a bit more imaginative about who they talk to... Is there not an argument for a company to say we want to look at the cultural aspects of telecommunication and have a more direct relationship with artists? Why doesn't it happen. There are a few companies that have long running contacts with institutes or museums. bso and the McLuhan Institute for example. I would defend the relationship between bso and the McLuhan institute, because they don't expect to get a product from that relationship, they expect to get ideas, awareness, to think about things differently... But for companies that sell intangible things, to have an intelligent relationship with an artist seems to be very rare.

JK: On the other hand there is also very little initiative from the artist-side. Artists are to a large extent are very illiterate, they don't know the technology.

DvW: The reason why artists are not involved, is that the people who decide these things have strange idea of what artists are... There are artists who know what they could do... but they are never noticed by the group of people who have the power to decide, and should have the ability to see that on a small scale they need the input of artists.

PP: The question though is that basically no-one is in control of these developments. At a certain moment these things go beyond our understanding, and I think John is right in saying that, that's where the notion of art becomes important again. To look into the future to plot out potential trajectories and ways we can handle these kinds technologies.

JTh: Artists can have a sort of synthetic intelligence about the ability to figure out what is happening, by non rational means... Now that no one person can possibly understand all this stuff... you can either say that man's intelligence is just to limited, or that artist sensibility may be able to make sense of it.

WV: It's a real problem for big corporations... it can actually happen that nobody in the company knows the answers to these kind of questions, without anybody realising it. Bert Mulder once asked a group of directors at Philips, who was deciding what is in a chip, who was deciding what these things do....they didn't know! They are driving these developments... The actual people that run the company don't really know what the company is about. This connects with what Paul said about the notion of companies as organisms. Which cell in your body knows where you are going?

PP: We have been asking that question for a thousand years... we don't know! Basically it is the same with a corporation, it has a trajectory, it is moving... it has an impetus to move, just like an organism. But the thing is that we are developing such radical changes in the technology, that undermine the human condition. So at a certain moment the imagination breaks down... That's the interesting point.

JTh: But modern art had an important role to play in making sense of all the changes over the past century, making sense of urbanisation, industrialisation... We don't seem to have that equivalent at the moment. Not for social reasons... but if business has the technology, and is or is not in control of it, there is an argument to be made that if they want to make sense of it they should find some new people to talk about it.