Random thoughts on advertising

posted: 08 July, 2008
This morning I found myself thinking about advertising in general - and just how completely normal it seems to me, a 28-year old who has grown up in the United States. Logos, slogans, and other residue of the coprorate advertising language are so ingrained into my life that I rarely take the time anymore to even think about what they mean. I imagine a teenager, growing up today, would be even less likely to question it. The corporate logo, when at it's most successful, is sigil magick in operation. Attempts to counter this (such as graffiti, or organised anti-consumerist projects a la Adbusters magazine) invariably end up using the same language of the advertisers, and therefore end up just being another commodity. I know this isn't a brilliant insight; yet I felt a strange awe at how the conglomeration of Nike swooshes and Apple logos is wrapped around my brain and I don't even think anything of it.

"Our job is to manipulate the consumer by arousing his desires," says one of the executives in Putney Swope. "Then we satisfy those desires at a fixed price." This manipulation is completely taken for granted now; it has been granted access to every facet of our existence. I still remember going to the cinema in the days when you didn't see a bunch of 35mm commercials before the trailers (back when I was of the age that saw things like Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! in the theatre [yes, someone actually saw it {Stallone, I'll take my refund now, just email me!}]). These days I go to the cinema so rarely that I'm not used to it; I still feel a small bit of outrage each time I sit through an Orange mobile phone advert after I've paid £8 for a film. The rest of the theatre, often largely made up of of high school students, thinks nothing of it. A lot of people enjoy the ads and prefer them to a commercial-free zone.

I watched an excellent 3-part documentary on Coca-cola last week, The Cola Conquest. It devoted an episode to the advertising battle between Coke and Pepsi, and specifically how they target developing nations. I've always been critical of cola companies for the way they push their products into cultures that lack proper nutrition and dental care, so this was a bit of 'preaching to the converted'. But in the past week I've started to notice the the red-and-white Coke logo everywhere, like it's a living creature - an organic form that replicates like rabbits or bacteria. It probably didn't help that I also just read Philip K Dick's The Simulacra, where commercials are living creatures that cling to people and shout their message until they are killed.

I went to see a talk by Chris Cutler when I was an undergraduate, and he said something about how the continual bombardment of advertising affects him every day - I think he was trying to make some point about fair use and sampling - anyway, that really stuck with me. But I normally don't think about this saturation; it's easier to let it all wash over me and get on with whatever pursuits I'm normally engaged in. Every once in awhile I'll feel advertising's glossy ambience to be overwhelming, and then I have one of those 'breakthrough' moments. It's kinda like in They Live, where Roddy Piper puts on the sunglasses and sees signs everywhere that say 'Obey'. Of course that's another tired sci-fi metaphor. Yet it's definitely harder to notice things that are all around you.

The merging of advertising and entertainment has been happening since long before I was born, but now I see it sliding into the realm of art (which is much more frightening). Lately I've been noticing a lot of 'viral videos' and guerilla marketing practices popping up on the various art/activism blogs I read. The faceless people at Wimbeldon is a good example; if it was the work of some subversive art organisation, it would have been amazing. Instead, it's just a marketing campaign for Lotus Cars. If logo satire/defacing and groups like the Yes Men are artists/activists who are co-opting the rules of corporations and advertising, then this Wimbledon thing is the inversion of that - predatory advertisers using the language of subversion to peddle their products.

This, to me, is very dangerous. Maybe it's because I'm too concerned with intention; I have to know the motive behind an idea. Maybe I should learn to enjoy an art or action for it's aesthetic/cultural/comedic/thought-stimulating value, regardless of whether it was created by some impoverished Berlin artist or Nike. But I don't think I'm capable of that; I have to make the distinction. Would I be better to evolve past us vs. them mentality, and just get a kick out of something?

I'm afraid that viral marketing is more of a virus than its name suggests. Yes, it will replicate, relying on people like you and me to spread itself, which is why it's called viral marketing. But it will also eat away at any efforts to oppose its goals. It uses surrealism, surprise, and shock to sell products, thus bleaching out the effects of these devices to critique and suggest alternatives to consumerism. Before I knew it was Lotus Cars, I viewed the faceless people stunt suspiciously, having just read Web Urbanists's excellent History of Guerilla Marketing primer. Viral marketing has already started to ruin my appreciation of actions like this; I want that 'innocence' back.
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