Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Brief Notes and Illustrations on the Illuminating Aspects of Studying Advertising


"Now that I have your attention..." <----That's an old chestnut in advertising.

Friends, the Overweening Generalist knows his Readers, and they're the finest. The Overweening Generalist, furthermore, knows you're free and intelligent and you could choose any blog to read but you've chosen this one, right now, and the Overweening Generalist KNOWS as well as you do that in the end this is really only just another damned blog (hey, we get tired of blogs too sometimes when they don't measure up). But the Overweening Generalist feels humbled, and hopes to bring the discerning, no-bullshit Reader real VALUE, and free, instant and new information you can use.

Doesn't advertising suck ass? I mean, who says it better than (maybe)Banksy? Here he talks about advertisers "taking the piss out of you" and that they're "laughing at you" and you know every bit written inside that Coke bottle is true, right? Deface ads!Let's take back our selves, values, consciousness and let the goddamned advertisers peddle their papers somewhere else!

Or maybe even better than (maybe) Banksy was Bill Hicks (died 1994). Here he is, for less than 3 minutes of your precious time: [NSFW]

This fascinated me, because Adam Corner wrote a fairly brilliant piece for Aeon that pretty much covered what Hicks was saying here, circa 1992. Corner's piece was from November, 2013. A researcher in psychology, Corner writes, "The advertising industry anticipates and then absorbs its own opposition, like a politician cracking jokes at his own expense to disarm hostile media." Corner seems to be getting at the deep structure of advertising when he writes that ads and the people who engineer them systematically promote clusters of values that are antithetical to pro-social or pro-environment attitudes. Who cares about the problems of sustainability of human life, or that the stock market was recently revealed as being fixed, or that your neighbors were downsized and now being unfairly foreclosed upon by a predatory bank? The new i-Gadget is out! And you know you NEED one now, if you're ever going to stand a chance to be happy again.

Buy this thing. Do it. For yourself. You owe yourself. If you make yourself happy, you might make others around you happy, and Everyone wins.

Do you want to know what's one of the most fascinating things on Ad folks' minds? Well, I'll tell you: they spend a lot of money to understand how you (18-35 year olds who have education and some spending money) are cynical about ads. They need to know as much as possible about how you feel distaste towards certain ads, and why. They know a lot about your values and how you think. They are truly fascinated with your highly sophisticated understandings of what advertising does, and how it works. 

So they can sell you stuff. Stuff you probably don't need or even want. Stuff that you'll look at after two weeks and say to yourself, "What was I thinking?" Lots of people - like Banksy and Bill Hicks and Adbusters and the brilliant people who put together the video (below) - think advertising is evil. I think it's a strong point but sort of wrong, but before I elucidate, please watch this. I'll be right back after this very important message:

Generic Brand Video Click HERE Now

Does this nail the ad people or what? I think it's "spot" (HA!) on. It seems like Good Work to me, but who's buying? Didn't you already know this shit? Of course you have a DVR and fast-forward through almost every commercial, but you still like to pick apart every ad you (happen to note) see with your friends, right? It's fun...They can't put anything over on you and your pals, can They?

We "don't even look" at the ads in glossy magazines or online; we can't "afford to spend the time." But by definition we don't know how much those ads affected us subliminally. 

Have They co-opted dissent now, making dissent into a marketing tool? Is this notion too depressing to deal with right now? Want a nice tall cool beverage?

Advertisers Versus Intelligent Consumers: A Dialectic

Recently I read a precis for some academic's PhD dissertation about James Joyce and advertising in Ulysses, a novel I will always be reading off and on until I die. Most of you know one of the main characters, Leopold Bloom, sells ads, analyzes ads, dreams up ideas for ads. It's 1904, so the psychology and science of manipulation and persuasion is in its infancy. The academic, Matthew Hayward, discovered that Joyce made annotations to a pamphlet titled Advertising, Or The Art of Making Known, by Howard Bridgewater, circa 1910. It had been thought by most Joyce scholars that Joyce did this in order to procure employment at a bank, but Hayward sees it as Joyce's way of getting into that part of Bloom's advertising-mind.

Adam Corner's article (linked to above), and the (maybe) Banksy and Bill Hicks and the satirical expose of generic brand ad-writing are, as I see it, part of the historical ying-yang of ads, persuasion, manipulation and much of the world as we know it, circa 1900-NOW. Let us all study advertising in our own idiosyncratic ways, because then we learn more about ourselves as consumers of ideas and goods, it keeps us on our toes, exhilarated and more mentally alert, we learn a lot about the mechanisms of advertising and our fellow citizens, and finally, we learn quite a huge lot about human psychology and mass manipulation.

My main influence in this is Marshall McLuhan, who, in a piece called "Love-Goddess Assembly Line" (published in his seminal, whacked, hyper-creative, cranky-Catholic-conservative, Joyce-Pound-Wyndham Lewis-influenced The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man), discussed two juxtaposed ads from the 1940s (the book was published in 1951!), one for soap and one for women's girdles, and showed how women seemed to be mass-produced off an assembly line. This particular essay (the whole book is amazing, even when McLuhan seems oh-so-very wrong) has McLuhan playing "anthropologist". He wants to be able to READ advertising and make it tell us something very deep and non-trivial about the culture we inhabit. He's always pointing out recurring patterns and symbols and how symbols migrate, he's "probing" before he came to terms with this term. 

"No culture will give popular nourishment and support to images or patterns which are alien to its dominant impulses and aspirations," McLuhan writes. This line follows very closely on a quote from Cecil B. DeMille, who decries how young female would-be actresses in Hollywood all start to look the same to him. McLuhan had wondered why himself, he wants a better science of popular culture imagery and text; he wants to discern themes and their variations in the underlying "laws" that "will mould its songs and art and social expression." 

McLuhan then utters a nice line of what we now call "physics envy" from another major influence, Alfred North Whitehead:

"A.N. Whitehead states the procedures of modern physics somewhat in the same way in Science and the Modern World. In place of a single mechanical unity in all phenomena, 'some theory of discontinuous existence is required.' But discontinuity, whether in cultures or physics, unavoidably invokes the ancient notion of harmony. And it is out of the extreme discontinuity of modern existence, with its mingling of many cultures and periods, that there is being born today a vision of a rich and complex harmony. We do not have a single, coherent present to live in, and so we need a multiple vision in order to see at all." 

McLuhan then says this is where the ad agencies come in. He sees them as very useful toward focusing the multiple perspectives we must live with and understand. Dig this from McLuhan about advertisers:

"They express for the collective society that which dreams and uncensored behavior do in individuals. [McLuhan later called this "macro-gesticulation" - OG] They give spatial form to hidden impulse and, when analyzed, make possible bringing into reasonable order a great deal that could not otherwise be observed or discussed. Gouging away at the surface of public sales resistance, the ad men are constantly breaking through into the Alice In Wonderland territory behind the looking glass which is the world of subrational impulse and appetites. Moreover, the ad agencies are so set on the business of administering major wallops to the buyer's unconscious, and have their attention so concentrated on the sensational effect of their activities, that they unconsciously reveal the primary motivations of large areas of our contemporary existence."

Look at ads this way! Why not? Assume McLuhan's basically right: the advertisers are - ironically - unconsciously revealing all kinds of things about human non-conscious motivation. 

The history of advertising can be fascinating and ultra-instructive. Some of my favorite texts have been: 

A lot, maybe most, ads fail. 

Chomsky has often used the term "intellectual self-defense," but much of advertising now bypasses (or tries to) our rational, "intellectual" mind and instead appeals to the limbic, emotional brain, and even the "reptilian" brain stem. In my experience, studying ads is at first "intellectual" because we're so used to reading. But after some time, signals from the non-rational parts of your brain will arrive at your frontal cortex and you will gain some insight. This seems very much like reading an ambiguous text, because, unless you can find and buttonhole the main ad-entity behind the studied ad, you will only have interpretations. Make yours rich!

We like to convince ourselves we're impervious to the power of ads, that they're strictly for schmucks. How wrong we are. They are an exceedingly rich source for probing the deep structure of the paideuma.

I hope you enjoyed my little piece on hacking advertising. You may be aware I was changing fonts throughout, in hopes of maintaining your interest. I also employed some big-assed font sizes, hoping to keep you reading. You may also have noted this blogspew appeared on April 1st, and wonder if the OG-dude is playing your for a Fool.

Again, you will only have interpretations

Are we cool? 


Bobby Campbell said...

Seriously excellent articulation!!

I have some pronoiac fantasies about where the current ad saturated paradigm is leading us...

Over stimulation of the reptilian brain may provoke a more conscious apprehension of its functioning, like how information overload is supposed to provoke pattern recognition.

I feel like our shared cultural stimulus/response reaction formations are iterating with increasing rapidity, like we're sweating out a fever, inoculating ourselves against manufactured perspectives. Maybe!

I also hope the market researches will actually discover the truth! That the way to win market share, brand loyalty, and long term viability is, only and always, to provide goods and/or services that are of a genuine beneficial value for a fair price. (There's obviously caveats and asterisks to that, but I think even after complex analysis that simple prognosis remains.)

It seems ideal when the advertisement is the thing itself, or some version thereof.

We tend to instinctively hate ads, but many of us love movie trailers.

I don't think advertising is evil at its core, but maybe when it crosses the line from seduction to coercion?

''What were habitually his final meditations? Of some one sole unique advertisement to cause passers to stop in wonder, a poster novelty, with all extraneous accretions excluded, reduced to its simplest and most efficient terms not exceeding the span of casual vision and congruous with the velocity of modern life.''

Bobby Campbell said...

^ (Quoting Ulysses at the end there)

Eric Wagner said...

Huh, my comment didn't make it.

I think of Ezra Pound's desire to live in a time of great writing. We get inundated by bad poetry in our culture, from advertisements, politicians, etc. Driving down the freeway one learns from billboards that vodka will solve life's problems. We need good poetry to help drive out the bad.

Nice post, by the way, some good writing to drive out the bad.

Anonymous said...

Dimly remembered (Benjamin via Hakim
Bey) is the contention that ads are
designed to hold out a promise that
if fulfilled would end your desire
for any product. This makes the ad
an empty promise in a shiny wrapper.
I think Hicks identified ads as
meeting the dictionary definition
of pornography. The horror of today
is how pervasive they are, not that
they exist, but that they are the
collage we move through even if we
pretend to ignore that constant.

There should be some good SF meme
in the use of ubiquitous datamining
by AI to rule the world through
brand capture. Once the high speed
super intelligent machine gets the
data from the panopticon no effort
by a mere human would allow escape.

I finally got to listen to David
Antin. That was another great link
from here.

I'm sure you will forgive me if I
continue to avoid ads like the
plague even if I miss some lovely