clap clap blog: we have moved

Tuesday, November 09, 2004
I am watching Frontline's The Persuaders. It is a program about advertising made/hosted/something or other by Douglas Rushkoff. And, predictably I guess, it is a giant steaming crock of shit.

There are a number of structural problems with anti-ad critiques that it highlights. First off is the fact that it starts in, and returns to, Times Square, and a lot of examples of the evil advertising industry are illustrated with examples from New York City. (I.e., I recognize the locations and often even the ads.) This is like trying to convince us of the all-pervasive threat of crocodile attack by only talking about crocodile tanks. The qualities that draw people to New York are exactly the ones that make it attractive to advertisers. OK, Times Square's ridiculous, but you can go less than a mile and find a much calmer environment, and travel 20 miles and find places nearly advertising-free. The whole world, thankfully, does not look like downtown Manhattan.

There are a few good things here, mainly focusing on the various ways ad agencies come up with "brand strategies" to convince themselves that they're actually effective even when it sure seems like they're not. And yeah, ad agencies are ridiculous. But aside from being itermittently annoying and ineffecient economically (and, yeah, a waste of money that could be used for much better things, but hey, so's music), it's hard to see what the actual danger is. Sure, Times Square makes one feel unwell, but that's more due to the slow tourists from Texas than the blinking ads, which just exacerbate it. The prevelance of ads (which isn't even all that prevelent outside metropolitan areas) is vaguely unsettling, but that's not a solid basis for a solo critique. What, actually, is the danger?[1]

Mark Crispin Miller just said (rough quote) "When a culture becomes friendly to advertising, it ceases to be a culture." He went on to say that moving dramas and comedies, i.e. art, are impossible on TV because it's devoted to selling things. The first part of this is like saying, "Culture is good, so I'm going to redefine it to this whole different thing because I think it's bad now." The second part of this is like saying, "Moving art is impossible if it's been sponsored by an organization responsible for the deaths of many many people, such as, say, the Catholic church." YOU ARE WRONG YOU DUMBSHIT MOTHERFUCKER. If something that did both the inquisition and the crusades can sponsor both the Cistine Chapel and Palestrina, do you think that maybe Pepsi, not responsible for any wars or large-scale persecutions of Jews last I checked, can maybe sponsor something at least worth watching? By Crispin's logic, actually, what Pepsi sponsors should be a few orders of magnitude better than what the church sponsors.

Now I am watching the Advertising Age douche say that because advertising people have become political consultants, politics is now more emotional rather than substantive and thoughtful. Which is like saying, "The semi-literate immigrants in 1932 were voting based on a deep grasp of the issues rather than narrow, emotional self-interest."

I had hoped the stuff on political ads would be better, but man oh man. OK, Frank Luntz is pretty evil (I didn't know he worked for Berlusconi!), but very little of this is new, and what is new is simply an adaptation to the rise of the mass media and its new importance in politics, which has far more serious consequences than encouraging focus groups. (Like, for instance, FDR would never be able to be President in the current environment.) But having this computer database of voters' key issues and preferences is just a technological update of the old system where you'd go to the local party boss who would know each person individually and be able to tell you their preferences. Maybe you might prefer this personal system, but do you really want to eliminate primaries and do all the other things that would be necessary to bring back a strong party system?

I hate the fear-mongering in this discussion. It's counterproductive and just plain stupid. "Ooh, there's this company called Axiom and they know everything about you and they are using this to manipulate your mind. Oh, although remember what we said before about advertising being kind of silly and coming up with all these pseudo-scientific ways of pretending like they know what they're doing? Forget that. This company can control your thoughts."

But really, what's the actual harm? I've gone through a few already, but they close with a few real corkers, all fear-based. Let's lay 'em out and slit 'em open.

#1. Demographic slicing, "narrowcasting," i.e. marketing differently to left-handed cat-loving moms and left-handed dog-loving moms, is bad because it will make us lose our shared culture. There are two possible responses to this. One, Miss Clap's, is, "We don't have a shared culture." I disagree, but nevertheless, to paraphrase Miller, it's a pretty weak culture if narrowcasting ads causes it to break down. And I don't think it has, or will. Plus, aren't we also complaining about mass culture, undifferentiated, shared? What am I missing here?

#2. Advertising is bad because it makes us lose a sense of the common good and only care about our own self-interest. Uh, OK, this is the founding ethos of America. Big cause and effect problem here. I don't exactly think that friggin' advertising is likely to cause this sudden outbreak of self-interest, nor do I think said self-interest is necessarily bad.

#3. Advertising will finally "cut through the clutter" by hiding their persuasiveness in such a way that you convince yourself, that you "pull the wool over your own eyes" to quote a noted, um, prophet. Sweet lord jesus. So we're all living in a Philip K. Dick world! Your precious "reality" is no more than a construct! Um, yes, it is. Chill out. It's not a horrendously big deal if I have a subconscious urge to eat french fries. (Mmm, french fries.) Also, doesn't it sound kind of stupid when I say it explicitly rather than ask ominous questions over a creepy soundtrack? Saying that advertisers could be controlling our minds without us knowing it is a claim with no method of proof. If we don't know, then the very fact that we don't think they're persuading us reinforces that argument, except, you know, that's circular logic.

So yes. Another shitty entry in the confusing battle to convince us that advertising is, like, the new Communism. And college students will get really worked up about it and proudly declare that they don't watch television, man, and will feel justified and all-knowing and so forth. Sigh.

On the bright side, right now PBS is playing a program on the concertina. Awesome!

[1] There's even one particular grusome instance wherein they have this shot of a young lady talking about how everything she does is Song (i.e., like the airplane brand), and this would be unsettling if her friend wasn't laughing at every single thing she says. Guys, irony, you know?