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originally published – April 2005

Recently, Douglas Rushkoff reprised his much acclaimed Frontline: The Persuaders episode with a continuation of a dialogue on advertising and the way it produces consumers, and the clutter that it is complicit in manufacturing. ‘Advertising: The Persuaders’ was a talk hosted by the Department of Culture and Communication at NYU. In addition to Rushkofff, the forum also included: Mark Crispin Miller (author and NYU professor), Keith Reinhard (Chairman of DDB Worldwide) and the pointed and pretty Barbara Lippert (critic for Adweek.)

It was Lippert who offered up the comparison of the advertising community to Thomas Mann’s novella ‘Death in Venice’ — personifying advertising as a lecherous old man bent on the seduction of the young: a pathological indulgence using beauty, death and art to compromise the consumer.

For two hours the four discussed the role of advertising, branding, entertainment and the relationship that marketing has at the consumer’s expense.

Two items from Frontline: The Persuaders properly set the stage for the evening:

“Once a culture becomes entirely advertising friendly, it ceases to be a culture at all.” Mark Crispin Miller

“This is a business – this isn’t an art form. So we have to insure that its communication drives commerce, not just makes people feel good.” – Tim Mapes, Marketing Director for Song Airlines.

Initially, Rushkoff was defensive that this evening wasn’t about the Frontline episode. Despite the disclaimer, it is an obvious extension of that episode allowing for a deeper discourse that was lost in the scope of that broadcast. This time the discussion focused less on market research. Reinhard makes a better showing here (both in elocution and sartorially -nice tie,) Miller provides additional robust behavior which I imagine is his calling card, and a notable addition in Lippert, who was an excellent counterpoint.

After some brief confusion at the beginning, they all agreed to sit on the arms of the lounge chairs provided to them so that the audience could actually watch the debate ensue. Rushkoff begins with a return to his primary thesis: the paradox of clutter: the tension between the need for marketers to offer their goods and its escalation which has manifested as noise.

Reinhard: Well the big change that has happened in recent years with respect to clutter: Is that we are now in an era when everything is about consumer of choice so as marketers we have to create messages, images, experience that people choose to engage with as opposed to when I began in the business – they were captive. So what does that mean about clutter, to me it means that the consumer picks out from all the messages and images, from all the content, what she/he wishes to spend time with: wishes to engage with. If you’re talking about television, the great invention of Tivo and DVR, because now we have to make messages that are so entertaining or so informative that people choose to watch them maybe even record them and share them. So I think we should ask the consumer about clutter not Bob Garfield.

Rushkoff: So are we witnessing the death of demand, or its renaissance in this new world where people are choosing the marketing that they wish to consume?

Reinard: C’mon during the Superbowl we had people Tivo-ing commercials for Bud and Bud-Lite and sharing them with friends putting them on the internet … it doesn’t sound like it’s dead. It will have a new purpose in the future.

Lippert: one of the oddest things about the internet is that it became the perfect platform for people to email their favorite commercials; and if you look at certain commercials, with an sort of an eye and an understanding, there are commercials that you can love you: the HP ads, say, or the i-pod ads, or the Nike ads and these are the things that people do…

Unfortunately, Bob Garfield, of Advertising Age, isn’t there to defend against Reinhard’s slight. His quips were on par with Miller’s in the original broadcast. Rushkoff, however, presses forward on the prospects of increased advertising.

Lippert: No, no actually I completely agree with Mark: More clutter, big clutter. There’s a piece in the Times today that said the jury’s out on whether this passive experience of television is something that people actively want to get involved in – like if they see a Mercedes ad, will they want to click through to some sort of industrial film about the models they want and sign up? You know maybe they just want to veg out in front of the tv – they don’t want that interactive. I think the end of everything is that eventually three or four corporations will own everything, including the U.N. – and you know Apple, Sony, and Saab. It’ll be, in a way. that corporations will own all of the ballparks, Everything will have a corporate name and people will be happy that at least the corporations will have some money so that therefore that way at least there is health insurance or something.

Rushkoff: So, the public sector. In other words, Union Square becomes Virgin Square?

Lippert: Absolutely, absolutely.

Reinhard: I suggested to Mike Bloomberg that the new stadium be named …be sponsored by Philip Morris and be called the Marlboro Dome and not only is smoking permitted there but it is mandatory. [laughs from the audience]

In order to break through the noise, Advertisers become more oblique and comforting: abstract. These soft ads place the purchase in the background and emphasize the experience.

Reinhard: So you’re saying, it’s not about chaos, it’s about coming up with an idea, that attaches to a brand that people say “I like that.” I choose to spend time with that brand. I might even choose to purchase that brand. And I disagree with the notion that the ads are not about the product. In the old days, as Barbara said, we used to have secret ingredients … no lanolin, and all that stuff. Now it’s more about what the product stands for. Take those “Wassup” campaigns. Some people say it wasn’t about the product. It was ALL ABOUT THE PRODUCT! Budwesier was a brand that had grown old. It was your Dad’s beer. And the marketing challenge was to make it young, and cool, and hip. And so we got these four guys from a neighborhood in Philadelphia who greeted each other and the whole world was saying ‘Wasssup!”

Rushkoff: What does that have to do with hops?

Reinhard: It didn’t have anything to do with it. But here’s the important point: We added value that the August Busch Brewmeister couldn’t add. You can not put coolness and hipness into that can. We can. And it was important to enough people that it arrested a decline.

Rushkoff: It was important to enough people that were looking for their own sense of hipness and coolness and their own identity as cool and hip with a can.

Reinhard: Three years ago if I had that can in my hand you would have said that I’m old.

Rushkoff: Right, but what happens to that person’s – if there is such a thing – the person’s innate creative ability to be hip or be cool? Without wearing a brand badge of that sort?

Reinhard: Maybe, maybe the four or five of those people that exist wouldn’t… [laughs from the audience]

Lippert: Well, I…

Rushkoff: That was a good line.

Miller: There was a time when advertising did not dictate what was cool and hip. The notion of hipness was outside the commercial realm entirely. And I remember, as I date myself, but I feel ok in saying this as you’re older than I am [directly to Reinhard] … I remember in the 60s watching advertisers desperately try to catch up with the youth culture – going at and never getting it right. The relationship has changed now, it’s obligatory for advertisers to imbue products with coolness and hipness when you go through the history of cool and hip that is very alien to something that Jack Kerouac wouldn’t have gone for, for example … I’m making something more than the origins of hip, I’m not making a pedantic claim about it, I’m saying… this is sorta piggybacking on Douglas’s point… that ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ were formerly, in a sense, stylistic forms of dissent. Or you could say that they were the creation of a certain subculture, irrespective of corporate advertising. Now, I think an awful lot of products have to seem cool and hip. I don’t think this is a matter of choice on your part, I think you’re obliged to make things seem cool and hip. And it doesn’t have anything to do about beer per se, it’s not about quenching the thirst. It’s, uh, something else…

Nowadays, even your bills come with ads attached. You may be most conscious of advertising when you’re sitting in front of your television. For every hour of television you watch, less than 40 minutes of it is actual programming. Advertising time is up more than a third from ten years ago. Tivo and DVR have made that a more interesting challenge for advertisers.

Rushkoff: For a culture that is immersed in, obsessed with and sick of advertising, do you think people are happy with it or do you think…

Reinhard: No. I think people are attracted to that which they find entertaining or informative or appealing, and they ignore everything else. A study of all the Tivo owners : what do you suppose was the category of the least zapped advertising?

Lippert: Beer.

Reinhard: Beer.

Lippert: Because of the breasts.

Reinhard: No, no. because people thought this was going to be…

Rushkoff: Titties

Reinhard: (continuing) … entertainment. [follow-up laughter from audience]

Rushkoff: (garbled…. More about titties.)

Reinhard: What is the second least?

Lippert: Second most?

Reinhard: No the second least zapped?

Lippert: Oh, oh… soft drinks?

Reinhard: No. Nope. Pharmaceuticals. Why? People…

Rushkoff: People like to get high? [laughter from audience]

Reinhard: No, but to me it said you better be very entertaining or very informative or you’re going to get zapped. And all that stuff that gets zapped is good for everybody because that means our product has to be more informative and more entertaining.

Ken Auletta, recently wrote in the New Yorker that in 1965, between the three broadcast networks advertisers could reach eighty per cent of the prime purchasing market, “But a typical American household today has a choice of more than a hundred TV channels, and the broadcast networks—there are now six of them—attract only about thirty per cent of viewers. Today, it would take a hundred and twenty-five CBS, NBC, or ABC ads to reach the percentage of viewers that three network ads once reached.”

There’s a strong argument to be made that even though we’re fast-forwarding through commercials we’re still receiving them. Surely it won’t be long until somebody tries to market a ‘slow-spot’ that is only interpreted at an accelerated speed – something that they will be able to target specifically to Tivo owners. Companies like TimeWarner and Tivo are holding onto massive amounts of viewership information that they consider proprietary, and it is enormous advantage for them against broadcast television and a golden goose for selling airtime.

“If you don’t own a dog, you won’t be bombarded by ads for Puppy Chow or Iams. If the technology determines that the man of the house has wrested control of the remote from his teenage daughters, he will not have to sit through feminine hygiene ads during the most popular network shows,” said David M. Downey, chief executive and president of Invidi. “The technology also allows commercials to be swapped into shows taped on the DVR, in case viewers get to the program days or weeks later. “When you watch it on Thursday, the commercials you see will be fresh,” – Lorne Many ‘The Future of the 30-Second Spot, the New York Times.

The affluent 90s saw a dramatic increase in ratio of content to advertising. A robust economy spurred the cost of content and the networks reciprocated by increasing the amount of ads. Oddly, the sagging economy of the last five years hasn’t cleared matters up at all. If anything, clutter’s getting worse. Time Warner took a huge hit on their deal with AOL but also suffered greatly from declining ad revenue as big clients were tightening their belts under the scrutiny of auditing concerns, nervous shareholders and an uneven stock market.

We are subjected to roughly 1500 ad messages a day. It’s no wonder that the marketing shills have changed course and now sell advertising as a pseudo-spiritual solution, evoking emotional bonds and tribal behavior as a placebo for vacuous consumption.

Part Two: Death in Venice pt. 2

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