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originally published – APRIL 17, 2005

This is our second installment looking at Douglas Rushkoff’s “Advertising: The Persuaders”, a talk hosted by the Department of Culture and Communication at NYU. Also in attendance were: Mark Crispin Miller (author and NYU professor), Keith Reinhard (chairman of DDB Worldwide) and Barbara Lippert (critic for Adweek.)

The topic of “clutter” permeates the evening, however the second half addresses the way in which advertisers breed consumption and the capitalism that embraces it. Throughout the evening the discussion revisits the future of advertising and its struggle to maintain control.

An audience member asks how is one supposed to reconcile branding’s good intentions with “bad” products? Essentially one of honesty in advertising, to which Rushkoff replies:

“On the one hand I’d rather people buy cigarettes for the taste rather than buy Cheerios as a way of feeling you love your family more.”

The fear from marketers is that Tivo and DVR, as avatar for the consumer, bifurcates this war over control. Not only do they have more channels to compete for your attention, but this technology gives the viewer a choice to opt in on advertising. Yet, despite knowing better, we continue to opt in. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I caught myself stopping for the Cingular/Star Wars ad (which, oddly, is a parody of Saturday Night Live skit on Star Wars from a few years ago.)  Lippert mentions the messianic influence that marketing exerts on the modern audience, with an illustration of the Oprah car give-away, “… When she gave these cars away people were saying “I could never get my wife that excited over anything.”

In their enormous contribution, Pontiac generates a large tax-free ad campaign. In this the product is embedded in the Oprah show and now part of the Oprah hagiography. Are Pontiacs great cars? Presumably they must be if endorsed by queen of concern.

One of the major fears last year was a hostile bid by Comcast to purchase Disney. It introduced the question of whether or not our major content creators, Disney, be allowed to be controlled and distributed solely by major content providers, here Comcast. Similarly, the conflation of media distribution is echoed in the influence that advertisers have on content.

Miller: (directly to David) So far you’ve been asking questions about advertising that presuppose one set of ideals. Our friends here don’t share those ideals – so we’re talking in circles here. I mean you mention “choice” that all advertising is the choice of the consumer. From a certain point of view that’s true but if you want to live a life… if you want to chose to live a life un-bombarded by advertising or if you want to chose fine content, commercial content, that’s not been altered to suit the advertisers… if, um, you want to find real news for example? If you want to watch TV but don’t want to watch the reality show – so far we’ve talked about Survivor, the Donald Trump show… all these commercials. I mean here in New York we watch cable and try to watch some real news. The country’s in a real state of crises right now. Now we’ve restricted the discussion just to the people sort of bedazzled by the neatness the coolness the awesomeness of this or that image – and we’re all just “consumers” : That’s one thing. But we’re not all just consumers; we’re also citizens. I don’t think advertising, and I’m not anti-advertising, I think advertising is a necessity to a commercial culture – certainly a necessity to corporate capitalism. The question is how does advertising cease pervading everything else? How does advertising stop driving away kinds of content that advertisers are uncomfortable with? You know as well as I do that there’s certain kinds of news, certain kinds of dramas and so on that don’t constitute a good environment for advertising. Advertisers will flee them. Understandably. I’d flee them too if I were in advertising. But there is something in the nature of advertising … It is festive, it is upbeat, it can’t go in certain directions. You know, and I think we’ve witnessed a huge shift in the nature of TV over the last four years to become more advertising friendly.

Lippert: Well, CNN is saying that the way that they’re going to get stories over FOX is to make them emotional. As people’s attention spans get smaller and smaller, they need those kind of stories like from the Olympics about the guy with the pin in his heart, or the mother that died the night before… that’s the nature of how the news is being told now.

Miller: Well, there are a million problems with CNN. I mean, back in 1934 when this government decided to go for a commercially based broadcast system. And there were seven years of debate before this decision. Because there were a lot of people who thought, “you know, maybe if our broadcasting is advertising based, we’ll have this kind of simplifying effect in content.” There was a really spirited debate over this. You can’t even imagine such a debate today, because it’s in the nature of things … a matter of cosmic necessity – of course broadcasting’s “commercial”. But it’s not the case in Canada and it’s not the case in Britain. All I’m trying to do is suggest that these things aren’t there by natural law; they are the result of political choices. We are now living with the consequences.

Rushkoff: Don’t you think it’s possible that as more and more creative and cultural real-estate gets taken up by marketing that alternatives will start to rise. I mean, even some of the shows on HBO are an inkling, I mean as these shows get awards and people are watching them. It’s because they’re watching them, I mean, maybe we will… a show like Deadwood say, where there are cowboys dying of anal fissures or whatever’s wrong with them [laughter from the audience] … I don’t know what was wrong, but something awful last week. You’re not going to advertise the magic Swiffer.

“To every place of entertainment we go with expectation and desire of being pleased; we meet others who are brought by the same motives; no one will be the first to own the disappointment; one face reflects the smile of another, till each believes the rest delighted, and endeavours to catch and transmit the circulating rapture. In time, all are deceived by the cheat to which all contribute. The fiction of happiness is propagated by every tongue, and confirmed by every look, till at last all profess the joy which they do not feel, consent to yield to the general delusion, and, when the voluntary dream is at an end, lament that bliss is of so short a duration.” – Samuel Johnson, Idler #18, August 12, 1758

The foursome seem to equally bristle at the idea that advertisers are treating their clients as tribal chattel.

Reinhard: And I asked Bob Shrum during the last election, who his affinities are as Kerry’s strategist: where are the voters that you’re trying to reach? Where do they get their information? He said, “People Magazine and Entertainment Tonight – that’s it”. Now until we do something about the educational system, we are not going to have consumers who are in large numbers go after what we would consider culturally quality material.

Miller: Listen, the framers would be right upset by this conversation. Because here’s a notion of a civic space and a civic realm, that’s essential to the republic (small ‘r’). If you have a republic you have to have citizens that are informed. Who aren’t just watching reality TV shows. Re Bob Shrum’s flippant remark, you know, first of all, what does Bob Shrum know?

Lippert: And also, look at the job that he did, you know Kerry had the worst ads.

Miller: Well, hang on a second, before we get into a discussion of their ads. The point is it’s sobering to me that a top handler for the Democratic Party should take such a dim view of the masses, because of what they read that they’re “idiots”. I mean that’s an attitude appropriate to fascism not democracy. I don’t think we can make any kind of confident claims based on ratings: we know that the commercial networks are losing viewers, we know that most of the culture machines are in big trouble. You were quite right a moment ago when you said that fresh content will come out of somewhere. You know, an interesting example of that is the last year. The news media were shying away like crazy about most news about this administration. Tons of books and independent documentaries, and stuff on the web came out. You know the energy has to go somewhere. It’s harder for that energy to find expression through media that is commercially compromised. It’s harder, but not impossible.

Since this evening, Ad Age’s Bob Garfield has come out with a near manifesto about the near future of advertising evoking chaos and a forecast on advertising. Though bogged down by too many tributaries, some of his citations are potable.

Garfield fuels his argument with a range of recent statistics, “According to Nielsen, network TV audience has eroded an average of 2% a year for a decade, although in the same period the U.S. population increased by 30 million.” And, “U.S. household broadband penetration has gone from 8% in March 2000 to an estimated 56% in March of this year.”

“Complicating problems, consolidation in the telecom industry and potential re-regulation of DTC drug advertising threaten billions in network ad revenue, jeopardizing the supply-demand quotient that has propped up network prices for five years. Meanwhile, there is the sword of Damocles called “cost.” The reality-TV fad has enabled networks to fill their ever-more-irrelevant schedules and cast for hits with cheap programming. But how much longer will they last? Westerns and spy shows, superheroes and hospital dramas all once burned bright. Then they burned out.”

Miller: Wait it’s not that static. The nature of capitalism has changed. We have a lot of cartels operating now. Its not the flea market that it once was… every industry’s reflected this. Things have changed and consuming has become more than…(garbled). When Bush said that you know people shouldn’t deny themselves, shouldn’t sacrifice themselves… they should go out shopping. He was expressing, in a sense, the economic imperative that I’m talking about. When you have to consume, when a certain number of units have to be moved through you know that does not conduce to happiness and it does not conduce to pleasure. Because you’re not talking about savoring something, you’re not talking about putting it off for a day so that it tastes all that sweeter at the end of the day: because Nestle wants you to mainline this shit all day long. They want you to eat it with every meal. Honestly, if I were the head of Nestle I’d want that too. This isn’t to demonize anybody… the fact is the economy has changed and the culture has changed with it. The pendulum doesn’t necessarily have the space to keep swinging back and forth all that much … and it’s worrying especially now that we have a government that’s completely in the pocket of the marketers and the advertisers. And I want to hasten to add, and people will laugh at this, ok?, I don’t think Bush won the election. I don’t think there’s any evidence he did. But this is another subject. [laughter from the audience] I think it’s very easy to write people off as morons, and I hear a lot of people in advertising and I hear a lot of academics doing that too. And, I hear a lot of political consultants doing that too, which becomes a political crisis for our democracy.

Reinhard: I don’t know anybody, I mean George Lois once … who was a great Art Director at DDB, once said something like “it’s like throwing slop out for pigs” and watching them go for it.

Lippert: he said, “it’s like detonating a bomb” also.

Reinhard: I don’t know anybody in the industry today that feels anything close to that. We have to respect the consumer because our lives depend on the consumer, we have to say what is it that they appreciate? What is it that makes them happy, what is it that makes them fulfilled? If we don’t have that right then we’re rejected and we’re dead. And we’ll be in Barbara’s magazine.

Rushkoff asks if there’s not a way to make advertising more accountable rather than less, citing examples from BP’s “beyond petroleum” campaign to Enron and the other corporate scandals that have torn their way through Wall Street over the last few years.

Is it a matter of education? Is it a return to the classics and teaching value systems? Centrist politician Hillary Clinton has recently been quoted as invoking spin on morality or social responsibility. Family values?

Keith Reinhard shows up well for his profession. Despite some easy humor at his expense, his earnest and solid feedback is refreshing, though I suspect not a surprise considering his history in a lionized practitioner and prominent executive. Miller’s concession that advertising must exist, illuminates how difficult the real question is: how to frame advertising in a way that it regulates itself rather than cascading into oblivion.

Partly it is a matter of respect for the audience.

Miller: that ‘s completely admirable. I share your distaste for the term “consumers” its like treating people like a bunch of mouths, but lets face it some advertising, one might argue all advertising, is not about addressing the reason… the conscious choice : it’s about addressing their anxieties. You pick up a magazine for teenage girls and ad after ad after ad is basically saying “hey, you’ve got bad breathe, you’re fat, you’ve got zits.” That’s not based upon love .  …let’s face it advertising’s not a utopian form. They don’t want everyone to be contented and happy and fulfilled and walking around humming and love their work and love their family it’s not what you guys want.

Reinhard: On one level we do and that’s what you were saying. That’s the relationship.

Rushkoff: The problem is, when people are happy don’t they buy less stuff?

Miller: Why do people look so miserable in shopping malls all the time?

Reinhard: Let me tell you another piece of research which goes to the relationship building. And this is empirical evidence now of something we thought we knew all the time. When you have a ‘brand lover’ … somebody who says that’s my brand, I will have none other. And whatever you’ve done to create that love affair that person will pay 15% premium on average … for that brand, why? Because it’s valuable, it’s a friend, it’s a trusted part of their life. So building that relationship, yes, creating happy, contented users is not a question for us.

Miller: yeah but you could say the same thing about Crack, you know?

Indeed, empirical evidence. Frontline’s Mary Carmichael reported on a paper by Read Montague. Montague revisited the blind taste-test that we know as the Pepsi Challenge and yielded some new results when evaluated under an MRI. Tests revealed that when told which brand you were consuming another region of your brain was activated: the medial prefrontal cortex. He postulates you’ve been taught to override “quality” in preference by playing back images and commericials. You are reiterating the brand’s message and selling yourself all over again. She writes, ”Marketers have long known that some brands have a seemingly magic appeal; they can elicit strong devotion, with buyers saying they identify with the brand as an extension of their personalities. …research is expected to show exactly which products those are.”

Loosely defined, Advertising comprises about a trillion dollars worth of investment worldwide. Half of that is spent in America. Researchers are scrambling to find that “buy button”, because the stakes are so high. The internet and DVR technology has created a more individuated media. It’s not only a more saturated landscape for them to compete in but the results can’t be delivered in neat package of “per thousands” of viewers.

As the lights dim and the tape has long run out, Rushkoff asks Reinhard an off-the-cuff question: if it’s possible that advertising may only be a temporary art form? To which the chairman of DDB responded, “as defined now, yes.”

Placement was a website that turned a critical eye on culture, with an emphasis on the importance of integrity in process over product. It published frequently from 2005 through 2006, as an online critique of art and design within contemporary culture. Placement provided original content by independent voices – something the internet is particularly good at offering but which blogs don’t seem to be very good at maintaining.

In order to save some of that work from the sands of time, I’ve archived selections from that work here: PLACEMENT Archive

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