8 Agt 2006

Advertising and The End of The World (1)

Challenging media

Writer & Editor: Sut Jhally
Assistant Editor: Sanjay Talreja
Line Producer: Kim Neumann
Featuring an interview with Sut Jhally Professor of Communication,
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Media Education Foundation © MEF 1997


If we were to look at advertising as telling something about modern America, we would have to presume that normality has taken a holiday. This is a world where normal social and physical arrangements simply do not hold. Winter turns into summer. A simple shampoo brings intense sexual pleasure. Spells are cast by love potions in perfumes. Futuristic suburban daughters return home from an intergalactic date wearing eye-popping jeans from another planet. Ballpoint pens wearing sunglasses leer at inviting bikiniclad women. Things are for instant access to the world of desire, eroticism, and sometimes even love. Nerdy young men on the beach, through the wonders of video rewind, can constantly call up beautiful women walking by. An entire and intense experience of a lifetime is encapsulated in the gaze across an elevator. Old women become magically young, offering both sex and beer to young men.

If an anthropologist from Mars were to look at this society, where messages are everywhere, they’d conclude that this society is dominated by a belief in magic. The cultural theorist Raymond Williams, one of the first people who paid careful attention to advertising, actually called it the “magic system” where goods were held to have incredible power. In fact, what goods promise in advertising is immense. They can capture qualities of the natural world. They can perform feats of bewitchment and transformation. They can bring instant happiness, and gratification. They act as a passport into a world of fantasy and desire. Some products can even capture lady luck in the flesh.

So an anthropologist most probably would see a similarity to older traditions and beliefs around notions of magic and objects. If we asked an economist to look at contemporary society, they would most probably see our differences from what appeared before industrial society.

Industrial capitalism is a very different type of society than the agricultural feudalism that preceded it, just in terms of the number of objects that are produced. An economist, then, would point to the quantitative dimension in looking at the differences: the number of things that are present in everyday life, and the number of things that capitalism can produce. One economist actually says that what distinguishes capitalism from what came before is its ability to produce “an immense accumulation of commodities.” In fact, no other society in history has been able to match the immense productive output of capitalism.

And this fact, capitalism’s productivity, can be seen everywhere in the daily landscape of life. Objects are everywhere in the daily lives that we all live. In that sense, capitalism is truly a revolutionary society dramatically altering the social landscape in a short time, like no other society before had been able to manage.

Now, of course, once the immense accumulation of commodities are produced, they must also be sold. You can’t just produce things and not sell them. For commodities to lead to profits for producers, they have to go through the circuit of production, distribution, and consumption. The problem for capitalism is how to convert the investment goods back into money and into
profit. The problem of capitalism is not production, but is actually the problem of consumption. And so central is the consuming element of this society that capitalism invents a new industry to deal with the consumption of commodities.

At the end of the 19th century it invents the advertising industry.

The function of the advertising industry would be to recruit the best creative talent of the society, and to create a culture in which desire and identity would be fused with commodities. In fact, to make the dead world of “things” come alive with human and social possibilities. And in fact, there has never been a propaganda effort to match the effort of advertising in the twentieth century, in the history of the world. More thought, more effort, more creativity, more time, more attention to detail has gone into the selling of the immense accumulation of commodities than any other campaign in human history to change public consciousness. The amount of money spent on this has increased throughout the century. This is not just a constant amount that is spent every year; it has increased as the century has progressed. Today over $175 billion are spent every year in the United States to sell things. This is unprecedented in human history.

It shouldn’t be surprising that something this central, and with so much money being spent on it, should be an important part of social life. And in fact, advertising has taken up more, and more space in the culture. It has colonized the spaces of the culture. It has driven out other things, in the favor of commercial discourse. In the studies done in the 1980’s it was discovered that the average person was exposed to about 1500 commercial impressions a day. When those same studies were done recently, the number had risen to 3600 commercial impressions a day, 3600 times that we are appealed to as consumers. That should tell us something about how commercialized our lives are becoming. That it’s not just constant, but here is a sort of pattern and logic to this. In fact, our media systems are dominated by advertising. If you look at television and radio, 100% of their revenues come from advertising. If you look at magazines the ratio is about 50% from advertisers, and 50%from customers. If you look at newspapers the ratio is about eighty-twenty in favor of advertising. So what we’ve done is turn our media systems into vehicles for selling product, and you simply cannot understand media content without understanding its relationship to advertising.

[Movie: Independence Day] See that Coke can on top of the alien craft? Think you can shoot that thing off? Do it. Shoot it.

The movies have been turned over to advertisers. They, through product placement, reach captive audiences. You can zap an ad in the middle of a movie in a theater. The prime function of many Hollywood films now is to sell commodities, not tell a story. For example, in Goldeneye, James Bond for the first time drives a non-British car, a BMW. He seduces with Bollinger champagne, listens to an Alpine car stereo, flies British Airways, and uses IBM computers. More and more movies are tied in with other advertising campaigns.

[TV ad: VISA] … use a VISA check card! It automatically deducts from your hecking account everywhere VISA’s accepted. See Tomorrow Never Dies.

Professional sports are no longer independent. They were at one time, but are now totally integrated into the marketing effort. A good example of this, if you wanted to see it, would be to look at baseball and how the ads behind home plate have colonized spaces that at one time were free of commercial influence.

Even those institutions thought to be outside of the market are being sucked in. Schools now are selling their students to advertisers. Commercials flood classrooms, school buses, and school hallways and cafeterias. Advertisers have deeply penetrated into public education. New technologies are swallowed up by this. The Internet, it was thought, would be outside of the commercial mix, but it is now fully integrated into the advertising system. In the modern world everything now is sponsored by someone. The latest plans even involve the commercialization of the sky.

[NBC News] The idea was to launch a rocket, send it two hundred miles into orbit, deploy a Mylar billboard, and inflate it with compressed gas. The Mylar billboard would measure approximately two-thirds of a mile across, and a quarter mile tall. From Earth it might appear one-half the size of the moon, the company originally said, and envisioned charging twenty to $30 million to whatever corporation might care to buy space.

Our culture has simply become an adjunct to the system of production and consumption. Its job is to sell us things, and as it does that it impacts how we think about the world and ourselves. For example, if you think about the ritual surrounding courtship and marriage, and the role of diamonds in those rituals. The idea that “diamonds are forever,” and are connected to engagement, is now almost universal in the West. Yet, where did this idea come from? Well, it emerged as an ad slogan in 1947 from Madison Avenue. So “diamonds are forever” is perhaps the most famous advertising slogan ever invented. That slogan, that idea that comes out of Madison Avenue, now defines the way that we think about rituals that define our most personal activities, marriage and courtship.

[TV ad: DeBeers] The diamond engagement ring.

In fact, DeBeers, the company that has a monopoly on the global trade of diamonds has set its sights on more than just engagement rings. [DeBeers Promotional Video: Message to Retailers] Let’s start with your bread and butter, the support behind the rites of passage, the diamond engagement ring, the diamond anniversary band, and the 25th anniversary diamond. Our goal is to make diamonds a cultural imperative for all these important occasions a woman’s life. That’s why we are continuing to support these segments. So that newer products like the diamond anniversary band, and the 25th anniversary diamond will become as obligatory as the diamond engagement ring, bringing your customers back again, and again. That’s what we’re here for, to respond to your requests, and help you sell more diamonds.

In that sense commercial culture is now inside our intimate relationships. It is inside our homes, it is inside our heads, inside our identities. So overwhelming has the commercial takeover of culture become, that it has now become a problem for advertisers who now worry about clutter and noise. That is, how do you make your ads stand out from the 3600 commercial impressions that people are exposed to? So if you’re Pepsi, you’re not just competing with Coke anymore. You’re competing with every other advertiser who wants our attention. As advertising takes over more and more space in the culture, the job of the individual advertiser gets harder and harder. More care and thought goes into the ads than any other type of message. Much more so than the programs that you see on television. In fact, network ads can cost anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to millions of dollars to make.

[TV interview: Michael Jacobi, VP Sales & Marketing/Timex] We decided to do it on location in Eilat in Israel on the Red Sea. We hired a director in London, and some set builders from the London Theatre District who built a watch approximately the size of a two story colonial home. We choreographed it from a yacht that we had specially equipped so that we could see them underwater, and in a day’s time we would get about four or five seconds of film. It took us about two weeks to film it.

Ads are actually, if you want to compare them with anything, ads are made like big Hollywood blockbusters. That’s how much money is expended on them. That’s how much care goes into them. If you strung together an hour and a half of TV ads they would cost more than the biggest Hollywood film. So the influence of advertising in that sense is immense. We normally pay a lot of attention to those big Hollywood films that come out every summer, but if we think about the time and effort that goes into them as going into all the advertising that we see, that we are exposed to, I think the influence of advertising in that way, becomes pretty immense.

So there’s two results of this. Firstly, advertising is everywhere, and secondly, huge amounts of money and creativity are expended on these ads. I think that if anyone wants to understand our culture and our society, they’d better come to terms with the role and power of commercial images. This will involve clarifying what we mean by the power and effectiveness of ads, and asking the right questions. For too long we’ve asked the wrong questions trying to figure out if advertising has an impact on our culture. The wrong question is “does an ad campaign make people buy that product?” For example, does watching a Pepsi ad make people buy Pepsi? If you’re Pepsi-Cola that is an interesting question. But if you’re interested in the social power of advertising, the impact of advertising on society, that is the wrong question. The right question would ask about the cultural role of advertising, not its marketing role.

Culture is the place and space where a society tells stories about itself, where values are articulated and expressed, where notions of good and evil, of morality and value, are defined. Every society has a cultural field that talks about these things. In our culture it is the stories of advertising that dominate the cultural field. Advertising, in fact, is the main storyteller of our society. The right question to ask is not whether this or that ad sells what it is advertising, but what are the consistent stories that advertising tells as a whole about what is important in the world, about how to behave, and about what is good and bad? In fact it is to ask the question of values. Which values does advertising stress? And that’s not just one ad, but across the whole range of advertising.

That’s what I mean by saying we should treat advertising as a cultural system; a system that impacts how human beings make sense of the world, how we understand its meanings. So the images, the values, the ideas of advertising are lodged inside us because that’s the way all culture works. To not be influenced by advertising would be to live outside of culture, and no one lives outside of culture. We are all influenced by advertising to some degree. If we accept this cultural approach to advertising then the question is how do we make sense of the vast field of advertising messages? How do we understand the consistent stories that advertising as a whole tells? And, how do we get at them? I think we can do that by posing a series of questions, and then asking how advertising answers those questions. Questions like “What does advertising say is the way to achieve happiness? How does advertising define what society is? What binds us together in some way? How does advertising encourage us to think about the future?” Those questions could be posed at any culture, and if you could answer those questions in regards to any culture, that would tell you a lot about that culture. I think that if we address those questions to advertising, which is one of the main aspects of our culture that will tell us a lot about advertising’s cultural power.

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