Role of Advertising, Pt. II (long)

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Mon, 11 Mar 1996 18:31:15 +0900

As a transition in my attempt at an explication of the role of advertising
in our lives, John McCreery mentions that "advertising is largely parasitic
on other cultural forms--myths, movies, MTV, that sort of thing." While
this seems true, what this statement obscures is that there is a pattern of
interrelationship between these different media. While I am somewhat
unclear as to what he means by myths (ancient or modern? false
superstitions or narrative-based accounts of experience?), concerning
movies and MTV a few simple observations can be made. First, since
commercial TV and advertising are closely connected (as we saw in examining
Miller), the influence of TV as a medium on the making of movies (which
Jameson alludes to) will also involve the influence of an advertising
approach to the world. Second, MTV is in a sense already a kind of
advertisement, an advertisement for the musical group in question. Of
course, a performance is also involved, but I think ordinary advertising
already invented this idea of performance as advertisement. MTV merely
added some artistic elaborations which enriched the body of advertising
(and this process of art enriching advertising has a long history, with
many struggling artists actually working in ad agencies).

Another potential problem with John McCreery's statement is his use of the
term 'parasitic." He uses the term (in my interpretation of his rhetorical
statement) in order to discount the idea that advertising is a hegemonic
force in our life. "Parasites" may be nasty little things which affect our
health, but they become hegemonic only at their own peril (if they kill the
host, they die too). To McCreery, advertising is parasitic in the sense
that it borrows from many genres without giving anything back (and thus he
grants that advertising's relationship to society is problematic), but
since it is parasitic it is also true that it can't be a hegemonic,
totalizing discourse (since it is fragmented and incomplete). It is merely
a collection of situated practices. some good, some bad (just as the
participants in advertising agencies are both a collection of good and bad
people). I wish though to question this attitude that advertising is
somehow a world like any other: I do not want to leave advertising at a
taken-for-granted level of one activity among many in the world. Rather, I
wish to understand how it creates its universe of symbolic meaning, and
encourages us to participate in this same universe.

I visited a friend in the U.S. a couple of years back. He was watching MTV
and made the comment that he was a "culture vulture." It was meant
humorously but at the same time seriously since he felt that he was somehow
being voyeuristic in watching the spectacle of MTV, that he was "feeding
on" (as Miller would say) the images presented. Is a "culture vulture"
truly a parasite, though, or is it, as the name suggests, only a kind of
scavenger that eats the detritus of culture? In the same way, are
advertisers really parasites? Do they actually live in the body of the
host, mass culture, feeding on its live tissues, or are they not more like
scavengers who wait for others to make the kills (the corporations) and
then feast on the dead flesh? "Scavenging" as an activity sounds more like
what the work of advertisers actually is in gathering together bits and
pieces of pop culture which they find here and there in the making of an

More seriously, though, the example of my friend who thought he was a
"culture vulture" in watching the spectacle of MTV raises the point that
what video/advertising (MTV in this case) does is perhaps not so much
"parasitize" ("scavenge") the audience (advertisers are in fact more likely
to be "parasites" on corporate beneficence, if it is true that as John
McCreery suggests that "most ads do not work at all, in the straightforward
pragmatic sense of achieving the goals which their sponsors are looking
for") as much as it causes the audience to feel that they are "parasites"
("scavengers") in watching the video/ad. And this, I feel, is one source
of the true power of advertisements: it is not so much that advertisements
unconsciously force you to buy a certain product, rather it is more that
they encourage you to adopt a certain attitude towards the consumption of
both images and products.

As an aside, advertising is a very culturally dependent business. Having
lived in Japan for eight years, I somewhat familiar with the styles of
advertising here in both print mediums and television. There are many
significant differences which exist between ads in the U.S. and Japan in
terms of the types of things advertised, the frequency with which certain
things are advertised, the kinds of language and images used, when ads are
shown, etc. This I think is to be expected. On the other hand, the basic
function of ads--literally to sell products, but more fundamentally to
promote a culture of consumption--is exactly the same. Also, the same is
the socio-political culture of advertising, the ad agencies with their ties
to the corporate world of both producers of goods and the media.

Let us briefly look at some of Karl van Wolferen's views on the culture
industry in Japan (from "The Enigma of Japanese Power," Macmillan, 1989: a
anthropologically flawed but politically interesting work).

"A mammoth industry sees to it that Japanese have their 'circuses' as
well as their 'bread'. Japanese mass culture is tailor-made to maintain
the orderly world of the salaryman [Japanese-English for the typical male
company employee]. It stands out for the dearth of anything that might tax
the political imagination. The days of serious Japanese cinema, exploring
social and political issues, are long gone. Since the 1960's the Japanese
movie studios, which are very much part of the system have churned out
totally predictable fare made according to a small variety of rigid
formulas. Toei studios have long had intimate connections with the
Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate, and have made hundreds of films celebrating
the traditional 'morals' of gangsters, as well as films on wartime and
post-war history with a nationalistic slant. Twice or three times a year,
perhaps, a more independent director will produce a quality product; but
even when these satirize contemporary social practices, they lack implicit
analysis of their origins. Japanese avant-garde theater groups sometimes
claim to make 'political statements', but these messages are abstract and
imponderable." (p. 230)

Wolferen tends to "orientalize" Japanese society in seeing it as a vast
other which fails to live up to the (Western) standards of a rational,
democratic society. Although in his introduction, he admits that his book
"takes for granted that most of the phenomena it speaks of can be found in
various guises and degrees among people other than the Japanese" (p. xi),
you wouldn't necessarily be aware of this when you read most of what he
says. The above quotation is a case in point. Although Wolferen may be
slightly excused since he is European , not American (but then again are
things really so different in Western Europe!), a close look at American
culture reveals the same pattern as in Japanese society: the close
relation between mass-culture and the corporate world, the mindless films
that Hollywood churns out on set patterns, gangster films (The Godfather,
etc.) and nostalgia for this kind of tough but "moral" society where you
never forget your debts to others, the lack of analysis of origins, and the
abstract and imponderable political statements. The reason why Wolferen
makes this error is I believe because he lacks a theory of the postmodern
and so projects all the postmodern phenomena occurring right under his nose
in Western society onto the Japanese. He has a naive belief in the
efficacy of (Western) participatory democracy in the context of a
capitalistic economy regulated by law.

"Control over Japanese mass culture is easily accomplished without
open or direct governmental restraint. . . . the private institutions that
produce it [mass culture] are informally linked to a number of elite
groups. These include film and television studios, as well as most of the
gigantic newspaper and publishing firms. But the best example, probably,
is afforded by the advertising world, and in particular Dentsu, the largest
'advertising agency' in the world.
"Dentsu does more than any single corporation, anywhere in the world,
to mould popular culture, both directly and through hordes of
subcontractors. . . .
"Dentsu is directly responsible for one-third of all advertising on
Japanese TV, and virtually monopolizes the scheduling of sponsors during
prime-time hours, not to mention the control it exerts through its many
subsidiaries and subcontracting firms. Some 120 film companies and more
than 400 subcontracting graphic art studios are under its wing. . . ." (pp.

Perhaps Wolferen is right that Dentsu because of its size does exert a
greater influence on TV than any single advertising agency in other
countries, but he I believe misses the point that in commercial TV (as well
as in other mass communication mediums) everywhere advertising agencies
have a huge influence over the programming (although as Miller points out
this influence usually is indirect). In the case of America, I do not have
any hard facts and figures right at hand, but I would bet that the big
advertising agencies in the U.S. taken together dwarf Dentsu in size. In
the case of America, it's just that there are more big ad agencies than
within Japan where a monopoly-like stage of capitalism still exists in some

The example of Japan, shows the need for a theory of the postmodern in
dealing with the issue of advertising (and the media, particularly TV).
One issue which needs further clarification, though, is commodification.
John McCreery writes:

"Commodification is, however, an interesting concept and one I would like
to hear other's opinions about. My own
understanding at the moment is based on Marx filtered (1) through Terry
Eagleton and Slavoj Zizek on ideology and (2) Martyn Lee, 1993, _Consumer
culture reborn: the cultural politics of consumption_, New York and London:
Routledge. From these sources I have reconstructed a view of
commodification that includes the following elements:

(1) Mass production of goods by doubly alienated workers who
(2) are deprived of ownership of the means of production, and
(3) prevented by the nature of their jobs from realizing the creative
potential innate in every human being, where
(4) the goods in question are fetishized and appear to possess intrinsic
value, while
(5) concealing the social relations involved in their production and
(6) having their exchange value assessed in abstract, monetized terms that
(7) appear to have universal value, but
(8) through mystification distract attention from their use value, which is
something else again."

I think John McCreery's description of the notion of commodification is
quite accurate if we are dealing with the Marxism of Marx. However, the
notion of commodification need not be so closely tied to economic values.
Let us look at Andrew Ross's description of the development of Marxist

"Clearly, the broadest shift in emphasis [in Western Marxist theory] has
been in the relative autonimization of the notion of ideology. Freed from
the orthodox insistence on its secondary superstructural role as an
illusory or "false" consciousness, determined at every turn by the
relations of production, ideological activities have increasingly assumed
the full significance of their 'specific effectivity,' which Marx had
barely acknowledged in his fitful discussions of aesthetics. As a result,
the unitary world-picture of 'society' as a mechanistic structure built on
a materialist base has been replaced by more multideterminate analyses,
like Althusser's 'social formation,' which recognizes the 'specific
effectivity' of human practices lived out in each of three regions: the
economic, political, and ideological.
"This transformation, of course--from the causal dominance of the mode
of production to a less mechanistic model--is not the mere consequence of a
'barren' pursuit of theoretical sophistication; on the contrary, it is a
real response to the cumulative need, from the failure of the Western
proletarian revolutions onward, to account for the survival and growth of
capitalism. . . .
"For the most part, the materialist analysis of ideological relations
has based itself on various extensions of Marx's discussion of commodity
fetishism. For Lukas, there was no doubt that commodification was 'the
central structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects.' In
other words, the commodity character of a capitalist mode of production
based on an abstract system of exchange is just as much a social as an
economic effect. Consequently, social relations are reified and 'veiled'
to the material producer, a set of circumstances that is then made to
appear 'natural.'
"To say that this analytic concept of reification (focussed primarily,
for Lukas, on the alienated 'plight' of the humanist individual) can be
generalized to explain the universalization of capital's ideological
dominance, is to make room for later theories of consumer saturation like
Baudrillard's, which describe the 'no-win' option presented by late
capitalism. A further extension of this thinking has in fact resulted in
the various forms of post-Marxism (promulgated by the Gulag question),
which turn on resistance to the rationality of Marxist discourse itself,
now perceived by some as a repressive totalizing project with little
tolerance for its dissidents, theoretical or otherwise. Without the time
to properly describe these developments, it would be useful to preserve the
shift in strategic logic that they demonstrate; a shift from the humanist
insistence on the priority of delivering the individual from the alienated
situation of commodity existence, to the emphasis on the priority of
analyzing the rationality of systematic discourses, whether the discourse
of reification or the discourse of Marxist totalities." ("The New Sentence
and the Commodity Form: Recent American Writing" in _Marxism and the
Interpretation of Culture_, University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp.

>From the above description, it should be clear that the notion of
commodification has been important in the development of Marxist thought.
And it has gained its descriptive power in gradually being expanded in its
range of meaning. In Marx, it was still tied to the central idea of
material production, in what could be called modernist Marxism its scope
was extended to ideology (yet in the context of the struggle of the
humanist individual), and finally in postmodern Marxism it has come to be
associated with language. Let us here examine Baudrillard's notion of

"Today consumption--if this term has meaning other than that given it
by vulgar economics--defines precisely *the stage where the commodity is
immediately produced as a sign, a sign value, and where signs (culture) are
produced as commodities*. But this whole area of study is still occupied,
'critically' or otherwise, by specialists of production (economy,
infrastructure); or ideology specialists (signs, culture); or even by a
kind of monolithic dialectician of the totality. This partitioning of the
object domain obscures even the simplest realities. If any progress is to
be made at this point, 'research'--especially Marxist research--must come
to terms with the fact that nothing produced or exchanged today (objects,
services, bodies, sex, culture, knowledge, etc.) can be decoded exclusively
as a sign, nor solely measured as a commodity; that everything appears in
the context of a general political economy in which the determining
instance is neither the commodity or culture (not even the updated
commodity, revised and reinterpreted in its signifying function, with its
message, its connotations, but always as if there still existed an
objective substrate to it, the potential objectivity of the *product* as
such; nor culture in its 'critical' version, where signs, values, ideas are
seen as every where commercialized or recuperated by the dominant system,
but again, as if there subsisted through all this something whose
transcendence could have been rationalized and simply compromised--a kind
of sublime use value of culture distorted in exchange value). The object
of this political economy of the sign, that is its simplest component, its
nuclear element--that which precisely the commodity was for Marx--is no
longer today properly either commodity or sign, but indissolubly both, and
*both only in the sense that they are abolished as specific determinations,
but not as form*. Rather, this object is perhaps quite simply the
*object*, the object form, on which use value, exchange value and sign
value converge in a complex mode that describes the most general form of
political economy." (_Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings_, Mark Poster,
ed., Stanford University Press, 1988, p. 80).

To Baudrillard, the processes of the production and consumption of both
signs and commodities have become fused. Thus we have both a language of
commodities and a commodification of language. Meaning as such is thus in
a precarious position as "specific determinations" are unavailable, leaving
us with form alone. In terms of our experience, the realms of "objects,
services, bodies, sex, culture, knowledge, etc." are all included within
the logic of sign/commodity fusion. Use value, too, has no independent
existence. It gets jumbled up in this insubstantial mixture.

We will return to Baudrillard later. Here let it suffice to say that as
much as with Nietzche or Derrida, one's interpretation of his thought will
be quite different if one considers him to be merely a gifted writer, a
stylist, or if one considers him to be someone who has an important message
to relate (albeit one which may be difficult distil out from his writing
because of the style he uses).

My next thread will be to examine some of the ideas W.F. Haug expressed in
his _Critique of Commodity Aesthetics_, (trans., Robert Bock), University
of Michigan Press, 1986 (first edition in German, 1971). It is a little
difficult to place his thought. He is obviously a Marxist, but he is
somewhere in between the modernist and postmodernist moments in Marxism.
His work, too, is I believe not very well known although it is interesting
because he includes an explicit treatment of sexuality in his discussion of
commodification and advertising.

"Taking human activity adequately into consideration in this theory cannot
mean leaving untouched the economic forms, needs and relations in which
people act. It would be particularly absurd in the case of commodity
aesthetics to ignore the fact that its current dominant form is the
aesthetics of the monopoly-commodity, i.e. the form in which transnational
enterprises in particular intervene directly in the collective imagination
of cultures." (p. 11)

Haug stresses that in the evaluation of commodification as a matter of
course we must delve into economic relations, focussing in particular on
the monopoly nature of the commodity (which I interpret as signifying that
the commodity takes the form a "brand-name" abstraction infinitely
reproducible) which has at its background the institutional form of the
transnational corporation, which despite its specter-like legal status as a
fictive person definitely functions as a *presence* in its ability to
intervene in (and not merely haunt) our collective imagination.

"Appearance becomes just as important--and practically more so--than the
commodity's being itself. Something that is simply useful but does not
appear to be so, will not sell, while something that seems to be useful,
will sell. Within the system of selling and buying, the aesthetic
illusion--the commodity's promise of use-value--enters the arena as an
independent function in selling. For economic reasons it is only natural
and, under the pressure of competition, ultimately necessary to gain
technological control over and independent production of this aesthetic
"The commodity's aesthetic promise of use-value thus becomes an
instrument in accumulating money. Its opposite (i.e. exchange value)
interest elicits from the standpoint of exchange-value an exaggeration of
the apparent use-value of the commodity, the more so because use-value is
of secondary importance from the standpoint of exchange-value. Sensuality
in this context becomes the vehicle of an economic function, the subject
and object of an economically functional fascination. Whoever controls the
product's appearance can control the fascinated public by appealing to them
sensually." (p. 17)

I prefer this description of the commodification process to the one
advanced by John McCreery based on an earlier Marxism. Use value exists,
naturally, but use value becomes as a *practical* matter mere appearance.
What counts is not use value itself, but the *promise* of use value, a use
value which itself is exaggerated. This describes the process of how
capitalism is able to "colonize" the concrete life-world of ordinary
experience. For example, food becomes the *promise* of food, with the
image of *food* becoming more delicious than the actual *food* we eat. Sex
becomes the *promise* of sex through exaggerated images of total sexuality,
which are more stimulating than any real experience of sexuality could be.

The notion that commodities "promise" use value also allows us to integrate
linguistic theories (here excluding Baudrillard's notion of the fusing of
the sign and commodity as a "linguistic" theory in that it is more global
in scope: it is more semiotic than linguistic) into our perspective on
commodification. A "promise" as a speech act relies on the consensual
nature of our linguistic interaction: our communication with others is
oriented to reaching understanding. In simpler words, a promise in this
case means we are saying that we will deliver the goods, and we are making
known this commitment by using the conventionalized act of "promising." In
advertising, though, a perlocutionary act is being performed. A
perlocutionary act, unlike an illocutionary act, is intended to create an
effect in the hearer. In other words, advertisements are intended to get
us to buy a product. However, in order to achieve our perlocutionary
effect, usually we must conceal our intention to create such an effect.
Thus, perlocutionary effects are achieved through the strategic use of
illocutions: we make it seem that we are using language communicatively
when, in fact, our hidden intention is to create some effect in the other.
It is in this sense only--that advertisements are perlocutions that
strategically use an illocutionary form--that it can be said that
advertising is "parasitic." And the lie advertising creates rests in the
difference between the smooth, shining image of the commodity and the
actual bit of packaged materiality which you buy. [The discussion of the
illocution and perlocution is based on Habermas's treatment of speech act
theory in his _The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume One: Reason and
the Rationalization of Society, Beacon Press, 1984, pp. 290-295.] Let us
now return to Haug.

"Soon the rising bourgeoisie lent money to the aristocrat at extortionate
rates of interest so that he [or she] could buy his ostentatious and
luxurious commodities until, piece by piece, the noble's lands and property
fell into the hands of the bourgeoisie. They capitalized on this to the
cost of all unproductive consumers, who were driven to begging or to the
workhouse until the rise of capitalist production recognized their use as
cheap wage-labor." (p. 20)

Here I cannot resist the interpolation that this situation in Western
Europe was duplicated in Japan. The rising merchant class in the Tokugawa
Era impoverished the ruling samurai class and thus opened the way for the
"democratic" reformations of the 19th century Meiji era. The interesting
point in all this is that although capitalism developed naturally in Japan,
"science" in the Western sense did not (although there is a long history of
the influence of Chinese "science" on Japan): "science" (in both its
"Western" and 'Chinese" versions) was a cultural import [see _Science and
Culture in Traditional Japan_, Masayoshi Sugimoto and David L. Swain,
Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1989], while capitalism (at least in an
incipient sense) was home-grown. This aside is intended to indicate that
our understanding of capitalism as an international phenomena is still too
limited. How was use value transformed into exchange value in the case of
Japan? What is the relation of "science" to "capitalism"? What aspects of
the precapitalist world-view were the most resilient in Europe as compared
to Asia? There are a lot of interesting questions here I believe.

"With the subordination of and control of certain use-values by private
enterprise, commodity aesthetics receives not only a qualitatively new
meaning--to codify a new class of information--but it also detaches itself
from the body of the commodity, whose styling is heightened by the
packaging and widely distributed by advertising." (p. 25)

Advertising/commodification is a way of codifying information; it is in a
sense a cognitive strategy. And what this process of
advertising/commodification entails is the separation of meaning from its
referent: sensual knowledge of things as things become a pseudo-sensual
knowledge of wrappings and packagings. Haug is here talking about
something similar to what Baudrillard mentioned about the sign/commodity
fusion becoming a mere form. It is not the thing itself (the commodity as
a sensuous category of use), but its surface and/or added packaging which
is apprehended. And this commodity surface/packaging becomes a linguistic
sign in that it is elevated "to the status of a brand-name." (p. 25)