Role of Advertising, Pt. I (long)

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Mon, 11 Mar 1996 18:35:07 +0900

In what follows I will look at a number of works which concern TY,
advertising, and commodification in order to arrive at a tentative picture
of the nature of these social phenomenon. What I have written is rather
long (by internet standards), but still somehow I feel I have left many
things unexamined.

In some senses in what I write I am responding to John McCreery's comments
on my earlier statement about the colonization of sexual desire as well as
his response to Brian Howell's query about Baudrillard. In regard to the
first issue of colonization here I will not directly be able to address
that issue at length. I will speak rather of the commodification of sexual
desire (using the work of Haug, and letting Haug do most of the work since
I'll be using quotes). Let me briefly say, though, that "colonization" can
be used in a metaphorical sense (in Habermas, and others) to describe a
process of the taming or hollowing out (e.g. resource extraction, etc.) of
some "other." The "other" is not destroyed, but rather is marginalized in
the relation of dependency. While it is true that "historically colonial
powers have seized control of colonies by force, which advertising never
has at its disposal," the metaphorical usage of "colonization" need not
imply any overt force but rather a process of gradual corruption and
fragmentation which is often more effective than a military strategy in
gaining the objective of compliance. In truth, given John McCreery's
erudition in a wide range of fields, I am a little surprised that he has
made it seem that he doesn't understand this more metaphorical use of the
word "colonization." In fact, I suspect that in his seeming innocence of
the wider meanings of the word 'colonization," he is actually putting us
on: it is a rhetorical ploy to undercut the point I was trying to make
(that even sexuality has become marginalized or hollowed out), by of all
things keeping language at its most literal level ("colonies" are things,
not a concept) which is supposed to appeal to our "common" desire to avoid
murky abstractions (as if the "concrete" is also not "abstract," or
language is not in its essence metaphorical). Perhaps I am wrong in this
case--intentions can be difficult to judge--but I'm afraid that when I deal
with a professional advertiser, particularly one tired after a long day at
work, I tend to expect the worst: the rhetoric is the message.

Concerning his second contribution to Anthro-list, the reply to Brian
Howell's query, I first wish to point out how the general tone of John
McCreery's contribution seems condescending. After the initial mention of
"interesting" (a word often without any real meaning as a compliment) in
regard to Brian Howell's queries, the language soon degenerates into a
voice of total authority which mocks Brian Howell's intention to even
suggest that Baudrillard can be a topic of serious discussion. Beginning
with "of course not" in reference to Howell's query about whether
Baudrillard's view of nostalgia as connected with a privatization/
commodification process is *always* correct (with actually the implication
that it may not be since other social theorists see reappropriation of the
past as both celebration and resistance), continuing with the retort that
Howell's equation of Colonial Williamsburg with a theme park shows "a gross
lack of subtlety and sheer misrepresentation," and ending with the "dear
children" in his conclusion, John McCreery consistently uses a rhetorical
strategy based on mocking the intelligence of his (supposed) opponent (who
in the end becomes neither Brian Howell nor indirectly myself through
Williamson, but a generalized other of *postmodern children*, a slippage of
meaning which ironically is itself postmodern).

Concerning the substance of John McCreery's defense of Colonial
Williamsburg or Busch Gardens as places providing respectively an education
in patriotic values and visceral entertainment, I can make no comment as I
have never been to either place and so have no direct experience of them.
On the other hand, I think John McCreery skirts the issue raised by Brian
Howell: it is not whether people can enjoy the experience of invented or
reconstructed history, or indeed even whether the recreation process has
been conducted with a "painstaking" attention to historical fact or not (is
it mere invention or faithful reconstruction?), but rather why people in
the late 20th century feel the need to reconstruct the past in the present.
Have we not lost the sense of being in the midst of living history and so
try to recreate the (dead) history of the past in the present? And why is
it that we (we moderns, or postmoderns) are not even aware of this loss of
history, or that there is something odd (historically unprecedented) about
the existence of places like Colonial Williamsburg or Busch Gardens?
To begin my discussion of the issue of commodification and advertising, I
would like to look at TV. We live in a television culture. This
television culture is produced primarily by what we know as TV networks
(which is, as I think about it now, a rather strange metaphoric use of the
word "network") who receive money from corporations (with advertising
agencies serving as the go-betweens). Cable TV has the potential to
provide input from local communities, and government sponsored "public" TV
does exist, but these forms of TV can be compared to regional dialects
existing at the margins: it is commercial TV which sets the standards for
the medium. Here I do not want to go into detail about how networks
themselves are corporations (although for the reader interested in this
kind of thing I would recommend _Networks of Power: Corporate TV's Threat
to Democracy_, Dennis W. Mazzocco, South End Press, 1994) since I merely
want to outline the nature of the product (or culture) they produce. Let
it suffice to say that TV networks have not been immune from the trends of
late capitalism towards corporate merging and restructuring (downsizing,

"The arrival of the culture of TV, then, was the imperceptible result of
many factors--material, commercial, demographic, technological. This
culture, however, represents not only the convergence of those disparate
developments, but also--or primarily--the fulfillment of an old managerial
idea: to exact universal assent, not through outright force, but by
creating an environment that would make dissent impossible." (_Boxed In:
The Culture of TV_" Mark Crispin Miller, Northwestern University Press,
1988, p. 11)

We often think of TV as merely a technological invention, which like all
inventions can have both positive and negative impacts. However, as Miller
points out TV is more than that: it functions as a culture within a
culture, or rather it comes to be the dominant culture. And, its ultimate
"logic" (if we wish to call it that) is political: to create "an
environment that would make dissent impossible."

Miller continues: "it has long been the aim of advertising to be
everywhere, and yet to seem fundamentally illegible--and TV has realized
that complex aim. On (and as) TV, mass advertising is ubiquitous, and yet
it also hides behind that very flagrancy, half-camouflaged within
surroundings that offset it and yet also complement it. (p. 11)

Miller connects TV as a culture with advertising. Unlike Williamson, he
does not use structuralism or Marxism in his analysis of advertising, but
he comes to similar conclusions concerning its negative effects as well as
to some degree how it is able to achieve its effects.

"Certainly the admen, p.r. experts, and media moguls of the past often
schemed, and often with success, to put one over on the public. In
general, however, the 'scheming' was overt. As far as their overall
intentions were concerned, they were--at least into the Forties--not
conspiratorial sly, but ebulliently forthcoming, given to proclaiming
outright, and in good conscience, their project of eventual hegemony; J.
George Frederick's blithe boast [in 1925: "The Advertising man can mass
the thousand and one methods of advertising into a concentrated volume of
appeal that will make the people absorb his thought as though through the
air they breathe, and as naturally."] is only one example among thousands
from those early days. The conspiracy theory was therefore half-correct;
it could indeed be said that those at the top 'know very well what they are
trying to do,' and yet they made no secret of that enterprise.
"Within the culture of TV, however, there is no such easily legible
intention, for the marketing imperative does not now originate within the
midst of some purposeful elite, but resides in the very consciousness and
day-to-day behavior of the media's general work force. Contrary to the
dark guesswork of the vulgar Marxist, the TV newsman [newsperson], for
example, usually needs no guiding phone call from his higher-ups in order
to decide the bias of his story, but will guide himself, as if on
automatic, toward whatever formula might 'play,' fit TV's format, goose up
the ratings, maintain (or boost) his salary. Similarly, the admaker need
not consult, wizardlike, the secret findings of some motivational
researcher (although there are plenty of such findings), but need only look
into his/her own racing heart in order to discover a scenario that might
startle and attract fifty million other hurrying consumers--all ironists,
as s/he is. Thus the imperfect self-delusion of J. George Frederick and
his ilk has reached perfection in the busy cadres of the media, who have no
time for much ambivalence, and who could not rhapsodize the media's larger
purpose, because there isn't one. The culture of TV goes on and on because
it must go on and on. More disquieting even than the old nightmare of
conspiracy is the likelihood that no conspiracy is needed.
"Hectic, ironic and unintended, the ads do not stand out--and so TV
has all but boxed us in. Whereas, out on the walls and billboards, the ads
were once overt and recognizable, TV has resubmerged them, by overwhelming
the mind that would perceive them, making it only half-aware . . . . 'It's
more of a subconscious or subliminal effect,' observes Fred Baker, a Senior
Vice-President at McCann-Ericksen." (pp. 16-17)

Miller here is elaborating a number of unique features of television
culture. One point is that within its institutional structure it is
self-policing. As John McCreery said (albeit in a different context) "who
is ruling who is very much a moot point." Second, TV is an ironic medium.
"Thus, within the television environment, you prove your superiority to
TV's garbage not by criticizing or refusing it, but by feeding on it, taken
in by its oblique assurances that you're too smart to swallow any of it"
(p. 15). Third, television does not stimulate the development of any
critical faculties, but rather is a medium whose message is passively
absorbed in a state of half-consciousness. Fourth, TV culture has no
purpose except its own continuity.

"Now that TV's content has been determined and homogenized by the
commercial impetus that once merely underlay the spectacle, and now that
TV's basic purpose is to keep you watching, the images all point back
toward that now-imperceptible managerial intention. And because TV is, on
the whole, devised by and for the same class and generation, it constitutes
a vehicle of collective self-allurement and self-solace, so the spectacle
has all the eerie resonance of a bad dream. TV's images, furthermore, are
all the richer in unconscious meanings for the increased sophistication of
the visual technology that represents them. Calculated always to jolt the
nerves of the half-attentive, the spectacle is less and less elaborately
scripted and plotted, while more and more reliant on stark pictures and a
lightning pace (along with infectious music), and on words as blunt as
pictures. Such is the imperative behind all the ads and newscasts, game
shows and cartoons and nearly all the talk shows, dramas, and sitcoms, so
that TV's 'concentrated volume of appeal' actually gives more and more away
the more it tries to rush and dazzle us beyond understanding what it's all
"What the spectacle reveals, then, are not only the commercial forces
that demand our continual consumption, but these largely unacknowledged
facts of American life: the degradation of experience by technology; the
demise of public culture in all forms; and the warlike relations between
men and women, between blacks and whites, and the complicated, hidden
animosity between the upper stratum and the spreading underclass--tensions
that TV reveals even as it both sentimentalizes and exacerbates them. Thus
TV edifies precisely where it seeks most to conceal, and through its very
means of concealment." (p. 19)

Let me here reiterate a number of Miller's points. First, the content of
TV is determined by its "commercial impetus," basically to make money
through selling advertising time to large corporations. Second, since ads
must be targeted at people who both have money and will spend it (basically
people in their 20's, 30's, and 40's), the intended audience of TV is
limited to this group (which also happens to be the same group who produce
the programming and ads). Third, the increased visual sophistication of TV
has also increased TV's ability to influence us subliminally, although
paradoxically this also allows us to potentially be able to adopt a more
critical stance toward TV since the manner in which TV seeks to influence
us has become clearer, more "graphic." Fourth, TV culture in subtle ways
reveals the degradation of our lives through technology. I think Miller is
referring to how TV is a constant reminder of the loss of a true community
life (which it is a substitute for) as well as of our lack of power to
effect change (the images are all one-way), with both these problems
stemming from technological change. Fifth, TV destroys public culture which
involves among other things how TV has destroyed the possibility for any
meaningful political dialogue. This is not limited to political
advertising, but includes the staged nature of debates and the biased
presentation of the news. Finally, TV in its potentially liberating
function reveals the underlying problems in our society, albeit ironically
only in its attempts to conceal them.

Well, this has been a rather long excursion into Miller's views. What has
emerged is first the close relation between advertising and television (as
well as the corporate sponsors who pay the ad people). Sometimes this
relation can be explicit in the sense that ad people (and their sponsors)
have power to control the content of the programming (news included), but
more often than not the relation is implicit with the people in TV
themselves doing the policing. Second, TV is a totalizing medium which
exists as a culture. It is a culture of consumption, directly of images
and indirectly of products. It is available to all which makes it seem
"democratic," but the freedom which TV offers is unidirectional, freedom to
receive but not to give back.

Among the various critiques existing of TV, Miller's is one of the most
general in that he sees TV as a kind of culture (and is this not a kind of
anthropological perspective?). It is self-regulating, self-perpetuating,
has its own language of symbolism, and worms its way into our lives as it
becomes part of our culture, too. Many other commentators limit their
discussion to the political influence of TV (how it limits true debate, how
it distorts elections, how it trivializes news), its effect on other
mediums (the conversion of newspapers to an infotainment type of approach,
for example), and its effect on the audience (people forget, or never
learn, how to read carefully), but Miller seeks for a more comprehensive
treatment. Despite his lapses into an abstract language difficult to
understand outside academia, I think his views have merit.

The necessity of dealing with TV in an approach to advertising (and the
process of commodification in general, of which advertising is only its
transparent expression) stems from the various changes which have occurred
within our economic/cultural life. In early capitalist society,
advertising had not yet defined itself as an entity with its own identity.
Advertising only emerges as an institutional entity (i.e. the ad agency)
with the movement towards a monopoly stage of capitalism (here I am using
the case of the U.S. as the model for the development of advertising).
Using a puritanical/Anglo-Saxon model of hygiene, efficiency and scientific
control (and largely deleting the eroticism which existed in the previous
entrepreneur tradition of advertisements using chromo-lithography), ad
agencies sought to establish their legitimacy in society.

"With the rise of advertising agencies toward the end of the
nineteenth century, as major corporations claimed a major share of the mass
circulation of images, the symbolism of abundance began to be more
systematically rationalized. The new corps of admakers were more educated
and affluent than the chromolithographers had been; they were also more
uniformly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. They were corporate employees
rather than artisan-entrepreneurs. The image they designed reflected the
marginalizing of female generativity in the managerial worldview.
"Of course, the process was never that clear-cut. Images of
voluptuous womanhood still had many uses in the streamlined commercial
iconography that flourished under corporate auspices. [But] Regressive
motifs could be counterbalanced by modernizing paeans to personal
efficiency." (_Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in
America_, Jackson Lears, Basic Books, 1994, pp. 110-111)

Lears is here charting the course of the transformation from early
capitalism to modernist capitalism. In early capitalism, precapitalist
ways of thinking about the relation of the person to the environment still
existed. For example, abundance was still seen as agricultural abundance,
and was often represented symbolically through the feminine, a feminine in
which the relationship between fecundity and sexuality was quite clear.
However, with modernist (or monopoly) capitalism abundance becomes
identified with industrial products. And it is ad agencies who did much of
the work in shifting social discourse from the old style of thinking about
abundance to the new one.

"Corporate advertising was part of a broader surge of managerial
ideologies and institution--a pervasive 'incorporation of America,' as the
cultural historian Alan Trachtenberg has called it, that permanently
reshaped the verbal and visual idioms of abundance. To the extent agency
executives were able to appear 'professional,' they won a certain
legitimacy among more established professional groups--above all, among
those social theorists who accepted the hegemony of the modern corporation
as inevitable and beneficent, and who sought new cultural values that would
assimilate ordinary folk into the new corporate society. In a sense, this
agenda continued the projects of bourgeois moralists, but while the
moralists had tried to control the impact of proliferating goods by
preaching a gossip of self-control, the managerial theorists began to
develop a new approach, more suited to absorbing the output of the engines
of mass production." (p. 113)

Lears is in ways pointing out the obvious here in saying that advertising
did not exist in a vacuum. Not only did it reflect the corporate ethos of
its clients, but it also drew from those aspects of social thought that
promoted a managerial approach to all aspects of life. The significance of
this is that although we often equate advertising with freedom and
liberality (in the conventional senses of these terms), advertising in fact
has a much murkier background. It is about the regulation and
rationalization of life. [In this contest, one could also mention the
techniques of opinion polling which came to be developed in the advertising
field, and later were applied by journalists and social scientists.] Thus,
the metaphor that John McCreery uses to distinguish advertisers from their
critics (the "puritanical frame of mind" of the latter) seems ironic in the
sense that advertising itself has strong roots in what is ultimately a
Protestant tradition. Perhaps, though, the source of the this
misunderstanding must be laid at the feet of Weber, who while identifying
the influence of Protestantism on economic life, was not able to see its
influence on scientific life.

The difficulty in correctly characterizing the real nature of advertising
comes in part from the fact that advertising has grown and evolved (the ads
of the late 19th and early 20th centuries look ludicrous to the modern--or
postmodern--observer). Advertising has also been influenced by
technological revolutions. The first is photography which did not come to
be widely used until the 1920's. Despite photography's apparent capability
of representing things and people as they actually are (in comparison to
drawing and painting which are naturally the artist's representation of the
seen object), it is in fact a very flexible medium. "When the occasion
required it, the photograph could be coolly objective or energized with
emotion. The secret of the photograph's success . . . was its
manipulability" The second was radio. Radio as a commercial medium
emerged at about the same time as photography used in ads in magazines and
newspapers. (_Fables of Abundance_, p. 324). One characteristic of radio
was that "the advertiser (through the agency) controlled the entertainment
as well as the messages about the product. The result was a complete
subordination of art to commerce" (_Fables of Abundance_, p. 334).
Another characteristic of radio was that radio was an oral medium. "Many
people in and outside advertising recognized that radio in some ways
represented a return from literacy to orality--the world of the public
lecturer but also of the carnival barker and the patent medicine
impresario. . . . Print-oriented copywriters and account executives
doubted that radio could convey any idea more complicated than those that
could be found on a billboard. For them, the radio announcer embodied not
intimacy but pseudo-intimacy, a return to the repressed past of
advertising." (Fables of Abundance, p. 335).

Radio, thus, in some ways is tangential to the main current of advertising
in modernist capitalism, print-advertising (especially with photographs).
However, the third great technical revolution in advertising, TV, can be
thought of as the merging of these two disparate strands of
print-advertising and radio (roots which are hidden in the name
"television" itself which only refers to the medium's visual dimensions).
With TV, though, we have crossed the threshold from the modern to the
postmodern, and from the monopoly stage of capitalism to the multinational

Here let me return to Jameson briefly who is writing about the relation of
film to literature:

"What this account suggests is that however helpful the declaration of
the priority of film over literature in jolting us out of print culture
and/or logocentrism, it remained essentially a *modernist* formulation,
locked in a set of cultural values and categories which are in full
postmodernism definitely antiquated and 'historical.' That film has today
become postmodernist, or at least that certain films have, is obvious
enough; but so have some forms of literary production. The argument
turned, however, on the priority of these forms, that is, their capacity to
serve as some supreme and privileged, symptomatic index of the *zeitgeist*;
. . . . Film and literature no longer do that, although I will not belabor
the largely circumstantial evidence of the increasing dependency of each on
materials, forms, technology, and even thematics borrowed from the other
art or medium I have in mind as the most likely candidate for cultural
hegemony today.
"The identity of that candidate is certainly no secret: it is clearly
video, in its twin manifestations as commercial television and experimental
video, or 'video art.'" (_Postmodernism: Or the Cultural Logic of Late
Capitalism_, p. 69).

The main point of relevance concerning what Jameson is attempting to
express here is that TV is the quintessential postmodern medium. But I do
not merely want to leave things at that. Jameson also points out the
tension which exists between print media and visual media. In the
modernist moment film acquired ascendancy over print culture. This to some
degree may be represented as a defeat for advertising people since there
was little advertising in films (see Lears's discussion of the relation of
film and advertising on page 329). Also, as was mentioned previously,
admakers had staked their professional reputation on print culture (in an
effort to dispel the image of their profession as peddling as well as to
positively associate their profession with art). TV, though, was a new
chance for advertisers to recover the high ground, something which I
believe they have in the end done, although interestingly they were slow in
realizing the potential of the medium (see Lears, p. 342).