Looking for Readers

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Tue, 8 Mar 1994 10:30:02 JST

Dear Anthropologists,
I have reached a point in writing a paper with which, I expect, we're all
familiar. The structure has emerged. The draft is nearly complete. To
move forward, what I need now is some feedback. Would you consider
reading the draft and commenting on it? At this point the paper is
entitled "Malinowski, Magic and Advertising." I include the opening
section below:


To Malinowski advertising was, he wrote, "the richest field of
modern verbal magic." (1965b: 237) But what, precisely, did he
In Coral Gardens and Their Magic, Malinowski develops a theory
of magic which is part of a larger theory of language. As humans we
are born helpless. Our cries bring us the food and nurture without
which we could not survive. Growing up we learn to shape our cries,
to speak in ways appropriate to the situations in which we find
ourselves and the others to whom we speak. We learn to
communicate information and we also learn to communicate
feelings. We communicate information pragmatically, speaking
clearly and to the point about things over which we have control.
We communicate feelings magically, by speaking in ways which may
make no pragmatic sense but do express emotions.
The pragmatic and the magical permeate human speech but
their ratio varies.

...having started by using language in a manner which is both
magical and pragmatic, and passed gradually through stages in
which the magical and pragmatic aspects intermingle and
oscillate, the individual will find within his culture certain
crystallised, traditionally standardised types of speech, with
the language of technology and science at one end, and the
language of sacrament, prayer, magical formula,
advertisement and political oratory at the other (1965b:236,
emphasis added).

Advertisements are ranked with sacrament, prayer, political oratory
and magic proper as types of speech in which the magical element
predominates. Like religion, politics and magic, advertisements
speak to a world in which human hopes outrun the limits of human
To many anthropologists Malinowski's theory may seem too
simple, too crude to be taken seriously. To someone like myself,
who has spent more than 10 years involved in making advertising, it
speaks to an everyday problem. We sell ideas to clients whose
decisions we cannot control. They in turn must sell their products to
consumers who spend their money as they please. All the efforts of
marketing science do not determine the outcome. In an effort to
shape purchase decisions, we generate images, chant incantations,
and tell each other stories that we hope will appeal to clients' and
ultimately consumers' emotions. In talking about their brands, one
major international corporation makes it a matter of dogma; a brand
is conceived as a triangle, an image uniting functional benefits on
the one hand with emotional benefits on the other. (See Figure 1.)
Slow down, says the anthropologist in me. Let's get specific
here. Whatever the words "magic" and "advertising" refer to,
they're talking about human behavior, culturally shaped and taking
place in particular social situations. Fill in the background for me; tell
me where you're coming from. Then I'll know how much to believe
I, too, am an anthropologist who has studied magicians, Taoist
healers in Taiwan. I know that defining "magic" is one of our
discipline's oldest conundrums, and that none of the classic
attempts has ever been wholly successful. Thinking of magic as
flawed science (Frazer) or as someone exploiting public symbols for
private use (Durkheim) may be useful alternatives to Malinowski's
view. The former asks that we pause to consider what empirical
grounds the magician may have for believing in his magic and how
his ideas may differ from scientific theories. The latter asks that we
look more closely at how private and public rituals differ: at who is
involved and what they do and say. Neither provides an
incontestable boundary that divides magic from other cultural
systems. I am also aware of several newer perspectives--the
suggestion that spells are performative acts, the idea that rites of
all kinds are metaphors in action, and the proposition that levels of
linguistic formality code differing degrees of claims to authority. If
none is an adequate theory of magic, all have contributions to make
(McCreery, forthcoming).
On the advertising side, I have spent more than a decade as a
copywriter and creative director for Hakuhodo Inc., Japan's second
largest advertising agency. When I speak of advertising and say
"we," I allude to this experience. Critics may note that I have an
intense practical interest in anthropological ideas about what makes
language, and more broadly symbols in general, "work." Making
them work is my job. I feel a certain defensiveness, too. My feelings
are mixed when I read the works of cultural critics, especially those
who, describing a "postmodern" world, ascribe to the way I make
my living a truly uncanny and magical power. Can it really be true
that through my work I have helped to create the world described,
for example, by Frederic Jameson (1992), in which a unique,
autonomous self has ceased to be an ideal, signifiers have come
unglued, and history has collapsed, so that now there is nothing left
to do but to shuffle fragments of dying traditions in a never-ending
glass bead game.
Which leads me now to the subject I wish to address here. On a
planet where, as Clifford Geertz puts it, "We are all natives now,"
(1983:51) how different indeed is the world of advertising from
the world of Trobriand magic or that of the Taoist healers with
whom I worked in Taiwan?


If you'd like to see more and lend a hand with this project, I'll gladly
reciprocate. And you find yourself in Japan some day you can count on
a place to crash and an invitation to dinner.-- John McCreery

"Making Symbols is My Business"--JLM@TWICS.COM