Anyone presently employed within this giant glob of microchips, paper, ink and transistor tubes commonly referred to as “the media” knows just how drastic the implications of the recession have become.
Snark blogs are aglow with schadenfreude that revels in the desperation spilling forth from the tweets of recent media redundancies. Network television, magazines and newspapers are all under threat because the credit crisis has shaken loose the lynchpin that keeps commercial media afloat: advertising.
Penny-pinching, cheeseburger-wolfing consumers are spending less and are enjoying more free online content. That much we all know. As a result, corporate ad budgets have been slashed, setting off a line of collapsing dominoes that is triggering the implosion of mass media.
Soup kitchen lines are filling up with copywriters and journalists alike, and everybody is searching for an answer: a monetary messiah to deliver them from this catastrophe. Amid all the clamor, infighting and vitriol, the following opinion was voiced:
“Advertising is failure.”
An innocent, economically structured sentence comprised of two nouns and a verb. But these words will elicit a genuine response from even the most resolute, square-jawed, Glenlivet-sipping adman. He might even let out an unscripted cringe, blush or scoff.
The sentence was articulated by none other than Jeff Jarvis, blogger, Guardian columnist and revered media consultant, who qualified it by saying: “If you have a great product or service, customers sell for you … you don’t need to advertise.”
Anyone emotionally invested in advertising will immediately discount the idea that “advertising is failure” as preposterous and asinine. But the logic of “advertising is failure” speaks not only to the quality of a consumer product but precisely to the crisis at hand: the more a media outlet is reliant on ad revenue, the more susceptible it is to failure.
But for many who work within the industry, advertising is not economy or media-specific. It shouldn’t yield to the ebb and flow of the boom/bust cycle. It is a philosophical absolute, a cultural imperative that corresponds to the very core of our being. But for the average Joe and Jane, it is a nuisance, a senseless annoyance and, arguably, one of the key contributors to the financial meltdown.
So what if Jarvis’s statement is more pertinent than it is provocative? What if advertising does, at its core, represent some sort of structural failure?
In order to answer this question we need to understand how mass media came to depend on advertising and how we, as citizens of capitalist democracies, came to accept the amount of advertising we consume today as normal.
Modern advertising is primarily an American invention that got its start in early 18th-century newspapers. The first print ads were placed in dailies like the Boston News-Letter and the Virginia Gazette. The ads were typically text, although some were accompanied by illustrations. The standard ad listed information about new products, property sales or descriptions of runaway slaves and reward details.
It wasn’t until after WWI that the ad industry came into its own. Following the collapse of 19th-century empires, a progressive middle-class began to emerge across the new America. New products were beginning to appear in the marketplace, and a new medium was needed in order to distinguish brands from one and other. Consumerism was a fresh phenomenon. The consumer, pockets flush with money, happily embraced the dawn of modernity and the conveniences of mass consumption.
By the mid-1920s agency copywriters had already figured out how to appeal to the more psychologically complex aspects of consumer choice: print ads began to prey on the individual’s fear of social failure, and radio announcers told tales of how their competitors’ products would lead to illness. Unchecked by any sort of regulatory body, advertising agencies had the freedom to pitch whatever worked best. Over the span of just a few years, advertisers successfully convinced the great unwashed to brush their teeth regularly, rinse with mouthwash and smoke as many cigarettes as humanly possible.
The business community was the first to acknowledge advertising’s effectiveness, and the industry experienced unprecedented growth. Billboards were erected en masse, and print media was flooded with spurious claims, poetic copy and outlandish promises. The American adman became the vanguard of modernity, molding popular taste and defining trends, as skyscrapers were rapidly erected around his chiseled vision of mass consumption.
Unverified and often absurd pseudoscience became the norm. The Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra was the hottest pop-music radio show on the planet, and everybody cheerfully lit up to celebrate the good times. Coca-Cola, previously marketed as a medicinal elixir, began promoting itself as a “fun food.”
The economy was booming, and ad agency media purchases allowed magazines, newspapers and radio stations to expand their audience and, in turn, deliver larger markets to advertisers. It was the beginning of a symbiotic relationship between advertising and media.
These were the halcyon days of the American oligarchy, when business interests trumped all facets of communications and government. Indebted to ad revenue, the news media was quick to adopt the values of the corporations they promoted. But as more ads started to pop up, marketing a wide variety of superfluous products under terms ranging from vague to vulgar, a grassroots anti-advertising movement began to percolate across the nation. Advertising was, after all, still a novel force in the public consciousness.
In 1927 Your Money’s Worth: A Study in the Waste of the Consumer’s Dollar by Stuart Chase and F.J. Schlink became a bestseller within weeks of publication. The authors’ take on the nature of advertising sent shockwaves of alarm through the burgeoning advertising establishment.
“Consider the sheer superfluity of certain kinds of goods which this forcing of turnover entails. We are deluged with things which we do not wear, which we lose, which go out of style, which make unwelcome presents for our friends, which disappear anyhow – fountain pens, cigar lighters, cheap jewelry, patent pencils, mouth washes, key rings, Mahjong sets, automobile accessories – endless jiggers and doodads and contrivances. Here the advertiser plays on the essential monkey within us, and uses up mountains of good iron ore and countless sturdy horse power to fill – a few months later – the wagon of the junk man.”
On the eve of the 1929 stock market crash, ad spending had inflated up to three-and-a-half billion dollars per year, cementing the adman’s place as the defining force in American culture. But on the morning of Black Tuesday, as police began to clean up the freshly-splattered corpses wrought by the panic of economic collapse, the adman’s fortunes took a profound turn for the worse.
The crash triggered an abrupt decline across the board and the industry lost more than half its revenue by 1933. The crash also served to catalyze the emerging anti-advertising movement. Thinkers like Chase and Schlink developed a scientific approach to combating deceptive advertising and urged the public and government to take a critical stance against the promotion of overconsumption. Militant consumer organizations sprang up, and people from all walks of life came together and formed a broad voice to contest Wall Street and Madison Avenue’s collective failure.
Around the same time, Dell publishing launched Ballyhoo magazine, which lampooned the gaudy and obnoxious nature of the roaring ’20s advertising style. The first issue of Ballyhoo, which contained no ads, sold 120,000 copies in just two days. The parody mag reached a circulation of one-and-a-half million within its first five months. Coinciding with the popular outrage toward America’s ad nauseam, Ballyhoo made a mockery of the industry and its shill.
A deepening public distrust, coupled with the fear that advertising had become nothing more than a big joke to the average consumer, compelled industry leaders to lash out at its critics. Ad execs mobilized expensive PR campaigns and accused the movement’s key figures of being communist and anti-American. The debate raged throughout the depression, culminating in the passing of laws such as the Wheeler-Lea Act, which limited the amount of deception an agency could inject into its ad spots.
The industry’s public image was in tatters, and the adman’s ability to persuade had been significantly subverted. It seemed as if it was only going to get worse, but then, out of thin air, a stroke of luck; The Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor thrust America into World War II. The downtrodden suits of Madison Avenue saw nothing but a silver lining to the dark clouds that surrounded the Hawaiian islands.
Strategy-minded admen capitalized on the war as an opportunity to market their industry as a force for good to both the government and the public. Agency heads argued that advertising was a “keystone of American values” and that any attacks leveled against it were synonymous with enemy sentiment. The war wasn’t just a battle between the Axis and Allies, it encapsulated a broader struggle between totalitarianism and all-American free enterprise.
Immediately after the US joined the war, leading agencies grouped together and offered their services, free of charge, to the domestic information program. The War Advertising Council was created in March of 1942, and the agencies involved contributed more than 100 campaigns to the war effort at an estimated cost of one billion dollars. Posters depicting consumer splendor were stripped down and replaced with paranoid and patriotic pleas for money and stern requests for hard work and self-control on behalf of the nation. Slogans like “Rationing Gives You Your Fair Share” and “To Dress Extravagantly In War Time is Unpatriotic” dotted city streets. A medium that just a year before had become a laughing stock was now the primary codifier of moral behavior.
And with that the anti-advertising movement was sabotaged and rendered anti-American. The Marlboro-smoking GI had defeated the face of evil, and through the destruction of their enemies, America embraced the pro-corporate “brand America” peddled to the public by the same minds who sold them their war bonds. Through four years of effective propaganda campaigning, agency luminaries were able to position their medium as an acceptable form of persuasion, and anyone who contested its legitimacy was labeled pinko scum.
The last major attempt to derail the advancement of advertising’s predominance was made by former adman turned academic William Benton in 1945.
Benton proposed that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) establish a number of ad-free, subscription-based radio stations to compete with ad-funded commercial stations. He argued that advertising was destroying the quality of on-air content and that this would be more in tune with the American spirit of competition. Benton’s proposal was denounced by the likes of the New York Times, NBC and CBS who alleged that it was “undemocratic.” The proposal, however, was withdrawn before it could be approved, as Benton accepted the position of assistant secretary of state with the US government. Admen everywhere breathed a sigh of relief.
The era from 1945 onwards came to be known as “the golden age of advertising.” Upon repatriation, the battle-weathered GI – always with a smoke in hand, was transformed into Leo Burnett’s Marlboro Man – a big idea straight from the subconscious of the Old West. Patriotic and masculine, the iconic cowboy with a longhorn hanging from his lip was plastered onto billboards far and wide across the great American landscape: road signs pointing the consumer toward utopia on a highway with no end.
By 1964, just 19 years after the Nazis disbanded, Hitler’s Volkswagen became a hit with the hip, freewheeling youth, thanks to a minimalist campaign that presented the “people’s car” as a revolutionary vehicle for a new generation of automobile consumers.
Ad agencies had mastered the ability to sell the American consumer products that they had never heard of and had no real need for. This was the cunning genius of advertising. In the words of David Ogilvy, perhaps the most successful adman of all time:
“I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”
And buy the product we did. The jaws of western civilization became unhinged and with advertising defining our desires, we let four decades of plastic-wrapped “new” slide down our collective gullet. From Cool Whip to custom cheeseburgers, Ogilvy’s philosophy of the “big idea” – and its myriad bastardizations – served as the blueprint for the mechanisms our entire socio-economic machinery grew to depend on.
That is, until it failed … again.
Like an unsavory remake of a classic Hollywood blockbuster, the drama of 1929 is being rerun right before our eyes: Main Street is broke, Wall Street is the villain, and Madison Avenue is in crisis.
But here’s the twist: in 1929 mass media and its offshoot, the mass market, were just coming into existence. In 2009 we’re seeing the first major signals of their collapse.
In the new media environment, the consumer is bound by nothing and controls everything. We’ve crept out of the living room – away from the creature comforts of four-channel nuclear families, vacuum tubes and TV dinners – into the vast, dark wilderness of the Internet. We’ve become roving vagabonds and pirates who create media just as easily as we consume and dispense with it.
The anti-advertising hostility that broke out during the depression has re-emerged, this time as a passive dismissal. Rather than spending thousands of hours working to form a grassroots revolution, all we need now is a simple wave of the hand or a twitch of the finger to negate the pervasive gawp of the ad biz.
This is a direct assault on the power of advertising, which is rooted in force and persuasion. In the past, if you wanted to consume media you were forced to deal with advertising’s attempts to persuade. But as cities begin to shed their billboards in favor of cleaner aesthetics (Sao Paulo, Xi’An, Quebec City), and we move from ad-saturated commercial media to the laptop, attempts at coercion are in vain. Unlike the television viewer, the Internet user has been conditioned to distrust online advertising from the beginning, due to its association with viruses and overall desktop dysfunction.
Not only have these shifts in how we consume media undermined the effectiveness of advertising, the industry itself has given up on its traditional models in pursuit of an abstract preoccupation with “creativity.” While the word “creative” has long served as advertising rhetoric, it wasn’t until recently that the industry’s ability to self-promote eclipsed its natural repellant, and ad agencies became desirable employers for young creatives.
George Orwell once said, “advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.” But due to the work of agencies like Wieden + Kennedy or Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B), such statements simply don’t speak to today’s creative twentysomethings, who see advertising as a pure venue for their ability.
But creativity is not a force that you can use to schlep superfluous objects to uninterested consumers – that requires repetition, persuasion and the power of mass media. True creativity is inherently destructive, and truly creative individuals always, without exception, seek to destroy the mediums they work within.
With the influx of creatives into the industry, agencies have opened their doors to an intellectual insurgency, every innovation pushing the medium closer to the edge. This is the essence of Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” save one critical difference: rather than supplanting outdated companies, the creative destructionists of advertising will force their medium into oblivion. This is the birth of advertising’s Dada era.
If Ogilvy were alive, he would surely be cursing today’s creatives as nihilists: young turks hell-bent on annihilating the nobility of a medium that defined consumer civilization for the greater part of the last century. They are nihilistic not only because they seek to destroy the meaning of advertising but also because they believe that good advertising need not be a force of repetition, that it can bring about popularity through quality content alone.
These “pop-nihilists” don’t want to sell boring shit to an emaciated class of brain-dead plebs – they want to create engaging content that inspires dialog between individuals and the brands they connect with, and they want to do it in an interesting, artful manner that doesn’t insult your intelligence.
While this position overlooks the inane bleakness of what “brand dialog” says about those who engage in it and the inherently destructive nature of consumer capitalism, it is nonetheless an abrupt departure from advertising’s traditional function: repetitive persuasion. And this is where the scruffy, blog-brained twentysomething creative begins to take on the profile of a saboteur.
Radical creatives who have entered the industry within the last few years tend to have little or no faith in the viability of “BDAs” (big dumb agencies). They view the established order as antiquated and staffed by frauds and has-beens, old-media curmudgeons who still watch television and don’t take the remix revolution seriously.
They acknowledge that advertising has been outmoded by Google, PR, and social media and is now becoming irrelevant to both the client and the consumer. In an age where we can instantly access the resources we need, attempts by advertisers to obnoxiously force brand presence into our lives comes off as a desperation tactic.
This abrupt shift in thinking has caused ad agencies to divide along demographic lines – those favoring the mass market and traditional client service, versus progressive creative agencies that embrace chaos. The former will die a death of natural causes, going the way of the Betamax, becoming little more than landfill like the Walkmen and Furbies of yore. On the other hand, the creatives will segue into a situation that can best be described as cannibalistic.
Case in point: recent Burger King campaigns by industry leader CP+B. The firm has executed a string of inflammatory television and web spots involving Burger King that has caused an uproar within the blogosphere and traditional newsmedia, generating millions of dollars of free PR for their client.
One such campaign, “Whopper Sacrifice” – in which Facebook users were rewarded a free Whopper for deleting ten friends from their account, has been the most precise incidence of “pop nihilism” to date. The underlying premise of the campaign was that the majority of one’s relationships are expendable, the Whopper serving as a material excuse to manifest this belief. The Whopper’s presence in the campaign was purely symbolic. The true appeal of the sacrifice was not the faux-nourishment of a hamburger, but for participants to relish in the misanthropic destruction of the social contract.
These campaigns are intentionally polemic – eliciting disgust in many, while others feel compelled to come to their defense. CP+B have torn a page right out of Ballyhoo in the sense that they aren’t selling hamburgers, they are selling the spectacle of advertising’s demise. Agencies who take this route and profit from its fleeting popularity will go down in history as advertising’s robber barons, those who cashed in on the medium’s social capital before it went bankrupt – signifying the moment advertising realized its own mortality and began to eat itself.
As the industry nears its 100,000th post-recession layoff, dragging newspapers, magazines and television down with it, it’s become apparent that selling ad space is an unsustainable revenue model for media as a whole. It is from the chaos of this moment that the relationship between content and capital will be defined for generations to come. Either quality content and valuable journalism will prevail, or a failing ad industry will survive by cannibalizing faltering media outlets: pitting the sponsored versus the authentic in a deathmatch for attention, relevance and the almighty dollar.
Douglas Haddow works as a freelance writer and creative consultant in Vancouver, BC. He worked in advertising when he was in his mid-twenties but realized he liked to sleep in. He is now in his mid-to-late twenties and blogs at PBLKS.com.