ads without products

ads without products, products without qualities

with 3 comments


On his IHT blog, Daniel Altman wrote the other day about the strangeness of the big banks’ global advertising campaigns.

If you’ve seen the ubiquitous ad campaigns by HSBC, UBS, Morgan Stanley and others in the world’s airports, highway billboards and television broadcasts, you might be asking the same question. Each one takes a slightly different tack. HSBC says it understands local customs. Morgan Stanley says it knows how the whole world works. UBS says no matter where you do business, the relationship comes down to the bank and you. But their ads often come off as platitudes or truisms. Even if you did business in countries around the world, how would you choose between them?

Economists have always had a problem with advertising that doesn’t seem to tell you much about products. The feelings that these banks are trying to inspire might not even correspond to their services; there’s no way to know until you see what they’re actually offering – which isn’t in the ads. By trying to mobilize customers using feelings that may echo around the world, they’ve sought a one-size-fits-all solution. That approach could be successful, if there’s really a global business class to be targeted. If not, have they simply become too vague to be effective?

Economists have trouble with ads of this sort, of course, because economists have trouble with the aesthetic. Rare is the advertisement that simply fills you in on the utility of the product at hand. The Adidas ad doesn’t really explain the benefits of the shoe – but rather inserts you in an interesting or exotic situation that auratically adheres to the shoe.

I’m not telling you anything new here, of course. But then again, two questions. First, without using the word “aura” (because we’d like to find something more specific and helpful than that), how do we describe the “something else” that the ad brings us instead of the utility of the product for sale? Second, is it possible that whatever this “something else” is that we’re trying to name, it has something deeply in common with what art has always brought us in addition to its informational content? What does this “something else,” in other words, have to do with the aesthetic?

This one (and it is one of the most brilliant ads I’ve ever seen – I can watch it again and again) crosses a nascent geopolitical conflict with an aesthetic tension – a tension, actually, between two unreconcilable aesthetics: the collectivized bodies-as-machines of the Chinese against the pouty individualized hotness of the Americans. (Isn’t this, in a sense, the work that international athletics almost inevitably performs? Jesse Owens’s sole black body against the Riefenstahl logic of Hitler’s review platform etc… War by other means – by means that come closer to the aesthetic register than any other…)

But whatever we make of either ad, it’s tough to make the leaps from the represented content to the qualities of the shoe itself, unless we’re going to take the “Adidas fits all feet – whether lockstep commie ones or open-toe hypermarketed capitalist ones…”

Back to the banks. I still haven’t learned to take pictures on vacation of the interesting stuff that I’d actually like to look over again from the comfort of my home rather than posing the baby again and again in front of tourist sites that she can make neither heads nor tails of, but, yes, I was at Charles de Gaulle yesterday morning and it was absolutely plastered in just the sort of HSBC ads that Altman is describing above. I have no pictures, so we’ll have to go with a few clipped from elsewhere.


The first one seems to be from CDG itself, the second from HSBC’s NYC campaign, which interestingly highlighted the internationality of the city itself rather than the bank. (In other words, the EU ads are geared at the weirdness of crossing the German-French border on with no stop for passport controls, while the NYC campaign is isolated on the strangeness of crossing the Queensboro Bridge.

The television ads available on Youtube and the like are more helpful, perhaps in getting at the quiddity of this campaign. (You have to wait a bit to get to the punchline of the first…)

Leaving aside the tactical question that Altman asks – whether this is effective as a paradoxically global campaign about the bank’s respect for locality – I am interested in the contents of the ads themselves. What is the relationship between these quasi-fictional situations – these condensed little parapraxes, the petite romances, the perverse detournement of other aesthetic products (such as, in the case of the first, a film about Che Guevara). Think about how surprisingly close – even though there’s still a great distance, of course – the operative fixation of these ads comes to the preoccupations of works like Kafka’s or Woolf’s or Joyce’s. They work, at once, metaphorically (we can understand how to get along with the Chinese, whether in a restaurant or abstractly, via the markets) and literally (through the entertainment value of the vignettes…), which is, in the end, not far off from the model of the work of literature itself…

(Sorry – I have to pull up a bit hurriedly and short here, as I accidentally posted this before it was done, and I’ve got to run…)

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 1, 2007 at 10:07 am

3 Responses

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  1. Yes, I am very interested in this sort of thing. (Will check out the YouTubes tomorrow or Monday.) The whole question of locality is what it immediately suggests, not just in ads but in all sorts of infrastructure in which locality has disappeared. Things suggested from just the most cursory look and reading your text are: 1) the memory of last being at CDG and how amazingly ugly Parisians have somehow managed to make things (that airport is worthy of Yuri Andropov, as I remember). I went to the john for less than 2 minutes and the President of Pakistan (this was 1997) came through the waiting area during that period–neither of us was blown up. 2) Just take HSBC, as well as almost any other bank. I had 2 credit cards with them at one time, which I have since discontinued, because they were no longer necessary. The addresses for the payment addresses kept changing every few months–it could be anywhere, started in Portland, Oregon, continued to LA, then to Baltimore and Salt Lake City. They always told me to ‘enjoy using the card’ the way all cards do and never overtly tell you that the essence of a credit card is not different from a mortgage or bank loan or student loan in the important ways; there’s always a slight sense that it really is your money even though they don’t go that far and do talk about how you’ll have to pay it back. Then they send all those ridiculous checks to you with amounts like $4000 on them and tell you that this is ‘the quick way to pay all your bills, take a vacation or redecorate’. You should go ahead and use these checks right away, one finds, but they have investment only in your ‘enjoying the card’, which is impossible, not in your enjoying what you use it for. I also used to enjoy the ‘Changes in Terms’ letters, which were presented in such a way that you would not read them or even look at them until you had most likely infringed upon something, at which point they told you you should have read it (customers are usually at fault on this, I’ve found. When I read stories about people who still get late fees on cards, I’m astonished. It’s like they wanted them.) Actually, I think they do sometimes say ‘it’s your money to use however you wish’, which is somewhat different from ‘it’s really your money’,which they have to stop short of. 4) I use Chase and there are many branches. When I once left something in one of them, I found that all of the branches in the city by then had the same number (this was in 2003 or 2004, and I’d looked in the phone book, but I don’t know how long all the numbers were the same), so that it was very difficult to reach a specific branch to ask about something that had to do with only that branch. 5) I think it is probably a New York thing for store owners to speak to you with much fawning while you are in their store, and ignore you on the street–after many years, about half the merchants I regularly use will speak to me outside the place of business, but it is interesting that it is often considered basically worthless thing to do. 6) Passport renewal has been overhauled into elephantine horrors, so that you can’t just walk in and get your passport renewed with ease in person: Since Sept. 11, you have to make an appt. for a walk-in if you are travelling soon and need the new passport; or you have to mail it in and wait 3-4 months, or pay $60 extra and have it expedited–which takes 3-4 weeks.

    Some of that is off-topic, but I have long thought that ads for pleasurable activities–especially vacations, have an uncanny way of making them seem no different from the moment and place in which you are reading them. A subway car now has almost no localized ads, but a series of ads by a single whiskey, cruiseliner, or occasionally botanical garden, etc., and usually every car has only this one product advertised. Pictures of guys lazily fishing or cheap packages to St. Thomas always seem worse than just looking around at the people on the subway–so that by now the ads that, in midwinter, show sunny Bermuda and say ‘wouldn’t you rather be here than there?’ and the answer is always now ‘NO.’ Of course, this is a weird phenomenon that probably started sometime in the 80s, this sense of locations beginning to lose their individuality, films like ‘Slacker’, etc., but it can seem true until you make a real effort to go to the places and find that they are still, Zizek, Baudrillard and others notwithstanding, not the same as if you didn’t go anywhere.

    I wonder if the ads are horrible like this because most people still want to ‘travel’ somewhere, but for it now NOT to be any different. If I paid attention to these dreadful ads, I would probably never bother going anywhere, because they’ve homogenized everything. Every day I study the huge busloads of tourists that are far more numerous than they were 20 years ago (I am pretty sure). I keep thinking I will find some spark of something, because there’s got to be–but I do not really ever see anything except people going through motions, which then is why entertainments that won’t ever disturb this easy mood are produced: and what is pissing me off is that they are seducing me too, recently of delusions of refinement–and now I want to be all good citizen and go to Disney World and do theme park and eat only simple/light/fresh pastas and make a conscious point to avoid anything that is ‘too special’. And I want to all of a sudden be really nice about things like computers, people of all political persuasions, bad musical theater (sooooooo ‘delightful in its own way’ really…), and thousands of other wonderful homogenized products!

    Frank Rich today talks about the ‘easy listening’ trend that has occurred with Obama and others trying not to get on people’s nerves or seem to have a short fuse. It’s funny, I have to admit–but I am falling prey to it more and more every day: today I walked the 3 or so miles down to Chinatown and back and actually bought some real noodle soup from this hole-in-the-wall–but before I did it, I thought ‘this is so absurd, can’t you just get used to the fact that there is really only a vague appearance, a ghostly apparition of the ‘old characterful’ still clinging to some of the old things, and just deal with subsisting on some more generic things–surely whatever difference there is, is minor. Isn’t that acting more like ‘a normal person, a good citizen’? And to think I was actually still listening to old LPs as recently as 2 months ago. Who knows what’ll happen next? I already know all sorts of stuff about Lindsay Lohan and secretly imagine that I probably do need to know such things.

    Apologies for length, this is a little too indulgent. Oh yes–had meant to say that your update about the Swedish heavy drinking was puzzling, because they DO have a serious boozing problem there, don’t they? I mean I was surprised when I heard about it about 1995, because it sounded almost as bad as Soviet factory on-the-job drinking. But then these are definitely the countries that ought to be talked about all the time, and I’m always surprised they aren’t. Nobody ever says anything about Switzerland, where everything has been made to work nearly perfectly that it’s almost a benign-totalitarian sensation–and they’ve got the second highest suicide rate in Europe after Sweden. They’ve got one or two pharmacies every block, so they’re very machine-like there (with that incredible honor-system subway in Lausanne, and probably other places), so maybe even though they don’t have the obligatory gloom the Swedes now must project, they have too easy access to Roche tablets, and so they take them, I guess.

    patrick j. mullins

    June 3, 2007 at 1:10 am

  2. ‘individualized pouty hotness’ very good, I liked these ads too. I can see how the Adidas ones would work as ads, but I don’t know why the HSBC ones would work; the bank doesn’t connect to anything local even via the ads. Couldn’t they have just done it more cheaply and just managed to say ‘we’re reminding you that HSBC is the name you’re supposed to remember’. Just read
    Richard A. Clarke’s ‘Breakpoint’, in which something other than unsolved Taiwan issues is causing some of the 2012 terrorisms. I hadn’t ever read a novel by a big Government guy, was interesting, no matter there’s none of the usual art one expects from almost any novelist.It’s interesting because he knows more about the feel of something–although I’m going to be doing ‘Falling Man’ too in the next couple of weeks.

    patrick j. mullins

    June 3, 2007 at 9:01 pm

  3. Some of that is off-topic, but I have long thought that ads for pleasurable activities–especially vacations, have an uncanny way of making them seem no different from the moment and place in which you are reading them. A subway car now has almost no localized ads, but a series of ads by a single whiskey, cruiseliner, or occasionally botanical garden, etc., and usually every car has only this one product advertised.

    An interesting point, Patrick… You may be on to something there… (Airports are especially interesting places for this sort of phenomenon – as they’re all more or less the same on the inside – that post-Newark concrete vaulting and the like…. And the internationally-legible signage…)

    Oh yes–had meant to say that your update about the Swedish heavy drinking was puzzling, because they DO have a serious boozing problem there, don’t they?

    I’m sure they do. Just like us, they seem to suffer from an intolerance / overindulgence issue. You just know that the place where you can’t buy anything but 2.5% beer is going to be the place with the most guys fetalled over in the corner in the morning…

    But I don’t know why the HSBC ones would work; the bank doesn’t connect to anything local even via the ads.

    I think that’s where my interest starts – the disconnect of these (and so many other ads) from the products sold or even a metaphorical connection to them. What, specifically, do they show when they show anything but what they are supposed to show…

    But thanks for the excellent comments…


    June 3, 2007 at 11:14 pm

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