ads without products, products without qualities
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…)