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the “fictional” people of austerity

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The Guardian leads today with a story about the DWP using “fabricated quotations” from “fictional people” talking “about their positive experiences of the welfare system.” It is the sort of story that raises all sort of interesting issues about what “fiction” is and how it functions in a situation like this. For instance, what do we make of this apology / retraction from the DWP itself:

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It’s a curious phrasing: “… they were illustrative only.” Only as opposed to what? How would one complete the sentence? The most obvious answer is “as opposed to ‘real,'” which leads to a curious collision between realness of the person in question and what wisdom we can take from their example. Or do they mean “as opposed to “evidentiary”? That is, to rephrase it, “These people are not real people but merely examples of how one ought to comport oneself under austerity.”

Further, the changes that the DWP initially made in response to the furore over the fake stories are revelatorily strange in and of themselves. This is from the printed version of the story (more on changes between the print and the evidently revised story available on-line in a minute):

Before the removal of the second version of the leaflet, a spokesman said: “We have temporarily changed the pictures to silhouettes and added a note to make it more clear that these are illustrative examples only. We will test both versions of the factsheet with claimants and external stakeholders to further improve it in the future. This will include working with external organisations.”

That the names can stay, albeit then pinged by explanatory asterisks, but the stock art images have been turned into “silhouettes” is curious too, as if the DWP is probing the limits and lines where a “real (but fake) story” turns into a generic anecdote before turning into, well, simply a non-narrative command. Zac (pictured) says… turns into “Zac” says… on its way to something said without a claimant saying it, what the DWP was trying to say with its fictional sock-puppets all along: We’d like you to thank us for withdrawing your benefits, as it’s for you own good (even if we can’t find any examples of this being the case…) In short, these morphing pseudo-people – who have, in a short period been revised into shadows before disappearing all together – do seem like the appropriate protagonists for austerity policies that have always been buttressed by the anecdotal false-equivalent (the nation is like a household) and the spectral fictional “type” (the welfare queen, the “benefits migrant” etc).

Even the Guardian itself seems a bit confused by the ontological status of these austerity-drunk pseudo-people. Lot’s seems to have been edited from the print version of the story to the one currently posted on-line – almost as if the newspaper had caught a case of revision and re-revision from the DWP itself. In the print version, for instance, this is the third paragraph of the story:

The fictional person called Sarah was quoted as saying that she had lost some of her benefit because she had initially failed to produce a CV. “I didn’t think a CV would help me but my work coach told me that all employers need one. I didn’t have a good reason for not doing it and I was told I’d lose some of my payment,” she said.

But in the version that currently exists on-line, the first line of the paragraph is changed to:

“Sarah” was quoted as saying that she had lost some of her benefit because she had initially failed to produce a CV.

Whether these un- or pseudo- people are “fictional person[s] called” X or Y or they are just names encased in scare-quotes or locked in a rictus grin of clip art compliance, they are the secret sharers, it seems to me, of those letraset (and post-letraset) people that appear in advertisements for new real estate developments who have been an obsession of mine for a long time.

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Just as our speculative economy seems to be populated by these shadowy denizens of luxury flats that are always on the verge of opening, often never literally present in their concrete and glass inventions, perhaps the DWP’s fictional protagonists are an in a eerie sense a spectral “reserve army of labour” haunting the real reserve army. Instead of the idealised “model workers” and “new men” of socialism, we are beginning to live in a world of model victims of precarity – those Zacs and Sarahs who thank the government for withdrawing their dole to teach them a lesson about the value of updating their CVs and who thank the DWP for allowing them “time off” to visit the hospital.

In this sense, the propaganda of the institutions of austerity darkly echoes Brecht’s joke in his poem Die Lösung:

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In this case, rather than electing another “people,” the DWP has gone ahead and composed one out of clip art and generic names.

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August 19, 2015 at 10:31 am

ads without an audience / an audience without ads

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From Choire Sicha’s review of Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future in the current Bookforum

Put most simply: “The primary business of digital networking has come to be the creation of ultrasecret mega-dossiers about what others are doing, and using this information to concentrate money and power.” There is, quite literally, no future in this for almost any of us. Apart from this sprawling system of digital vampirism, publishing in general (books and newspapers especially) has taken a major hit from technological change—as did, you know, the lives of people who made cars and worked in offices. (The number of people in the labor force in America has now returned to the levels of the late 1970s, also known as the heyday of postwar economic malaise.) Colleges may very well be next—Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen said earlier this year that “higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse.” So might various science industries, or home health care, or international shipping, or taxi drivers, or accountants, or who knows what. We can each in turn go to our deaths giving away our value for some other entity’s benefit while working in industries that are losing their value as well, all for someone else’s disruption game.

The “creation of ultrasecret mega-dossiers” which, of course, as of now are generally used to fuel logarithms in order to serve us up ads on the websites that we visit to see the very stuff that no one’s being paid to produce anymore. As Sicha notes, this process has or threatens to put us all out of work: the media, artists, writers, and next educators, scientists, health care workers, shippers, taxi drivers, accountant – the list heads off toward encompassing just about everyone employed in post-industrial first world society.  (Even the bankers and hedgefunders are turning into machine minders and point of sale contact assistants).

But of course, there’s a massive historical irony haunting this process – one that is both very old and utterly new. The value of these universal archives of marketing-friendly information declines as the general financial welfare of the population declines – it’s useless running ads for those without money to spend, and the system itself threatens to make us all into just that. The situation takes the shape of a national or global version of the Walmart that moves into a rural town, undercuts the local shops, destroys the livelihoods of those that live town, and eventually is left with no one to sell to and thus closes up shop.

The situation feels ripe for the emergence of some sort of new, post-modern Fordism, where it dawns on the information industries that they themselves need to maintain some sort of consumer base to sell to, just as Henry Ford realised that if his own workers couldn’t buy his cars, there wouldn’t be many customers left over to sell to. If not, it seems we’re tending towards the situation in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, where the ads somehow keep rolling, even though there’s barely anyone left to view them.

 

Relatedly, a strange situation is emerging at the intersection of internet technologies and television. See this post by Jessica Lessin, which I found via a David Carr article in the New York Times.

For more than a year, Apple has been seeking rights from cable companies and television networks for a service that would allow users to watch live and on-demand television over an Apple set-top box or TV.

Talks have been slow and proceeding in fits and starts, but things seem to be heating up.

In recent discussions, Apple told media executives it wants to offer a “premium” version of the service that would allow users to skip ads and would compensate television networks for the lost revenue, according to people briefed on the conversations.

Consumers, of course, are already accustomed to fast-forwarding through commercials on their DVRs, and how Apple’s technology differs is unclear.

It is a risky idea. Ad-skipping would disrupt the entrenched system of television ratings—the basis for buying TV ads. In fact, television broadcasters sued Dish Network when it introduced similar technology last year.

On the other hand, it is no secret that fewer and fewer people are watching commercials thanks to DVRs; networks may very well be eager to make, rather than lose, money off the practice.

It is a “risky idea,” for both parties, but what is interesting is that the added loops of the situation bring to the fore some of the strange effects that I’d like to label the “metaphysics of advertising.” (I’m following from Marx’s description of the commodity in the section of Capital on commodity fetishism – “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (italics mine).

At any rate, in the case of the television negotiations, the advertisement is there at once to bring to market the value of the customers’ eyeballs, but also as a sort of ransom-able distraction from the content itself. I.e. one side pays to put them in, the other side pays to have them taken away. In a sense, we’re drawing close to the situation I blogged about yesterday with what I called the “Sisyphusian capitalism” of Goldman Sachs’s entry into the commodity handling business, where they draw a rent simply by slowing an economic process down. Could one imagine a situation where the advertisements are included solely so that they might be destroyed? 

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July 30, 2013 at 9:58 am

the talking cure: ads that speak back

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I remember, as a kid, having several books of BASIC programs, mostly games, that I could dutifully type into my IBM PC, save on a a floppy to play again and again. One of them, which I remember intrigued me at the time, was called Eliza, which according to Wikipedia, is

a computer program and an early example of primitive natural language processing. ELIZA operated by processing users’ responses to scripts, the most famous of which was DOCTOR, a simulation of a Rogerian psychotherapist. Using almost no information about human thought or emotion, DOCTOR sometimes provided a startlingly human-like interaction. ELIZA was written at MIT by Joseph Weizenbaumbetween 1964 and 1966.

The outcome would look something like this:

The implicit joke at work with Eliza is that one of the easiest conversational models to simulate would be that of the classic psychoanalyst, the content of whose speech is (proverbially) meant to be meaningless. Rather it’s only the reflective form of the speech (“Can you elaborate on that?” “What do you mean by that?”) that matters. The therapist turns every statement of the patient’s into an opportunity to ask another question – and in particular meta-questions about the meaning of the meaning. (“Do you like talking about yourself?”)

The video at the top of the post is a pitch from a company called Nuance, best known for its Dragon speech-recognition software, to develop voice-recognition and -response driven ads for mobile devices. Of course, most of us are all too-familiar with this sort of mechanical conversation from dealing with our banks and utilities, as installing a robot to hear and respond to us, find us the department that we need to be in touch with (or, more often it seems to me, find a way of confusing us away from the proper department).

But what seems to me interesting, however, about all of this is the way that the things I’ve posted above relate to one another. (Of course, there are several famous episodes in the history of advertising that render the relationshop between it and psychoanalysis rather clear, starting with the fact that the “father of modern public relations,” Edward Bernays, was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, and certainly wasn’t afraid to bring his uncle’s ideas to bear upon his own work.) Listen to the Nuance video again. It seems to me significant – even (we might almost say) psychoanalytically significant – that in both of the “sample” applications of their software, the computer-driven voice digresses into pseudo-therapeutic responses on its way to the delivery of the product message. In the case of the florist ad, it’s the “Of course you don’t!” as an answer to the revelation of the husband’s ignorance, whereas in the deodorant pitch, it’s the bizarrely chirpy wish-fulfilment about “This is America.”

What else, in the end, is a computer going to do as it makes conversation with us, other than provide a pseudo-therapeutic sounding board? But given that that’s the “selling point” of the technology on offer, it’s almost as if the ultimate point of the ad – the delivery of the commercial message – comes as a non sequitur interruption, rather than the other way around, as is especially clear in the deodorant ad above (“And while you’re at it…”). After all, it’s not the ability to deliver the product pitch that the company is selling as an innovation. It’s the calming but uncanny banter that is meant to disinhibit the potential consumer, to get her or him to “open up” the mind and ultimately the wallet.

It’s hard not to see Nuance’s sample responses, driven we might imagine by conversational algorithms not vastly more complicated than ELIZA’s, as subtly demonstrating the deep formal relationship between the two modes of discourse at play. So, on the one hand, the computerized conversations above gesture towards the sort of content-free “idle talk” that characterises certain versions of therapeutic discourse. On the other – and of more interest to me – the form of the Nuance exercise also reflects the deep affinities of advertising with psychoanalysis, as both quest for a) an understanding of what the patient/customer “really wants” and b) a means to spur the patient/customer on to the fulfilment of that want.

At any rate, as some of you might guess, I am going to try to get some work done this summer on my long-deferred “advertising” project. True to this post, what is of most interest to me is the strange relationship between the functional and aesthetic aspects of advertising –  i.e. an analysis of the parts of advertising that aren’t the direct product pitch, the announcement of details / utility / price. In a sense, we’re used to moving in the other direction in our considerations of the “aesthetic.” That is, we find a case of it and then we work to show the material underpinnings of its emergence. Advertising forces us to work the other way around. We take the functionality of the work as primary, but then its all of the supplementary, ostensibly not-directly-functional elements that stand as a mysterious remainder. (As you might further guess, the project would be reflexively anti-Adornoian from the start. Or maybe that’s not the right way to put it. It’s bound up with this thinking, put attempts to walk the path in the other direction. Or perhaps in the same direction, but backwards…) We intuitively understand, in other words, that they want to sell us deodorant. The question is why they and we need the conversation with the computer in order for them to do that. 

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April 29, 2013 at 11:13 am

“not a particular one, but just some ad with beautiful young people in it having fun”

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From Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which I’m rereading to teach this week. The protagonist is sitting at a coffee place in Soho and is watching people on Old Compton Street outside:

They reminded me of an ad – not a particular one, but just some ad with beautiful young people in it having fun. The people in the street now had the same ad in mind as me. I could tell. In their gestures and their movements they acted out the roles of the ad’s characters: the way they turned around and walked in one direction while still talking in another, how they threw their heads back when they laughed, the way they let their mobiles casually slip into their low-slung trouser pockets. Their bodies and faces buzzed with glee, exhilaration – a jubilant awareness that for once, just now, at this particular right-angled intersection, they didn’t have to sit in the cinema or living room in front of a TV and watch other beautiful people laughing and hanging out: they could be beautiful young people themselves. See? Just like me: completely second hand.

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March 6, 2012 at 5:44 pm

dfw, bureaucracy, left sexiness, etc

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Excited to be writing up a review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. And even more excited to be able to say that the politics of this unfinished novel are at once incredibly subtle but utterly profound – exactly the right answer to so much that has gone wrong lately and continues to go wrong today. Won’t scoop myself by telling you just how this works, here, but for a quick preview of the sorts of things that I am thinking about, and that I think Wallace was thinking about as he wrote this, let me point you to some old posts. First, if you’re interested, take a look at this one on bureaucracy. Second, here’s the final paragraph of my critique of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and its about bureaucracy:

On the final pages of the book, when Mark addresses the question “What is to be done?,” one of his primary suggestions is that the left focus on the reduction of bureaucracy – a suggestion that certainly seems to correspond with the evidence and analysis that he provides throughout. Still, and given what I’ve said above, it is a suggestion that is not without a significant amount of danger. For while we would all like to do less of this maddening bureaucratic work, and while much of this bureaucratic work is aimed ultimately at the cynical reduction of public service in the name of efficiency, there are more pernicious (and more likely) paths to the reduction of bureaucracy than leftist agitation and refunding. I know I’ve focused disproportionately on education in this post, but just one more time: I’m sure, for instance, that the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA would love to give the Tories a hand at straightening out the UK further and higher education systems and their reams of paperwork once they get in office… Or, as will likely be the case, the Conservative government (or pre-emptive Labour) can allow universities to set their own student fees, which will let “students decide” with their increasingly empty wallets and increasingly large student loans how the funds are apportioned rather than a board of bureaucrats monitoring the self-monitoring of the academics.

Anyway, hopefully if you’re interested you’ll see the review one way or another.

A side point,perhaps a controversial one:

Sort of frustrating situation nowadays amongst what we might call the youngish writing left. Here’s the problem: I’m continually tempted to write something longer on bureaucracy. I have a feeling (obviously you can disagree!) that I’m on to something with this line of argument – perhaps even something like an important “rebranding” of some words whose usage allows for a considerable amount of political mayhem to go on ostensibly with the support of the public. If it doesn’t deal with vibrators and porn, or zombie movies and eco-distaster, or moody depressive pop music, or dumbish sci-fi, pubic hair styles, or some sort of (in the extreme case) blinkered souixante-huitardism it doesn’t feel as though there’s a tremendous amount of market space for it. In other words, let’s say (just play along with me for a second) that one has a hunch that she or he has a good answer to some of the current problems and impasses, but that that answer, in the end, is somewhat boring or even utterly unsexy.

More deeply, one might have a secondary sense that the above referenced themes give themselves on to bad political arguments – arguments that seem to me to have lots more in common with the worst trends in the status quo than anything else. (Left feminist works that mostly spend almost all of their energies hating on women, works “against capitalism” that argue – to my eyes – against the same institutions that capitalists would love to destroy, etc…) (Zizek and Badiou, if complexly in the case of the later, do seem like the bad influences that had set a lot of this in motion…) In short, it starts to seem that somehow the instinct or decision to take up “sexy” lines of approach or themes leads to shit arguments… In particular, in almost none of the cases that I’m referencing here is their the slightest hint behind the attitudinizing and easy critique of a path forward, the simplest step to be taken – at least, again, ones that haven’t already been part and parcel of the right’s approach already (per what I say about Capitalist Realism above…)

I’ve heard all the arguments about “sexing up socialism,” and definitely agree that there’s some serious PR work to be done. But somehow, the current atmosphere seems incompatible with going about things the right way. Maybe I’m wrong, being a bit defeatist about things, but it is the sense that I have.

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April 17, 2011 at 10:40 am

“give yourself an enema…”

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Quite something this:

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April 2, 2011 at 12:00 pm