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Just to start: my father worked for a consumer products company, one that made biscuits and the like. Cookies, crackers, breakfast cereals, that sort of thing. And when I was a small boy, he used to say to me, in that cryptic way that dads often distribute nuggets of gnomic wisdom, things like: “See that cereal that you’re eating? Do you know that when mum pays for that, mostly what she’s paying for is the box.”

What he meant is that the cereal (or cookies or what have you) itself was incredibly inexpensive to manufacture. (Or, as his company always called it, to “bake.” They had bakeries, not factories.) Most of what it cost the company to bring their goods to market and to sell them on that market went into PR – the design of the packaging, the composition of the ad campaigns, and of course the price to place the advertisements where they appeared. When you buy the Corn Flakes, mostly you’re paying for the iconic rooster on the box, etc.

And so: today, from a Huck Magazine post, which seems to be inspired by Paul Mason’s new book, called “Five postcapitalist projects that offer a blueprint of a new world.”

When was the last time you saw an encyclopaedia? Upsetters Wikipedia have destroyed the old model of profiting from information by locking it away and charging people to access it. Wikipedia not only allows anyone to read for free, but its open editing has allowed it to grow faster than a commercial operation ever could and its advertising-free setup is believed to deprive the ad industry of $3 billion per year. See also: Wikileaks who are using open source principles to revolutionise access to information and hold governments to account.

There is something – and something I’ve long been preoccupied with on this blog – incredibly strange about one of the sentences in this paragraph. It is this one: Wikipedia not only allows anyone to read for free, but its open editing has allowed it to grow faster than a commercial operation ever could and its advertising-free setup is believed to deprive the ad industry of $3 billion per year. 

If you want to see the face of the new, or not really that new but at least burgeoning drive to establish new enclosures of the commons, it is visible here. There’s an odd mysticism, or dark metaphysics, that is at play. Wikipedia, in providing content without advertisements, is actually stealing away or squandering income that might have been derived, in private hands, from advertisements or sales. Which, in a certain sense  – a sense highly palpable if, say, you were the owner of the failing Encyclopaedia Britannica business – would seem pressingly true.

But of course it is not true, not in the least. No more than the fresh air that we breathe is stealing from the possible fresh air companies that might be formed to sell it to us, or the water we drink is stealing from corporations that, improbably, bottle the same stuff that comes out of our taps only to label it and sell it back to us for prices that are often higher than petrol. (Oh wait…)

But while (fortunately) the Britannica people didn’t, it seems, have the money to fight the market encroachment of the Wikipedians nor, perhaps, a leg to stand on argumentatively, this sort of attack on the state sector – in this case not as inefficient but as all too efficient – has become increasingly prevalent of late. The entire funding crisis at the BBC is grounded in attacks of this sort. There’s the kiss of death logic of the “If it’s popular, it’s beyond their remit to show it” argument. Strictly Come Dancing or Wimbledon could well be generating profits for Sky or someone else, and besides, they actually make people feel like the license fee isn’t such a bad deal after all.

But it’s not just the BBC that’s targeted by this “logic.” There’s a gathering storm regarding higher education “state monopolies” and the mystifying message that they’re blocking access to the “market” through their accreditation  cartels. It’s further absolutely clear that the animus against the NHS that exists amongst many Tories is equally based on anti-welfare-state ideas and the sense that there is big money to be made, that’s currently not being made, in the business of medicine. I’m sure if the cost of housing wasn’t so absurdly and eye-wateringly high, we’d be hearing attacks on the few vestiges of social housing left here and in America for inciting “market distortion.” And there are undoubtedly loads of bureaucratically subterranean aspects of the state sector, here and abroad, that are suffering from the same sorts of sorties.

Cynical ploys all of them, and in that sense no more interesting than any of the other hypocritical, fallacious, or just plain cruel attacks on the state sector than any of the others that we’ve seen during our age of austerity. But there is one thing that’s perhaps a bit interesting, as it’s a bit complex, about them.

In addition to the pretext of this line of argument, that state entities suck up market share without generating profit from it, there is an important subtext as well. Namely, that advertising costs us nothing. That is, of course it costs the corporations that advertise, but for the end user of the content that is funded by advertising, it is free.

This, of course, is little discussed. Certainly the media men aren’t going to bring it up. When Murdoch and his lobbying minions and PR flacks say, for instance, that “the BBC is a publicly funded entity that partially destroys our ability to sell advertising,” they of course never continue on to say, “advertising, that given the price that is paid for it, obviously must extract a huge amount of capital out of those that would be watching our channels instead of the BBC.”

When you ride on public transportation, that the bus interior or the carriage of the train is festooned with advertisements, does it cost you money, beyond the fare, to do so? Does it cost you money to use gmail, given all of those little ads that you ignore (but, we can assume, someone’s not ignoring them) on the sidebar? How much more does your newspaper cost you, given all of the car and mobile phone and supermarket advertisements that you find inside of it? How much do you spend, beyond the satellite bill and / or license fee, on spending a night in in front of the television?

I’m absolutely positive that corporations sometimes waste money on advertising, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve never clicked through a “sponsored ad” on Google. But on the other hand – they simply can’t be dumping all of that money, can’t have been dumping, for ages, all of that money, if someone, somehow, isn’t making it back in profit. If Wikipedia is running content that otherwise could generate $3 billion per year, then presumably the attention captured by this content, if not in the hands of the Wikipedias, is worth at least $3 billion per year to the companies that would have been advertising on these sites.

It all, it seems to me, goes back to what my father used to tell me all those years ago. “Mostly the price of the Cornflakes is the box of the Cornflakes.” What I’d like to work on (although sometimes it seems to me to be potentially a project of Kapital-like demands on my brain-power and time, neither of which I have at this point) is a study of just this quasi-mystical value equation. What does the ad before the YouTube video cost us to watch? What would we “save” were the ad not there, were YouTube a public institution rather than an arm of a massive profit-seeking corporation? 

I want to do this because I’ve long believed that the leap from Why not ads on the side of the bus to Let’s dismantle the remains of the welfare state is not only a short one, it’s one in which each step is informed by the selfsame logic. That is, it’s informed by a deep misapprehension about the value of the commons and the sort of life that is lived on them.

UPDATE: Armando Ianucci is on the case this morning in the Guardian

“It’s Facebook and Google who came along and ate up all newspapers’ classified ads. Yet it’s the BBC, who run no ads, that gets the blame, while it’s Google and Facebook that get the helpful tax arrangements from HMRC.”

While on the other hand, in the same paper on the same day, we have Sturgeon and the SNP showing her/its true colours:

“One of the things the last 12 months has demonstrated is that the old model of public service broadcasting – important though I think it is – doesn’t work well enough. It no longer reflects the complex, varied and rich political and social realities of the UK.”

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August 27, 2015 at 12:07 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

“new possibilities emerging from riots and abandoned construction sites”

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It’s hard for me to understand how anybody reads this sort of thing as anything other than a strange form of ad copy, a surreptitious pro-bono for the forces of gentrification themselves:

But after the cameras have gone, as the recession grinds on and the Eurozone spirals further into meltdown how will the Lea Valley look in 2013? 2013 is Year Zero, it signifies the beginning of new spaces opening up, of new possibilities emerging from riots and abandoned construction sites. The Masterplan will be eroded by the persistence of nature and the desire of the young to take back territory from the overarching boredom of the Westfield aesthetic . . . I imagine stalled housing projects, empty flats in yuppiedromes across the capital reactivated. I envisage stadia and velodromes covered in ivy, occupied and surrounded by transient and nomadic architecture, like Constant’s New Babylon, moving cities, interlinking, nomadic structures. I think this new ‘park’, the result of a corporate land grab, will, after the two weeks of televized spectacle, return to the physical reality of the wilderness.

It’s the same effect as Ballard – although I rather think that Ballard was far more fully aware of the dialectical perversity of his work than Ford is. A block of posh condos, a new megamall of the periphery, the traffic-locked Westway – all of these things become more interesting when someone encourages us to imagine them as anteriorly or futuraly haunted by outbursts of primal sex, violent agitation, or eroticised Michael Bay-type fireballs. Did you think Ballard was critiquing these things, given how appealing you find them in their gory transfigured forms? No more than marketing firms are critiquing the products they shill. Cars are more interesting – and thus more salable – when their utilitarian functionality receives, via the ad campaign, some Bukkake shots of sex and death, when they’re rolling you around the end of the world scenes of late capitalism.

Think about it: what if Ballard wrote a novel about what really goes on in the up-market high rise? And what if those who are selling the condos and buy-to-lets couldn’t rely on the residual grime as both an edgy selling point, a marker of victorious progress, and a feigned tell that the punter is going to get a very good deal indeed. The logic of the paragraph above is the very logic of gentrification – the edgy is valued as authentic but also as a good investment. The fact that the Lea Valley was first encountered by the artist “through the rave scene of the early 90s” is a consumer testimonial, might as well be a part of a branding operation.

In truth, the reality will be, I imagine, much more boring than in the quotation above. Flats will fill Stratford, the mall will continue to expand, the fringe areas nearby will be swallowed, until school catchments and distance from the transport hubs put a cap on the encroachment. There won’t be squatters – no more than there are in Canary Wharf. But in our flats – after all, “we” are the demographic who are meant to occupy these things, right? – paintings of the previous inhabitants, wasted ravers, decorative drunks at a shitty bar, post-coital squatters in dirty bedrooms, empty bottles and over-flowing ashtrays, will hang on each and every reception room wall.

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August 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm

proper noun = brand

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From Al Ries and Laura Ries’s The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding:

A brand name is nothing more than a word in the mind, albeit a special kind of word. A brand name is a noun, a proper now, which like all proper nouns is usually spelled with a capital letter.

Any and every proper noun is a brand whether or not it’s owned by an individual, a corporation, or a community. Patagonia is a brand name for a clothing line, but’s also a brand name for the tourist industries of Argentina and Chile interested in promoting travel to this pristine and beautiful place. Philadelphia is a brand name for the leading cream cheese, but it’s also a brand name for the city of brotherly love.

Any proper noun is a brand. You are a brand (And if you want to be truly successful in life, you should consider yourself a brand and act accordingly).

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May 18, 2011 at 11:17 am

Posted in ads

“imported from detroit”: superbowl ads

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I know this sort of thing has been done before… But what a conceptually tangled if viscerally stirring ad spin here. The usual American car marketing jingoism gets translated into a half-coherent riff about uneven internal development and productivist aesthetics. Check out, for instance, the strange pseudo-Ruskinism mixed with rust belt exoticism in “Because when it comes to luxury, it’s as much about where it’s from as who it’s for.” As well as, of course, the tag line of the ad as a whole, “Imported from Detroit.”

Most of the other ads from last night are banal crap. * But in ones like Chrysler’s, complete with the somnolent semi-logic of lines like the above, it is interesting to see what they dream that we are or could be dreaming.

On the other hand, quite funny that Chrysler is increasingly owned by Fiat, and so a more accurate ad would be about the politics and finance of one post-industrial city buying another via the mediation of the US government….

* All that I’ve found that was even mildly interesting is the Audi spot that seemed to position itself as the car of choice for slightly less twittish upperclass twits. And I suppose there’s something to be said about the Motorola ad, itself a winking sendup of Apple’s very famous 1984-themed ad that aired in 1984.

Of course there is an interesting difference between the two versions. If the stakes of corporate conflict translated into consumer choice once was registered in terms of the political thematics of Orwell’s novel (the subversion of IBM as the subversion of the totalitarian state), now buying a MotoPad vs. an iPad is allegorized through the minor key romantic plot of the novel. And even in doing so, diminished stakes again: instead of a righteous fuck in the woods, the best we can hope for is a Youtube video goofily edited into an electronic Valentine’s Day Card which leads this Julia not to drop her overalls but merely to take out her earbuds.

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February 7, 2011 at 9:21 am


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From a review at The Millions of Public Enemies, “the record of twenty-eight letters Bernard-Henri Levy, the French intellectual, and Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist, exchanged between January and July of 2008″:

Some readers will be stirred by the discovery that BHL considers his “ego” “fireproof, shatterproof,” and that he likes to make love in a state of lucid wakefulness, whereas Houellebecq prefers to be a little out of it—to do it in “the early hours, half asleep.” Others (all, perhaps) will be amused by the sheer Frenchness of BHL’s claim that only writing and love (“and I mean that in the strict sense, in the sense of loving women”) make life worth it: “Why do you write? Because you can’t make love all day. Why do you make love? Because you can’t write all day.”

Okay…. But this is better, in an ads without products sort of way:

[Houellebecq] describes the “Soviet-style displays of enthusiasm by those in charge” of little poetry journals and, more stingingly still, the prose of another writer:

Everything about the man rings false, his every sentence oozes speciousness and affectation. The restrained emotion, the walks across the moors ‘lashed by the bitter wind’ . . . you feel like you’re in a BMW commercial.

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February 2, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Posted in ads, houellebecq