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ads in sum

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Spending my Saturday rushing a bit to write… a paper that in a sense will encapsulate quite a bit of the argument of this blog over the years. (I mean especially when I was writing posts about things rather than simply being moody and attitudinal…) Luckily, looking back through my posts on the topic, I’m finding quite a lot of the paper pre-written. Perhaps I’ll post some bits of it up here, new stuff, as I go along and you can reassemble my talk at home…

But for now, let me repost one of the greatest ads ever made, something I know I’ve posted about four times already:

As I’ve said before, the ad

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…)

Until today, I hadn’t considered the very opening shot – where she is woken up by the shaking glass of water – is playing on a disaster / crisis trope that’s very 2003. Something’s happened out there… And indeed it has – but not the thing that most media were trying to get us to worry about circa 2003. And it further occurs to me today that there’s something more to it than I wrote in the earlier post that brings into the picture something quite uncanny. The conflict, yes. And while the ad is focalized through the Americans’ experience of the confrontation, at the same time it’s utterly clear that the ad isn’t taking sides, isn’t picking a winner… Or, really, if there is a prediction in play, it has to go with the Chinese, who can do all that while the Americans have nothing to counter it with but attitude and haircuts. All this mirrors the fact that the corporation that produced it is hedging its bets between its old marketing base and the booming new markets of Asia, their burgeoning new urban middle classes. The ad was in fact shown both in the USA and China in the run-up to the 2003 Women’s World Cup, thus the dual language titles at the end…. The very fact that Adidas could and would make an ad for both markets is significant subtext of the ad itself, and informs the unsettling strangeness of its content. We still see the world through your eyes, America, but the fact of the matter is that this might be about to change.

Anyway, exciting stuff. Perhaps I ought to write the hard stuff now about Marcuse and Marxism and Bernays and the rest. Tempting to fill up the entire thing with unmediated ad clips that simply tell the whole story I’m trying to tell… Hmmm… Not avanty enough for that, I don’t think. And my wife’s going to come to the paper, at least if the babysitter accomodates, so I’d like to make it, you know, good.

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February 27, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Posted in ads, america, china

handke / letraset

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Handke does advert-people a few times in TWoftheW:

Walking across the city. In the gaps left open by the masses of cars there are still a few isolated individuals, ashen pale or flushed, in incompatible states, and these people have subjected themselves to politics or world history, and amid the technological din they go around posing (like the figures shown in architectural drawings) at the foot of gigantic buildings, which are the essential while they are mere incidentals; moving through this catastrophe as through an underground hangar, I try to breathe everything in through my eyes, to preserve within me the forlorness of these people.

Here’s another:

Advertisements for houses in artificial villages (“domaines“). The accompanying sketches show the latest conception of paradise: a father beaming from ear to ear as he strolls down a garden path with a child on his shoulders; slanting beach umbrellas; outside the house, slim young men arrange chairs for a party: “Here you will live from year’s end to year’s end as if you were on vacation” (none of the figures in these sketches has both feet on the ground – they are much too happy for that)

Brilliant, that last parenthetical bit. Hard to say just where the interest in these figures comes from, though I’ve tried before. One shouldn’t talk about fiction in general trying to do things, i.e. awarding the genre itself with desires and aspirations, but I do believe / pretend that it has been trying to enact a nearly impossible foreground / background reversal for quite awhile now. These ad-people

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January 12, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Posted in ads, aggregate, fiction, handke

“it would be wonderful if we became part of a socialist chain”

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Last night, the wife and I were watching Mad Men S3E10 when, at a certain point, she turned to me and whispered: I think you missed your calling. Of course she’s right, in a sense. Or lots of senses – what she was referring to in particular, given the scene at hand, was the fact that the boys at Sterling Cooper drink their way through their “creative” work all day… And, um, let’s not go into that now.

But it is true that I have long harbored a very real fantasy of working in advertising. Mad Men isn’t helping, nor is the fact that people think it’s quite funny / apt to compare me to Don Draper (Americano-effect over here in part…), but the fantasy extends way back before this program first aired. (Check the title of this blog, just for instance….) I doubt that I could ever leave the soul-protecting fortress of public sector work, and advertising is awful, right? To try to get into the business in an ethical and politically-useful way would probably be as successful as all of those friends of mine who went to law school,  you know, in order to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center, and now defend white collar criminals in Washington.

So forget the career change, I guess… Definitely going to write a book about advertising, one way or another, once I’m done with the Monster. Advertising and socialism. But then again….

In the third season of Mad Men, one of the major subplots involves Don Draper meeting, befriending, and then getting a contract to work for Conrad Hilton, the eccentric founder of the Hilton Hotels chain. (It hadn’t occurred to me until just this minute that Conrad Hilton is Paris Hilton’s great-grandfather. Hmmm… Nice touch, Mad Men writers…) Hilton has messianic hopes for the chain, believing that it is in itself an materialized advertisement for the virtues of American capitalism vs. the austerity of the godless Communist menace. Don does his damnedest to deal with his increasingly weird client, but eventually just stops trying under the pressure and instead turns his attentions to an affair with a clingy local school teacher instead.

Well and good. But today I read in this in the Guardian:

What used to be the Caracas Hilton today soars over Venezuela’s capital as a bold symbol of Hugo Chávez’s leftist revolution, a 36-storey, state-run declaration of intent.

The government took it over from the US hotel chain two years ago as part of a sweep towards greater state economic control. Renamed Alba – “dawn” in Spanish and also the acronym of Chávez’s regional alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas – the hotel hosts summits which condemn US imperialism and chart a brighter, leftist future.

“We are the first socialist hotel but hopefully not the last,” said Katiuska Camaripano, its general manager.

Last week it acquired a sister: the government seized the Hilton on Margarita island, Venezuela’s tourist playground. It had angered Chávez during a meeting of African leaders he hosted at the hotel. “The owners tried to impose conditions on the revolutionary government. No way. So I said, ‘Let’s expropriate it.’ And now it’s been expropriated.”

A presidential decree transferred its assets, including 280 rooms, 210 suites, shops, restaurants and a casino to the tourism ministry. A Hilton spokeswoman said the chain was “evaluating” the government’s action.

Now that’s the spirit! Chavez does have a knack of fulfilling fantasies of mine.   And check it out: red branding!

The state’s Margarita acquisition may also be renamed Alba, consolidating the brand name. Venezuela has also partly funded a small Alba hotel in Managua, capital of its leftist ally Nicaragua, said Camaripano. “It would be wonderful if we became part of a socialist chain.”

It only gets better from here:

There are some striking changes. Gone are the American and European managers and well-heeled foreign guests who used to snap up jewellery and cosmetics in the shops. Red-clad government officials and Cuban delegations have largely taken their place. “Business is dead. All we’ll sell is chewing gum and antibiotics,” lamented one store owner.

The Italian restaurant now serves more Caribbean fare such as chicken in coconut sauce and cachapa, a corn-based pancake. The gift shop offers a range of ceramic Chávez mugs and sculptures ranging from $20 to $240.

The bookshop which sold glossy magazines and Dan Brown novels has been replaced by a culture ministry outlet offering political tracts such as Transition Towards Socialism and Venezuela: a Revolution Sui Generis.

The titles are all subsidised, with some costing the equivalent of just 50p. “The problem is people buy the books and sell them on for profit,” said Nicola Castilla, the bookshop clerk. “It’s not easy instilling a socialist conscience.”

Jesus! I’m now wondering if Chavez would consider taking over some of those dingy Bloomsbury hotels, which already have a certain circa-1983 Bucharest about them. I’d stop by for cachapas and 50p books every day if he did!

Anyway, on a night when the BBC is hosting fascists on Question Time, nice to have an alternate fantasy – of Alba Hotels everywhere, of ad campaigns in a yet-to-come workers’ paradise – to fall asleep to….

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October 22, 2009 at 10:58 pm

Posted in ads, socialism, teevee

ads without product placement

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Via One-Way Street, Bob McCrum on Alain de Botton’s new gig in the Guardian:

De Botton has taken quite a bit of flak for this assignment, and no doubt some of the abuse will be reheated and thrown at him all over again when his book comes out later this month, but what’s his crime ? Why shouldn’t he accept the BAA shilling? Sure, it’s not Proust or Happiness (two of the themes he has so successfully made his own), but it’s not pornography or racism, either, and – why the hell not? It will be interesting to see if he can rise to the challenge of a seemingly impossible task of writing about check-ins, fast bag drop and airport security. Dickens, no question, would have had a lot of fun with BAA.

Alain de Botton is not Dickens, but in taking this job, he is behaving like a very traditional literary animal. I’m sure there are many other examples of the resilience of literary life in the new world of cyber-publishing, but these three, coming together, do seem to make a trend

Just to be clear, and especially for the benefit of non-UK readers, BAA is a company that owns many of the privatized airports in Britain. It’s neither British Airways (itself privatized in 1987, under Thatcher) nor is it a public entity. It’s owned by the Spanish company Grupo Ferrovial, world-leaders in managing (mismanaging?) formerly public infrastructure. Even the BAA’s name is misleading. While it originally, while still public, stood for “British Airports Authority,” the company now claims that the letters don’t stand for anything at all. In other words, it pays to impersonate a public authority.

Notably BAA has of late been involved in a protracted PR / legal war with climate protestors (actually, the Climate Camp people) who’d rather BAA wasn’t permitted to build a third runway at Heathrow. It’s impossible not to see the De Botton book as the product of some PR firm’s mid-to-highbrow targetted re-branding campaign. Ah, BAA – patrons of the arts, patrons of the nice guy who writes about Proust. And in fact, if the whole thing calls to mind anything, it is a post-privatised version of this wondrous thing:

But of course, Auden and Britten were actually working for the GPO Film Unit when they made Night Mail, and of course again, this was long before the GPO was split into a million privatized and semi-privatized pieces by, yep, Thatcher.

This, of course, is mostly just politics talking, but in my ideal world, not only would Alain de Botton not be shilling CO2 for BAA, but there’d be no BAA Ltd., only the old, public BAA. There’s been a little spate of public organizations going into the publishing business lately, mainly as a sort of fund raising scheme. (I’ve not started reading, but will treasure for a long time, my Royal Parks boxed set of short stories, which I purchased at place I’ve been coming to, albeit far more frequently of late, since the mid-1980s, the restaurant at the end of the Serpentine in Hyde Park…) It’s very very red, but I’m not sure the general decline of prose fiction couldn’t be reversed if all prose was commissioned and paid for by entities like Transport for London and the NHS, the US Mail and, christ, the IRS. At some point (promissory, promissory – forgive me, for I am soooo tired), I’ll try to write about the aesthetic effect that such a development might possibly have.

On the other hand, what De Botton’s up to is just what it is – providing a profit hungry corporation with a bit of good PR, all dressed up as if it were simply a matter of one of the purest things on earth – infrastructural enthusiasm.

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September 1, 2009 at 11:34 pm

the opposite of branded, didactic by accident, impersonal bread

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Print Magazine has a short feature on the Aldi supermarket chain, which it refers to at one point as a “Modernist 99-cent store.” Unfortunately, I can’t find it online, but I’ll type a bit of it up. The person talking in the quotes is “Susan Sellers, partner at the design firm 2X4.”

But once inside the sliding glass doors, we are surrounded by piles – literally piles – of food. Unbranded, unrecognizable, stacked on shipping pallets and in cardboard boxes. No yellow wall of Cheerios, just “toasted oats” on brown boxes: one size, one brand, for almost half the price. No freezers of Ben & Jerry’s, just giant tubs of chocolate and vanilla.

We feel lost.

“Maybe [they] don’t understand that here in the U.S., generic packaging – Helvetica, white, that sort of thing – has this association with the opposite of branded,” Sellers says.

She takes a loaf of bread, swaddled in cellophane, off an eight-crate-high rack. “This is efficient, but it isn’t simple enough to convey freedom from chaos.”

[…]

“Trader Joe’s is about cheap stuff too, but they cultivate a personality. The aesthetic is folksy – like Southwest Airlines – friendly. They wear those Hawaiian shirts. The food is messily displayed. You go there on a Saturday; it’s a madhouse. That’s the Trader Joe’s lifestyle: ideosyncractic, organic.”

Aldi, however, operates with choice-free efficiency. “That’s their biggest gesture: eliminating choice,” Sellers says, ringing up her hot dog buns, veggie chips, pretzels, sugar, and bananas, to the tune of $14.15. “But they’re not in command of the message. It’s didactic by accident.”

I love the bit where the unmarked loaf of bread isn’t “simple” enough, that it doesn’t convey a message (the semi-Orwellian “freedom from chaos” is great too). And I also love the use of the word “personality,” and the implication that Aldi lacks one.

Of course it’s just a marketting come on / business plan, but that doesn’t mean that better things can’t shine through it! Where do you think the productive contradictions are and will be produced, if not in supermarket business plans and customers, well, voting with their feet and the eyes attached! I think we let the Aldi people run the Mosselprom Mini-Markets after the worst is over and better has started up.

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July 18, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Posted in ads, simplicity

lorem ipsumism: ballard and ads

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Rick McGrath is very good today at Ballardian on JGB and advertising. I especially like the bits about the lorem ipsumy dummy text. Here’s Ballard as quoted by McGrath:

The pages from the ‘Project For A New Novel’ were made at a time when I was working on a chemical society journal in London, and the lettering was taken from the US magazine Chemical and Engineering News — I liked the stylish typography. I also like the scientific content, and used stories from Chem. Eng. News to provide the text of my novel. Curiously enough, far from being meaningless, the science news stories somehow become fictionalized by the headings around them.

Dummy text – full-dummy or semi-dummy – is such a tantalizing concept and resource. Bouvard and Pécuchet’s copybook, automatic writing, collage, madmen cutting up letters to send to the coppers, flarf, the porn novels that come out of the machines that Julia works in 1984, even in a sense FID when taken to some sort of logical extreme all partake of the vertiginous promise of the lorem ipsum. It’s something like Barthes’s reality effect, that barometer (“Flaubert’s barometer, Michelet’s little door finally say nothing but this: we are the real; it is the category of ‘the real’ [and not its contingent contents] which is then signified”) sublated to the level of text itself, while at the same time resisting this sublation as it never feels banally real in the manner of the fictional detail.

As Rick McGrath says elsewhere in his piece:

Designed to be viewed from moving cars (Ballardian in itself), billboards offer the advertiser the benefits of a very large message, but the disadvantage of greatly reduced viewing time. Three to five seconds is the average length of time an individual has to scan a billboard, and this feat has to be accomplished in moving traffic. In order to compensate, successful billboard ads rely on strong, simple visuals and to-the-point messages. No one is going to drive around the block for a second view. It immediately becomes apparent that ‘Project For A New Novel’ breaks these rules by its sheer volume of words and complex, unbalanced layout — as well as the fact it seems to make no sense, offers no brand, no benefits, and no indication of how to respond. But that may be the point, as ‘Project’ is a quasi-surreal piece vaguely reminiscent of the ‘cut-up’ technique used by W.S. Burroughs. This same technical problem was identified by Ballard’s friend and Ambit editor, Dr. Martin Bax, ‘Most of the text you can’t read because when you see things on billboards you don’t read the small print, so the text is deliberately blurred — you can only read the headlines and some remarks.’

But of course that’s cheating, making it too small to be read at speed. It’s cheating because it makes the text into a mere image. The true lorem ipsumist aim is to actually get someone to read the stuff, to convince ourselves to read it, not out of sadism or masochism, but because one has a sense that something’s there if you could just figure out the right way to read it. And we’re not talking divination here. We’re talking in fact the exact opposite of divination.

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May 4, 2009 at 9:36 pm

the mystical physiology of advertising

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Interesting article in the NYT about an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs on French TV advertising.
But one thing in it has left me intrigued and confused. The guy speaking in the following paragraph is the “chief creative officer for Havas, the country’s second-biggest advertising agency”:

Or as Mr. Séguéla formulated the situation: American commercials go from the head to the wallet, British ones from the head to the heart, French, from the heart to the head. That accounts for why, as in a classic French commercial for Canal Plus, the French pay television station, a man describes a movie about emperor penguins in Antarctica to a woman who pictures hundreds of Napoleons sliding around the ice. Or why, in an ad for Air France, sexy models use clouds as pillows, clearly not dreaming about low fares and on-time departures.

Could be that I’m that I’m again taking throwaway langauge too seriously, but I’d love to understand what all of the head-to-wallet, head-to-heart, heart-to-head stuff really means. The idea that there are national trajectories to ads, or even to the little plots that constitute ads, is too attractive not to wonder about for a bit…

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February 19, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Posted in ads