Benevolent Advertising

by Rob Horning

7 December 2010


Ezra Klein posted recently about the advertising industry that struck me as wrong in several ways. First, Klein cites an anecdote from Ken Auletta’s Googled to make the point that advertising is sort of a scam:

Auletta talks with Mel Karmazin, then the CEO of Viacom. Karmazin is aghast at Google’s campaign to measure the effectiveness of advertising by tallying clicks…: “You don’t want to have people know what works. When you know what works or not, you tend to charge less money than when you have this aura and you’re selling mystique.” It’s more evidence that the greatest advertising campaign of all time was for…advertising.

Klein assumes that if something can’t be measured, it can’t possibly exist—an empiricist fallacy that sees only scams in every invocation of the ineffable. I’m prone to that fallacy too, since so often the pseudo-ineffable is invoked to discourage investigation into class privilege. It’s used by conservatives as a smoke screen to protect the inequities of the status quo. Nevertheless it is arrogantly short-sighted of us, not to mention a sad comment on the hegemony of capitalist modes of instrumental reason, to assume that we have figured out how to measure everything that should count as real. What Karamazin is saying, whether he knows it or not, is that measurement can be a way of reducing the real to what it can capture. It commoditizes “what works,” since what is real is only that which is mechanically repeatable through proven procedures rather than the messy complexity, the irresolvable causality, of actual social and human experience. Not all of the effects of advertising can be quantified, not all of them are direct, not all of them are intentional, not all of them desired by the marketers or the businesses whose products are being touted. Advertising establishes a cultural discourse, and promulgates an entire value system, not about specific products alone, but about how value is conferred in consumer society, legitimizing certain forms of recognition and notoriety and delegitimizing others—it helps convey the idea that identity coheres at the level of goods, and that things that aren’t for sale aren’t “real,” for instance. In other words it promotes the empiricist fallacy, not its own mystique, as Klein argues. It helps to suppress the sort of analysis on the level of signs that must work by intuition, inference, and induction—the analysis that could constitute the basis of resistance to consumerism. 

After dismissing advertising as a giant con, he wants to congratulate the ad industry for supporting the dissemination of information.

The advertising industry was benevolently inefficient. It enabled pretty much every mass information medium we’ve ever had. Newspapers and radio and television and the Internet (Google, Facebook, etc.) are all brought to you by the advertising industry. There’s perhaps no single sector that has done as much to advance human knowledge as the people who sell you soap and cars and soda.

Obviously, what this misses is that ads support only certain kinds of media that correspond with the receptive consumer mind-set they are intended to instill. Not all commercial media is entirely tainted by the patrons paying the bills, but certainly plenty of information has been suppressed because it hasn’t suited advertisers, couldn’t bring eyeballs to ads, and plenty more information has been distorted to suit advertisers, to attract them. Many a magazine story, for instance, is consciously intended to be ad bait, and on television I imagine that mode of thinking is even more prevalent. So advancing human knowledge? I guess I’ll take the education “sector” over marketers.

//Mixed media

That Ribbon of Highway: Sharon Jones Re-shapes Woody Guthrie's Song

// Sound Affects

"Sharon Jones and Woodie Guthrie knew: great songs belong to everybody.

READ the article