We’re All Walking Sandwich Boards, These Days

Adman Pierre Martineau’s Motivation in Advertising written in 1957, (McGraw-Hill), reads today like a map to our public sphere, delineated as it is by the kinds of ads he tirelessly promotes with an extremely sinister enthusiasm. Reacting against the “arid” style of advertising that details price and product advantages, Martineau urges us to see ads as the means by which people are taught to “integrate the product with his psychological goals and self-conceptions,” and to show him how he can “use it for self-expression.” Martineau was vehement, then, about something we now largely take for granted: that consumers make decisions based on emotions rather than logic. Though consumers may need some pseudo-logic to excuse their emotional indulgence, Martineau explains, it’s always the emotional connections they feel with a product that sells it: “Naturally people attempt to support their convictions with some rational justifications. They employ the terms from the advertising or the popular jargon as their support. They use them literally, they believe them literally; but actually, it is the deeper meanings that they are using.”

In other words, the semi-conscious emotional motives that rule us — the need to feel important or young or secure, to belong or stand out or what have you — are expressed by what we buy. He states flatly that style and obsolescence are the primary reasons for product sales — not utility — and he reports this as a received truth that warrants very little comment. A commodity, then, is simply a bundle of meanings and associations, and it is only incidentally practical. This kind of useless consumption seems wasteful, but it raises the standard of living, he explains, because the striving to stay up-to-date mirrors the collective will a society must exhibit to cease living in caves or without cable TV. As adman David Ogilvy boasts, “If you dislike affluent society, you are right to blame advertising for inciting the masses to pursue it” (Confessions of an Advertising Man, Atheneum, 1980).

Now this line of thinking (a well-cherished argument of capitalism’s apologists) seems like a tautology: if we define raised standards of living as the ability to consume more, one can’t really be held to lead to the other. But to Martineau, that Möbius-strip reasoning makes for a perfect explanation. He urged tautology and meaningless jargon as ways of breaking down what Ogilvy called “the tyranny of reason”. The problem in a “rational approach” to any problem of persuasion, Martineau argued, is that it “brings all a person’s critical abilities into action.” Better to avoid “any open clash with [a person’s] preconceptions” by offering irrational appeals. The circular logic of the standard-of-living justification for consumerism provides a perfect example of our emotional motives to buy: the closed loop short-circuits reason and allows an immediate emotional assent. Thus, advertising that appeals to our emotions is more satisfying and persuasive, more likely to convince more people, and therefore it contains more “truth”, a truth which, of course, is a matter of collective belief rather than substantiated fact. Just consult James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds (Doubleday, 2004), which argues that aggregate data collected from a mass of ignorant individuals will prove to be considered more accurate than any individual expert’s opinion. (So maybe those factoid poll bubbles in USA Today are something other than completely fatuous and pointless.)

Admen’s impatience with the “tyranny of reason” (“intensely logical people are generally poor creators,” Martineau declared) makes them strange bedfellows with a variety of radical thinkers — beatniks, French feminists, hippies, mass-society sociologists, etc. — who espouse the same distrust of “instrumental logic” and “technological reason” and “utilitarianism” in their arguments. Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool (University of Chicago Press, 1997) explores this strange confluence of opinion. He argues that the business world’s discovery of market segmentation and the ideology of personal “creativity” (itself a jargon word, coined after the Industrial revolution and necessitated by the meaninglessness of modern work) presaged the countercultural movement of the ’60s, feeding that period its tropes as well as its consumer fetishes. Corporate management theory had begun to preach creativity and “outside the box” thinking to its gray-flannelled minions well before practiced nonconformity became the standard expression of hip youth culture, and mid-60s ads were saturated with clever, reflexive critiques of advertising itself, sketching the contours of the hip irony that would later flourish in the ’90s. According to Frank, advertising discovered it could take the public’s general discontent with their seemingly empty lives under consumer capitalism, and use it as an impetus to promote more consumption. The key idea, one to which the rejection of reason is a corollary, is the celebration of individualism as an end to itself. Reason rules against this, because, again, it’s tautological: Why would it be necessary to prove one’s individualism? Aren’t the self-evident limits of one’s body proof enough?

This was the key thrust of Martineau’s case for emotional advertising: that admen should flatter a consumer for his individuality, thereby training him to value his individuality while calling it into being as an issue, a process akin to the way advertisers invented halitosis or “Schweppervescence”. Ads succeed only when other sorts of social information networks, such as word-of-mouth, fail. By promoting an extreme individualism, one that feeds on suspicion of and competition with neighbors and friends, word-of-mouth networks can be destroyed. Such individualism encourages a withdrawal from the public sphere and civic involvement, and equates personal convenience and entertainment with personal fulfillment and duty (such as the duty to relax, what Baudrillard calls “the fun morality”).

But through advertisers’ “celebration” of consumers’ so-called individuality, the ideal desired becomes an impossible quest for which one will be forever outfitting oneself and buying more and more commodities as one tries harder and harder to discover oneself through products. According to advertisers, this perpetual and hopeless dissatisfaction is a sign of one’s restless, indomitable spirit; proof of one’s unique “creativity”. “The creative person ‘knows’ that he is right because he ‘feels’ that he is right,” Martineau claims, “but he can never explain his meanings to someone who is using a different mode of thinking.” But because the meanings are unutterable, defined by their ineffability, Mr. Creative not only can’t explain his them to others, he can’t fathom them himself. Failing to comprehend the meanings that move him to action, he becomes a mystery to himself. He must pursue his “meanings”, literally chase after them, by shopping, because only through shopping do they manifest themselves. The “creative” person becomes lost in his own tautology, and his inarticulateness becomes the very sign of his genius.

Ads appealing to the individual’s feelings rather than a shared set of social values help promote the idea that one should be motivated primarily by one’s selfish desires rather than by a desire to fit into a larger community. “Community”, in ad cant, is the bane of modern existence: it is simply another form of “conformity”. Conformity is something the Soviet Union forced on its citizens, just as it forced them to all vote for the same party and shop at the same store. Individualism is the prerogative to not conform, the basic freedom that America supplies. Just as with “creativity”, to indulge the freedom from conformity, to earn it and to experience it, one must consume those things that make one different. You must shop to show you are free, as President Bush reminded us after the September 11 attacks.

To appeal to individual feelings, ad copy needs to infuse products with emotional triggers. Admen need people to respond to things with the kind of spontaneous warmth and assent that other people once inspired in them. Commodities must replace the good feelings that being part of a community once inspired. To achieve this, products must be given a personality, a “meaning” akin to the meanings that creative people feel but can’t explain. “This translation of esthetic impressions and subconscious sensitivities into meaning goes on at all ages,” Martineau assures us. But it may be that advertising has been so successful in accomplishing this that we now model our expectations and our reactions to other people on our relationships with goods. We expect other people to present themselves the way ads present the goods that give us emotional pleasure, that is, as a dormant, passive object, a blank wall on which signifiers can be shifted around like so many refrigerator-poetry magnets. We need other people encapsulated in a “Friendster” profile; one that cross-indexes the various products that they respond to, in order to understand how to respond emotionally to them, in order to derive the emotional satisfaction from them we are searching for. In a stunning passage, an aside during his explanation of the all-important product image, Martineau sums it up: “What is my ‘self’ — which I am absolutely certain that I have? I am only what other people think I am. I am the sum total of their attitudes. They see me as a physical body and also a symbol to which they fasten many meanings.” In other words, by his own definition, Martineau is a commodity, a product.

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I was riding an N train to Astoria after work a few weeks ago, and I observed something that I had thought was only the stuff of urban legend. Two men were on the train discussing, very loudly and very pointedly, their respective iPods. One man was very obviously meant to be a stereotypical IT-type of guy; he had long hair, wore a heavy metal T-shirt, and there was an aura of intense geekery about him. He was showing the other man, who looked like a middle-manager yuppie-type, how to work the features that were available on the new iPod, explaining at great length how he could access them through iTunes. Normally I’m really good at ignoring people’s conversations on the subway, even when they are as annoying and irritating as this one, but these men were stationed in such a way and talking in such a way that they were impossible to ignore. They were standing right in the middle of the train car, projecting their voices so that they were loud without shouting, and they were laughing and smiling and nodding at each other a lot, performing a crude pantomime of sincere bonhomie. I noticed other people on the train noticing them too, and I realized that these men, so obviously straight from central casting, had to be living advertisements, planted on the train to promote Apple products. This is an insidious, guerilla-marketing concept that is often rumored to take place by paranoid anti-corporate types. I wouldn’t have believed it, either, if I hadn’t seen it for myself. Indeed, this kind of in-the-streets, actor marketing is indicted in the recent documentary The Corporation, a compelling and overwhelmingly depressing investigation of the sociopathy of big business firms.

I always doubted such things occurred because it seems so inefficient from a cost standpoint, but what do I know? Here it is, a month later, and I still haven’t forgotten that on public-transit performance. (However, witnessing that event in no way makes me want to get an iPod. The smugness with which the brand is saturated repulses me totally). But it was just so strange to have these product placements in a random moment in the movie of my life. At first I was amused, as if it made my whole day, as if witnessing the act were a privilege, and only later was I a bit outraged. My life is not a movie, and I don’t like being encouraged to feel as though it is, and worse, as though someone else was in charge of scripting it. Their performance upstaged the public sphere and prevented any other kind of discourse from occurring within it. They turned the public space into a theatre and turned me into an audience, a spectator, in the midst of my trying to live my life. Such guerrilla marketing can make one feel that all spontaneity is endangered, that everything one sees is staged. It’s as though you are living in The Truman Show, that Jim Carrey film where the protagonist unwittingly lived a life scripted by someone else, with walk-on product placements and phony conflicts contrived in advance.

Remove one’s faith in spontaneity, and everyone will be awash in a thoroughgoing cynicism that makes all hope and enthusiasm seem naive, as it would eventually turn out that you’ve been duped. And with no hope, there’s no point in resisting, no point in lamenting the ad construct that houses more and more of our personal lives.

On other subway rides, I noticed that I look at strangers’ faces the way I sometimes view ads: with a momentary curiosity and a muted, assured condescension, looking for what their angle is, what notion of themselves they are trying to pitch, trying to see what appeal they might have designed for me. In Decoding Advertisements (Marion Boyers, 1978), Judith Williamson makes much of the way ads individuate us and interpolate us into ideology (to use a good Althusserism). They isolate you and make you a “subject”, that is, they make you a subject to outside forces while making you feel an illusory total mastery over your own subjectivity and subjective point of view.

Ads are never addressed to a group, even though many see them simultaneously. They are always designed to single you out and make you feel special, as though a great deal of trouble has been made for you alone to receive the message. This is one of the ways ads are most persuasive. Whether or not we accept their overt message, we appreciate their reinforcing our notions of our individuality, and hence our superiority to the collective, to a social body. This is the great promise of capitalism: that it elevates the individual subject over the collective and thereby makes him more “free”. All of that is ideological, of course, and ads are one of the more important material bases for that ideology, sustaining the fiction of our individual autonomy in the face of otherwise obvious contradictions and stabilizing the worldview in which we are accustomed to living.

So when I observe peoples’ faces like I observe ads, it is as though the person I am looking at exists only to be seen by me in that moment (like the iPod shills). It’s an automatic, reflexive assumption. And following Althusser’s logic, this interpretive gesture of spectatorship reaffirms my sense of self, my sense of being a subject (and not an object — the other person is the object). These people are “advertisements” to me, advertising what it means to have a self (in my observation of them, they are denied their own autonomous selfhood, or at least, it is exceedingly hard for me to remain cognizant of it). So if I look out at these faces surrounding me during my commute, seeking some sense of community, some shared sense of reality, I end up feeling more isolated and alone, because my apprehension has been so systematically perverted by the miasmatic climate of ads. Really, other people constitute the most important ads I see everyday: the most pervasive, the ones I attend to the most, the ones selling the single-most crucial product in a consumer society, the ideology of the self.

Perhaps people seem so much like ads because ads now make up the only universally acknowledged public discourse; ads are the only kind of communication now accepted in public space (obviously, since they are virtually everywhere). Thus to register in public space, to participate in public society, one must be like an ad. As strangers, we feel prohibited from talking to each other, so we display ourselves as expressive objects, thereby tapping into the most expressive language of contemporary consumer society by posing as an advertisement of ourselves. Thus, we, too, become commodities. And when you strip away the ad blather, what is there? Just as with today’s utility-free products, there is nothing.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.