How marketing ate our culture – and does it matter?

I just started to read The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture by the CBC’s Terry O’Reilly and ad man, Mike Tennant. I am only just a couple chapters in but have already had to mull some thoughts.

Tomato Soup - Andy Warhol

Like it or not, this is art. And likely also the best ad Campbell’s has ever had

So there was this argument made a while ago that the consumer has supplanted the citizen – that the form of capitalism we are living has built responsibility around self and consumption over the model of responsibility towards other and community. Our participatory democracies are failing because we don’t participate. Some argue that voting is participation, but many will state it goes beyond this. Certainly I, for one, think that voting is the minimum level of participation as a citizen, and even conscientiously objecting to participation in a voting process could be above that baseline (although poorly directed, it at least means you are working on being somewhat informed). Some areas where I see a proper participation in citizenship is participation in thoughtful culture:

  • participating as neighbours in builing neighbourhood communities
  • taking part in city council decisions that concern us
  • support small and local business when possible
  • staying informed on key issues and even deeper aspects of these (local, national, world)
  • voting not according to tradition (ei – I have always voted Liberal, so I will vote Liberal) but according to thoughtful process of examining platform and issues
  • respect and care (land, other cultures, environment)

Much more to it than this, but I am meandering a bit here.

So this argument, accompanied by some liberation theology, builds a theory describing a post-religious world and how consumerism has replaced our temples, churches and communities. In a world where we no longer find meaning in deities, and no longer find communities in churches, we are now fully supplanting it and its ideals with a worshipful community around the almighty mall.

Still in early days of reading this book, I am already wondering:

If advertising is the word of our gods (the voice of the marketing outreach of our modern mall/commerce-retail-world), then why would we expect art to be anything other than the emblem of the voice of who has the money, and who we serve?

For the grand majority of the history of Western art, the Catholic Church (the world of Creepy Baby Jesus paintings) and monarchy have been the voice of art (call it hegemonic art, with the opposite then and still being outsider art which was as interesting then as it is now). When we look at art throughout the ages, we examine the pursuits and interests of the monied. Isn’t this just the same as now where our creative films are ads?

Kinda ironic ad for a company that is based entirely on proprietary reinforced hegemonic hardware, no? (Absolute Conformity is Individuality; just like War is Peace)

So keep in mind that television programming was devised to build an audience for ads. And that the way we pay for most films to be brought to our cinemas is through the extraordinary amount of product placement. The entertainment industry wasn’t built on delivering content to audience, but instead on delivering audience (consumer) to product.

Art is supposed to be a tool to describe humanity to humans, so what about the Torches of Freedom campaign where cigarette smoking became a symbol for female emancipation? The ads surely fulfilled this purpose. The PR Museum described it well:

In 1928 Hill hired Bernays to expand the sales of his Lucky Strike cigarettes. Recognizing that women were still riding high on the suffrage movement, Bernays used this as the basis for his new campaign.

You've come a long wayThe ads built on the shifts in culture according to female emancipation, describing sentiment as the movement shifted and changed.

The Phillip Morris Company developed Virginia Slims cigarettes to appeal to women, and their “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” advertising campaign coincided with the emergence of second wave feminism in the late 1960s. In the mid-1990s, the brand used “It’s a Woman Thing” as a slogan, and more recently adopted the tagline “Find Your Voice.” Cigarette ads often feature women smoking together like “sisters” or proclaiming their individuality and their independence from, or even dominance over, men.

We revere the history of art as something that was a propagandist tool around certain ideologies and their establishments; lost in the blur of romanticism and blameless nostalgia but in current times, this is no longer acceptable.

Do I see ads as art? There is some creative merit indeed. And no doubt there are artists and teams of creatives who build the content used in marketing. At its best, the most innovative advertisement can certainly have a similar billing to art. However, I see ads usually more kin with design – and this is where I am splitting that eternal hair: art, craft and design. They aren’t the same things.

What makes ads no longer art? For me one of the large issues is the lack of authorship. Even the most banal Hollywood blockbuster pays tribute to the artists involved, no matter how lacking in craft or design their art may be. Ads try to target a particular response: the patron of the ad is seeking a desired response of consumption of the product, whereas art does not seek to trigger a particular response but instead seeks only to trigger, sometimes. It’s the difference between bells and whistles and the actual sense wonder. Another can be intent. But then you can’t say that Michelangelo could have deviated to strongly from his Medici Pope’s Catholic advertisement intentions.

So why aren’t ads art? And other than the elitist arguments, does it matter which god or monarch we are serving in the production of meaningful content?

Will our definitions shift? Language and our definitions are shifting fields, and so is art. And despite the fact that I am not entirely agnostic here, does it matter…

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