Saturday, January 1, 2011

Just Saying...

We’re all supposed to be suspicious of advertising. At its best, it is alluring, artistic and intelligent, and seduces us in ways we will never fully comprehend. At its worst, it is grating, shrill and insistent, and demands our attention in spite of ourselves. Mediocre advertising is all too common, part of the ceaseless drone of contemporary life. Advertising is the siren call of capitalism. It reduces citizens and people to consumers, children to pests, culture to stereotypes, accomplishment to purchasing power, longing to envy, greed and resentment.

An authority figure from my childhood once announced that advertising was where people went to work in order to lose their values.

Contempt doesn’t much more withering than that.

Having bought the party line for several years, I am now inclined to think a bit differently. Advertisers play on insecurities and emotions, but persuasion is a part of life, and is inherent in any attempt to sway or mold public opinion. In any case, advertising today is less about direct ‘selling’ than about creating imagery that becomes associated with a product or a brand. Some of these images, associations and ideas resonate more powerfully with consumers than others, which is consequently reflected in purchase behavior.

As advertising has become more sophisticated, so have consumers. It’s interesting to see how advertisers and consumers are locked in a kind of responsive ritual where each tries to decode the other, leading to the creation of a vocabulary and symbol system that reflects the zeitgeist in telling ways. Advertising is not anti-cultural. How could it be - where else would advertisers draw their inspiration from? I would go so far as to say that at its best, advertising creates cultural artifacts that are as potent as contemporary design or art – as imbued with some of the larger narrative of social life and social change.

I’m not in a position to comment on values that are acquired or lost in the course of a career in any industry, but it’s interesting to note that advertising consistently attracts creative talent and bright minds – not all driven by the Machiavellian desire to transform the public into puppets on a string.

The anti-advertising pose is easy to assume. More complex, and less convenient, is the idea that that we somehow participate in what advertising makes of us, and that there may be some element of mirroring to the making as well.

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