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Postmodern Advertising


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Postmodern Advertising

  1. 1. MARCH 2012 What is the relevance of‘postmodern marketing’ to the creative and media industries? MARKETING & MARKETS 2,739 words Student 1160350
  2. 2. IntroductionThe idea of postmodernism and the postmodern denotes a distinctive but far from specific set ofideas and concepts arising around the 1960s. It has had an impact on almost every aspect of cultureand creativity; from art and architecture to socio-political movements such as feminism.(Featherstone 1991) The field of ‘postmodern marketing’ attempts to understand this ‘new stage’ ofhuman experience and apply its principles to marketing approaches.By their very nature, the creative and media industries are susceptible to the influences of culturaland social developments, as well as often being their creators and arbiters. This is why the questionof postmodern marketing in these industries is important. Few industries have had as much impacton contemporary culture as the advertising industry. Responsible for much of the creative output ofthe previous and present centuries, advertising incorporates visual art, written media andpsychosocial aspects. It can also be argued that the initial concept of advertising – as a method ofmarketing to the masses with a simple call to action – was a modernist one, which has had to evolvein a postmodern world. Thus it is the perfect area of creative and media industries to focus on forinsights into the relevance of postmodern marketing.The essay begins with an overview of what is meant by postmodernism, then outlines the theories ofpostmodern marketing. Through this I will set out a framework of rough criteria and attributes forpostmodern marketing, and then explore to what extent these are today apparent, employingexamples of contemporary advertising. A discussion of critiques of ‘postmodern marketing’ follows,before a conclusion about the relevance of this new approach for the creative and media industries.What is postmodernism? “Not so much a question of historical period, but of a special aesthetic and special philosophy.”
  3. 3. (Sipe 2008) ‘A rather shallow and meaningless intellectual fad.’ (Featherstone 1991:1)These descriptions, one rather less reverential and more dismissive than the other, have both beenapplied to that phenomenon known as postmodernism. It has also been defined as ‘therandomisation of cultural production’ (Malcolm Bradbury, The Guardian, December 9 1995), ‘anopportunist, voracious term’ (Alan Yentob, BBC) and even ‘the total disintegration of the very notionof meaning’ (Wakefield 1990). Anyone confused by the plethora of overlapping and differingdescriptions of the concept, however, can take comfort from the fact that plurality and breakdownof cultural authority is generally held to be intrinsic to postmodernism. This goes with a generalbreakdown of respect for rationality and progress intrinsic to Modernism. The confident Modernistconcept and aesthetic expressed itself in architecture through impressive buildings of steel andconcrete, in art through startling innovations like Cubism and Surrealism, and in design throughdaringly short 1920s hemlines, and geometric art deco. Modernism was marked by a desire to breakwith the past, believing in novelty and progress as ever-improving. Postmodernism, on the otherhand, has lost this faith. (Featherstone 1991) The breakdown of belief in metanarratives – all-encompassing philosophies – goes alongside the disintegration of homogeneous societies and waysof thought. In art and culture, earnestness gives way to playful irony, while media-saturatedaudiences can be expected to recognise pastiche and intertextuality. The growth of consumerismand the individual makes values and interpretations fragmented and highly subjective.What is postmodern marketing?But what does all of this seemingly abstract philosophising have to do with marketing goods andservices to consumers? Bernard Cova (1996) undertook to answer this very question, taking his cue
  4. 4. from marketing consultant James Ogilvy, who declared: ‘The postmodern is too important to be leftto French philosophers alone.’Cova’s insights are focused on the shift in consumer psychology and behaviour in the postmodernera. Crucially, he says, consumers no longer simply consume a product, but they consume a symbolicmeaning associated with it. The building of identity through consumption is a phenomenon thatothers (Brown 1995, Turnock 2007) have also associated with postmodern culture. In today’s worldof deliberately conspicuous cultural consumption via, for example, social media applications likeSpotify-for-Facebook, this idea that we consciously define ourselves through consumption holdsincreasing weight. Cova mentions that this individualism, paradoxically, goes alongside tribalism.Fragmented identities and the weakening of traditional institutional identity-givers like state andfamily (also noted by Kelner, 1992), call for a more fluid but not less connected sense of community,which, nowadays, is often expressed via shared consumption habits and online connections. Hispoint that hyper-reality replaces authenticity calls to mind niche online simulations like Second Lifebut also the mainstream Facebook, both of which hold huge marketing potential.Firat et al (1995) make a similar analysis, but give more emphasis to consumer sovereignty and thedesire for customisation. Like Cova, they believe that the age of mass homogenous consumption hasgiven way to a more interactive world. Audiences can alter meanings and subvert marketingmessages, an effect that has been noted with respect to television (Ang 1991) and advertisingconsumption (O’Donohoe 1994). The writers believe marketing to be an important mediator of thepostmodernist experience, and conclude by advocating a re-evaluation of traditional marketing’s‘long-held views and ideals.’ Cova concludes that post-modern marketing needs to recognise andrespond to new elements. Slightly more specific in his recommendations, he calls for incorporatingco-creation, customisation and interactivity, while not losing sight of tribalism and potential forfostering fragmented virtual communities.
  5. 5. These authors focus on the marketing macro-approach, without making much reference to thecharacter or tone of the marketing communications and media themselves. I would argue that thesealso mark a shift from previous marketing approaches. Inasmuch as postmodern marketing takes onthe values of postmodernism, it reflects the tendency towards irony, self-mocking and anti-authoritarian attitudes, as well as heavy use of intertextual visuals and narratives designed to sparkrecognition with a media-savvy audience. (O’Donohoe 1997)Like postmodernism itself, postmodern marketing is a concept open to varying interpretations,However, through the insights above, a set of recurring themes emerges. I have used these toconstruct a rudimentary framework of analysis, identifying salient features of what could be termeda ‘postmodern marketing approach:’ Focus on emotional and symbolic meaning Customisation and audience interactivity Emphasis on tribalism and identity Irony, playfulness and intertextualityI will now go on to consider the evidence and relevance of these components with specific regard tothe field of advertising, a mammoth of the creative and media industries, employing hundreds ofthousands of people worldwide, and attracting $467 billion of investment in 2011. (Wolfe 2011)Postmodern marketing in contemporary advertising?Advertising has obscure origins. When defined as ‘paid-for communication intended to informand/or persuade,’ (Fletcher 2010:2) it potentially encompasses even the earliest preliterate signsand symbols created to attract trade or influence behaviour. However, the field of modernadvertising grew up with the advent of print and the Industrial Revolution, both of whichtransformed Western societies and were central to the modernist world of technology andcommerce. By the time capitalist mass production reached its heyday in the first half of the 20th
  6. 6. century, advertising was big business. With its philosophy of aspirational progress through products,and collective consumerist approach firmly geared towards the masses, modern advertising beganas a modernist marketing practice. Like all areas of the creative and media industries, however,advertising has been placed under constant pressure to evolve, if it is to continue appealing toaudiences. Does it now display elements of postmodern marketing? We turn to the contemporaryadvertising mediascape scene for evidence of the postmodern marketing traits and techniquesidentified.Focus on emotional and symbolic meaningThere is evidence in much of today’s advertising, of an emphasis on the emotional aspect of aproduct. While it has been a long-held adage for lifestyle products in particular, that one should ‘sellthe sizzle and not the sausage,’ it appears advertisers of even the most functional products are nowacting in line with Cova‘s assertion that the consumer of a product wants more than simply to meetan end (Cova 1996).Thus we have a multitude of such emotive advertising campaigns, that seek to attach feelings ofnostalgia and national pride to bread and butter (Hovis 1973-2008, Clover 2006), of freedom andescape to a mobile service provider (O2 2012) and of romantic passion to household paint. (Dulux2012). This technique has been used for many decades, but it marks a shift from earlier approachesto advertising, in which the features and functions of the product itself, not the feelings associatedwith it, were the exclusive or primary focus. (Fletcher 2010)Customisation and audience interactivityThe age of mass consumption is far from behind us. In fact, identical products are created in evergreater numbers thanks to advancing technology and industrial booms in the developing andemergent markets. (MAPI 2011) However, what has occurred in the West, at least, is a shift inconsumer psychology. Simplistically put, in place of the old ‘Keeping Up With the Joneses’philosophy that encouraged people to aspire to consume the same things in the same way as their
  7. 7. peers and neighbours (Turnock 2007), advertising now increasingly focuses on ways in which theconsumer can alter the product and use it to create personal distinction.One prominent recent example is the television campaign for the Google Chrome browser. DearSophie (2011) features a new father using various tools within the new browser to create a digitalvideo and email diary of his daughter’s life as she grows up. The browser’s functional object, to allowaccess to and navigation of the Internet, seems almost secondary to the potential for personalisationand identity-creation.Emphasis on tribalism and identityAdvertising has long recognised that people like to think of themselves belonging to certain groups.But ‘tribalism’ in advertising was traditionally based on pre-existing social tribes like class (themarketing of Rolls-Royce as a car for discerning professionals: Fig. 1) or race (the advertising ofmenthol cigarettes in the US to African-Americans: Johnson 2008). Increasingly, the creation of atribal identity around a product or brand has become a key feature of advertising campaigns. Brandslike Apple aim to create a loyalty to the brand by making it central to a sense of belonging to a club:‘If you don’t have an iPhone, well, you don’t have an iPhone.’ (2011) This development extendsbeyond technology brands into fast moving consumer goods. Both Marmite and Cadburys (Spots vStripes 2010) ran successful cross-media campaigns designed to engage consumers by encouragingtribal feeling and action. The 15 year-old ‘Love it or Hate it’ Marmite campaign, itself reflecting aplayfully postmodern approach by frankly admitting and glorifying a potential downside of theproduct, was taken to a new level in 2009. People were encouraged to declare their love or hatred ofthe spread on social media and website platforms, where they could join either ‘movement.’ Theydid so in their thousands, sharing their opposing views on Facebook and Twitter. Even seeminglytrivial divisions can be exploited for advertising purposes, in a world where people are constantlyconcerned with building and sharing their identities. (Kellner 1992:141-77)
  8. 8. Irony, playfulness and intertextualityAdvertising has a wealth of formulas, aesthetics and clichés that it has developed over the years.Characters like the talking heads, the celebrity spokesperson, the happy family and the beleagueredhousewife, recur again and again. (Ogilvy 1995) At some point, however, these hackneyedapproaches took on new life in the form of irony, parody and pastiche. This aims to deal with theboredom and disengagement that repetitive familiarity breeds. It fits with the postmodernphilosophy that novelty is illusion, and all that can be done is to reinvent the past. (Bennett 2001)Often, the products that get this treatment are the ones whose advertising has built up a particularlyheavy residue of cliché in the past. So we see household cleaning products, traditionally peddled bybeaming housewives, employing a bright, overtly kitsch aesthetic, using comically extremeincarnations of the flowery ’80s housewife (Vanish, Fig 2), or even subverting the stereotype byhaving her played by a man in drag. (Bounty, 2009) Advertising for men’s hygiene products, similarlypromoted in the past by seriously-intended stereotypes of masculinity, now pokes fun at thistradition by producing bizarre exaggerations of it. Isaiah Mustafa and Fabio, the Old Spice personas(2011-) exemplify this perfectly, with their bulging muscles and their hyper-macho catchphrases:‘The man your man COULD smell like’ and ‘Smell like POWER!’ At the same time, these humoroustechniques are perfectly suited to virality in the social media age, in which advertising often aims tocreate memes which people will share, thus involving the audience as an extension of both mediumand message; not as the passive consumers that modernist marketing treats them as.Is it really postmodernism?While contemporary advertising yields many examples of the traits identified and associated with apostmodern marketing approach, there is potential to argue that these do not in themselves provethat a true postmodern shift has taken place. As noted earlier, techniques such as attaching emotionto products have been around for a long time. Brands in the cigarette industry, for example,consisting of largely homogenous products, took pains to differentiate themselves by appropriating
  9. 9. connotations of masculinity, feminism and even health. (Kellner 1992:158-72) The clue to the shift,however, comes when we look further into the history of advertising and realise that while thisemotive approach appeared early on, it was preceded by a more rational modernist strategy ofdeclaring the practical benefits of the products being advertised. (Fig 1, Appendix)Another potential critique is that the role of technology is the real instigator of change, and thephenomena of customisation and increased consumer interactivity are simply consequences of theappearance of new media like the Internet with its social media platforms. While this may be true, itmerely offers a way to explain one aspect of the shift rather than to explain it away. Advancement ofinteractive technologies is indeed a key feature of postmodernism, and I argue that postmodernmarketing harnesses the new spirit of co-creation and individualisation they encourage, in the sameway that earlier advertising made use of the mass medium of the television to address largeaudiences via a distinctly modernist model of one-way communication.Finally, it may be advanced that these postmodern marketing techniques are not universallyeffective. Certainly when we consider interactivity, customisation and intertextuality, it appears thatthe audiences best placed to respond to these are younger and media-savvy. (O’Donohoe, 1997)This raises the issue of whether postmodern marketing in fact boils down to a tailored approachtargeted at a particular, albeit diverse, demographic. But given the vast range of products andservices that now employ these techniques to varying degrees, this seems implausible. Whileproducts aimed at the young, for example Lynx body spray (Fig. 4) do show frequent evidence ofpostmodernist self-mocking tones, it also features strongly in advertisements for ‘older’ productssuch as mortgages (Barclays 2011) . And the focus on building emotional engagement with brands,rather than simply winning a sale, is almost nowhere more apparent than in advertising for near-universal products like washing-up liquid (Fairy 2011). Postmodern marketing cannot be dismissedas a narrow question of demographics; it is an approach marked by a pervasive set of attitudes andemphases.
  10. 10. ConclusionThe concept of postmodernism is not merely an abstract philosophy, but a real observation ofcultural shifts during the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, marked by a move towardsplurality of interpretations, individualism, identity-building through consumption and a jadedfamiliarity with the media and its techniques. Postmodernist marketing attempts to explain how theloosely linked set of phenomena can be used to inform how products and services are marketed.Through the study of postmodern marketing texts, I suggested a framework of features for thisapproach, choosing to examine contemporary advertising for evidence of a shift to postmodernmarketing. Examples abound supporting the hypothesis that advertising has moved from a rationalmodernist model towards the postmodern traits of focus on emotional and symbolic meaning,customisation and audience interactivity, emphasis on tribalism and identity and irony, playfulnessand intertextuality. I would further argue that the status of advertising as a large and culturallyinfluential sector means that its embrace of postmodern marketing inevitably gives the approachrelevance not only within its own boundaries, but almost certainly across the creative and mediaindustries.
  11. 11. AppendixFig. 1- Rolls Royce (1954)
  12. 12. Fig.2 – Vanish (2010)Fig. 3 – Bounty/Plenty (2009) Fig 4- Lynx (2011)
  13. 13. ReferencesAng I (1991). Desperately seeking the audience. London: RoutledgeBennett, O (2001). Cultural Pessimism: Narratives of Decline in the Modern World. Edinburgh:Edinburgh University PressBrown S (1995). Postmodern Marketing. New York: RoutledgeCadburys (2010). Spots v Stripes [online]: [accessedMarch 2011]Cova, B (1996) The Postmodern Explained to Managers: Implications For Marketing. BusinessHorizons: 15 – 23Featherstone M. (1991) Consumer Culture and Postmodernism: London: SageFirat A, Dholakia N, Venkatesh A (1995). Marketing in a postmodern world. European Journal ofMarketing 29:1:40-56Fletcher W (2010). Advertising: a very short introduction. New York: OUPJohnson, F. L. (2008). Imaging in advertising. New York: Routledge.Kellner, Do (1992): Popular culture and the construction of postmodern identities in Lash S, FriedmanJ (eds.), Modernity and Identity (Oxford: Blackwell), pp. 141 – 177MAPI (2011). An Anatomy of the Growth in the BRICs: Past Trends and Future Prospects. IndustryToday [online]: [accessed March2012]Marmite (2009). Love it or Hate it [online]: [accessed March 2011]ODonohoe S (1994). Advertising Uses and Gratifications. European Journal of Marketing 28:8:52-75ODonohoe S (1997). Raiding the postmodern pantry: Advertising intertextuality and the young adultaudience. European Journal of Marketing: 31:3:234 – 253Ogilvy D (1995). Ogilvy on Advertising. London: Prion BooksSipe L, Pantaleo S (2008) Postmodern picturebooks: play, parody and self-referentiality. New York:RoutledgeTurnock R (2007). Television and consumer culture. New York: IB Tauris & Co.Wakefield N (1990) Postmodernism: the twilight of the real. London: Pluto PressWolfe J. (2011) GroupM forecasts global ad spending to increase 6.4%. WPP [online]:{23ebd8df-51a5-4a1d-b139-576d711e77ac} [accessed March 2012]
  14. 14. Video media referencedApple iPhone 4 TV commercial (2011) If you don’t have an iPhone [online]: [accessed March 2012]Dulux TV commercial (2012). Boudoir [online[:[accessed March 2012]Google Chrome TV commercial (2011). Dear Sophie [online]: [accessed March 2012]Hovis TV Commercial (2008). Hovis boy. [online]:[accessed March 2012]O2 TV Commercial (2012). Things are changing [online]: [accessed March 2012]Old Spice TV commercial (2012). Vending Machine [online]: [accessed March 2012]