Advertising in the Age of Irony


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Brian Curtis's 2002 MA thesis in Cultural Studies on postmodern irony in contemporary advertising.

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Advertising in the Age of Irony

  1. 1. Contemporary Print Advertising in the Age of Irony Brian Ned Tucker Curtis, A.B. In candidature for the degree of Master of Arts 12 March 2002 Department of English Arts Faculty University of Melbourne Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Arts (with Advanced Seminars component)
  2. 2. Abstract Between the closing years of the 1800s and the early 1920s, most of the Western world had emerged from a premodern state of rural and subsistence living and entered into a condition that would come to be known as modernity. It has been widely illustrated that this emergence into modernity coincided with an increasing influence of industry, capitalism, mass production, and print media. In addition to demonstrating these inter-relations, though, a handful of theorists have purported that industrial modernity itself was largely the result of an increased focus on product advertising. As the technical advances of modern industry allowed for an increased productive out- put, a surplus of goods began to accumulate. In the early days of modern advertising, it was the job of advertisers to promote a culture of consumption in which these surpluses would not go unpurchased. To these ends, advertisers invoked the cultural language of myth in order to natural- ize the consumption process. They used mythology to make modernity and consumption synony- mous and to make them both seem like natural ways of life. As advertising and industrialism continued to advance, though, their own evolutions began to alter the very state of modernity which they had helped to create. As it eventually became clear that industrial products were no longer the predominant goods in the marketplace, the increasing preva- lence of postindustrial products of culture heralded the arrival of postmodernity. Within this post- modernity, the same advertising methods that were once used in an effort to tame the older indus- trial goods surplus had also contributed to an oversupply of postindustrial cultural goods as well. One side-effect of this increasing availability of media and other cultural forms was that the infor- mation environment of everyday consumers became more and more enriched. Along with this improvement in consumer knowledge came an improved audience agency vis-à-vis the media and supporting advertisement to which they were exposed. As the agency of individual audience mem- bers increased, the ability of advertisers to attract them using their old mythical methods began to wane. To these ends, a new cultural language was developed. In order to sell the surplus products of postindustrialism to the increasingly agential consumer within the new social condition of post- modernity, the language of irony was adopted. As the cynicism and wariness of advertising claims of the past proved to make transparent the intentions of older modes of advertising, ironic advertis- ing was implemented by certain postindustrial cultural producers in an attempt to communicate with this new consumer. i
  3. 3. Declaration This is to certify that — the thesis comprises only my original work except where indicated in the preface, due acknowledgement has been made in the text to all other material used, the thesis is 20,000–22,000 words in length, inclusive of footnotes but exclusive of tables, maps, appendices, and bibliography. Signed, Brian Curtis ii
  4. 4. Acknowledgements I would like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Brett Farmer, for his advice and patience throughout this project. His insight and perseverance have helped to push my research through all the stages of development, from a half-baked idea eventually to a completed thesis. I would also like to acknowledge the support — financial and otherwise — of the University of Melbourne Department of English. iii
  5. 5. Table of Contents Introduction, page 1 Chapter One: Industrialism and Modernity, page 8 Chapter Two: Audience Agency in the Information Age, page 24 Chapter Three: The Rise and Rise of Irony, page 31 Chapter Four: Ironic Advertising, page 41 Conclusion, page 51 Bibliography, page 61 iv
  6. 6. Index of Images Page 9: Massachusetts Spy (Laird:1998) Page 10: Dr. King’s (Laird:1998) Page 10: Dr. Kilmer’s (Laird:1998) Page 13: Woodbury’s Soap (Laird:1998) Page 14: Paris Garters (Marchand:1985) Page 14: Williams Shaving Cream (Marchand:1985) Page 15: Listerine (Marchand:1985) Page 16: Listerine (Marchand:1985) Page 16: Listerine (Marchand:1985) Page 17: Scott Tissues (Marchand:1985) Page 17: Motordom (Marchand:1985) Page 18: Ford (Marchand:1985) Page 19: Laundry (Marchand:1985) Page 21: Buick (Marchand:1985) Page 48: Volkswagen (Berger:2001) Page 50: Chicago Pneumatic Tool Company (Laird:1998) Page 50: Miller Genuine Draft (OneShow, Vol. 21) Page 51: Camel (Marchand:1985) Page 52: Camel (Berger:2001) Page 52: Eaton’s Linen (Marchand:1985) Page 53: Stella Artois (Berger:2001) Page 53: Soap and Water (Marchand:1985) Page 54: Astra (Lürzer’z Archive:1999, Vol. 3) Page 55 Mezzo Mix (Art Director’s Club, Vol. 76) Page 55: Mezzo Mix (Art Director’s Club, Vol. 76) Page 55: Campbell’s Soup (Marchand:1985) Page 56: Moon Pie (OneShow, Vol. 20) Page 56: Moon Pie (OneShow, Vol. 20) Page 57: Dos Equis (Lürzer’s Archive:1998, Vol. 5) Page 58: Nike (Lürzer’s Archive:1998, Vol. 5) Page 58: Dos Equis (Lürzer’s Archive:1998, Vol. 5) Page 58: California Pizza Kitchen (Art Director’s Club, Vol. 76) Page 58: California Pizza Kitchen (Art Director’s Club, Vol. 76) Page 59: Village Voice (OneShow, Vol. 18) Page 59: Banff Ice (OneShow, Vol. 22) Page 59: BSM Driving School (Berger:2001) Page 60: Absolut ( Page 60: Calvin Groot (Lürzer’s Archive:1998, Vol. 5) Page 61: Chrysler (Marchand:1985) Page 61: Hoover (Marchand:1985) Page 61: Village Voice (Art Director’s Club, Vol. 73) Page 61: Village Voice (OneShow, Vol. 16) Page 62: Volkswagen (OneShow, Vol. 21) Page 62: No Frills (OneShow, Vol. 21) Page 62: Horn & Hardart (Berger:2001) Page 63: Stickity Jim’s (OneShow, Vol. 21) Page 63: Hans Brinker (British Design & Art Director Annual:1998) Page 63: TCP (Lürzer’s Archive:2000, Vol. 4) Page 64: The Den (OneShow, Vol. 16) Page 64: The Den (OneShow, Vol. 16) Page 64: Nike (Berger:2001) Page 65: Simple (Twitchell:1996) Page 65: Ayer & Son (Marchand:1985) Page 65: Palmer Jarvis (OneShow, Vol. 20) Page 66: Miller Lite: (Berger:2001) Page 67: Guinness (OneShow, Vol. 21) Page 67: Guinness (OneShow, Vol. 21) v
  7. 7. Page 68: Pepsi (Graphis Advertising Annual:2001) Page 68: Pepsi (Graphis Advertising Annual:2001) Page 68: Gold’s Gym (OneShow, Vol. 21) Page 69: Doritos (Graphis Advertising Annual:2001) Page 69: Lexus (Graphis Advertising Annual:2001) Page 69: Lexus (Graphis Advertising Annual:2001) Page 72: Obsession (Berger:2001) Page 72: Joe Chemo ( Page 73: Bob (OneShow, Vol. 21) Page 73: Bob (Berger:2001) Page 73: Absolut ( Page 74: Disillusioned (Berger:2001) Page 74: Models (Berger:2001) Page 74: Captain Morgan’s (Berger:2001) vi
  8. 8. Introduction The history It has been well documented that the world underwent a major structural change early in the twen- tieth century. Between the closing years of the 1800s and the early 1920s, most of the Western world had emerged from a premodern state of rural and subsistence living and entered into a con- dition that would come to be known as modernity. Many scholars have illustrated how this emer- gence into modernity coincided almost perfectly with an increasing influence of industry, capital- ism, and mass production [Ewen:1976; Mandel:1997]. That industrialism caused modernity is not so accurate as to say that both simultaneously contributed to each other’s growth and advancement well into the latter half of the twentieth century. Indeed, as it’s been written thus far, the history of the twentieth century is very much the history of modern industrialism. As the 1900s came to a close, though, another major transformation began to take place within the same societies that had first emerged into modernity only a century before. It seemed that at the end of the twentieth century many Western societies were evolving from a modern state into a con- dition entirely new and unrecognized. Just as scholars have illustrated the coincidence of capital- ism and mass production that resulted in a state of industrialized modernity, a number of theorists have put forward that this new condition — this postmodernity* — was the result of an intensifica- tion of those very coincidences [Castells:2000; Lyon:1998]. As the condition of postmodernity became more widely experienced and understood within these societies, many saw it as the direct consequence of a transition into an economic state of postindustrialism, in which the practices and policies of industry were amplified and expanded into a whole range of nonindustrial commerce. The short history of this fin de siècle period has been dominated thus far by the idea of the post- modern. *A note on usage: This term I use to refer to what many theorists alternately call Post-Modernity, postmodernism, post-modernism, etc. Within this work, ‘postmodernity’refers to the societal condition, whereas ‘postmodernism’ refers to the cultural aesthetic. 1
  9. 9. Of course, these histories have been written by people, often living within the times of which they wrote, usually motivated by other interests, and always influenced by what was going on around them. Of the scholars of modernity, it can broadly be said that there were two kinds: those who benefited from and supported the changes in economic and social relations that were taking place, and those who witnessed the same changes but decried the inequities that resulted. The former camp comprised the courtesans of the industrial barons that were largely responsible for the eco- nomic shifts leading to modernity. The utopian theories — as written by the likes of Emerson Harris, N.A. Lindsey, and Calkins and Holden — told of lives far removed from the hardship and toil of premodern living and were directly influenced by the societal transformations taking place at the time. The latter group, including theorists such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Arnold Toynbee, wrote theories of one-sided, class-based dystopias, which were also directly — albeit oppositely — influenced by the wide-sweeping shifts that they were engulfed in. What both camps shared, though, was a notion of teleology: Good or bad, modernity was leading society toward one unavoidable future. Many would argue that the future is now here, and it doesn’t look entirely like the picture painted by either the doomsayers or the optimists. From within the confines of the postmodern condition in which much of society now finds itself, at least one assertion can be made: The telos of moder- nity envisioned by these thinkers never quite eventuated as planned. That’s not to say, though, that the foresight of some of these theorists was not better than others. For the critics of modernity who foretold of the future without optimism, certain new modes of scholarship attained a great degree of prominence. The Marxism as practiced by many of these theorists attempted to explain the mod- ern world in terms of economics. It was a class-based theory of how one group attained power at the expense of another group’s labor. But their inquiries were not necessarily limited to the eco- nomic: Culture — in its position as the base supporting the superstructural subjugation of the underclass — was a fertile ground for examination. Especially appealing to these new theorists were products of culture that were themselves particularly modern. The novel, the automobile, modern art, and architecture were all thoroughly examined for their contribution to, and interaction with, modern society. The methods that these modern theorists developed for explaining what they 2
  10. 10. saw would continue to hold prominence for as long — and in many cases longer — than the very products of modernity under examination. Eventually, these theorists would address other phenomena of modern culture, among which adver- tising was a notable example. Although it had existed as a practice in various forms for millennia, it wasn’t until the advent of industrialized modernity that advertising really attained prominence. And it wasn’t — without coincidence — until the age of modernity that advertising was given any- thing more than a passing glance as an appropriate subject of academic inquiry. For those who chose to study the early days of modern advertising it was a deeply political affair. Heavily influ- enced by conflict theory and its various incarnations, theorists of modern advertising like Toynbee, Packard, Galbraith, and Ewen were interested in bringing to light the sometimes underhanded strategies of the advertising world. Although not directly affiliated with the Frankfurt School, many of these early theorists borrowed from the tools and techniques of Habermas, Marcuse, and Adorno to illustrate — often in convincing fashion — the multifarious ways in which advertising insinuated itself in the lives and minds of the modern public. By and large these methods proved effective. This was the era of metanarrativity, of deep structure, of Marxism, and of psychoanalysis. Using these techniques with great skill and persuasiveness, these scholars were able to show the origins of modern advertising and their inseparable relation- ship to the advent of industrial capitalism. Their arguments about advertising in early modernity were undeniably plausible and have well stood the test of both scrutiny and time, but there was also one deleterious effect of their plausibility: Some of the followers of these schools of thought have continued to use these techniques of modernity well past their expiration date. As the conditions of late modernity began to metamorphose into what would come to be recog- nized as postmodernity, the efficacy of modern ways of thinking began to wane. When theorists tried to stretch the pertinence of their methods for studying early modern advertising to the exami- nation of latter-day advertising, certain things began to fall apart. As effective as these Marxist mass-society techniques may have been within the contexts of modernity, they have proven less than entirely efficacious apropos the admittedly nebulous postmodern conditions in which we now 3
  11. 11. find ourselves. To offer a critique of modern advertising, modern techniques were required; but to theorize, analyze, and criticize postmodern advertising, more specific and arguably complex strata- gems must be employed. The approach Part of my research aim in this thesis is to narrate the transition from modernity to postmodernity, highlighting, through a focus on advertising, the way the two eras interact with one another. As Kellner argues, though, there are certain issues to consider in attempting to historicize the recent past. “If one wishes to claim that a transition from modern to postmodern society has occurred,” he admonishes, “one must provide an account of the features of the previous social order (moder- nity), the new social order (postmodernity), and the rupture or break between them” [1988, p256]. In this vein, the material in Chapter One provides a brief background on the major theories of modernity, particularly as they relate to the growing influence of print advertising. In Chapter Two I detail much of the work that has gone into exploring the liminal space in which postmodernity was born. Throughout the work, though, I am not only interested in detailing the differences between the conditions of modernity and postmodernity, I am also keen to illustrate the disparities between modern and postmodern modes of critique. It is not enough, however, simply to point to the ways that the modern and the postmodern diverge. In addition to the need to provide an account of the rupture, Kellner further states that “one should also indicate both the continuities and discontinuities between the old and the new, the previous and the current social order” [1988, p256]. In this respect, another goal of the thesis is to demon- strate that postmodernity need not imply a complete break from the state of modernity. The condi- tions of postmodernity are often, as I will illustrate, a skewed continuation of those same modern conditions. As Ihab Hassan wrote in an early treatise on this transitional period, “modernism and postmodernism are not separated by an Iron Curtain or Chinese Wall; for history is a palimpsest, and culture is permeable to time past, time present, and time future” [1971, p276]. So, just as many of the products of postmodern culture are not complete reinventions — rather evolutions — of products of modern culture, it is also my position that the techniques for coming to understand 4
  12. 12. them need not be entirely new. Although much modernist theory may be inadequate to the task of explaining postmodern phenomena, one of the other intentions of this thesis is to recuperate some of the strategies from the former for adapted use in the latter. For this reason, there are a few theo- rists whose modern techniques fit in most well conceptually and critically with my postmodern undertaking. Although largely limited now in efficacy, the ideas of Marxian analysis and metanarrativity still hold a great degree of explanatory power, and therefore interest. Particularly useful for my inquiry into postmodern advertising is the work of Gramsci and Jameson. The notion of Gramscian hege- mony goes a long way to bridging the gap between the totalizing Marxist theory of modernist structural functionalism and the rhizomatic, decentered nature of postmodern poststructuralism. Likewise, the work of Fredric Jameson and his not-so-strict adherence to the tenets of teleological conflict theory continue to have much exegetic power for how the shifts in economic modes are reverberated through other social formations and their cultural (by)products. The (by)product in question in this thesis of course is advertising. Like modern art, architecture, and the novel mentioned earlier, advertising has undergone some major transformations with the advent of postmodernity. It is my intent first to cite the historical work on the original development of advertising in the age of modernity; and then in turn to apply — and, where appropriate, to deny the applicability of — this work to advertising in the age of postmodernity. I am especially inter- ested in exploring how advertising of different eras must call upon different cultural languages in order to communicate with the audience. The third chapter is dedicated to investigating the ways in which irony has come to be the dominant mode of speech within postmodern cultural discourse generally; while the fourth chapter provides specific examples of how this irony is borne out with- in the culture industry of print advertising. Ultimately, my central claim is this: In modernity advertisers invoked the language of mythology in order to sell to a growing and homogenizing population the surpluses of industrial capitalism. As the goods surplus grew, so did the mass media, sponsored as it was by the very advertisements that were created in an attempt to tackle the oversupply of goods in the first place. Eventually this resulted in a glut of cultural and media forms too, as well as an increasingly savvy and heterogeneous population. Again advertising 5
  13. 13. stepped in to try to reduce the surplus, this time not using traditional myth, but the language of irony, to communicate with a disparate and increasingly agential audience. Whereas many early theorists attempted to posit a cause-and-effect relationship between advertis- ing and industrial modernity, I am interested in approaching notions of causality for the advent of postmodernity using advertising not as a cause but as a symptomatic case study. Their arguments were largely economic, dealing in issues of industry and commerce. I also approach the subject from an economic perspective, even if the focus of my study deals largely in the language of art, culture, and audience reception. For this, advertising is the perfect case study. It is, as John Sinclair says, “the study of an economic system in its symbolic forms” [1987, p1]. The difficulty of the task What is interesting about advertising, though, is that it is a symbolic form with an identifiable, financially motivated actor behind its creation. When I attempt to use the language of advertising to recount the history of modernity’s progression into postmodernity, one figure remains central to the plot: the creative advertiser. There is an inherent danger, of course, in trying to narrate the very recent past of postindustrial transformations, particularly in light of the fact that narrativity is itself quite counter to most of the tenets of postmodernity. When I begin to explain certain postmodern cultural and economic phenomena in ways that are decidedly unpostmodern, I run the risk of endangering the entire point of my argument. Zygmunt Bauman explains: If the purpose or effect of narration is to bring order to a semantically loaded yet confused space, to con- jure up logical consistency where chaos would otherwise rule, any narrative aiming to ser ve well its rai - son d’etre stands a risk of implying more coherence than the postmodern condition could possibly uphold. Once we remember that incoherence is the most distinctive among the attributes of postmoderni- ty (arguably its defining feature), we need to reconcile ourselves to the prospect that all narratives will be to a varying extent flawed. [1992, pxxiv] The only escape I may have from these critical dangers could fall in exploring the nature of the advertising creative him/herself. In the end, if all other explanations and attempts at narration prove to be untenable in the face of postmodernity’s incoherence, perhaps it is simply the plight and motivations of the advertiser that can offer coherency enough. 6
  14. 14. Whereas the notion of narrating this time of transition may indeed be too riddled with flaws, it is possible that there may be some saving grace in approaching the advertiser as a timeless figure with artistic concerns that stretch across the boundaries of socioeconomic eras. Cultural critic Jonathan Dee once remarked that advertising professionals are nothing more than “artists with nothing to say” [1999; p64]. As advertisers are confronted with the task of being creative within the same stifling conditions of incoherency that make postmodernity impossible to narrate, perhaps irony attains dominance not for the all the complicated social and economic reasons that I hope to explicate within this thesis. There may indeed be a simpler explanation: If Jedediah Purdy is cor- rect in characterizing the ironist as someone for whom “his wariness becomes a mistrust of lan- guage itself,” then indeed irony might be the perfect mode of speech for an artist with nothing to say. I conclude the thesis by suggesting that irony may be the postmodern technique par excellence by which the advertiser can speak without saying anything at all. For within the context of post- modernity, irony is the very language by which “he disowns his words” [1999, pxi]. 7
  15. 15. Chapter One: Industrialism and Modernity In Fredric Jameson’s 1984 reworking of Ernst Mandel’s cultural periodization, monopoly capital begets modernism. This is essentially a more specific example of the argument which states that modernity is a result of the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution. This argument has been put forward by a number of thinkers, on both the left and the right. In its simplest form, it goes like this: In the late nineteenth century, America entered into a postbellum period of economic prosper- ity. Great improvements in industrial machinery and manufacturing techniques were introduced. Specialization and differentiation occurred in the workplace. As the efficiency on the factory floor increased, the average laborer’s workweek shortened. But even with this decreased need for labor hours, the productive capacity of the US — and later, the rest of the West — reached unprecedent- ed levels [Ohmann:1996, p73; Norris:1990, p xv]. The ability of manufacturers to produce goods outstripped the demand for those goods. Consumers entering into this period of modernity were faced with two things they’d never encountered before: a surplus of free time, and a wide selection of household goods from which to choose. On the flipside, producers were themselves faced with new prospects: a productive capacity capable of generating a greater variety of goods than had ever been needed, and a potential market of consumers that had never been bigger. Advertising steps in The advertisers’claim to modernity rested on their role in pushing economic modernization further along its logical course of development. An economy organized for efficient production through economies of scale, rationalization of the working place, functional specialization, and a rapid and integrated flow of materials and communications also needed a high ‘velocity of flow’in the pur- chase of goods by consumers. Ad creators were becoming the highly specialized facilitators of that process. As some business leaders in the 1920s began to worry about the damages of over-produc- tion, advertising agents gained increased respect for their role as guardians of uninterrupted progress. [Marchand:1985, p1] Following the argument that correlates industrialism and modernity, there flows another theory that has grown familiar over time. While industrial expansion made possible the endless choice of con- sumer goods, there was an additional force that contributed to the continuation of that expansion. There have been many histories of advertising written in recent years, and almost all of them pro- vide some sort of variation on a common theme: As more and more goods chased after the same 8
  16. 16. set of consumers, advertising made the difference. It ensured the continued production of excess goods by naturalizing the excess consumption of goods. In Captains of Consciousness, a classic exploration of advertising and the social roots of consumer culture, Stuart Ewen explains how the industrial machine transformed “the nature of consumption among a broad sector of the popula- tion” [1976, p16]. He was one of the first to illustrate the intricate relations between the rise of industrial capitalism and the rapid expansion and growing influence of advertising in early twenti- eth century America. Many historians and theorists followed in his footsteps, detailing a historical narrative that varies so little from one version to the next that their collective account verges on the canonic. It is essentially this account, however simplified, that follows. Advertising is born and comes of age Advertising has not always existed. Pervasive as it is today, there was a time when much of the population had never been exposed to an advertisement. Up until the mid-1800s there was no such thing as packaged goods either. Products were made in small batches, either by hand or by rudi- mentary machinery. They were then sold generically and in bulk by local merchants. Some of the earliest examples of advertising took the form of stock announcements, in which shopkeepers would hire spruikers, construct signs or, print up flyers to announce the arrival of new stock in their stores. Even early newspaper ads largely consisted of simple columns of text, outlining goods for sale. This front page from an 1821 edition of the Massachusetts Spy advertises a number items, from cough drops to next year’s almanac. These early ads didn’t emphasize prod- uct features or consumer benefits, they merely brought attention to goods that were currently available for pur- chase. In fact, this style of advertising had gone virtually unchanged for nearly 200 years in England, where the calls of town criers announcing the arrival of the latest shipment in port could be heard as early as the 1600s and as late as the 1800s [Laird:1998, p16]. However, as 9
  17. 17. migration from rural areas continued to increase the populations of urban areas in nineteenth cen- tury England and America, the city streets eventually became too crowded and noisy for spruiking to have any impact. It was also around this time that the nature of advertising began to change. Although the Industrial Revolution nominally began in England in 1760, it wasn’t until many years later that its effects would be generally felt by everyday consumers in other parts of the world. In the United States in the early nineteenth century a consumer faced with the prospect of buying soap from a shop usually had nothing more than one locally pro- duced variety to choose from. Likewise for other generic household products such as oats, washing boards, and candles [Norris:1990, p14]. There was one exception to this rule, though. From the beginning, preparers and purveyors of medicinal products faced different marketing problems than manufacturers of other consumer goods. Unlike most household goods, which required no explanation to sell, branded patent medi- cines all claimed to offer unique remedies to their potential customers’ maladies. These proprietary remedies had to be explained — and more importantly differentiated — so that consumers would be able to choose between the benefits of one over the other. This was also an area in which there was much competition; the general lack of effective medical care during this era resulted in a high demand for these nostrums, which again resulted in an increased number of entrepreneurs willing to sell them. Faced with such a high degree of competition, manufacturers of these medicines turned to a variety of methods to make their products more appealing to the buying public [Marchand:1985]. Some medicines, like Dr. King’s, made extravagant claims about their health benefits, some invoked symbols of strength and vitality, some adopted exotic-sound- ing brand names, and some developed flashy logos and packaging, all in an effort to lure customers. This advertisement for Dr. Kilmer’s is 10
  18. 18. one example of the elaborate and decorative technique used by these patent medicines. The result, at any rate, was a giant leap in the extent of product marketing. Never before had so much atten- tion been paid to issues of advertising and product packaging, and many of the techniques discov- ered by these mid-1800s patent medicine hawkers would go on to influence how the remaining world of consumer goods would be approached and promoted. By the late nineteenth century, America was emerging from the depression of the Civil War and entering into a period of industrial expansion. The quality of industrial machinery was improving, and its use growing widespread, to the point that consumer choice across the board began to expand. Consumers no longer had to settle for one unbranded variety of soap at the neighborhood store but were faced instead with an increasing variety of soaps from which to choose [Norris:1990]. Even the local shopkeeper, at one time a trusted advisor when it came to consump- tion decisions, couldn’t be expected to know enough about the differences between the soap brands to recommend one over the other. It was during this broad period that product advertisements finally caught up with patent medicines, and modern advertising was effectively born. Filling a void of indecision, early twentieth century advertisers stepped in to help consumers make their confusing purchasing choices. At first retailers and manufacturers used a variety of methods for advertising their wares. As the calls of the street criers grew fainter, advertisers were experimenting with media such as wagons covered with signs, decorated clocks, and mechanical gizmos and other small devices, adorned with brand names, that performed tasks from cutting the tips off cigars to providing therapeutic electric shocks [Laird:1998, p15]. All of these techniques, though, suffered from limited market reach, and the medium that eventually came to prominence was print advertising. On the back of increased production capacity — and thanks to efficient movable type and printing presses, improved distribution channels, and recently completed transcontinental railroad lines — newspa- pers were experiencing a surge in growth and readership. The sheer size of the new mass reader- ship of the popular press provided advertisers with a potential market for their goods that had been previously unimaginable [Ohmann:1996]. With one printed ad in a newspaper, a retailer or manu- 11
  19. 19. facturer could now reach as many people in a day as street-side advertisements would have previ- ously reached in a year. Initially these early print ads followed the tradition of their forebears; they were often simple, unadorned lists of products available. But as the medium evolved and competition increased, the print ads themselves became more sophisticated and ornate. Previously, handbills and placards had been designed primarily by the actual merchant with the help of a competent typesetter. Even the extravagant design and copy on advertisements for patent medicines had been mostly done as an in-house operation. As print ads began to proliferate however, increased competition started to give rise to budding industries. The concept of an advertising agency was born during this era. Originally the ad agency was a wholesaler of advertising space in print media. The agency would buy space in bulk from the local newspaper, and then sell individual spaces to the merchants or manufacturers that wished to adver- tise there [Ohmann:1996]. The relationship between agency and advertiser continued in this vein for a while until, through a concentration of core competencies, the merchants and manufacturers realized their time and effort were better spent in doing what they did best: selling and making. They increasingly began to leave the task of creating the ads — not just the placement of them — to the advertising agencies. Within the agencies themselves, further division and specialization of duties began to take place. The jobs of media buying, copywriting, typesetting, offset printing, once done by the same person, were increasingly differentiated. This shift from a craftsperson to an assembly-line method of advertising creation resulted in ever more complex print ads. In their areas of specialty, copywriters were experimenting with new flourishes of language, typesetters were ever pushing the boundaries of fontography, printers were increasingly utilizing attractive woodcuts to add a visual element to their ads [Laird:1998]. The following advertisement for Woodbury’s Soap illustrates some of the advances being made in the sophistication of print ads. As improved distribution channels began opening up more of America to products and the advertisements that promoted them, manufacturers faced the problem of how to differentiate their goods from those of their competitors. To this challenge rose the 12
  20. 20. advertising agency, which attempted to attract the buy- ing public with their new and improved ads. Soon, though, the technical merits of a sophisticated ad alone were not enough to distinguish one product from another. In short time, the attractively produced print ad was the norm rather than the exception. At this point, advertisers had a more difficult challenge to overcome. In the early days of modern advertising, the brunt of that challenge fell squarely on the shoulders of the advertising copywriter. The copywriter of the 1920s had to convince the buying public — who were accustomed to purchasing generic, unpackaged, bulk items — that the branded products they were promoting were better in every way than the alternative. To a large extent, this is still the charge of the advertising copywriter. And to a large extent, the techniques they developed in the 1920s would go on to inform much of the tenor of advertising for many years to come. Advertising enters the realm of mythology In the language of cultural anthropology, myths act as guidelines for living within a society. They both reflect and shape that society’s value systems. In essence, a myth ser ves to tell someone how to live based on how others had lived. Within the context of advertising, mythology first came to prominence when the messages of the ads began to change form. Just as ancient mythology used stories and morality tales to get across important lessons about life, advertising began to adopt similar techniques in its attempt to garner customers. It was when advertisers stopped selling prod- ucts and started selling the benefits of products that they assumed their modern role as myth-mak- ers. As one cultural anthropologist explains: Advertising performs in modern society much the same function that myth performs in other soci- eties. As a myth in modern disguise it nevertheless has the same roles as ancient myth. Lévi-Strauss defines this role to be the resolution of potential conflicts. Myths serve to reinforce accepted modes 13
  21. 21. of behavior by scanning all the alternative solutions and ‘proving’that the one which predominates in any society, in given circumstances, is the best. As such, myth is precisely like advertising, a con- servative force. [Leymore:1976, p ix] In his work on advertisers as apostles of modernity, Roland Marchand has discussed what he calls the ‘great parables’ of early modern advertising [1985, p206]. These are scenes that served as social tableaux. They described to consumers situations that they might encounter in their everyday lives, and how certain products could help them prevail in these situations. But more than that, these tableaux, like the ancient biblical and secular parables, offered instructions on how to live in the modern era. Some of the tableaux reappeared frequently enough for Marchand to propose a rudimentary taxonomy. There was The Parable of the First Impression, The Parable of the Democracy of Goods, The Parable of Civilization Redeemed. These ads for sock garters and shaving cream offer exam- ples of Marchand’s first impression parable, in which consumers are warned that they are constantly under the scrutiny of others. The moral for each of these parables differed slightly, but they all spoke the same simple truth: Every man and woman could improve his or her life by buying the proper products. Other examples of these parables abound, but few offer as good a view of the use of mythology as the often-cited story of the national rise to prominence of Quaker Oats [Marchand:1985; Laird:1998]. When the company made its branded emergence into the stores of America it had to prove to the buying public the merits not only of oatmeal in general, but of Quaker Oats in particu- lar. Prior to 1854, rolled oats had never been marketed for human consumption. Until the brands of the American Cereal Company — F.S. and Quaker Oats — introduced the idea of eating oatmeal for breakfast, oats had long been regarded as fit for consumption by only horses and livestock. In their attempts to present oats as a human staple, the two brands embarked on very different adver- tising campaigns. F.S. ran stark newspaper ads extolling the healthful virtues and low costs of eat- 14
  22. 22. ing oats. In contrast Quaker Oats, under the leadership of the now legendary Henry Parsons Crowell, experimented broadly with advertising techniques. The company offered its oats in bright and attractive packaging with complimentary recipe ideas; it produced ads with customer testimo- nials and endorsements by medical professionals. With no prior knowledge of the milling industry, Crowell began to apply to his oats business some of the tactics long used to sell patent medicines. While F.S. was selling its identical product less expensively, Quaker Oats outperformed the compe- tition by introducing the idea of narrative, story-line advertising, in which consumers of Quaker Oats allegedly experienced almost miraculous attainment of their most cherished desires due to their consumption of the cereal. Throughout the late 1800s, F.S. continued to employ its old advertising methods sporadically, almost grudgingly in local newspapers. Meanwhile Crowell embarked on advertising “on a mas- sive scale, with extensive national placements through magazines and newspapers,” mythologizing the benefits of Quaker Oats [Laird:1998, p251]. Eventually Quaker Oats drove its competition out of business. The defeat of F.S. sounded a symbolic knell for older forms of advertising. A new mode of product promotion was here. Quaker Oats had won the day, not through offering a superi- or product, not through selling its cereal less expensively than the competition, and not through knowing the industry more intimately, but through marketing alone. The brand had succeeded not by marketing oats, but by marketing healthy teeth, and growing children, and strong bones. Its advertisements were not just for the product, but for the ideal of what that product could provide its consumers. The ads for Quaker Oats, as Crowell commented, wrapped the product “in the tissue of a dream” [quoted in Marchand:1985, p24]. These lessons were well learned by the rest of the advertising industry. In 1920 Listerine was not a new product. It had been sold for years as a sim- ple and general antiseptic. But when the makers of Listerine wanted to expand its customer base, they found the most success in not just convert- ing the product to a new use, but to “induce the public to discover a new need” [Marchand:1985, p18]. The story is by now a famous one in the 15
  23. 23. short history of advertising, and its protagonists considered heroes and pioneers. Whereas Quaker Oats had succeeded by positively reinforc- ing its consumers’ foremost dreams, Listerine used scare tactics to force consumers to face their nightmares of social failure. Company president Gerard Lambert hired the talents of copywriters Milton Feasley and Gordon Seagrove to transform his general antiseptic into a bottle — and a brand name — that would be in every American home. They started by resurrecting from the inner reaches of an old medical dictionary the term halitosis, an infrequently occurring gastronomic condition otherwise known as bad breath. To extraordinary effect, they used this frightening-sounding technical term in conjunc- tion with a mythology that spoke to a growing modern concern for social conformity. Once again it was the consumer and his or her life — not the product itself — that was the center of attention for these ads. Taking the tone of the tabloids’ personal interest stories, the ads for Listerine were small fables of social shame and how it could be avoided. Invariably they depicted images of normal people, who were perfect in almost every noticeable way but one: bad breath. It was bad breath that kept unmarried women single, unemployed men jobless. But Listerine offered a cure for all this. By just using the mouthwash every morning, a person could be assured that he or she stood every chance for social success. These were small stories to which every American was hoped to be able to relate. As Printers’Ink reflected in a tribute to the copy- writer Milton Feasley: “He dealt more with humanity than with merchandise. He wrote advertising dramas rather than business announcements — dramas so common to everyday experience that every reader could easily fit himself into the plot as a hero or culprit of its action” [quoted in Marchand:1985, p18]. The technique worked. The Listerine advertising budget ballooned from $100,000 in 1922 to $5 million in 1928; and the style and tactics of the campaign were mimicked by innumerable other consumer products [Marchand:1985]. New conditions were cropping up daily on the pages of 16
  24. 24. newspapers that had heretofore escaped the attention of medical professionals. But even more than its influence on the creation of fictitious maladies, Listerine proved to the rest of the advertising world that the most effective way to sell goods was not to promote a product, but to promote a lifestyle that can be improved by the use of the product. The moral of the Listerine story was clear: Although indi- vidual consumption habits may vary, there were always certain goods that would be beneficial to the whole popu- lation. As advertisers began to address their messages to an ever-growing, ever-widening populace, and as the reach and accessibility of the national media expanded, the concept of mass marketing started to take hold. Individual consumers were growing increasingly difficult to address singly as society continued to modernize. It became far more effective to treat them as a distinct mass, and to speak to them in their own collective language [Ewen:1976]. The new science of demographics was born to help advertisers recognize their target audiences. The Hoover vacuum cleaner was no longer being sold to a housewife in Brooklyn, it was being promoted to the housewife segment of America’s middle-class population. Likewise the Parker pen, which was no longer market- ed to that man down the street, but now to ‘The Man on the Street’. And the automo- bile, formerly a mere means of transporta- tion, was elevated in status to be the official vehicle for every modern family. As advertisers began to take advantage of this concept of the mass, the mass itself was having the effect of conglomerating a diverse and growing nation. If the Ford Motor Company was to sell the same Model T to the whole of the country, the advertisers behind the Model T campaign had to find the common threads which bound all the far-flung, would-be car buyers together. In short, as 17
  25. 25. mass marketing continued to proliferate, it had the effect of expanding and solidifying national consciousness. If the makers of Campbell’s Soup were to sell their Cream of Mushroom to every household in America, they first had to commu- nicate the product’s benefits to every household in America. To do this advertisers had to create the image of the idealized American household. This image had to be familiar enough to all who would see it that they would immediately recognize themselves in the picture. These early ads, aimed at the whole of the American consuming public, served not only as product advertisements, but as mirrors, reflecting back to the consumer images of themselves affirming what it was to be a member of the American consuming public. This process was pivotal in creating a mass conscious- ness, a group identity with which modern Americans could identify. Symbolism, subjects, and imagined communities In his work on nationality, Benedict Anderson famously introduces the concept of the ‘imagined community’. Linking the ways that national identities have been formed within the conditions of modernity and capitalist consumption, Anderson points out the ways that “print capitalism brought into being mass publics who began to imagine, through the media, a new type of community: the nation” [1992, p8]. For the public of early twentieth century America, this entailed not only imag- ining themselves as citizens of a newly powerful country, but also as members of a modern era bent on progress and the attainment of the Good Life. How this was accomplished through the advertising media also goes to explaining the power behind the use of mythology as a selling tool. Part of the function of mythology is to link individuals with a greater collective. In advertising it functions as a binding force between the advertisement’s subject and the actual viewer of the ad. In his work on the rise of magazines and consumer culture, Richard Ohmann invokes the Althusserian notion of suture to explain the ways in which advertising interpellates readers, how it binds them to an ideology. “Ads also explain how to participate in society,” he claims. “They tell what mean- 18
  26. 26. ings commodities have for other people, whether just for the ad writer, for the celebrity endorser, for the average user, or for the imaginary people in ad images. So they gesture toward courses of action by which ‘you’ might become like those exemplary people, join their company” [1996, p212]. John Storey takes this further in discussing consumers as subjects. When... I am told by an advertisement that ‘people like you’are turning to this or that product, I am being interpellated as a member of a group, but, more importantly, as an individual ‘you’ of that group. I am addressed as an individual who can recognize myself in the imaginary space opened up by the pronoun ‘you’. Thus I am invited to become the ‘you’ spoken to in the advertisement. But for Althusser, my response to the advertisement’s invitation is an act of ideological ‘misrecognition’. First, it is an act of misrecognition in the sense that in order for the advertisement to work, it must invite many others who must also (mis)recognize themselves in the ‘you’of its discourse. Second, it is a misrecognition in another sense: the ‘you’ I (mis)recognize in the advertisement is in fact a ‘you’ created by the advertisement. Advertising thus flatters us into thinking we are the special ‘you’of its discourse and, by so doing, interpellates us as subjects of and subjected to its material practices. [1998, p97] In this way, modern advertising allowed publics to be treated as a mass by convincing individuals that they were part of a mass. And these new modern subjects were happy to be part of a larger whole. In the confines of an increasingly complex modern society, being connected to other people helped them make sense of the world. It gave them grounding and mean- ing. As this ad for the Association of Laundry Owners illus- trates, advertising can even offer guidlines as to how to be a proper spouse. Naturalizing goods Ideological interpellation and group identity weren’t the only way mythology contributed to con- sumers’ understanding of the world. Richard Ohmann again points out how people gain meaning through consumption, this time not by relating to each other, but by relating to the things they pur- chase: “In re-presenting objects, ads connect them to one another, to situations, to social processes, to us and our desires. They teach us the ‘communicative function of goods’, and the place of goods in ‘our’ way of living and imagining” [1996, p212]. To return to the mythology of advertising, the goods depicted in ads like those for cars, Quaker Oats, and Listerine serve many of the same func- 19
  27. 27. tions as talismans and totems in more conventional notions of mythology. The premodern subject could connect him/herself to the world with some totemic object infused with commonly held symbolic properties. For modern subjects, those objects were consumer goods, ready made and branded by manufacturers in search of a profit. Raymond Williams has described this pattern of symbolic signification as “magic: a highly organized and professional system of magical induce- ments and satisfactions, functionally very similar to magical systems in simpler societies” [1961, p335]. Like magic, Listerine (not just any antiseptic mouthwash) represented one’s commitment to cleanliness and a sanitary life. Quaker Oats, more than F.S., symbolized a consumer’s desire for a strong body and healthy children. The differentiation of these brands was pivotal in mythologizing consumption as the path to happiness. Naturalizing culture Neil Harris suggests that the greater the variety of brands available, the more consumers found their interest in “the object’s symbolic properties” [quoted in Marchand:1985, p342]. Early adver- tisers had hit upon the basic human desire for the Good Life and they tried to convince the public that their desires could be attained through the consumption of individually branded goods that had been infused with mythical symbolism. Again, the premodern corollary to this can be found in the examples of anthropological — even religious — myth: In taking communion with the ‘body’ of Christ, attendees at the last supper used their act of consumption to symbolize not only their col- lective commitment to a higher purpose, but also to each other. In his exploration of consumer cul- ture, Hugh Mackay takes this to its logical modern conclusion, in which branding “becomes the largest mythology of all — that our products are our culture, because it is in consumerism that we most express our sense of social belonging” [Mackay:1997, p123]. As consumers embraced the culture brought about by these commercial products’ symbolic proper- ties, they began to forget the history behind the products themselves. If purchasing a refrigerator could come to represent a consumer’s commitment to modern advancement, it was often over- looked that it was the consumers (in their other role, as producers) that also manufactured these appliances. French theorist Roland Barthes would claim that it was the relationship between 20
  28. 28. mythology and culture that allowed this to happen. In his landmark work on this relationship, Barthes outlines “the very principle of myth: It transforms history into nature” [1972, p116]. Thus the ‘magic system’ — an effective selling technique invented in an attempt to connect with con- sumers’ Good Life aspirations — was also for early industrialists an iron-clad method for natural- izing the process of consumption. Stuart Ewen remarks on how the industrial machine naturalized consumption, encouraging workers to improve their lives by purchasing the very things they creat- ed [1976, p16]. But here Barthes takes the notion one step further, explaining the process by which the fabrication of consumer goods can be removed from the fact of their actual production. In this sense the industrialists enlisted the aid of mythology because myth “is constituted by the loss of the historical quality of things: In it, things lose the memory that they once were made” [1972, p117]. When the symbolic property of a good could be separated from the mundane history of its production, that good would then be free to take on a life of its own as a marker of modernity. To buy such modern items was to be modern; and the more items consumers bought, the more mod- ern they could become. The thoroughly modern consumer To these ends, advertising was employed in the early days not only to sell individual products, but to sell the idea of consumption. The goods on the store shelves were the very building blocks out of which modern citizens could contruct their modern selves. All across the pages of 1920s magazines images of people engaging in acts of progress and advancement could be seen. The example here isn’t just an advertisement for Buick cars specifically, but for the concept of the automobile in general. Perhaps even more, it is an ad for the kind of freedom that could only be afforded to citizens of modernity by an automobile (all the more by this brand of automobile). Such bold imagery was used for products as diverse as washing machines, vacuums, and cigarettes. It was iconography like this that led Raymond Williams to call advertising “the official art of modern capitalist society” [1961, p334]. Following this suggestion sociologist Michael Schudson argues that “advertising imagery can be thought of as capitalism’s equivalent to Soviet ‘social realist’ art in the way which it mythologizes capitalism, 21
  29. 29. and especially US capitalism as a way of life” [quoted in Dee:1999, p63]. Put another way, “adver- tising was where all the ideology of capitalist society was given shape, where competitive con- sumerism ... assumed attractive and concrete images which became diffused throughout all enter- tainment and publicity in an endless ‘spectacle’” [Sinclair:1998, p11]. By the middle of the centu- ry, these spectacles were so ubiquitous that French Situationist Guy Debord came to refer to modernity as the ‘society of the spectacle’. In speaking of the imagery of modern advertising he claims that “the language of the spectacle is composed of signs of the dominant organization of production — signs which are at the same time the ultimate end-products of that organization” [1994, p14]. In this way advertising was at once the product and the message of modern industrial- ism. It spoke in signs which confirmed the relations of consumers to their goods and each other. And they also provided the public with a basic symbolic vocabulary on which to base their under- standing of the modern times in which they lived. In the end, advertising used these mythical signs and symbols to point out the sometimes harsh realities of modernity and offered solutions for living well even in the face of these realities. According to Stuart Ewen, “the logic of contemporaneous advertising read, one can free oneself from the ills of modern life by embroiling oneself in the maintenance of that life” [1976, p44]. Thus was consumer culture born: a product of, and response to, modern industrialism. Consumer culture is created and criticized That advertising played such a prominent role in the transformation of society into a state of mod- ern advancement did not go unannounced by the proponents of early advertising. One would assume advertisers to be masters in the art of self-promotion, and some of the following proclama- tions illustrate well just what they thought of their persuasive powers and just where they placed themselves and their work in the grander picture of modernity. “Advertising aims to teach people that they have wants, which they did not realize before, and where such wants can be best supplied.” —Thompson Red Book on Advertising “Advertising is literature which compels Action... [and] changes the mind of millions at will.” —Lord & Thomas “Advertising modifies the course of a people’s daily wants.” —N.A. Lindsey 22
  30. 30. “My aim in advertising was to do educational and constructive work so as to awaken an interest in and create a demand for cereals where none existed.” —Henry P. Crowell “The advertiser takes the vague discontent or need of the public, changes it into want, and the want into effective desire.” —Emerson P. Harris “Advertising is a powerful force whereby the advertiser creates a demand for a given article in the minds of a great many people or arouses the demand that is already there in latent form.” —Calkins and Holden [all quoted in Ohmann:1996, p109] But these proud proclamations by advertising’s proponents were frequently off-set and overshad- owed by the even louder cries of advertising’s critics. As the ubiquity of advertising increased, and its contribution to a sometimes distasteful and inequitable consumer culture was brought to the fore, the critics of advertising made their voices heard. “I cannot think of any circumstances in which advertising would not be an evil.” —Arnold Toynbee [quoted in Kirkpatrick:1994, p1] “Advertising is an instrument of moral, as well as intellectual, miseducation. Insofar as it succeeds in influencing peo- ple’s minds, it conditions them not to think for themselves. It is intentionally hypnotic in its effect. It makes people suggestible and docile. In fact it prepares them for a totalitarian regime!” —Arnold Toynbee [quoted in Assael:1963, p434] The tone of many of these criticisms of advertising would continue to reverberate for decades. To this day, the vast majority of critiques of advertising fall into one of two types: critiques of adver- tising as demand creation and the duping of an innocent public; and critiques of advertising as a base and lowly form of mass culture. While these reproofs of advertising may have been at least partially valid during the age of modernity, their accuracy has waned over time. Eventually the conditions that gave rise to modernity began to change, and with those changes so too did the nature of consumption and advertising. If both the proponents and detractors of modern advertis- ing pointed to the coercive power held by the ads, a new form of power came into existence as modernity began to evolve. Dwight Macdonald has pointed out the oft-cited curse of mass culture, claiming that it is imposed from above, created by technicians hired by businessmen, and that “its audiences are passive consumers, their participation limited to the choice between buying and not buying” [1957, p23]. As modernity began to transform itself into an ever more complex social and cultural system, that mode of participation was greatly expanded. In the next chapter I will elabo- rate on these shifts within modernity, and will detail the new power of the audience. 23
  31. 31. Chapter Two: Audience Agency in the Information Age The rise of information society Whereas the relationship between advertising and the emergence of industrial modernity has been effectively documented, little work has been done on the relationship between contemporary adver- tising and the socioeconomic conditions of postindustrial postmodernity. Thanks to the efforts of twentieth century structural functionalists and Marxists, we now take for granted that the condi- tions we have come to identify with modernity derived in large part from the economic transfor- mations of industrial capitalism. As many of the conditions heretofore identified with modernity began to metamorphose in the late 1900s, a small but significant group of sociologists, econo- mists, and critical theorists began to investigate the societal changes and their potential explana- tions. Theorists as diverse as Alvin Toffler, Alain Touraine, Daniel Bell, Zygmunt Bauman, Scott Lash and John Urry, and Manuel Castells have all tried to find causality for the genesis of post- modernity. Their research offers a functional explanation for the transformations of modernity that began to take place in the latter half of the twentieth century. Of these, the sociological works of Lash and Urry and the economic work of Castells have come the closest to employing the kind of historical and empirical rigor in explaining the advent of postmodernity that their predecessors did with modernity. Following Toffler’s concept of the ‘third wave’, in which agriculture and industrialism come to be replaced by an information society, Manuel Castells offers an exhaustive overview of the ways that advanced capitalist economies have changed in recent years, and how these economic changes are manifested socially [Lyon:1988, p2]. Castells’s historical account of the late twentieth century, rich with statistical detail, documents the transition of a capitalist economy focused on producing goods to one geared toward the production of information. In accounts of modern society’s emer- gence into an economy dominated by industrialism, much credit is given to advances in technology and industrial machinery that allowed goods to be produced in record numbers and distributed in record time to large portions of the population. Likewise in Castells’s portrayal of the advent of postindustrialism, it is the technology of production itself that allows for a radical transformation 24
  32. 32. in both the type and availability of postindustrial products. “The emergence of a new technological paradigm organized around new, more powerful, and more flexible information technologies makes it possible for information itself to become the product of the production process” [2000, p78]. In this example, it is the very tools of production and drives for increased market share themselves — however intensified — that changed the nature of industrial capitalism. If mass communications were aimed at increasing demand for industrial products, then it was the radical proliferation of communications that eventually increased demand for communication itself. Knowledge and infor- mation thereby became the primary products of postindustrialism. Hence the information age was born. And like the industrial age before it, in which the kinds and quantities of products available gave birth to grand societal transformations, the citizens of the information society were faced with many new modes of consumption. Castells goes on to point out the types of products that typify the new consumer goods in the infor- mation age. Foremost among consumption options for members of the information society are the media. As the industrial revolution enabled the production of machinery that would make media and mass communications possible, the information revolution contributed to the proliferation of media forms across multiple channels of distribution. Castells offers insightful figures for the expansion of all media forms, from the multiplication of radio and television channels, to the emergence of new computer-mediated communications such as the internet, to the rapid growth in the number of magazine and book titles available on the shelves. According to Castells, people in the information society spend more time consuming knowledge and information than any other product. In fact, “the predominant pattern of behavior around the world seems to be that in urban societies media consumption is the second largest category of activity after work” [2000, p362]. But that is really only half of the equation. Just as in industrial society, where citizens were occu- pied not only in consuming goods but in producing them, a large percentage of labor in the infor- mation age necessarily goes into the production of information. Lyon and Castells also illustrate the changing face of the work force in this information society, but it is in the work of sociologists Lash and Urry and Pierre Bourdieu that many of the facets of a labor force engaged in producing knowledge are explored. In their book Economies of Signs and Space, Lash and Urry detail many 25
  33. 33. of the effects of having a large portion of the population working in the culture-producing indus- tries. It is their contention that, with ever increasing numbers of employees dedicated to producing TV shows, movies, music, and magazines, media consumption is not only a major category of activity after work — for a growing percentage of the labor force it is also the primary category of activity during work [1994]. They then go on to explore some of the constituent effects on the information society of having a population actively and constantly engaged in the production and consumption of knowledge. The new cultural intermediaries However, the continued growth in the late 1900s of a substantial work force involved in media pro- duction was not sufficient to affect a new social order by itself. Instead, theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu have pointed to the interaction between these media producers and influential media con- sumers as one of the defining distinctions of postmodernity. Citing Pierre Bourdieu’s social cri- tique of taste, Mike Featherstone emphasizes the “need to look at artists, intellectuals and academ- ics as specialists in symbolic production and consider their relationship to other symbolic special- ists in the media, and those engaged in consumer culture, popular culture and fashion occupations” [1991, p10]. This group of influential professionals, dubbed the ‘new cultural intermediaries’ by Bourdieu [1984], arose from the burgeoning service industry of the postindustrial era, but were also broadly informed by the aesthetics of the 1960s counterculture. In their new role they acted as both producers/disseminators and consumers/audiences for cultural goods, rapidly circulating information between heretofore out-of-touch groups. Further identifying this new creature of post- modernity, Featherstone writes: Given conditions of an increasing supply of symbolic goods (Touraine, 1985), demand grows for cultural specialists and intermediaries who have the capacity to ransack various traditions and cul- tures in order to produce new symbolic goods, and in addition provide the necessary interpretations on their use. Their habitus, dispositions and lifestyle preferences are such that they identify with artists and intellectuals, yet under conditions of the de-monopolization of artistic and intellectual commodity enclaves they have the apparent contradictory interests of sustaining the prestige and cul- tural capital of these enclaves, while at the same time popularizing and making them more accessible to wider audiences. [Featherstone:1991, p19] These new cultural intermediaries were therefore saddled with the responsibility of helping ordi- nary audiences interpret the growing array of cultural transmission available to them. Their posi- 26
  34. 34. tion in postmodern society was, accordingly, highly influential. However, within this already influ- ential group of people, there were some engaged in certain occupations whose influence was even more profound. Among this elite list of cultural occupations, Featherstone proclaims that the advertiser is uniquely influential. It is worth noting, though, that this description of influence dif- fers largely from that described by earlier critics of advertising. Gone are the charges of advertis- ers’ uncompassionate persuasion techniques, their subliminal messages, and their reification of the vulgar. Instead, this new theory of cultural interpretation relies on a notion of a more empowered consumer, one that had the resources of circulated information at his/her disposal, one that didn’t need to take every cultural transmission at face value. Agency and postmodernity One of the defining characteristics of modernity was the pervasion of ‘mass culture’. Mass culture theorists saw the atomization of modern subjects, saw a sprawling and disconnected mass being bombarded by one-way messages, and saw this uniform cultural dissemination as all pervasive and evil. In the case of these mass theorists on advertising, they attacked this mass culture from the left, declaring that it was merely commercial propaganda aimed at supporting the capitalist base of an industrial economy. The toned-down version of their arguments — as described in the first chapter — were eminently believable, but as society began to change so too did the nature of com- munications. One aspect of postindustrial society that Lash and Urry comment on in great depth is the expan- sion of individual reflexivity. To them, the growth in reflexivity is a product of increasing individu- alization in the wake of high modernity, coupled with an expansion in the structured forms of communication flows. This reflexivity allows individuals to consider the flows of knowledge and information that they are subject to, and eventually to evaluate them on their own terms. Thus indi- viduals are granted increased agency, which, in turn, allows them to interpret communications messages not as disconnected units within a mass, but as well-connected nodes in what Deleuze and Guattari [1987] have referred to as a rhizomatic structure. In Lash and Urry’s terms, the increasing individualization that gave rise to atomization in the mass communications structures of 27
  35. 35. modernity have resulted in a process “in which agency is set free from structure, a process in which, further, it is structural change itself in modernization that so to speak forces agency to take on powers that heretofore lay in social structures themselves” [1994, p5]. The same conditions of industrialized modernity that have produced the atomized individual — residential suburbaniza- tion, a segmented labor force, generalized media flows, and the shrinkage of secondary communi- cation groups — have been carried to their extreme and have resulted in the isolated individual agent. This isolation eventuated in increasing reflexivity, as the individual lacked the grounding to consider much outside of his/her own world. To put it succinctly, the changing nature of communi- cation models at the end of the industrial age gave birth to information society and the notion of the reflexive agent. Here I will discuss the benefits of this reflexivity; in a later section I will begin to highlight its drawbacks. These notions of agency and reflexivity would go a long way to explaining a number of the condi- tions of postmodernity, while at the same time illustrating the shortcomings of modernist theory. As Lash and Urry, Castells, and others have illustrated, the shift from an economy dominated by industrial production to information production has had a number of profound effects. Clearly the amount of information being produced has grown significantly. Also, the channels by which infor- mation is disseminated have drastically multiplied and decentralized. As more and more informa- tion is produced, and more people are left with more time, finances, and cultural capital with which to consume this information, the demand for knowledge and information continues to expand. These are both the continued cause and effect of increased information production and consumption. But there is another side-effect of all these increases: Schudson has shown that as consumers gain access to more information, the agency of those consumers is expanded [1984, p91]. The effect of this is that, as a consumer’s agency increases, so too does his/her ability to offer a unique and indi- vidual interpretation of the information being consumed. Of course this has a snowballing effect: As an agent is able to interpret messages toward his/her own ends, whatever meaning that agent grants to a message is then added to the producer’s intended meaning, thereby essentially doubling the amount of information contained in that one message. As agency and the volume of informa- 28
  36. 36. tion increase, this effect will become exponential, particularly if the meanings assigned to symbols by consumers differ from those of the producers. Michel de Certeau has explained this effect, claiming that “to a rationalized, expansionist and at the same time centralized, clamorous, and spectacular production corresponds another production, called ‘consumption’” [1984, p484]. This has been confirmed by Walter Benjamin, who sees that “the greatly increased mass of participation has produced a change in the mode of participation” [1968, p234]. In this view, the reader itself gains access to authorship. Making meanings In her classic structural/Marxist exploration of decoding advertising, Judith Williamson goes to great lengths detailing the way that ads work in a modern capitalist system. Invoking the tech- niques of earlier Frankfurt School theorists like Adorno, Williamson explains how advertising works by emphasizing the exchange-value of a good over its original use-value, thereby freeing the commodity up to take on a secondary use-value. Using the language of Saussurian structural lin- guistics, she illustrates how advertising seeks to conflate signifiers and signifieds. In this configu- ration, a good is given a symbolic property beyond its original function. The modern advertiser may construct an ad in such a way that a box of chocolates would come to mean ‘love’ or a luxury car mean ‘success’. In her view, modern advertising worked by forcing consumers into “taking the sign for what it signifies, the thing for the feeling” [1978, p12]. The ersatz use-value thus estab- lished, the link between product and symbolic meaning is thus concretized. But this formulation all turns on a scarcity of interpretations for any given sign. In modernity, communications flows were limited and highly controlled; the people who owned the distribution of media also had a virtual monopoly on the production of signifiers, and thereby the connoted meaning of the media they produced. Consumers could be forced to conflate chocolate and ‘love’ because their information environment was impoverished. As the information channels began to expand, though, this monop- oly was broken. When there is a one-on-one relationship between signifier and signified, advertis- ing may work as simply as Williamson explained, but as efforts in poststructuralist theory have 29
  37. 37. since shown, one distinct consequence of the information age has been an over-abundance of potential symbols for interpretation. As has been discussed, one result of postindustrialism has been a glut in cultural products. As Lash and Urry seek to illustrate, this increase in actual cultural messages and the means by which they are disseminated has flooded the symbolic landscape. “With an ever quickening turnover time, objects as well as cultural artefacts become disposable and depleted of meaning. Some of these objects, such as computers, television sets, VCRs and hi-fis, produce many more cultural artefacts or signs (‘signifiers’) than people can cope with. People are bombarded with signifiers and increasingly becoming incapable of attaching ‘signifieds’ or meanings to them” [1994, p2]. What’s more, this proliferation of signifiers has outpaced the producers’ability to singularly manage the impressions of their meanings. Without carefully constructed denotations for all the signs they are confronted with, the public is now free, as Benjamin and de Certeau pointed out earlier, to offer their own interpretations. But this again is only half the picture; there has been a rush to fill this vacuum of meaning for sig- nifiers. For every signifier without a signified in this era of postmodernity, there is an ever-increas- ing number of signifiers with multiple signifieds. In technical terms, this polysemy derives not from referentially produced meanings, but by a lack of such meaning. Two poststructuralist semi- oticians have both approached these issues of polysemy and the derivation of meaning. Julia Kristeva introduced the notion of intertextuality, in which “several utterances taken from other texts intersect and neutralize one another” in the space of a given text. This same text, according to Barthes, “is experienced only in an activity of production” [both quoted in Harland:1987, p168]. Thus both are interested in exploring the way that, in a postindustrial landscape of heightened flows of information, there is a new ‘freedom of the Reader’, turning the individual into a ‘speak- ing subject’. As an example, the luxury car mentioned above can come to mean not only ‘success’, as the advertiser may have intended, but alternately ‘ostentation’ as interpreted by an individual with enough agency to see the sign for what it is. This is all a function of the amount of informa- tion being produced and disseminated. The more information flowing in a cultural space, the greater the individual’s possibility of increased knowledge. As Bauman explains, “accessibility of 30
  38. 38. tokens for self-assembly varies from agent to agent, depending mostly on the resources that a given agent commands. Increasingly, the most strategic role among the resources is played by knowledge; the growth of individually appropriated knowledge widens the range of assembly pat- terns which can be realistically chosen” [1992, p195]. When an individual is exposed to enough information, his/her understanding — and thereby resources — will become less impoverished, and this enrichment will result in a greater possibility for alternate interpretations of the connota- tive signs of would-be advertisers. As this range of interpretation grows, so too does the polysemy of advertising messages. In modernity one product had one attributed symbol, in postmodernity one product has multiple symbols. The individual thus removed from the one-way mass communi- cations of social control that Williamson illustrated, we see again that the functional explanation for this rise in polysemy is highly intertwined with the notion of increased audience agency. The habitat of agency As has been discussed above, structural changes in the economy and communications flows of postindustrialism have resulted in increased channels of information and in a decentered audience of consumers. The more divergent pieces of information one individual is exposed to, the greater that individual’s chance for perspective. In turn, the greater the individual’s perspective, the greater the chance for varied interpretations for any given signifier. Not only might the individual agent assign a meaning to a cultural product contrary to the producer’s intent, but that same agent might assign a number of different meanings to the signifier, depending on the agent’s relationship to the rest of the cultural world. If the individual happens to be one of Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural interme- diaries, sitting the fence between the artist and the market as bona fide culture-bearer, it is entirely possible that the agent may have two diametrically opposed signifieds for one signifier. It is impor- tant, therefore, to do as postmodern sociologist Zygmunt Bauman suggests, and look not only at agency, but “on the habitat in which agency operates and which it produces in the course of opera- 31
  39. 39. tion” [1994, p190]. For him, it is in the habitat that both symbol production and meaning-assign- ment are made possible. The prospect of polysemy and the range of meanings that may be assigned to any given cultural product are therefore dependent on the type of culturescape in which any individual operates. If the agent occupies a knowledge-rich habitat, then a wealth of tokens will be available for any com- bination of assembly or dissembly. Some habitats, like those occupied by the new cultural interme- diaries are veritable cornucopias of knowledge and information. But even the habitats of normal citizens continue to become increasingly culture rich, as evidence of the consumption patterns of the urban West has shown. The end result is not only a symbolic field in which more and more sig- nifiers are produced each day, but also one in which each signifier can have a bewildering array of attached meanings. This overload of signs is one of the contributing factors toward what Jameson among others have referred to as postmodern schizophrenia [Storey:1998, p34]. The postmodern schizophrenic is con- stantly drawn in different directions by his/her divergent interests. For the typical audience mem- ber, this may be their simultaneous position as both consumers and advocates of nonconsumption. For cultural intermediaries like advertisers, this may be their oppositional status as people involved in both in the production of commerce and culture, and in the spreading of influence and informa- tion. The institutional ties, wrought by postmodernity, between the commerce and cultural indus- tries have produced powerful new conglomerates like the Sony Corporation, whose physical prod- ucts (CD Walkmans, Trinitron TV sets) can be used to disseminate its cultural products (Sony Music artists, Sony Pictures movies). As Jensen says, this sort of “conglomeration breeds intertex- tuality” [1995, p258]. The cultural intermediary, often employed by such conglomerates, is faced daily with the charge of dealing with this increasing intertextuality. Like the chaotic internal dia- logue going on inside the head of a person with multiple personality disorder, this intertextuality, in which texts intertwine — often with divergent messages and meanings — is another symptom of this schizophrenia. In this case, postmodern schizophrenia has supplanted modern atomized anomie (described by Max Weber, among others) as the dominant cultural malady. In the face of this sort of schizophrenia, one of the only palliatives afforded those stricken is an increasing 32
  40. 40. reflexivity. I mentioned earlier how Lash and Urry’s structural explanation for today’s reflexive individual lies in an increasing “pervasion of information and communication structures” [1994, p6]. Now, however, I would add that internal conflict among individual agents is a large factor con- tributing to a state of contemporary hyper-reflexivity. Reflexive engagement with the world The reflexivity of the postmodern citizen is largely the defining characteristic of life in an era of postindustrial formations. It is borne out in many ways, particularly among the new cultural inter- mediaries, but its primary effect is a sort of hyperconsciousness, in which those affected interact with the world in an almost exclusively referential manner. Flooded with signs and symbols, the only way to make any sense of any of them is to play one off the other in a never-ending stream of historical and cultural references. But the average subject in capitalism hasn’t always interacted with the world in such a reflexive manner. During the days of early industrial modernity, there was less a sense of history than of destiny. For those who were benefiting from the advances made under a world organized around industrial production (i.e. those same capitalists discussed in the first chapter), the ideal was very much one of progress. There was no sense in looking backward for reference; all that was good was to be found by looking forward to the future. Such were the ideas espoused by the advertising myths of the early 1900s. Modern citizens were yet to be exposed to information and communica- tions flows on such a massive scale, and they were afforded little agency with which to reflect on the messages of the ads they were exposed to. The message for all during modernity was unified: The future was a bright and beautiful place, and the harder they worked and the more they con- sumed, the quicker they would get there. Without reflexive agency, one had to either accept or deny this. For those who chose to deny this progressive vision of a better world through capitalism, there was still no real form of historical reference. It is no coincidence that the tenets of Marxism were born at the same time as industrial modernity — they are a reaction to it, a denial of modernity’s opti- 33
  41. 41. mistic worldview. Marxists denied the capitalists’ version of a perfect future based on consump- tion. But their outlook too was entirely oriented in progress. Like the industrial capitalists, the Marxists lacked any referential perspective. The capitalists viewed a future of free-flowing economies and happy consumer/citizens; the future of the Marxists foretold of a classless utopia in which laborers would own their own means of production. For both, their view of the past and present was equally overshadowed by the future. And if the outlook didn’t look too rosy, the natu- ral choice in modernity was to resist; to struggle to create the ideal future that they envisioned. But what if the postmodern citizen wants to engage in resistance? Certainly the transformations of postindustrialization can offer him/her many more and varied modes of resistance. But perhaps the same transformation can offer no more than many modes of reflexivity. Truly, in today’s cul- turescape of increased agency, polysemy, and intertextuality, an individual’s options for reference are vastly increased over his/her modern forebears. No longer limited to looking to the future, postmodern ‘speaking subjects’ increasingly chose to refer to and embrace the fragmented past. Those wishing to make a break from the stifling limitations of modernity have eschewed many of its headier pronouncements. In his now famous proclamation, Jean-François Lyotard defines post- modernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives” [quoted in Storey:1998, p346]. These include such grand notions as capitalist progress and the Marxist End of History. Instead, as Baudrillard has said in another famous quip, all the postmodern subject is left to do “is to play with the pieces” of past culture [quoted in Kellner:1988, p247]. But of course, for all these individuals only recently entered into the postindustrial age, the overwhelming majority of pieces that get left to play with are those left over from the recent past of capitalist industrial modernity. The postmodern commodity When the words and ideas of postmodernity first started appearing on the cultural and academic fields late in the twentieth century, there was great debate as to what they all meant and as to what a shift to the postmodern might entail. Lyotard characterized postmodernity as an epochal shift in society, but as it has been shown numerous times now, this sort of explanation relies heavily on the same sort of metanarrativity that the postmodern supposedly put to rest. In contrast, Fredric 34
  42. 42. Jameson saw postmodernity as merely an extension — a ‘cultural logic’ — of the latest form of multinational capitalism. Somewhere between these two explanations probably lies the right answer. So what exactly is implied by the prefix ‘post’? To many, the ‘post’ may refer to a fundamental rupture with modernity, a leaving behind, a moving on. But that smacks too much of the same ideal of progress that postmodernity abnegates. Instead, the ‘post’ can best be understood as an inscription: All that modernity was — and much more besides — is fully inscribed within the post- modern. Within its borders, postmodernity includes all the social structures that were modernity, only in a much more disorganized manner. And the same goes for the cultural outputs of postmod- ernism. As Lash and Urry claim, “postmodernism is not so much a critique or radical refusal of modernism, but its radical exaggeration” [1994, p3]. Andreas Huyssens has a similar take: “Postmodernism is far from making modernism obsolete. On the contrary, it casts a new light on it and appropriates many of its aesthetic strategies and techniques inserting them and making them work in new constellations” [1986, p146]. In other words, to theorize postmodernity is not neces- sarily to abandon all the work of the theorists of modernity. Rather, it is to appreciate their insights on culture, capitalism, and consumerism, but to adapt them to an unstable and inflated societal condition. Just as modernity was born of capitalist industrialism, postmodernity was born of capi- talist postindustrialism. Within the information age, too, are all the characteristics of the industrial age. One must still be careful, though, not to fall into the trap of theorizing postmodernity or postindustrialism as simple extensions of their predecessors. Zygmunt Bauman sums it up well in the following passage: Postmodernity is not a transitory departure from the ‘normal state’of modernity; neither is it a dis- eased state of modernity, an ailment likely to be rectified, a case of ‘modernity in crisis’. It is, instead, a self-reproducing, pragmatically self-sustainable and logically self-contained social condi- tion defined by distinctive features of its own. A theory of postmodernity therefore cannot be a mod- ified theory of modernity, a theory of modernity with a set of negative markers. [1992, p188] In trying to provide a theoretical overview of postmodernity as it relates to advertising, I have tried to keep these sometimes conflicting principles in mind: While postmodernity may be an entirely self-contained societal condition, it is still driven by the interests of postindustrial capitalism. And since I am looking at advertising — one particular cultural product of this condition — I must 35
  43. 43. always consider that postmodernism is, as Kellner has stated “ultimately an intensification of the sort of dynamism, restless quest for novelty, experimentation, and constant revolutionizing of life that is associated with modernity” [1988, p254]. This is especially important as it relates to capital- ism, and the never-ending search for consumers in a space increasingly flooded with goods, both physical and symbolic. Advertising may have delivered the age of modern industrialism by mythologizing the consump- tion process and creating the modern consumer, but there has never been a time of more potential consumption than during postmodernity. In the next chapter I outline how these shifts from moder- nity to postmodernity have necessitated a change in the mode of cultural production. For audience members and cultural intermediaries alike (of which advertising professionals occupy a prominent role) the consumption and production of culture is increasingly done in a reflexive manner. The perceived need of advertisers to differentiate their products in a market awash with goods and information has thus been met with a dominant new language in advertising. Written by and for the reflexive postindustrial consumer, contemporary print ads use the language of postmodern irony to communicate with the new agential audience of the information age. 36