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)

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 output, 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 naturalize the consumption process. They used mythology to make modernity and consumption synonymous 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 prevalence of postindustrial products of culture heralded the arrival of postmodernity. Within this postmodernity, the same advertising methods that were once used in an effort to tame the older industrial 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 information 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 members 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 postmodernity, 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 advertising was implemented by certain postindustrial cultural producers in an attempt to communicate with this new consumer.


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.


Brian Curtis


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.


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


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)


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)



The history

It has been well documented that the world underwent a major structural change early in the twentieth 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 condition that would come to be known as modernity. Many scholars have illustrated how this emergence into modernity coincided almost perfectly with an increasing influence of industry, capitalism, 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 condition entirely new and unrecognized. Just as scholars have illustrated the coincidence of capitalism 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 intensification 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 postmodern.

*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.


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 economic 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 modernity 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 modern 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 economic: 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


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 advertising 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 anything 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 influenced 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 relationship 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 recognized 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 examination 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

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 stratagems 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 (modernity), 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 demonstrate that postmodernity need not imply a complete break from the state of modernity. The conditions 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

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 theorists 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 hegemony 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 interested 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 within 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

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 advertising 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 conjure 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 postmodernity (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.


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 correct in characterizing the ironist as someone for whom “his wariness becomes a mistrust of language 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 postmodernity, irony is the very language by which “he disowns his words” [1999, pxi].


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 prosperity. 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 unprecedented 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 purchase 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-production, 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 consumer 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 provide some sort of variation on a common theme: As more and more goods chased after the same

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 population” [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 twentieth 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 rudimentary 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 product features or consumer benefits, they merely brought attention to goods that were currently available for purchase. 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

migration from rural areas continued to increase the populations of urban areas in nineteenth century 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 produced 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 medicines 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-sounding brand names, and some developed flashy logos and packaging, all in an effort to lure customers. This advertisement for Dr. Kilmer’s is

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 attention been paid to issues of advertising and product packaging, and many of the techniques discovered 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 consumption 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 — newspapers were experiencing a surge in growth and readership. The sheer size of the new mass readership 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-


facturer could now reach as many people in a day as street-side advertisements would have previously 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 advertise 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

advertising agency, which attempted to attract the buying 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 products and started selling the benefits of products that they assumed their modern role as myth-makers. As one cultural anthropologist explains:
Advertising performs in modern society much the same function that myth performs in other societies. 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


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 conservative 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 examples 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 particular. 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 advertising campaigns. F.S. ran stark newspaper ads extolling the healthful virtues and low costs of eat14

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 testimonials 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 competition 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 massive 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 superior 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 simple and general antiseptic. But when the makers of Listerine wanted to expand its customer base, they found the most success in not just converting 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

short history of advertising, and its protagonists considered heroes and pioneers. Whereas Quaker Oats had succeeded by positively reinforcing 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 conjunction 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 copywriter 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

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 individual consumption habits may vary, there were always certain goods that would be beneficial to the whole population.

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 marketed to that man down the street, but now to ‘The Man on the Street’. And the automobile, formerly a mere means of transportation, 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

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 communicate 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 consciousness, 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 imagining 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 mean18

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 meaning. As this ad for the Association of Laundry Owners illustrates, 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 consumers’ 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 purchase: “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 func19

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 inducements 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 advertisers 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 collective commitment to a higher purpose, but also to each other. In his exploration of consumer culture, 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 properties, 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 overlooked 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

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 consumers’ Good Life aspirations — was also for early industrialists an iron-clad method for naturalizing 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 created [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 modern 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,

and especially US capitalism as a way of life” [quoted in Dee:1999, p63]. Put another way, “advertising was where all the ideology of capitalist society was given shape, where competitive consumerism ... assumed attractive and concrete images which became diffused throughout all entertainment and publicity in an endless ‘spectacle’” [Sinclair:1998, p11]. By the middle of the century, 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 industrialism. 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 understanding 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 modern 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 proclamations 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


“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 overshadowed 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 people’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 advertising 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 advertising 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 elaborate on these shifts within modernity, and will detail the new power of the audience.


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 advertising 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 conditions we have come to identify with modernity derived in large part from the economic transformations 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, economists, and critical theorists began to investigate the societal changes and their potential explanations. 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 postmodernity. 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 emergence 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

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 information 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 information 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 occupied not only in consuming goods but in producing them, a large percentage of labor in the information 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

of the effects of having a large portion of the population working in the culture-producing industries. 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 production 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 consumers as one of the defining distinctions of postmodernity. Citing Pierre Bourdieu’s social critique of taste, Mike Featherstone emphasizes the “need to look at artists, intellectuals and academics as specialists in symbolic production and consider their relationship to other symbolic specialists 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 postmodernity, 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 cultures 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 cultural 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 ordinary audiences interpret the growing array of cultural transmission available to them. Their posi26

tion in postmodern society was, accordingly, highly influential. However, within this already influential 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 differs largely from that described by earlier critics of advertising. Gone are the charges of advertisers’ 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 communications.

One aspect of postindustrial society that Lash and Urry comment on in great depth is the expansion of individual reflexivity. To them, the growth in reflexivity is a product of increasing individualization 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 individuals 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

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 suburbanization, a segmented labor force, generalized media flows, and the shrinkage of secondary communication 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 communication 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 conditions 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 information is disseminated have drastically multiplied and decentralized. As more and more information 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 individual 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 informa28

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 techniques 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 linguistics, she illustrates how advertising seeks to conflate signifiers and signifieds. In this configuration, 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 established, 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 monopoly was broken. When there is a one-on-one relationship between signifier and signified, advertising may work as simply as Williamson explained, but as efforts in poststructuralist theory have


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 signifiers. For every signifier without a signified in this era of postmodernity, there is an ever-increasing 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 semioticians 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 ‘speaking 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 information 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

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 patterns 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 connotative 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 communications 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 intermediaries, 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 important, 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-


tion” [1994, p190]. For him, it is in the habitat that both symbol production and meaning-assignment 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 combination of assembly or dissembly. Some habitats, like those occupied by the new cultural intermediaries 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 signifiers 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 constantly drawn in different directions by his/her divergent interests. For the typical audience member, 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 information. The institutional ties, wrought by postmodernity, between the commerce and cultural industries have produced powerful new conglomerates like the Sony Corporation, whose physical products (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 intertextuality” [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 dialogue 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

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 contributing 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 intermediaries, 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 communications 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 consumed, 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 opti33

mistic worldview. Marxists denied the capitalists’ version of a perfect future based on consumption. 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 natural 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 culturescape 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 postmodernism 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

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 postmodern. 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 postmodernism. 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 necessarily 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 capitalist 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 diseased 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 condition defined by distinctive features of its own. A theory of postmodernity therefore cannot be a modified 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

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 capitalism, 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 consumption 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 modernity 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.


Chapter Three: The Rise and Rise of Irony

It is nothing new to say that irony is one of the defining characteristics of the postmodern. Since its early days postmodernism has been marked by its adoption of the techniques of irony, parody, and pastiche. As postmodern actors have been left to ‘play with the pieces’of past civilizations, irony has become a primary mode and extension of this playfulness. In his work Horizons of Assent, Alan Wilde looks at the study of irony in its historical context. He concludes that postmodern irony should be understood “as a mode of consciousness, a perceptual response to a world without unity or cohesion” [1981, p2]. More than just a mode of consciousness, though, I want to continue with my Barthesian analogy of myth as a form of speech. I wish to characterize irony too as a mode of signification, however different in form to myth. If myth indeed is “depoliticized speech,” [1972, p117] then irony is, to borrow a phrase from the previous chapter, the radical exaggeration of depoliticized speech.

For such a claim to plausible, it is important to understand what Barthes means by the term ‘depoliticized speech’. Here Barthes speaks of political in its deeper, Aristotelian meaning, “as describing the whole of human relations in their real, social structure, in their power of making the world.” And in his use of the prefix de-, Barthes views it as an active defaulting, a removal of the fabricated quality of the political. In this sense, the world is “without contradictions because it is without depth” [1972, p117]. Here myth, as speech which has been depoliticized, gives things eternal and unquestionable justification. In many ways irony too gives things a natural justification. But it does this not necessarily in the same way that myth does. When I characterize irony as an exaggeration of depoliticized speech, I am making use of political not only in the same way that Barthes employed the term. I am also making use of the more conventional, contemporary understanding of the political. Here it refers to speech which has both actively flattened out its social and historical context, but which has also been irreparably removed from the politics of its creation. In essence, irony is speech that within itself subsumes any possibility for real political resistance. It too works by creating a world without depth, but it goes the step further by creating a selfawareness of the world’s own shallowness. This world is without contradictions because all of its


possible contradictions have already been taken account of and made visible. That is how postmodern irony works. What follows is an explanation of how it came to work that way.

Resistance: Is it futile?

Whatever happened to modern political resistance? If, as countless critics contend, the metanarrativity of Marxist politics no longer obtains during postmodernity, what is left? Surely with the increase in individual audience agency that postindustrialism wrought, the opportunity for bona fide resistance should now be greater than ever. Dick Hebdige, foremost among many, has pointed to the numerous ways that postmodern actors are able to make use of the objects and channels available to them to offer a resistance to the dominant ideologies surrounding them. In his work on subcultures, Hebdige illustrates how members of disempowered groups are able to co-opt the signs and symbols of late industrial culture and re-appropriate them, effectively using these symbols against the system [1979]. It is through this process of polysemic negotiation of meaning that marginal groups are able to gain a voice in the overcrowded cacophony of postmodernity. Other Birmingham cultural studies theorists have gone on to celebrate this power of resistance in the face of late industrialism. From the veneration of the advent of the punks and their Dadaist destruction of culture, to the reverence for cyberfreaks and their quest to hack into mainframes of mainstream ideology, the Birmingham School has shown itself as the champion of the underdog.

But as we’ve gotten further into the information age, cracks have started to appear in the optimism of these resistance celebrants. Whereas the Mods may have been parodying the clean-cut image of suburban British youth, and the Teddy Boys may have been making a pastiche of the high-culture aspirations of Edwardian style and class, it became increasingly apparent that these forms of resistance were in the end little more than mediated acts of consumption. The old bugbear of Gramscian hegemony began to rear its head again as it looked like the only way these subcultures could resist the values and politics of the dominant culture was through purchasing the products of that culture. In order for one to show disapproval of the policies of Thatcherite or Reagonian economics, one had little choice other than to engage in that very system of economic activity. Granted, this engagement was more or less on their own terms, but it doesn’t escape the fact that for many wish38

ing to criticize consumer culture, dissent could only be achieved through resistant consumption of that culture.

Many have gone on to point out that the hegemonic forces of postindustrialism didn’t end there. As the commercial forces that increasingly saw their products being consumed and co-opted by these oppositional cultures began to take notice of the potential of this new market segment, whole new product ranges were deployed to meet that demand. As Hebdige, Thomas Frank, and others have illustrated, style itself was soon being marketed to any group that wanted to go against the mainstream. In this extreme exaggeration of consumer culture, an individual no longer had to construct his/her own polysemic assembly of material signs and symbols. Now the consumer could buy ready-packaged combinations of music and accessories, pre-assembled outfits of clothing that came with anti-bourgeois insignias already stitched on. As Frank has pointed out in numerous books from the Conquest of Cool to One Market Under God, cultural producers were increasingly “commodifying the dissent” of these oppositional groups. And, as many have also shown, advertising agencies were playing a large part in this commodification.

Stuart Ewen, who brought to light the effects of the early industrial ‘captains of consciousness’ has also noticed this more recent trend. He discusses how the advertising industry has appropriated the lingo and styles of various resistance movements. Touching on postmodern themes of an increased flow of goods and information, he notes that, “while advertising of the twenties spoke against the deprivations of scarcity, an increasing amount of today’s advertising and product imagery speak to the deprivations of what has been called ‘abundance’. Within advertising, the social realm of resistance is reinterpreted, at times colonized, for corporate benefit” [1976, p218]. Even Hebdige, in his later work, realizes the extent to which he once underestimated the power of commercial culture. Ten years after the original publication of Subculture, he revisits previously explored areas to explain how what appeared to be the organic beginnings of such oppositional cultures as the punk movement were almost immediately hegemonized and expanded upon by a variety of marketing forces [1988, p17]. As it turns out, in the face of postindustrial audience segmentation, the advertising industry has had to revamp its approach to marketing. One distinguishing effect of the postmodern decentralization of culture is the emergence of diverse and varied niche cultures, each

with its own profit potential. As these markets continued to multiply, advertisers scrambled to catch up – and communicate – with them.

Tracking down the consumer

Despite the individual agent’s limitation of action within the world of capitalist consumption, that world has continued to grow ever more convoluted in the conditions of postindustrial postmodernity. It may only be one world, but within it there is much room to move. Whereas the goal of the 1920s advertisers was to create the modern consumer, the goal of contemporary advertisers is to find and communicate with the postmodern consumer. In order to come to grips with this state of complex postmodernity, many advertising agencies have begun to adopt the practices of those disciplines that first sought to theorize postmodernity.

Postmodern sociologist Michel Maffesoli has invoked classical anthropology to describe the phenomenon of what he sees as like-minded ‘tribes’ of media consumers coming together to help make sense of the world [1996]. Following from this, a number of prominent advertising agencies have developed what they call ‘account planning’ divisions, using pseudo-anthropological techniques to get at the heart of what brings people together and what compels them to consume what they do. Again, Thomas Frank explores the rise in prominence of this semi-academic field, in which recent postgrads from the social sciences (without major objections to capitalism) are recruited by specialized agencies to perform ethnographic research into the nature of consumption. Discussing the presumed benefits of this kind of study, Frank claims that “anthropology allows advertising to do what it does in the democratic language of sensitivity and empowerment. To understand production and consumption as ‘rituals’ is to remove them entirely from the great sweep of history and enlightenment, to place them beyond criticism. To understand demographic groups as ‘tribes’, and admen as sympathetic observers, is both to celebrate the relationship and to ensure that any resulting exchange takes place in a rigorously circumscribed context” [1999, p78]. The consumption of goods is thereby given a sort of pre- and postpolitical naturalness by equating it with other givens in social life, like the need for food and shelter. And the advertising agency is afforded some credibility by its invocation of established academic disciplines.

But account planning isn’t the only field of advertising that has been influenced by academia. In a piece for a collection of writings on advertising and consumption, Celia Lury and Alan Warde explore further the impact that cultural studies has had on the contemporary ad industry. Remarking on the interdependent nature of academics and consumerism in recent years, they cite an article in the New Statesmen and Society in which the rapid expansion of the agency Semiotic Solutions is described. Semiotic Solutions is a British market research consultancy founded by former students of Terry Eagleton that “specializes in a research methodology explicitly derived from Barthes and Lévi-Strauss” [1997, p88]. Sarah Thornton, a cultural studies specialist in youth- and subcultures, has also recently published an article on her defection from the world of academics to advertising [1999]. These articles all talk of the ad agencies’ techniques, such as the use of ‘cool hunters’, who scour the halls of high schools, the floors of dance clubs, and the corners of innercity streets, in search of the elusive and authentic key with which to commune with consumers. When advertising agencies make use of the terminology and techniques of academia, they share postmodern cultural studies’ incredulity toward metanarratives, its championing of the “marginalized, its reverence for the wisdom of everyday people, and its claim to hear the revolutionary voice of the subaltern behind virtually any bit of pop-cultural detritus” [Frank:1999, p75]. But they only do this because they are all looking for an extra edge. The agencies employ focus groups, hire academic consultants, maintain detailed demographic databases, all in an effort to come to grips with the complexity of a postindustrial culturescape, where there are more products than ever competing for the same market, and where the consumer has just enough agency to be hard to locate and talk to.

The cynical consumer

Of course, finding these consumers is only half the battle. While postmodernity makes it difficult to locate likely consumers, it makes it next to impossible to speak to them with some degree of trust and authenticity. Gaining the audience’s trust hadn’t always been a goal of producers of material goods, though. As advertising found its feet during modern industrialism, producers of goods made a number of unfounded claims about the merits of their own products. Sometimes these

claims wouldn’t be just a case of stretching the truth, but an example of bald-faced lying. So notorious were the messages of some producers (see the patent medicine salesmen of Chapter One), that the very practice of advertising became synonymous with dishonesty. Well aware of the checkered past of commercial communications, postmodern audiences were naturally cynical toward any form of advertisement. But this cynical response wasn’t limited to advertising; the postmodern subject increasingly exhibited cynicism toward a growing assortment of forms of communication — both commercial and not.

One of the major effects of postindustrialism’s rapid expansion of the quantity of information flowing through increased distribution channels is that the typical audience member begins to feel inundated by knowledge from every direction. By the late twentieth century, the average individual had access to more means of communication than ever before in history. Every new message that the individual gained access to constituted a new bit of information to assimilate, to accept, or to reject. And as the communication channels became more and more decentralized, the disparity of this information grew. Faced with information from a variety of sources that was often contradictory, the audience member began to doubt the validity of the messages. No longer knowing who or what to believe, the postmodern subject adopted a strong attitude of cynicism.

Critics as diverse as Peter Sloterdijk and Jedidiah Purdy have remarked on this current condition of cynicism. Both approach cynicism from different angles, but in the end they reach the same conclusion that cynicism is very much a plague of the postmodern era. To Sloterdijk, cynicism can be defined as “enlightened false consciousness” [1988, p5]. By this, the cynic is seen as someone who bought the idea of modernist enlightenment, but who sees it as an impossible ideal. The cynic believes in the good life, but also in the impossibility of attaining it. This Sloterdijkian cynicism too is postpolitical: “Well-off and miserable at the same time, this consciousness no longer feels affected by any critique of ideology; its falseness is already reflexively buffered” [1988, p5]. To Sloterdijk, this ‘cynical reason’ almost always “takes cover behind irony” [1988, pxxi]. Jedediah Purdy, for his part, distinguishes further between cynicism and postmodern depoliticized irony. In his formulation, the ironic consumer, unlike the cynic, recognizes his/her own false consciousness, and then uses this recognition as his/her fundamental basis for interacting with the world. Irony

here entails a cynicism not only toward believing in the good life, but also toward refusing to take part in the idea of the good life. His ironist “practices a style of speech and behavior that avoids all appearance of naiveté — of naive devotion, belief, or hope” [1999, pxi]. This ironist too avoids the naive disavowal of the idea of modern enlightenment. Wary and mistrusting of almost all messages received by him/her the postmodern ironist doesn’t cynically retreat from the world of communication, but engages in it, wearing the badge of cynicism on his/her sleeve.

The ironic consumer

In Alan Wilde’s summary of White’s work on the trope of irony, he sees it providing “a linguistic paradigm of a mode of thought which is radically self-critical with respect to not only a given characterization of the world of experience but also to the very effort to capture adequately the truth of things in language” [1981, p5]. Jean Baudrillard agrees in part with this criticism of speech’s inefficacy to validate. Like the audience members he studies, he recognizes the absurdity of taking an ideological stand within the conditions of postmodernity. These conditions are so complex that traditional modes of signification fall by the wayside. In this system, language can have no permanent meaning because signs have no fixed referent. “Any object can, in principle, take on any meaning. Rather than representing some signifier, the sign is all that is left” [Mackay:1997, p5]. Within this endless procession of floating signs, resistance becomes meaningless without the possibility of an anchor. Baudrillard’s approach, according to McGuigan, is therefore not one of critical or cynical reason, but of ironic reason, since resistance itself is absurd [1999].

So how do postmodern actors consume in the face of an absurd world, in which they have no real hope of making a change? A number of theorists have pointed to the act of ironic consumption, whether of actual goods or of cultural products, as one of the only modes of communication within the confines of postmodernity. What is left for Baudrillard is to take enjoyment in playful consumption, “to rediscover a certain pleasure in the irony of things” [quoted in Kellner:1988, p238]. As irony is the expression of something opposite to its implied meaning, to consume ironically is to consume objects for reasons other than their intended uses. We have already discussed the sub43

culturists’ acts of ironic consumption when they co-opt the goods — and thereby the signs and symbols — of mainstream culture and use them to their own ends of self-identification. When a punk wears a tartan, it is not necessarily to express his/her Scottish heritage. But the consumer need not be a member of a subcultural group to engage in ironic consumption. When the pomo urban hipster goes to the all-American diner to get a slice of apple pie, it is not necessarily to support the kinds of values that such institutions of the 1950s represent. It may be quite the opposite: To denigrate those values by instilling them with a sort of camp quality, thereby weakening the link between the institution, the act of consumption, and the values they represent. In her work on television soap operas and the ideology of mass culture, Ien Ang discusses the difference between ironically and really watching the show Dallas. It is her contention that claims of ironic consumption by viewers serve to create a certain distance between the purposes of the individual viewers themselves and those of the show’s producers. In her research, some of Ang’s correspondents used language that seemed to suggest an actual involvement with the program, but this was almost always tempered with an ironic discursive strategy that attempted to undermine the extent to which they actually enjoy the show and all it represents [1985, p272]. In this way, irony can be said to be a mask for pleasure, especially when that pleasure is viewed as analogous to mass ideological complicity. This ironic consumption can therefore be considered a cover for postmodern jouis sance, in which consumers, to again use Baudrillard’s phrase, gain enjoyment from playing with the pieces of mass culture.

Arguably no other thinker has more fully theorized irony’s relationship to the postmodern more than Linda Hutcheon. Following on the ideas of Wilde, and countering some of the ideas of Baudrillard, Hutcheon describes the intricate interrelations of irony, politics, and critique within postmodernity. In a statement that offers a succinct summary of her ideas, she makes the claim that “postmodern irony is the structural recognition that discourse today cannot avoid acknowledging its situation in the world it represents: irony’s critique, in other words, will always be at least somewhat complicitous with the dominants it contests but within which it cannot help existing” [1996, p36]. To put it another way, postmodern irony “is not the radical, utopian oppositionality of the modernist avant garde. Instead, it questions the very act — and authority — of taking a position, any position, even an oppositional one that assumes a discursive situation exterior to that

which is being opposed” [1996, p37]. It is this very lack of exteriority, Hutcheon goes on to claim, that actually grants postmodern irony its critical edge. Refusing to acknowledge that irony completely denies the possibility of critique, Hutcheon proceeds to explicate the numerous ways in which postmodern cultural producers use irony to effectively lodge an attack against the conditions that went into the making of postmodernity itself. Postmodernist products always use “the reappropriated forms of the past to speak to a society from within the values and history of that society, while still questioning it. It is in this way that its historical representations, however parodic, get politicized” [1989, p12]. By ironizing modernity, postmodern producers are essentially mounting a critique of modern industrialism and all the consumerist capitalism that goes with it.

Ironic producers

Some theorists have already studied this use of irony in postmodernist products. In the supply and demand curves of postmodern culture, ironic producers have risen to meet the demands of ironic consumers. This has happened all throughout the postmodern culturescape, from art, film, and television, to music, fiction, and architecture. And often the same people who produce ironic postmodern culture are the same ones who theorize its production. Postmodern architect Charles Jencks was one of the first theorists to really define what it was to be a piece of postmodern culture as early as 1975. Not limiting his inquest to the field of architecture, Jencks went on to describe some of the key characteristics of postmodernism in a variety of other fields. He theorized on the Situationist’s work in France in the late 1960s and on the writings of Umberto Eco, Colin Rowe, and Charles Moore, all of which constituted a departure from high modernism [1996, p29]. In addition to this, he also continued his practice of architecture, joining contemporaries like Ralph Erskine, Robert Venturi, Lucien Kroll, and the Krier brothers in not only defining postmodernism but developing an understanding of it. In his essays on television viewership, postmodern novelist David Foster Wallace, too, remarks on what it means to produce and consume culture in a condition of postmodernity [1997]. Going on to discuss the use of irony in TV programming, he claims that the possibility of ‘creativity’ in any medium has been forever changed by our own overexposure to all media. TV production has become a part of our — and his — interior, and all cultural production must reflect this. Of course, Wallace is also an author, and the impossibility of writing

a novel without reference to other cultural forms like TV is one of the primary pitfalls of postmodernity. This he shares with coevals Barthelme, Delillo, and Eggers, all of whom must appraise their relationship to the idea of postmodernity while at the same time creating products of postmodern culture. The result is often a knowing wink, an ironic nod, an acknowledgment of their own situation, that pervades the work of many of these postmodern cultural producers.

This is one of the key attributes of postmodernity: that consumers, producers, theorists, and critics of postmodern culture are often one and the same, and that they know it. This holds for architects as well as for writers. But perhaps more so it holds for creators of contemporary advertising. As one of the defining characteristics of the postmodern is its conflation of commerce and culture, perhaps no one group represents this scenario as well as the copywriters and art directors that work in creative advertising. Themselves having grown up in a modernist world of mass media and glorified consumption, advertisers are audience members first, and cultural producers second. They have been exposed to the same — if not more — commercial messages as everybody else, and they too have benefited from an increase in audience agency with the advent of postmodernity. They are, perhaps, the quintessential postmodern agents: Like everyone else, they have the vast expanse of modernist culture from which to cull their own creative recombinations. But for them, this production through consumption isn’t just a mode of resistance, it is their job. And they are not only cultural producers, but they are also under the employ of capitalist forces that have created the conditions of postmodernity in which they live. Their cultural productions therefore, in the form of the ads they create, must serve not only their employers’ needs of increased consumption, but also their own needs of political critique and ideological resistance. Like other postmodern consumers and producers before them, though, they have found irony to be a uniquely effective tool for accomplishing all their aims. And like their colleagues in other fields, they possess a hyperself-awareness that allows them to theorize their own situations. But unlike many contemporaries, their theories also have practical business applications.


Chapter Four: Ironic Advertisements
The advertiser

The postmodern advertising creative is not so distinct from the people with whom he/she seeks to communicate. They have both grown up in an increasingly media- and consumption-saturated environment. Surrounded on all sides by the cultural trappings of modernism, advertising creatives as individuals are deeply enmeshed in the conditions of modernity. But like their fellow audience members, their agency has been amplified by the transformations into postindustrial society. As the formerly reigning myths of modernist ideology became more enveloped into a postmodern culturescape of diversified media, decentralized communications channels, and expanded consumer choice, they became increasingly transparent. Nobody had to buy the naturalized myths of modern industrialism any more; there were too many other possibilities to choose from. The people who went into advertising knew this, and they knew the rest of the audience knew as well. We have already seen the extent to which advertisers borrowed from the academic disciplines in an attempt to communicate to the postmodern consumer, but perhaps all the advertiser really needed to do was to look inward. As the advertising creative was just as much a member of the audience as the consumers he/she was trying to communicate with, the older prohibitions within advertising against identifying with the populace were erased. Increasingly the advertising professional began to look inward for his/her own reactions to consumerism within postmodernity. Their skepticism toward older advertising forms was just as pronounced as that of their audience. Eventually they realized that they would have to work hard to regain the trust of the public. Their tactic was to acknowledge their shared mistrust: They attempted to relate to the rest of the audience by exposing the already debunked myths of modernity for what they really were. Gone were the days of the hard sell; the postmodern advertiser sold softly through an effort to ironize the mythology of modernist consumption in order to show allegiance with the rest of the cynical crowd.

The ads

There was a pivotal point in the history of advertising that occurred at the beginning of the 1960s. At the absolute height of high modernity, and predating the various antiwar, civil and women’s rights, and 47

countercultural movements of that decade, what has become known as the ‘creative revolution’ in advertising occurred in 1960 at the New York agency Doyle Dane Bernbach [Berger:2001, p45; Bond & Kirshenbaum:1998, p10; Sullivan:1998]. Toward the front of the February issue of Life magazine was a full-page, black-and-white advertisement for the Volkswagen Beetle that announced to its readers, in deprecatory tones and understated imagery, that the pictured car was in fact a “Lemon.” This simple advertisement, in contrast to the colorful and self-congratulatory ads in the same magazine, was one of the first of its kind to use an early and simple strategy of irony to get its message across: While advertisements were widely expected to make exaggerated claims in order to persuade potential consumers of a product’s benefits, this Volkswagen ad was doing the exact opposite. And it was the first in a long and successful series of DDB ads to work the same way.

Two years later, in an ad that followed almost exactly the same formula, the headline admonished its readers to “Think small.” This technique still worked because it continued to surprise the reader in an atmosphere where almost all the other ads were screaming “Think big!” Eventually, though, this creative revolution that started in one New York agency began to spread itself out to the rest of the advertising industry. That this era corresponded with what many theorists — including Hassan, Jencks, and Lyotard — consider the birth of postmodernity is something less than a coincidence.

As more and more advertisers began to adopt this creative approach, the organization of agencies themselves began to change. Gone were the exclusively white, Ivy League educated ‘admen’ of the 1920s. The 48

cultural make-up of advertising agencies began to reflect the increasing diversity of the population as a whole. Gone too were the highly structured organizational stratifications within the agencies. The base unit of labor ceased to be the individual, and was replaced by the copywriter and art director working as a collaborative team. The advertising professional was no longer in the realm of the business man but of the artist. The suits and ties came off as offices became more casual. The nine-to-five work day gave way to a more flexible time schedule. New York, Chicago, and London ended their complete domination of the industry, as advertising shops in more marginal cities like Portland, Minneapolis, Tokyo, Singapore, and Sydney gained prominence [Berger:2001, p81]. All these changes reflected the broader transformations that were occurring generally in the wake of postindustrialism. And as the information age advanced apace, with its constituent acceleration of consumption and media production, there was not only more goods and services to advertise, but more channels in which to do so [Castells:2000]. Even the advertising industry itself had its own specialized media, from magazines with insider news about the industry, to awards books and annuals in which the ‘best’ of a year’s advertising were declared. As niche markets sprang up, with their niche magazines and niche goods, so too did niche advertising agencies to make ads for them.

Eventually, what started as the creative revolution metamorphosed into a full-on postmodern revolution for some agencies. By the mid-1980s, advertising had pulled the old dynamic of reference inside-out. As David Foster Wallace remarks, no longer is it only postmodernism embracing consumer culture. It has now become advertising “that takes elements of the postmodern — the involution, the absurdity, the sardonic fatigue, the iconoclasm and rebellion — and bends them to the ends of spectation and consumption” [1997, p64]. What creative advertisers once recognized as attributes of postmodernism, they began to use in the ads themselves. In the confines of this postmodern revolution, one particular attribute — irony — began to assume prominence. As ironic ads multiplied and flooded the pages of certain of these niche magazines, a number of distinct and recognizable forms of irony became apparent. These were ironies which self-consciously made direct reference to the modes, forms, themes, and myths of modern advertising’s past. Sometimes the postmodern ads parodied the modern ads, not just using their conventions, but drawing them to their absurd conclusions: What was overstated in modern ads became ludicrously hyperbolic in postmodern ads. And sometimes postmodern ads were everything that modern ads weren’t: Whereas modern ads were self-important or boastful or highly stylized or progressive, postmodern ads were purposefully self-deprecating and understated and ugly and regressive. By and large, 49

postmodern ads ironized their modern precursors by behaving in ways that traditional ads had never done before.

Damn the future

However they chose to react to the ads of the past, postmodern advertising creatives were already going against the grain of modernity by looking to the present for cultural inspiration instead of toward the future. Just as postmodern architecture denied the sparse futurism of modernist buildings [Jencks:1996, p17], postmodern ads used irony to challenge the modern’s vision of an ideal tomorrow. This was one of the over-riding themes of modern advertising: its wholehearted faith in the idea of progress. Images such as the one here in the Chicago Pneumatic Tool advertisement showed how American industry was contributing toward a brighter — and more quickly attained — future for all. The body copy explains how the modern mechanic can build structures much more wondrous than the ancient palaces using pneumatic tools rather than a magic lamp.

By contrast, postmodern ads like this here for Miller Genuine Draft beer show man, not as he contemplates the future that he makes for himself, but as he absorbs himself in the hedonistic present. Even the man here is not necessarily male, nor the strong, self-reliant figure that signifies modern masculinity. Instead the protagonists represented in these postmodern ads are intended to be seen as real people, men and women, not contributing to progress nor taking on the world, but engaging in pursuits entirely dedicated to the present. Gone is the flattery with which older ads treated consumers, painting them in the idealized vision of modern living. This ad ironically thumbs its nose at the idea of progressive modernity and embraces the postmodern pleasure in consumption. 50

This pleasure, according to theorists like Michel de Certeau and John Fiske is what gives people identity in the face of postmodernity. The modern subjects in these early ads used their commitment to building the future as their marker of citizenship, but as Hugh Mackay suggests, the pleasurable consumption of these agents embracing the here-and-now is “the principal means whereby [they] participate in the polity” [1997, p2]. In his work on consumption and everyday life, de Certeau talks of the lignes d’eere (wandering lines) drawn by normal consumers, or what he refers to as ‘secondary producers’. These wandering lines are created as people engage in their own trajectories and tactics of shopping, walking, cooking, and even drinking beer, tracing their own way across the space of culture and the market. It is through these singular acts of consumption, de Certeau argues, that individual consumers become a self-constituted group — a “silent majority” [1984, p488].

Lowering the bar

Not only are the subjects of postmodern ads no longer depicted as mythic founders of tomorrow, they can often be shown as not very desirable people. Ironically taking on the pretense that all consumers in modern ads had impeccable taste and unfaultable manners, ads like that for Miller address the fact that postmodern consumers are sometimes quite the opposite. A striking case of this is in two advertisements for Camel cigarettes.

“To the manner born,” reads the headline in the old Camel ad from 1921, while two Gatsby-esque characters display their culturedness while smoking a cigarette. The body copy goes on to explain how one can sense instantly, while glimpsing through a doorway “hung with apricot velvet,” that some people have a genuine, authentic, and indefinable quality that is shared with Camel cigarettes. These figures are clearly the height of style and grace, all the more so because they smoke Camels.


In this contemporary ad for Camel, on the other hand, no pretense is made to equate the brand with connoisseurship. Tonguein-cheekedly declaring that Camel is the choice of those with “mighty tasty lifestyles,” the postmodern advertisement is using irony to belittle the haughty attitude of advertising’s past. Whether the creative team responsible for this ad was reacting specifically against older ads like the one here from Camel, or whether it was a more general reaction is largely immaterial. What is happening here is that the advertising creative is explicitly changing teams. No longer taking sides with the client that wants to paint an exaggerated picture of the merits of his/ her product, the contemporary advertiser is exhibiting complicity with the consumer who has grown incredulous toward the unwarranted claims of advertisements. When the postmodern ad for Camel shows people smoking in gaudy outfits and insincere neck braces — as opposed to cummerbunds and dinner jackets — it is acknowledging that consumers will choose to equate products with any values they wish, even poor taste. Terry Lovell acknowledges this leveling effect of postmodernity, claiming that producers no longer have the power to produce their ideal consumer. Instead they must give the public what it wants, regardless of whether the public’s tastes do or don’t “necessarily sit square upon bourgeois ideology” [1983, p480].

And poor taste is something that a number of postmodern ads not only acknowledge, but celebrate. No longer interested in presenting their products as the exclusive choice of those aspiring to high class, postmodern advertisers are increasingly pandering to the lowest common denominator. Whereas this ad for Eaton’s Linen writing paper warns consumers that using any other brand of writing paper might send the message to others of bad taste, this ad 52

for Belgian beer Stella Artois wants to confirm that being held in good taste is not among their consumers’ primary interests. Ironically juxtaposing imagery of toothless peasants enjoying their beer with a tagline that makes reference to the beer’s sophistication, the advertisers responsible for this Stella Artois campaign are promoting a more proletarian appeal for their beer. Of course the beer maker doesn’t actually want to give up its cosmopolitan consumption for that of second-world proles — yuppies typically have more money to spend on imported beer than peasants — but they do want to remove themselves from other companies that wear their tastefulness like a tasteless badge on their sleeve.

I explained earlier how modern advertisements flatter us into thinking we are the special people addressed by their discourse, and thereby interpellate us as subjects. In the case of these ironic ads we are again flattered. Only now they flatter us, as Wallace explains, “for ‘seeing through’ the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of outdated values” such as sophistication and social grace, and instill in us a feeling of “canny superiority” [1997, p63]. This sort of approach runs distinctly counter to modern advertisements’ overt appeal to the higher aspirations of their consumers. But it also goes one more: Aside from not showing their products in the most favorable light, these ads also refuse to traditionally show their consumers in the most favorable light.

While this strategy is not entirely unique to postmodern advertising, it is used to a different effect here. In the first chapter, I illustrated a number of the scare tactics used by modern ads in order to induce social conformity. In ads like the one here promoting the cleanly use of soap and water, consumers were shown in less-than-favorable settings in 53

order to make examples of them. The idea was to demonize these unsavory characters so as to canonize the consumers who behaved contrary to their bad manners. But postmodern advertisements often ironically make fun of this past tradition of promoting social conformity. As has been seen in the Miller and Stella Artois ads, a product’s consumer need not be a model citizen to enjoy the benefits of the product. And neither need the benefits of the product improve the consumer’s social standing.

In this ad for the German beer maker Astra, a distinctly workingclass couple is seen sitting at a table, not drinking Astra and clearly not enjoying themselves. The headline translates to “No Astra, No Fun,” and the ironic intention of the ad might be lost altogether were it not paid off by the tagline, which reads “Astra. Was dagegen?” Translating literally as “Astra. Anything against it?”, this colloquial use of a question with a slightly defiant, aggressive tone highlights the fact that the advertisement’s headline message is not a sincere proclamation of the product’s benefits, but an ironic mockery of such advertising claims from the past. But as essayist Lewis Hyde points out, this sort of ironic selfmocking is almost always a form of sincerity itself — it is “sincerity, with a motive” [quoted in Wallace:1997, p63]. The motive, in this case, is to appeal to the ironic, savvy consumer through ironic, savvy advertisements. Blatant selling messages are understood by both to contain a false sincerity; at least these ironic selling messages are sincere in that they deride blatancy.

This approach is not unique among postmodern ad campaigns. Sprite used it to show how its soft drink had absolutely no performance-enhancing attributes for all the high-profile athletes that were paid millions of dollars to promote it. They were not only making fun of advertising’s past, but of the techniques used by others in their industry, when they made their proclamation: “Image is nothing. Thirst is everything.” However, it is another Coca-Cola product that took this idea and brought it back down to the personal level. In these ads for Mezzo Mix (premixed Coke and orange drink), the consumers are again seen as low-class and imperfect, drinking the product in hopes that they will change their social standing, but this time the ads’ mode of address is the second person. The ads for Mezzo Mix are not saying that some consumers are 54

ugly and vain and gullible, they are pointing the finger and declaring that ‘you’ are all these things. This is taking the aggressive tone of the Astra ad to its full conclusion, moving on to making insults toward the singular consumer in ways that would have made modern advertisers cringe in horror. Mezzo Mix insults ‘your’ complexion, ‘your’ clothes, and ‘your’ attractiveness, and they ironically suggest that when you drink Mezzo Mix “everything will be cool.” Using the literary strategy of reductio ad absurdum, these ads expose the claim that the consumption of certain products can improve one’s social standing for the ludicrous notion that it is.

Improving health

Product advertisements did not only claim social benefits for their consumption, though. As illustrated earlier with the case of Listerine and other patent medicines, products often advertised on the basis of their health benefits. Like the Quaker Oats ads before it, this ad for Campell’s Soup promotes the nutritional properties of modern, mass-produced food. This can of soup wasn’t just for anyone; it was for the working man with the “success-habit” who wanted from its “rich, tonic goodness” a “sparkle and zest, which tell in the day’s work.” By the late twentieth century, this kind of imagery and rhetoric had grown 55

tired. Postmodern consumers weren’t convinced of the benefits of packaged foods and were incurably skeptical of the dubious claims made by their ads. In response to this, some postmodern advertisers called the consumers’ bluff — they stepped out from behind their curtains and laid their cards on the table. In these ads for widely-accepted junk food product Moon Pie, not only are claims not made as to the food’s nutritional benefits, such claims are preemptively denied. In this case, the advertisers of Moon Pie have acknowledged the purpose of their product’s existence. They know that consumers of Moon Pies don’t always “eat wisely and well,” and they have chosen not to lie about it, but instead to ironically invoke the history of advertising’s dishonesty. Judith Williamson remarks on this, claiming that “the use of our belief in advertising’s dishonesty in order to give an aura of honesty to an ad is a supreme example of the denial of the actual content of any structure of thought — of reference replacing knowledge.” This endless string of self-reference is a well-regarded attribute of postmodernism. The effect is such that ads no longer try to make claims, they now only try to deny previous claims, so that, as Williamson writes, “advertising can incorporate its mythic status (as a lie) into itself with very little trouble.” In this way, “advertisements will always recuperate by using criticisms of themselves as frames of reference which will finally enhance, rather than destroy, their ‘real’ status” [1978, p174].


Such an invocation is a common retreat of postmodernism. Whether it be in art, architecture, or advertising, one of the major qualities of postmodernism is its focus on the self, often in the form of auto-parody. Works of postmodern art are often characterized by an incorporation of their own histories and reputations. As Hutcheon influentially points out, this isn’t just an innocent infatuation with itself, but an effective form of distancing the present from the past.


Postmodernist parody is a value-problematizing, de-naturalizing form of acknowledging the history (and through irony, the politics) of representations. Postmodern parody does not disregard the context of the past representations it cites, but uses irony to acknowledge the fact that we are inevitably separated from that past today — by time and by the subsequent history of those representations. [1989, p94]

To parody something is to satirically lampoon it, but usually in such a distorted way as to make it ridiculous. This is why parody makes such an effective tool of postmodernism: While it invokes the past, historically quoting its modes and forms, it serves as what Hutcheon calls a “critical re-working,” and not a “nostalgic return” [1993, p245]. When postmodern advertising parodies the ads of modernity, its attempts at imitation are often too poor or too perfect. These distortions from the original serve to ironically highlight the original’s absurdity. In the case of parodic ads, the butt of the joke is the older advertisement and its dupable audience, but it is an inside joke. As David Foster Wallace illustrates in his discussion of postmodern reception, the postmodern parody “invites a complicity between its own witty irony and [the] veteran viewer’s cynical, nobody’s-fool appreciation of that irony” [1997, p61]. When a contemporary advertisement makes a parody of an ad from the past, it invites consumers to be a part of the in-joke, congratulating them for transcending naive consumption.

One of the most recognizable forms of modern advertising is the propaganda poster. While Michael Schudson has discussed the importance of social realist art, it could be said that the socialist propaganda poster — by picturing “reality as it should be” — was one of the greatest instillers of myth during the modern era [1984, p215]. In parodying socialist propaganda, advertisers not only make reference to the grand pronouncements of such language and imagery in the past, but by equating them with mere consumer goods, they serve to both belittle the ideology of the politics and the ideology of consumption. In postmodernity, such ideologies have fallen out of favor, and to ridicule them in the form of an ad parody is to debase the idea that such metanarratives as socialism and the consumption ethos obtain any more.

In this series of ads for Mexican beer company Dos Equis and athletic-shoe maker Nike, modernist ideas of industry, liberation, and labor are linked to the consumption of alcoholic beverages and 57

the spectation of football, thereby lowering the former’s significance, while raising that of the latter. It is in this silly juxtaposition that the opposing ideals of hard work and recreation are equilibrated, thus critically and playfully casting the values of both ideals into doubt.

A similar technique is used here in ads for the California Pizza Kitchen. Appearing in alternative magazines and arts and entertainment newspapers, these ads take the form of low-budget, grass-roots announcements, rallying the pubic into action. In this case, the action is against unusual ingredients on pizzas. Borrowing visuals and language from genuine political movements, these ads actually exhort their audience to boycott the California Pizza Kitchen, the worst abusers of ingredient impurity. Warning about “LIBERAL amounts of MULTICULTURAL pizza toppings” threatening “the AMERICAN WAY,” one ad takes the voice of conservative, right-wing politics. Another, speaking of “unspeakable acts of cruelty” toward eggplants, adopts the bleeding-heart pleas of left-leaning animal-rights movements. But each of the ads, while parodying fringe politics and ironically crucifying the California Pizza Kitchen, are again pointing to the ridiculousness of ideology in a postmodern world. And by calling for the consumer adherents of such ridiculous ideologies to avoid the California Pizza Kitchen, the advertiser itself congratulates the audience members who don’t fall prey to such silly political notions.


While these ads appeared in such periodicals as the Village Voice, the newspaper itself was using similar tactics in its campaign to increase subrant against the advertiser, this ad invokes effort to distinguish its target audience. corporations, this ad rallies against the These protests might be real concerns of belittling them the advertiser is showing Pierre Bourdieu is famous for declaring classifier” [1984, p1]. In the context of wishes to gain the confidence of the audithe advertiser is hoping that ironic contheir own. When the Village Voice or the fun of political movements, they are hopscriptions. Again taking the form of a the sentiments of antiglobalism in its Parodying protests against multinational facelessness of the subscription system. some Village Voice readers, but by complicity with most of its audience. that “taste classifies, and classifies the these parodies, the advertiser only ence. By exhibiting a taste for the ironic, sumers will classify the former as one of California Pizza Kitchen ironically make ing that their highly cynical audience

recognizes their shared lack of false sincerity and reward them for it by consuming their products.

However, not all postmodern advertising parodies take the form of fake political resistance. In fact, the vast majority of postmodern parody takes the form of simple playful acts of unlikely recombinations. Instead of poking fun at the false sincerity of politics, these ad parodies poke fun at the inflated image of advertising’s past. Borrowing from older advertising images of modern couples engaged in leisure, these advertisements for Banff Ice vodka invoke an aura of nostalgia. It’s a

false nostalgia, though, as the parodies illustrate that the time they hearken back to was never as rosy as it was made out to be. In a similar way, this ad for BSM Driving School makes fun of the exaggerated claims 59

of laundry detergent ads from the past. Comparing “Driving School X” (which produces nervousness and its constituent armpit stains) to BSM (where the clients and instructors are confident and sweat free), the ad plays with the imagery of 1980s-era laundry ads. These are all examples of what Cook refers to as intradiscoursal allusion [1992], noting “how ads often assume knowledge of other ads or discourse types” [quoted in O’Donohue:1997, p259].

When Vance Packard published his highly influential book The Hidden Persuaders in 1957, he had the whole world convinced, however briefly, that modern ads were rife with powerful hidden symbolism. This ad plays on the idea that subliminal messages could be used to alter consumers’ behavior. Here Absolut Vodka makes use of its familiar two-word headline and prominent product shot, but this time the suggestion that there may be subliminal messages hidden in the ice cubes serves to belittle previous claims as to similar ads’ use of such advertising techniques. Seagram’s Gin also resurrected the idea that ads contain hidden selling messages in a series of ads that appeared in the mid-1990s. Whereas it was up to the viewer’s imagination as to whether the Absolut ad in fact contained any subliminal imagery, this time the ads clearly did have images embedded in the drinking glasses. Seagram’s even went so far as to caption the voices of the characters hiding in the ice cubes, making the formerly covert now expressly overt.

This ad for a South African big-and-tall men’s store cites the more recent history of advertising as it plays with the conventions of the wellknown ads for fashion label Calvin Klein. In Afrikaans, klein means small, whereas groot means large. By ironically showing a large black man in a setting more commonly home to a lean white man, this advertisement reassembles 60

consumerist imagery that resides in the collective consciousness and transforms it into an advertisement that is both derivative and critical.


We have already seen how modern advertising preferred to flatter its audience into believing that they were crucial components in society’s march toward advancement. But these same ads also engaged in a kind of self-aggrandizement that left regular consumer flattery looking pale in comparison. Ads like these for Chrysler and Hoover showed the products in an almost holy light — nobody could fault them, they were so “extraordinary” and “triumphant.” Over time, modern consumers were so beaten down by this selfaggrandizement that postmodern advertisers took the opposite tack. No longer did ads proclaim their own importance; they now engaged in ritual acts of selfflagellation. Again the Village Voice provides an example, as this ad shows a copy of the paper literally being beaten. Another ad later went on to denegrate the paper further, mocking it as a periodical appealing to only the most marginal of characters. 61

How this movement really started was in understatement. The Volkswagen ads of the 1960s and 70s utilized a sort of subtle truth-in-advertising approach that proved to be a fresh concept at the time. Later, this technique was further refined, as in the case of this more current Volkswagen ad that continues to borrow from the sparse imagery and typography of its predecessor.

Taking understatement to the extreme, this ad for the No Frills Funeral Service shows how death is the one thing no one can escape. Claims to the contrary, like inflated advertising claims, don’t amount to anything at the moment of truth.

Eventually this understated tone began to give way to one more self-deprecatory. In this ad for the restaurant Horn & Hardart, the No Frills campaign is taken a step further. Doing away with unnecessary adornments, the ad, like the restaurant itself, 62

focuses on the core content. The tagline — “It’s not fancy. But it’s good.” — could apply to the ad and the restaurant equally. Emphasizing a similar focus on food over atmosphere, this ad for San Francisco restaurant Stickity Jim’s not only understates its attributes, it degrades some of them. And whereas the ad for Horn & Hardart reflects the simplicity of the restaurant’s décor, this ad for Stickity Jim’s is rough and ugly, just like the neighborhood in which it can be found.

This ad for the budget Hans Brinker Hotel in Amsterdam, in contrast, features a luxurious suite to illustrate everything that it does not have. Never before in the self-congratulatory history of advertising

had ads so willingly pointed out the faults of their own products.

In the modern ads for Listerine mouthwash, mention was never made as to its difficult-to-bear taste. Makers and advertisers of

sore throat medicine TCP were not only aware of the rinse’s reputation for foul taste, they knew that the public knew as well. When they advise the audience to “wince and gargle,” they are admitting to their own faults. 63

This kind of self-deprecation implies a self-awareness that is unique to postmodernity. Theorists from Jameson to Purdy have remarked on this (sometimes stifling) selfaware nature of postmodernism. In this case the ads get away from endless self-reflection by essentially admitting to the ugliness of the reflected likeness. While previously, modern ads would try to hide all but the best of their product’s reputations, the creators of these postmodern ads realize they can’t manage all the impressions of their products so they ironically pre-empt criticism by bringing to the fore anything that can be used against them. These ads for The Den Coffee House play with the stereotype of coffee-house customers and employees, thereby allaying themselves of blame should any of the stereotypes prove true.

Art as artifice

In addition to airing their faults, postmodern ads like never before also display the contrivances of their own creation. Famous adman David Ogilvy once admonished aspiring copywriters that “it is the professional duty of the advertising agent to conceal his artifice” [1963, p90]. This advice is not well heeded in contemporary print ads. For some creators of postmodern advertising, the solution to the problem of self-reference is not in the denial of the attractiveness of the reflection but in the eradication of the reflection itself. Wilde sums up Sukenick and his Thirteen Digressions by discussing the fate of Narcissus to drown in his own reflection. For him, “the way out of the dilemma of Narcissus lies in the work of art as artifice. As artifice the 64

work of art is a conscious tautology in which there is always an implicit (and sometimes explicit) reference to its own nature as artifact — selfreflexive, not self-reflective” [1981, p137]. As these ads for Nike and Simple shoes show, not only are postmodern advertisements allowed to be ugly, unprofessional, and self-deprecating, they are now also allowed to present themselves as ads. The Simple ad speaks for itself. In the Nike ad though, the copywriter actually explains what the “whole idea” of the ad is supposed to be, afterward apoligizing for not being able to draw birds.

This 1926 promotional piece for the Philadelphia agency N.W. Ayer & Son was a rare example at the time of an advertisement acknowledging its own status as such. But even as it did this, it still adhered to the modern practices of self-aggrandizement, proclaiming that the Ayer agency was uniquely poised to foresee how the future would turn out. Nearly 75 years later, this ad for a Vancouver ad agency tactlessly said

what everyone else was already thinking. Not only was this a taboo ad about ads, but it was an ad about the evils of advertising. They didn’t sugarcoat the point of their existence, instead they sought to relate to the cynical postmodern public by ironically admitting to their position in the dominant superstructure. 65


Going one step further toward uncovering its own artifice, the Dick campaign for Miller Lite beer introduced a fictional man-on-the-street-cum-ad-creative to explain how the brewing company created its successful ads. This campaign too was ugly and unprofessional, and it was uniquely postmodern in that it was an ad about ads about ads.


The declaration of the (sometimes unjust) power of advertising was not only a form self-deprecation for PalmerJarvis, it was also an example of one of the other major techniques of postmodern irony in ads: hyperbole. While a number of contemporary ads have concentrated on knocking themselves down, another class of advertising has concerned itself with exploring the other end of the spectrum. Instead of denying the boastful claims of advertising by undermining and acting counter to them, these ads have enlisted gross overstatement to ironize the self-importance modern ads. Again, if postmodernity is the radical exaggeration of modernity, then these postmodern hyperbolic ads are the exaggerated ads of modernism drawn out to their absurd conclusions.

There was a time in Ireland when Guinness was sold as a general cure-all for any ailment. Now that it is recognized as just another intoxicating beverage, the advertisers responsible for this series of ads were interested in ironically referencing the history of Guinness’s supposed

strength-giving powers. In these ads the protagonist, assumingly after drinking a pint of Guinness, has the strength to tow a pyramid of water-skiers behind a rowing shell and to push a carriage of ten toddlers, whom, it is presumed, he has also sired. 67

These ads for Pepsi don’t comment on the drink’s curative properties, but instead focus on the degree to which Pepsi is indeed ‘the choice of a new generation’. In the first ad, the carpeting on the floor in front of the Pepsi vending machine is warn clear through to the floorboard beneath, clearly indicating that the drink is far more popuwhose vending little use just next second ad, ice knowing that involve a drawnglass of Pepsi, lar than its rival, machine has seen door. In the cubes, seemingly their fate would out death in a have frozen into

the shape of hands raised, volunteering to render their cooling services. Clearly the popularity of Pepsi over Coke isn’t strong enough to warrant this kind of heavy-handed approach. Instead, the advertisers here are using hyperbole to make fun of previous campaigns in which Pepsi was said to be the preferred cola.

The advertisers for Gold’s Gym similarly overstate the degree to which their service can benefit consumers. In this simple image, the exit is much wider than the entrance, implying that one goes in skinny and then comes out bulging with muscles. But of course the degree of change is absurdly overstated. The same can be said for this ad for 68

Doritos, whose loud crunch was apparently responsible for the collapse of this building.

Playing on recurrent modern themes of speed and power, the Lexus in these ads is so fast that it can apparently alter the trajectory of falling objects as it zooms by them. Of course, in reality, the car would have to be capable of unreasonable speeds to produce this effect, and it is that sort of ironic hyperbole that the advertisers here are playing with.

But these ads just barely qualify as hyperbolic. The tagline does declare that the 300-horsepower GS 400 is fast. And certainly Lexus doesn’t want the consumer to think that they are slow, just like Guinness and Gold’s Gym don’t want people to think they’ll make them weak, and Pepsi doesn’t want to be considered unpopular. The truth is that there is a fine line between postmodern hyperbole and modern exaggeration. As indeed there is a fine line between parody and reverence, selfdeprecation and managing expectations, appealing to the low-brow and expanding one’s market segment. John Sinclair has noted the degree to which people expect ads to make exaggerated claims [1987, p60]. Leo Spitzer has also discussed the extent 69

to which “popular convention permitted advertisers to exaggerate, as if all their statements were placed within qualifying ‘quotation marks’.”
These invisible quotes — tacitly understood to exist by both advertiser and reader — said, in effect: We both know that the nature of advertising requires this statement to be exaggerated beyond all reasonable measure; therefore we both recognize that it must be discounted to some degree, and that the words and images glorifying the product are not to be taken quite at face value. [quoted in Marchand:1985, p264]

At the end of the day, irony may be all that separates reacting to modern advertising from improving upon modern advertising. For a number of advertising critics, the irony eludes them altogether. For others still, the irony — in both the consumption and production of culture — is but a thinly veiled coping mechanism. To some, the postmodern irony contained within these ads grew up as both a result of, and a reaction to, a media-saturated environment.



The ineffectuality of mainstream criticism

In the first chapter I referenced the exhaustive work of the many thinkers who theorized advertising’s role in the advent of industrialism and modernity. In the second chapter I highlighted a number of social and economic shifts that occurred over the past two decades, resulting in a condition best understood as postindustrial postmodernity. Too often contemporary ad critics don’t take into consideration the ramifications of these fundamental transformations. Their criticisms of advertising sound the same as these did 60 years ago:
“Few people at the beginning of the nineteenth century needed an adman to tell them what they wanted.” —J.K. Galbraith “Advertising is the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it.” —Stephen Leacock” “Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.” —George Orwell “Advertising has done more to cause the social unrest of the twentieth century than any other single factor.” —Clare Boothe Luce [quoted in Twitchell:1996, p12] “Advertising’s contribution to humanity is exactly minus zero.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald “Advertising blasts everything that is good and beautiful in this land with a horrid spreading mildew.” —Herman Wouk “Advertising is the cheapest way of selling goods, particularly if the goods are worthless.” —Sinclair Lewis [quoted in Twitchell:1996, p235]

In order to criticize postmodern advertisements, a much more nuanced approach must be taken — one that balances the influence of corporations with the agency of individuals. As Richard Ohmann explains it, “any supple account of historical processes needs to hold two principles in tension with each other: The decisive power of economic forces and of those actors best located to harness them; and the equally crucial, if less decisive, agency of many others seeking their own ends with smaller means” [1996, p340]. If the conditions of postindustrialism have indeed seen the agency of individuals expand, then advertising should no longer be considered, as John Sinclair puts it, an “omnipotent and irresistible influence upon social consciousness” [1987, p183]. The ‘magic system’ once described by Raymond Williams loses some of its power to work transparently, beyond 71

the understanding of the masses. When the technique of advertising myths is no longer all-powerful, the technique of criticizing mythology loses relevance. Instead, as postmodernity wore on, the very pervasion of media and information that gave rise to audience agency also resulted in a condition of almost complete advertising saturation. As TV, the internet, and magazines contributed to an information-rich environment for all, they relied on corporate sponsorship for circulation. The result was a culturescape in the late 1900s in which advertising had become nearly endemic. Critics and proponents alike have recognized the triumph of what Andrew Wernick has called this ‘promotional culture’ [1992; Klein:2000]. In the end, critics like Kalle Lasn have found it easier, in the face of this advertising ubiquity — and in the knowledge of a balance of power between consumer and producer — to combat not the mythical ideology behind promotional messages, but to use as a critical device the same kind of irony as that increasingly employed by the advertising professionals themselves [1999].

Postmodern criticism

In the second chapter I discussed new possibilities for consumers in interpreting cultural messages to their own ends. Recombining messages from a variety of sources, this production-through-consumption has proven a readily available form of critique during postmodernity. In relation to advertising, it has taken the form of the anti-ad, or the ‘culture jam’. Just as professionals under the employ of advertising agencies were creating their own forms of ad parodies, these culture jammers were doing likewise, only to opposite ends. Adbusters, a Canadian magazine promoting nonconsumption, embodied this trend, filling its pages with realistic-looking fake ads, mocking real-life products. Ads like this one here, parodying designer Calvin Klein, point to the superficiality of fashion.

Tobacco and alcohol producers were also frequent targets of Adbusters’ anti-advertising campaigns. In a 72

series of ads borrowing from the Joe Camel campaign of RJ Reynolds, they show Joe Chemo in a variety of unfortunate situations brought about by smoking cigarettes. This idea of advertising for nonconsumption may be the quintessential form of postmodern criticism, as the magazine also produced and marketed hats and T-shirts emblazoned with the logo for International Buy Nothing Day. Eventually, even the state government of California was getting in on the ad parody act with its own antismoking campaign, this time usurping the iconography of Philip Morris’s long-running Marlboro Man campaign.

Of course, Calvin Klein had been parodied before. As we saw in the last chapter, even smaller retailers were borrowing from the prestige of the fashion label in order to garner themselves a bit of borrowed clout. Like these parodies that are actual ads, these anti-ads function in a similar way. Hutcheon defines this form of parody as a “double process of installing and ironizing,” going on to explain that “parody signals how present representations come from past ones and what ideological consequences derive from both continuity and difference” [1989, p93]. In this case, even though they are attempting to subvert the dominant messages of capitalism, they continue to do so within a medium of commerce. Producing an ad decrying the insidiousness of advertising might be a form of criticism, but because it installs as much as it ironizes, its effectiveness might be questionable. In addition, when a company like Camel cigarettes or Absolut vodka (here mimicked by Adbusters) has already pre-empted parody by sending up itself — as I illustrated in earlier chapters — the efficacy of that mode of critique is further cast into doubt.


Another approach used by individuals looking to overcome the downsides of parody and without the skill and money of a large state government or consumer media-watch organization is to attack advertising from outside the channels in which ads typically flow. Instead of producing high-quality anti-ads to run in specialist magazines or on purchased billboard space, these critics-cum-activists alter advertisements as they already exist in the public domain. From acts as simple as scribbling anticorporate messages in permanent ink over the top of posters and public transport placards, to elaborate alterations of large billboards and neon signs, these ‘subvertisers’ (as they like to be known) use a more guerrilla approach to getting their critical messages across [Klein:2000; Lasn:1999]. This obvious alteration of an Apple billboard targets the computer company, whose series of ads pictured a number of iconoclasts throughout history, urging consumers to ‘Think Different’ by buying their products. But as with the producers of glossy anti-ads, their tactics and messages are always susceptible to co-optation by the advertisers themselves.

This ad for Captain Morgan’s Rum uses the defacement technique of subvertising to give it the appearance of an ad that has been tampered with, just as this poster for a modeling agency has been scribbled over in much the same way as other, noncommercial graffiti. In these instances, the advertisers have literally taken the tools of resistance away from the ad critics by using them first.

Hegemony comes to town

In the third chapter I discussed how so many countercultural movements of the late 20th century were subject to appropriation and assimilation by the advertising industry. This hegemonic usurpation of the modes of resistance was a simple quest for increased market share. For the most part 74

these earlier acts of resistance were movements against intolerance and inequality. These various feminist, civil rights, and antidiscrimination movements were aimed at promoting fair and equal treatment for everyone under the law. For the producers of consumer goods, they looked at the resistance movements as a chance to treat everyone (and their money) fairly and equally in the market: Their co-optation of the resistance was an attempt to make new consumers out of those formerly discriminated against. Now, however, the resistance and co-optation take a different format. In postmodernity the market is well and truly saturated — there are few market segments left to be tapped. Newer forms of resistance are not so much combating discrimination as the market saturation itself. When contemporary advertisers hegemonically absorb the modes of present-day resistance, as with the ad for Captain Morgan’s, they are co-opting the methods of the anti-advertising movement itself. As Paul Willis notes, modern capitalism may have been built on the puritan work ethic, but postmodern capitalism is parasitic “upon its own instability, even its subversion” [1990, p551]. The result is a cyclical — and cynical — succession of resistance and assimilation, self-nourishing, and done with ever-diminishing levels of effectiveness and creativity.

The cynical and schizophrenic cultural intermediary

It is in this space that Fredric Jameson’s postmodern schizophrenic, Pierre Bourdieu’s new cultural intermediary, and Peter Sloterdijk’s reasonable cynic all come together. The similarities between the postmodern advertiser and his/her audience has long been noted: They share a mutual history of exposure to the products of modernity and modern culture. They have eaten the same breakfast cereals, watched the same TV shows, and hummed the same jingles. They even share the same combination of ambivalence — even mistrust — toward advertising and the (sometimes guilty) pleasure of indulgent consumption. But for all these things the advertiser has in common with his/her audience, including the hard-won agency of postmodern reception, there is yet another group of people with whom the contemporary advertiser shares even more affinity: the contemporary advertising critic. As Annie Finnegan, an ad executive who has taught a guerrilla-advertising course at the Atlanta ad school Creative Circus points out, culture jammers and today’s ad creators are “both products of the same culture, with the same sensibilities — they just went in opposite directions” [quoted in Berger:2001, p458]. Thus are most contemporary ads — anti- or otherwise 75

— born out of “the simple desire,” as E.B. White once said, “of people who write and draw to write and draw” [quoted in Dee:1999, p72]. These people who write and draw aspire to the status of artist, and as such, both advertisers and their critics share a common fate as artists within postmodern society.

Mike Featherstone discusses how the aestheticization of life of the 1960s generation has led to a “celebration of the artist as hero and the stylization of life into a work of art.” This, in turn, “found resonances in a larger audience beyond intellectual and artistic circles through the expansion of particular occupational groups specializing in symbolic goods who acted as both producers/disseminators and consumers/audiences for cultural goods” [Featherstone:1991, p35]. Bourdieu’s cultural intermediary is someone who works in the culture industry, often responsible for influencing popular tastes and opinion through strokes of his/her pen or brush. These cultural intermediaries choose from their available resources to produce works for public consumption. What they create are, in the most postmodern sense, works of art. As artists, they are concerned with the things that have always been the bane of artistic existence: inspiration, innovation, and patronage.

Every artist needs a patron

Just as artists have always desired the inspiration to innovate, they have always required patronage to make their art. Michelangelo couldn’t have painted the Sistine Chapel without the gold of the Catholic Church and Frank Lloyd Wright could not have created his architectural masterpieces were they not subsidized by wealthy Midwest corporations. Likewise the artists that make ads and ad critiques have had to seek out funding in order to pursue their craft. But perhaps more accurately, they have opened themselves up to the idea of commissioned work.

These people who like to write and draw needed money in order to exercise their talents. In a postindustrial economy, in which there are more products of culture being commercially produced than ever before, there is much scope for creative employment. For those that chose the field of advertising as their creative outlet, the ads they create can be considered commissioned works of commercial art. Like other commissioned work, the subject matter of their art is largely dictated 76

by the person with the checkbook, leaving decisions regarding execution up to artist. At the end of the day, though, they are still accountable to the people writing the checks. For those that sought out noncommercial avenues for their artistic expression, they were more reliant on nonprofit and government backing for patronage of their work. Either way, the bigger the backer, the bigger the budget for their artistic projects. Within postmodernity there is more money to be found in corporate coffers than anywhere else, and the vast majority of advertising creatives are on the payroll of the capitalist giants. As Warren Berger points out, even some artists who started exploring their own creative interests found themselves being lured over to the other side. Musicians and painters have long been accused of selling out when they supply a soundtrack for a TV spot or a painting for a print ad, but in postmodernity even the artists outside the mainstream are getting in on the act, as “one team of New York graffiti artists signed on to produce street murals for Coca-Cola and others” [Berger:2001, p461].

The quest for inspiration and innovation
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. —Ecclesiastes I:8–9

There is possibly even one requirement older than the artist’s need for financial patronage: It has always been one of the primary aspirations of artists to create something entirely new. Throughout history, this goal has proved difficult to attain, but perhaps now more so than ever before has it been more true that there is nothing new under the sun. For the cultural intermediary, innovation and inspiration are almost entirely elusive, particularly in the face of the conditions of postmodernity.

Fredric Jameson, among others, has pointed to this conundrum of the postmodern. There is a very real sense, he claims, “in which the writers and artists of the present day will no longer be able to invent new styles and worlds — they’ve already been invented; only a limited number of combinations are possible; the most unique ones have been thought of already” [1983, p115]. What is left to do is to ‘imitate dead styles’, or as Pierre Bourdieu maintains, to change the way in which art is 77

to be considered. He claims that this exhaustion of new styles constitutes a major shift, a “shift from an art which imitates nature to an art which imitates art.” This new form is an art that does not refer to an external referent, or designated ‘reality’, “but to the universe of past and present works of art” [1984, p3]. In this way advertisers as well as ad critics are left with no possibility to be truly innovative. The products of postmodern culture they create can be nothing other than new combinations of older modern culture. Thus is their artists’ goal of innovation taken away from them, as indeed is much of their inspiration.

To innovate is one thing, but to be inspired is another. Artists of the past have found inspiration in the stories and images of what can only be described as the grand narratives of history. Whether a temple was built in the name of the sun, a painting made in honor of Christ, a poster printed to promote socialism, or an ad created to celebrate progress, artists of the past had ample inspiration for their work. As has been noted time and again, in the face of postmodernity these metanarratives don’t obtain any more. Art can no longer be done as a sincere panegyric for anything outside itself. Instead, art is now made in order to highlight the falseness of being overly sincere in relation to the external world. This is a transition, as David Foster Wallace notes, “from art’s being a creative instantiation of real values to art’s being a creative rejection of bogus values” [1997, p59]. In other words, the only avenue left to the artist is no longer to positively celebrate real inspiration but to negatively denounce fake inspiration. Add this to the impossibility for innovation, and postmodern art ceases to be a constructive force. Instead it is an act, at best, of uninspired assemblage; at worst, of destructive disavowal.

The cynical producer

Thus we return to the concept of cynicism. In the third chapter I noted how an overexposure to the false claims of advertising’s past had created a cynical consumer. Wary of naive devotion, the cynical consumer faces the world with a wry irony. In contrast, the cynical producer is not shackled only by his/her limited mode of reception, but by the impossibility of satisfying their aspirations without selling out to the capitalist patrons. Without inspiration and unable to innovate, cynical producers turn to irony, not only (as I explained before) to communicate with cynical consumers, 78

but also because they have no other choice. Their efforts at fulfilling their artistic ambitions have been frustrated. For the postmodern artist aspiring to creativity, irony is the only way out. But it is also a dead-end. Their options might be exhausted, but irony itself, as Twitchell notes, “carries not only the seeds of discontent but the symptoms of exhaustion” [1996, p234].

The crutch of irony

Linda Hutcheon has discussed Alan Wilde’s appreciation of irony as “a positive and defining characteristic of the postmodern” [1989, p18]. She has herself made great progress toward explaining how irony can be used as both a tool of creativity and criticism — two things of primary importance to ad creators and culture jammers. However she has also effectively illustrated that irony does not only criticize, but also installs, the dominant ideology that is often its subject. As critical a technique as it is, irony is always going to be simultaneously complicitous with that which it criticizes.

Perhaps more than that, though, irony grows tired almost as soon as it is used. But is also addictive. “Like any art,” Jonathan Dee comments, advertising “follows the internal logic of its own historical development; and the problem confronting it, at the apex of its effectiveness, is the same problem that confronts literature, painting, music; is there no such thing as a terminal point for irony?” [1999, p72] This seems to suggest that for artists it is too easy to fall back on postmodern irony, just as it is impossible to envision a future without it. Art can no longer strive to change the future or even represent the grand narratives of history, instead it must satisfy itself with making a mockery of such notions. For advertisers, myth was problematic, but clever irony is not any more helpful. This cleverness can be incredibly creative and engaging: As Wallace explains, “irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective,” but “at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in US culture” [1997, p49]. Or, as one writer for Adbusters magazine writes, summing up his own fate as a cultural intermediary, “irony is to culture what candy is to kids — it makes you sick, but you just can’t stop eating it” [Niedsvecki:1998, p2].


So what is left? In the end, the same problems exist for those that wish to criticize irony as those that wish to criticize — or create — advertising: It is possible to point out the problems of contemporary postmodern culture, but the very conditions of that culture make it difficult to offer any real solutions for positive change. The solution for cynical consumers is ironic consumption. The solution for frustrated artists is ironic production. The solution for those wishing to surpass irony is yet to be found. In the end all these people are one in the same: The conditions of information society which gave rise to postmodernity have led to the conflation of commerce and culture, consumption and production, art and critique; and the same people that have fallen into the trap of irony are the ones that recognize just how ensnaring irony can be. They know full well what has happened to them. As Dee says, “the smirk of ironic disengagement exchanged between artist and audience now refers to nothing but itself, like two mirrors held face to face” [1999, p72]. This is a situation they have gotten themselves into, and as disappointed as the advertisers and critics are at their own predicament, there are no signs to indicate that they are able to do anything about it. In the end it is as essayist Lewis Hyde has noted: “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage” [quoted in Wallace:1997, p57].

Thus perhaps Marx foresaw the advent of postmodernity many years ago. Writing in — and reacting against — a time of modern industrialism, he explained how historic events always occur twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” [quoted in Purdy:1999, p11]. In this case the historic event is the triumph of capitalism. It happened the first time during the height of modernity, and was tragic because it was built on the backs of a public which was largely powerless to resist. The second time it happened was at the birth of postmodernity. This time it is a farce because the public is no longer so powerless, but instead is only afforded the power of an ineffectual and inescapable irony. Jameson periodized postmodernity as the cultural logic of late capitalism, and in that he might be near the mark if indeed capitalism has triumphed again. Lash and Urry might be close as well when they characterize postmodernity as the radical exaggeration of modernity. But perhaps they are missing something that Marx hinted at long before: Perhaps postmodernity is, in fact, the farcical exaggeration of modernity, of which ironic advertising is its perfect manifestation.


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