John — New Encyclopedia Gives Cool-Hunters a Road Map for Ads

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July 19, 2003
New Encyclopedia Gives Cool-Hunters a Road Map for Ads
Cayce Packard, the heroine of William Gibson’s recent novel, “Pattern Recognition” (Putnam), has a serious problem. Corporate symbols and logos make her ill. A glimpse of the bulbous Michelin Man is traumatic; even trademarks on the buttons of her Levis have to be sanded off.
But her hypersensitivity to commercial insignias also makes her eminently qualified to be a “cool-hunter.” She is hired by businesses to assess their logos and anticipate trends before they congeal into fads. She thus combines the cultural antennae of an advertising copywriter with the allergies of a Marxist: she helps create the very products that most disgust her.
Mr. Gibson, of course, is himself one of the prime cool-hunters of the age, a science-fiction writer so astute he coined the term cyberspace and envisioned virtual reality before its time. His current hunt also resonates: our world, like Cayce’s, is saturated with logos and commercial images. Polo players on horseback, giant swishes and geometric medallions are elements in a cultural shorthand: invoked in novels, placed in movies, inscribed on clothing. The contemporary citizen is also a cool-hunter, literate in the symbols and allusions of advertising.
At the same time, these images inspire reactions at least as traumatic as Cayce’s. Riots at anti-globalization demonstrations are often directed specifically at trademarked signs and brand-name businesses. A more high-brow antipathy is widespread in the academy where global capitalism and advertising are often treated as instruments of power and manipulation, imposing desires on a citizenry presumably unable to think clearly whenever it hears the words “ring around the collar.”
But even that hostility can be put in perspective now that the entire scope of the world of advertising — its fascinations, failures, controversies and triumphs — is being surveyed in a three-volume, $385, 1,873 page work: the Advertising Age Encyclopedia of Advertising (Fitzroy Dearborn), edited by John McDonough and the Museum of Broadcast Communications and Karen Egolf, of Advertising Age. It offers a history of advertising that takes its flaws, deceits and ideologies into account but also provides some insight into the institutions, agencies and corporations that have given it shape. Mr. McDonough argues in his introduction that within the last 150 years, for the first time in human history, it became widely possible to produce more than was demanded and to offer more than was needed. Advertising was a response to surplus.
The articles by an international cast of journalists, academics and advertising professionals give an unusual perspective on that surplus and its effects: one arising from the trade itself.
This makes it quite different from many books that come out of the academy that display, even in subtle ways, Cayce’s allergies. In the recent book, “A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America” (Alfred A. Knopf), for example, Lizabeth Cohen, a professor of American Studies at Harvard University, carefully traces the boom in prosperity and consumerism that characterized the United States after the Second World War. Mass consumption, she argues, inspired “more social egalitarianism, more democratic participation and more political freedom.” But there were still rampant social inequalities, and in Ms. Cohen’s view, the increasing interest in selling products to “segmented” markets — markets divided by age, income, race and interest — eventually led to a segmented citizenry. We live in the fractured and privatized society that was a result.
A generalized hostility toward advertising and commercial culture is here diffused into an objection to particular social effects. But Ms. Cohen’s argument still presents marketing as a form of ideological manipulation that can disrupt the social order. In fact, her view of marketing is not that different from the classic Marxist portrait of a retrograde political opiate: it encourages passivity over action and privileges the private over the public.
Attempts to re-examine these academic hostilities about Western commercial culture do appear from time to time, of course, as in some of the essays collected in “Consumer Society in American History: A Reader” (Cornell, 1999). James Axtell, for example, shows that as early as the 17th century, even American Indian tribes developed sophisticated consumer cultures. Michael Schudson suggests that attacks on modern consumer culture are misguided, that “there is dignity and rationality in people’s desires for material goods.” And Colin Campbell argues that the impact of advertising is not due to the creation of artificial needs but to an imaginative attentiveness to human possibilities.
But as the encyclopedia keeps showing, advertising itself has a kind of value that is not often accounted for by most academic theory. Think, for example of the famous 1984 television ad for Apple Computer in which a marathoner single-handedly shatters the tyrannical uniformity of a Big Brotheresque universe. It captured something of the nervy countercultural ambitions of Apple in going after I.B.M. The company’s trademark of the classic forbidden fruit was also a proclamation of eye-opening knowledge, its pictured bite not leading to an exile from Eden but to a promise of Eden’s renewal. This ad offered, in its serpentine way, a form of knowledge: it accurately dramatized something about style and function, and that led to sales.
Moreover, the encyclopedia’s extended look at advertising offers a window into how popular culture is created and its language shaped. Ideas are refined and distilled, until a sound or phrase or character becomes weighted with resonance. The notes for NBC’s chimes came from the first letters of its major corporate owner in 1926, the General Electric Corporation (G-E-C) (though that aural logo was later modified). The industry’s Ad Council, sponsored by pro bono contributions, created characters like Rosie the Riveter and Smokey Bear and tag lines like “Loose lips sink ships” and “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
It is also possible to trace changes as advertising became professionalized. In 1897 the promise of an Oldsmobile ad was hardly reassuring: “Practically noiseless and impossible to explode.” But by 1923 the Jordan Motor Car Company produced an ad for its car the Playboy, that was, the encyclopedia claims, “one of the most memorable car ads ever created,” its purple-tinged prose singing a hymn to a “broncho-busting, steer-roping girl” who “rides, lean and rangy, into the red horizon of a Wyoming twilight.”
Such changes also reveal a shifting relationship between the consumer and the producer. In a 1996 book, “The Adman in the Parlor” (Oxford University Press), Ellen Gruber Garvey traced modern advertising culture back to the 1880’s and 90’s with the beginnings of mass-market magazines and advertising “trading cards.” The artfully decorated cards were collected, mounted in scrapbooks, establishing for the consumer, Ms. Garvey wrote, “a closer relationship with a distant manufacturer than with the familiar grocer.” Magazines held contests, offering prizes, for example, for the best letter written to a friend about an ad and its product. Advertising was treated as if it were an interactive enterprise.
The encyclopedia gives a sense of how the interaction was treated by the producers of the ads, chronicling campaigns that failed along with those that triumphed. Many interactions, of course, also inspired hostility. In the 1930’s the editor of a new magazine, Ballyhoo, was disgusted, as he put it, by “rump-kissing advertising agents,” and “rump-kissing magazines”; so his monthly specialized in parodying advertising, turning, for example, the u in “Lux” soap into an o. Its early issues sold hundreds of thousands of copies, then millions. (In the 1950’s, it was Mad magazine’s turn.)
The recent wave of academic hostility is more political, and it, too, is represented in the encyclopedia in entries on “Cultural Imperialism,” and “Culture of Consumption,” which outline theories about how advertising overwhelms traditional cultures and enshrines capitalist values. Other entries provide justifications for such suspicion. One recounts how vexed the issue of race has been in American advertising, including its condescending trademarks (like Aunt Jemima). Most advertisements in Ebony, as late as the 1960’s, sold skin lighteners and hair straighteners.
There has also been more than enough duplicity in the industry to encourage skepticism. In the 1960’s, for example, a mini-scandal erupted when it became known that Campbell’s used marbles to push up pieces of chicken and pasta in its soup commercials. It may be that these varied traumas helped shape contemporary advertising styles, in which particular claims are less common than knowing attitudes, sexual provocation and sly wit.
But the accumulated detail of the encyclopedia makes clear that the ordinary academic model of advertising and its effects is inadequate. Advertisements are a form of communication, not mere manipulation: they help make sense of the world, defining its differences and essences, filtering through its variety, making claims and constructing images. The final task — discerning knowledge amid the claims and images — makes us all cool-hunters in training.