Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Faults and Flaws: A Fantastic Distraction

What few people contest any longer, whether Enthusiast or Cynic, is that advertising is now the “culture” against which everything else, including our individual attitudes to advertising, must be defined.[1]

Rick Poynor

The fetishism of the commodity — the domination of society by “intangible as well as tangible things” — attains its ultimate fulfillment in the spectacle, where the real world is replaced by a selection of images which are projected above it, yet which at the same time succeed in making themselves regarded as the epitome of reality.

The world at once present and absent which the spectacle holds up to view is the world of the commodity dominating all living experience. The world of the commodity is thus shown for what it is, because its development is identical to people’s estrangement from each other and from everything they produce.

Guy Debord

A very important part of what I want to write my dissertation on is advertising. Advertising is an integral part of the ideology by which we live and take for granted everyday as reality. Our society is propelled and maintained by advertising and by the people —everybody— it affects as consumers. It is so common and yet is so commonly overlooked.
I recently watched a popular documentary about advertising named Art & Copy. In this film some very successful people in the advertising business are interviewed, among them are Dan Wieden and David Kennedy. Wieden and Kennedy “helped turn a little-known athletic shoe company into a cultural phenomenon with the slogan, ‘Just do it.’”[2] There are two particular examples from this film this essay will focus on that are relevant when talking about the spectacle, its ideology and workings. They are both Nike ad campaigns designed by W+K.

In 1996 Nike Women ran a series of ads that spoke directly to people on an extremely personal level. One of these was directly aimed at women. It was about being yourself; living up to your own expectations and to no one else’s. This is the ad and what it said:

You do not have to be your mother unless she is who you want to be. You do not have to be your mother’s mother, or your mother’s mother’s mother, or even you grandmother’s mother on you father’s side. You may inherit their chins or their eyes, but you are not destined to become the women who came before you, you are not destined to live their lives. So if you inherit something, inherit their strength. If you inherit something, inherit their resilience. Because the only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.[3]
Another was a television ad in which children listed some of the benefits of taking part in sports, the text of that ad is as follows:

"If you let me play sports
I will like myself more;
I will have more self-confidence,
I will be 60 percent less likely to get breast cancer;
I will suffer less depression.
I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me.
I will be less likely to get pregnant
I will learn what it means to be strong.
If you let me play sports."[4]
These two ads are both extremely strong. They are both bold and intimate, addressing what might normally be very personal issues for the people who see them. Apparently these ads were very well received upon release. In Art & Copy Dan Wieden recalls meeting a woman who told him “Oh my god, I tore that out, handed that to my daughter and said that’s what I was trying to tell you.”[5] There are other people in the documentary who talk about being motivated to change their lives by the ‘Just Do It’ slogan. We are told these were very powerful campaigns that spoke to people, which I do not doubt. These advertising strategies intentionally reach out to people and make them consider their lives and their choices. Without being obtrusive they come right into your life and make you question how you live. In that sense they are extremely manipulative: after all, even if they seem concerned with your child’s self-esteem, they really just want you to buy their sporting goods.

What I find really interesting about these campaigns, however, is what fantastic distractions they are! These ads seem so socially correct and yet are merely clever devices of our commodity-fetishism based culture.

We live in a “consumer system based on built-in obsolescence”[6] where our emotions are repressed and redirected onto and into objects. We feel insecure in our unstable system; we feel the need for change and so we consume, consume, consume. Advertising is an elaborate and constant distraction from the workings of our capitalist society. However, unlike other advertisements that distract you with objects, these Nike ads distract you with yourself. They highlight people’s fears and issues and at the same time reassure. Nike have associated themselves with the temporary feeling of security we get from the ads; by pointing out our fears we feel they know us and we give them our confidence.

We are offered an ideology that we are told is reality. This ideology contains distractions and flaws as integral parts. Advertising is one of these distractions: it is both a distraction from the capitalist ideology at work and a distraction from the faults of that ideology. (Although when the spectacle needs them to the flaws can act as distractions in and of themselves, but that is not the case here.)

In a peculiar paradox of consumer capitalism it is the flaws in the system that make it work. When we get emotional satisfaction from buying new things we forget we could have used that energy, those ‘passions’[7], to try to change our flawed society. By investing in the distractions (or the flaws) we accept the ideology as our reality because those distractions were put in place by the ideology in the first place. When we focus on the distractions we mistake them for a real part of society and we make them real to us, simply by investing that meaning in them.

Real life is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle, and ends up absorbing it and aligning itself with it. Objective reality is present on both sides. Each concept established in this manner has no other basis that its transformation into its opposite: reality emerges within the spectacle and the spectacle is real. This reciprocal alienation is the essence and support of the existing society.[8]

Guy Debord

[2] http://www.artandcopyfilm.com/bios/ 4.10.2010
[3] Art&Copy. Dir. Doug Pray. 2009.
[4] Art&Copy. Dir. Doug Pray. 2009.
[5] Wieden, Dan. Art&Copy. Dir. Doug Pray. 2009.
[6] Opcit, Williamson.
[7] Williamson, Judith. Consuming Passions: the dynamics of popular culture. P11. Marion Boyars Publishers, London. 1988
[8] Opcit, Debord. P7.