Cynical Proposals for Revolutionizing the Advertising Industry

Except when it comes to selling its own services to potential clients, advertising is not the direct sale of products, services or other commodities. Advertising only encourages, induces or motivates potential consumers to buy (certain) commodities. And so the English word "advertising" is very similar to the French word publicitaire, that is to say, publicity: advertising publicizes the existence, availability and desirability of certain commodities; it informs the public of these (alleged) facts.[1]

But in capitalist society, what isn't an inducement to buy and consume? To the extent that separation exists everywhere, everything is an inducement to partake of the "participation," "sense of belonging," "integration" and "community" promised (if not actually delivered) by the commodity. And so "advertising" only designates a particular instance (the most obvious instance) of something that is practiced quite generally and by many different disciplines.

For the moment, let us stay with the "narrow" conception of advertising. But here, too, it is almost everywhere or, rather, in and on almost everything. Formerly restricted to posters, "ads" now appear in and on every medium of expression: newspapers and magazines; billboards and signs; radio and TV broadcasts; films and videos; clothes and shoes; the Internet in all of its forms, etc. etc. But this "invasion" of advertising into almost everything -- undeniable and important though it is -- doesn't tell us everything that we need to know. Today, all "media" (the various forms of one-way "communication") are created and exist to give the ads a place to do their work, and not the reverse. "The media" could easily exist without any "programming" or "content" (cf. MTV, which is nothing but commercials), but "the media" could not exist without ads (the costs are too high and there are no sources of sufficiently large funds). Advertising doesn't just invade: it occupies and takes control through a kind of economic censorship. If the programming gets "out of line," the "sponsors" will walk out, thus causing the program itself to be canceled due to lack of funds.

But advertising itself is a commodity and it only exists to make sure that other commodities are purchased. Thus, advertising "works" in the service of the market, that is to say, in the service of an economic system that is based upon the production and consumption of commodities. What gets produced (and thus advertised and hopefully consumed) is not determined by the real needs of the ultimate consumers: it is determined by what will make a profit for the producers. Indeed, from the producers' point of view, it doesn't matter what gets produced, as long as it sells or, rather, as long as one of the producers' many products sells enough to make a profit. Strictly speaking, those products need not be consumable: they need only be purchased. How much of a profit is "enough"? At least enough to ensure that the producers -- the system of production-for-profit -- can continue to operate.

And so, advertising is basically conservative: it works to conserve the production of commodities for profit. But within this narrow confine, advertising must be and must remain persuasive (novel, interesting, entertaining, stimulating, etc. etc.). To be and remain persuasive, advertising must be "creative," that is to say, it must constantly come up with new ideas. But, as everyone who has ever worked in "the industry" knows, advertising is only "creative" within the relatively narrow confines set for it by the clients, who not only have their own ideas (their history and their habits), but who measure everything against actual sales that are generated. And since purchases are made by consumers, advertising ultimately must follow their tastes and preferences. Advertising can occasionally push consumers, but it must be careful not to push too far nor generate a backlash. Thus, in addition to being conservative, advertising is literally reactionary: it persuades consumers by reacting to what they are doing or, rather, to what they have done in the very recent past. Furthermore, advertising has only invaded, occupied and exerted control over areas ostensibly outside of its narrow field -- for example: entertainment, news and religion (thereby "creating" or "inspiring" such new fields as "infotainment," "tabloid news" and "TV evangelism") -- after those fields had already been evacuated or hollowed out by other forces (centralization, monopolization and/or corruption).

And yet, despite all this, advertising sees itself as "revolutionary," as some kind of leader or vanguard in the culture as a whole. Are not the "ads" the best part of TV? Aren't the new ads the best part of the Super Bowl? This is why the process of getting "new business" is so dispiriting: it's the moment when, forced to sell its own bullshit instead of someone else's, advertising is forced to realize the truth about itself.

To be really revolutionary, advertising must cease to content itself with working upon representations of reality and the "psychology" or "ideology" of the consumer, and must start to work directly upon reality and the consumer's physical body. It must not only turn consumers towards certain commodities, but also turn consumers away from others. In short, advertising must model itself on the real revolutionaries in this society that forbids real revolution: the CIA, the military, the police, and the technocrats of genetic modification.

The CIA doesn't just kill people: it engages in several different types of propaganda ("white propaganda" spreads stories that are favorable to the CIA's clients, while "black propaganda" spreads stories that are unfavorable to rival clients). Experts in the field of commercial propaganda, advertising agencies should train and deploy their own hit squads, which will "destabilize" or even "neutralize" both rival ad agencies and the makers of rival commodities.

The military doesn't just kill people: it attempts to "shock and awe," to overwhelm its adversaries with such a massive and lethal first strike that they decide it would be best to surrender as quickly as possible. Experts in the field of shocking consumers (TV viewers, mostly) and filling them with awe concerning the incredible power of the commodity, ad agencies should train and deploy whole armies, which will attack and occupy the territories in which both rival agencies and the makers of rival commodities have their headquarters and/or get their recruits and raw materials.

The police do not simply arrest people who actually have committed criminal acts: they infiltrate non-violent organizations and provoke their members into committing violent actions; they plant weapons on people they have murdered and lie about both of these crimes; etc. Experts in the field of lying and cynical self-justification, ad agencies should train and deploy their own officers, who will provide legal cover for anything that subverts the status quo in the name of supporting it.

The technocrats who genetically modify or "clone" foodstuffs, animals and (soon) human beings do not respond to "consumer demand," nor do they subject their "pure" research to any oversight whatsoever: they do whatever their corporate sponsors pay them to do, even if it means "playing God." Experts in creativity, ad agencies should also employ teams of technocrats, who will create the human beings who will demand whatever they are "programmed" or "engineered" to demand.

No one in advertising should be troubled by these modest proposals. By imitating the pornographers ("sex sells") and terrorists ("disrupt the conventional way of thinking to come up with new ideas"), the industry has already taken its first steps towards its "dark side." But these have been but baby steps along a road that will surely separate the men from the boys. Onwards!

13 October 2007

[1] There are other meanings in play: "advertising" (advertisen or avertir) also suggests "to notify" and "to warn"; "to advert" (advertere) means "to turn towards," and is connected to "adverse," that is, to turn away from something that fails to promote one's interests or welfare. We will return to these darker meanings further on.

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