Friendly Persuasion: The Postmodern Ubiquity Of Advertising

For many years, American advertising was able to trick the masses into thinking needs in life could be met by consumption of the products and that they were a form of agent of the gods bringing divine messages to mankind.

I. The Abandoned Hideaway of the Advertising Gang

For many years, American advertising was able to trick the masses into thinking needs in life could be met by consumption of the products and that they were a form of agent of the gods bringing divine messages to mankind. After all, what could be more friendly and helpful than a dancing seltzer tablet named "Speedy" or the smiling, all-knowing face of one of our original Pilgrim ancestors looking out at us from the cover of a cereal box?

Over the years, advertising's "tricks" got better and better. But so did the ability of the masses to discern the techniques behind the tricks, to understand they were being tricked in the first place. Such are the ways of the back-and-forth, hide-and-seek, cat-and-mouse game between producers and consumers in history's greatest experiment in capitalistic economy and consumer culture.

Throughout the cat-and-mouse game, marketers were always able to stay just a little ahead of the consumers. Like that posse in western films, the increasingly cynical consumers were close on the trail of the advertisers, ready to burst into their hide-out and expose them for the great false mythmakers they were. But always when the consumer posse arrived at the advertiser's hide-out, it was empty and the chase was on again.

Until the last decade of the 20th century. Finally the consumers caught up with the advertisers in their hideout and were able to expose the grand myths of consumption and brands. Not surprisingly, the 90s were the worst decade for brands in their relatively brief history. The new cynicism towards brands and advertising was something never seen before by the people on Madison Avenue. Anything that vaguely looked, felt or smelled like a brand or a sales pitch was held up to ridicule. It made little difference how subliminally brilliant and multi-cultural those grainy television commercials were. How much the corporations told everyone that they were really us. The new generation of consumers, led largely by the grand cynicism of the generation Xers, were not going to buy the propaganda anymore. The huge failure of advertising on the Internet was only one of the many defeats for the marketers.

At last, proletariat consumer class had exposed the lying trickery of the elite controller bourgeoisie class. Generic brands would push Budweiser and P&G off the supermarket shelves. No one would continue to pay ten grand for a Rolex. There would be dancing in the streets. Well, not exactly. Yes, consumers in their new take-no- prisoners cynicism were a tough, rowdy bunch. As mean and angry as the fans in the Dog Pound at a Cleveland Browns football game. Or even the participants in the November 2000 post presidential election battles. But the advertisers were a crafty bunch with a number of new tricks up their sleeves to get that brand engine of American capitalism back on track.

One thing advertising learned was that it was too risky to continue to retreat to a particular hide-out. Rather than be contained in any one place it would begin to inhabit space. From a friendly happy face persuader embodied in media content, advertising and the persuasion industry would be like a new musak of popular culture every bit as ubiquitous as Los Angeles smog on a hot, windless summer day.

So advertising left its traditional domain in media and morphed into a ubiquitous new presence throughout culture. It became the architecture of environment itself, McLuhan's "medium" carrying its subtle new lot of "messages" in ways that would make McLuhan himself proud. In this way, the postmodern world became "themed" out with such ubiquitous new advertorials like theme parks, theme malls, theme communities, theme retail stores, theme restaurants and theme casinos. There was even the creation of theme towns like Disney's Celebration, Florida.

In addition wall papering the context of our everyday environment, advertising also infiltrated other industries. Perhaps the grandest infiltration was Hollywood. Not that Madison Avenue and Hollywood were strangers to each other. But in the 90s they both tied the matrimonial knot in a new symbiotic relationship where one could hardly even exist without the other. Products such as toys depended more and more on a big cartoonish film like Disney's The Lion King to push their overloaded warehouse of stuffed animals. Hollywood was more than happy to make entire films that were little more than extended advertisements for particular corporations or brands. And, if the whole film was not an ad for a particular brand, they were only too happy to charge "placement" fees to pepper films with advertiser's brands. This relationship between advertising and entertainment became so great that in the late 90s entertainment executive Michael Wolfe wondered if the entire economy was an "entertainment economy" in his book of the same name.

Some define this escape of marketing from media content into everyday context as "contextual marketing." In the November/December 2000 Harvard Business Review article "Contextual Marketing The Real Business of the Internet" authors David Kenny and John Marshall suggest that the Internet is too content oriented and that the real power of marketing will arise when marketers stop trying to create "destination" Web sites. In ways, these destination sites are similar to those former hide-outs of the advertising "gang" in the content of particular media. They remind that the painful truth is that the Internet has been a letdown for most companies because destination sites seldom induce repeat visits by customers.

The authors suggest that instead of trying to create destinations people come to, companies need to use the power and reach of the Internet to deliver tailored messages and information to customers. As AT&T might advise, they need to "reach out and touch someone" and become adept at delivering the most relevant information possible to consumers in the most timely manner possible will become feasible. Contextual marketing will be made possible when consumers are no longer tied to the screens of electronic media by wires. When wireless technology begins to dominate. Then access moves beyond the PC to shopping malls, retail stores, airports, bus stations, and even cars. These new marketing 'mobilemediaries,' will be such things as smart cards, e-wallets, and bar code scanners."

While much of the new ubiquity of advertising and marketing is in the context of our increasingly fabricated environment, woven into story lines of Hollywood's entertainment products or centered in an emerging wireless technology, the real ubiquitous power of postmodern persuasion is in something part of all of these yet centered in none of them.

It is something so close to the dominant postmodern zeitgeist of our times it is difficult to tell whether it invented this postmodernism spirit or the spirit of the times invented it. It's not yet discussed in books, preached by consultants or taught in business schools. But in many ways it may be the grandest industry of America at the beginning of the 21st century. Certainly it seems a new refuge for postmodern marketing and advertising. Like most of the greatest and most important things in life, it doesn't even have a name. Out of the practical needs of the moment, let us call it the navigation industry or the ideology of navigation.

II. Images and Information

Consider for a moment a rather radical proposition that postmodern corporations are engaged more in the creation of images than the production of products.

Architecture professor Ernest Sternberg has pondered this possibility in his important (yet little known) book Economy of Icons. As Sternberg notes, "A century of progress in commercial marketing strategies has now culminated in a momentous transformation of capitalism. Whereas for most of the capitalist era business firms produced goods and services presumed to have identifiable uses, the new postmodern firms devote themselves to generating images that appeal to consumers' desires and longings. These advanced capitalist firms have become producers of presentations - of performances, images, narratives, and phantasm that turn commodities into valuable icons."

That much discussed "end of history" is reached and things are thrown into a retro type of Alice in Wonderland reversal. Beginnings become endings. Endings become beginnings. There are first images and icons which then search out products to attach themselves to. As Sternberg remarks, "In a reversal of the modern industrial logic (in which the firm prepares a good and then considers how to market it), the postmodern firm begins with the celebrity, the pop-culture character, logo, or news event - and then asks about the selection of mundane salable items to which it can be attached." Consider also that much of the new economy may be engaged in producing "navigational" directions through this plethora of images.

The rise of the powerful force of navigation has been brought about by a number of forces. Perhaps the greatest has been the break-up of American culture from a mass culture into a segmented culture. That grand philosophical meta-narrative of monism which reached its height in the 50s eventually splintered into the relatavistic pluralism of the 90s. World wars were replaced by cultural wars. Three broadcasting networks were joined by hundreds of cable channels. A few brands of morning cereal became hundreds.

The segmentation of American culture into isolated "bowling alone" niches occurred during the great era of information production. At no time in history was there so much information. Rather than lead to greater wisdom or knowledge it simply created a "data smog" of confusion and anxiety.

Concurrent with cultural segmentation and the over-production of information was the decreasing attention span of the average American consumer. Author Jeffrey Scheuer termed this "the sound bite society" in his 1999 book of the same title. Others referred to this as the "dumbing down" of the populace. Intellectualism and elitism was taken out to the woodshed in the 90s and given a good beating.

In the face of the barrage of information overload, millions came out of the closet and admitted they were perplexed, and yes, even downright idiots or dummies faced with the new techno world of information. Their confession of idiocy and their desire to wear this new label like a proud membership badge led to one of the greatest publishing phenomenons in history ? the creation of the "Dummies" and "Idiots" brand of books, not to mention a resurgence of that faithful old friend from bygone college days called Cliff Notes.

A segmented, relative culture of false-front images. Information glut hanging like a great dense smog over the nation obscuring any form of enlightenment. Short "sound bite" size communiques of information and attention spans that demanded this shortness. A pervasive cynicism that the common cultural future would be even more idiotic. It was the perfect breeding ground for the proliferation of a new form of control and persuasion. The perfect context for the new ubiquity of advertising and marketing. As the reclusive J.D. Salinger might suggest, "a perfect day for bananafish."

In a way similar to Moses parting the Red Sea and leading his people to the promised land, the new navigators of the world would lead consumers through the treacherous sea of information to those rare, peaceful islands of promised images. Or so the mythology at the beginning of the journey proclaimed. But it hasn't exactly worked out that way. Given our new cynical attitude, we should at least have suspected this. The reality of the voyage seldom matches its advertised promise.

III. The Relection of Hypertext

Periods of history and the stages of a particular life find metaphors in certain forms of light. One of these forms is radiated light. Another is reflected light. Radiated light comes from its own source of power within and moves outward. Relected light is the destination for radiated light, the opaque destination substance radiated light falls upon. The sun radiates light while the moon reflects light.

The Romantic Period was one of radiated light. The Enlightenment one of reflected light. Childhood and youth are periods of radiated light. Old age is a period of reflected light.

When America was young and surrounded by a given wilderness of nature rather than a created culture of things, it was a period of radiation. But a few centuries later, at the end of the 20th century, the radiated light has turned into a reflected light. Light no longer came from passionate fires within the soul and spirit of Americans but is rather reflected off other things called products and brands and the Gods and Goddesses of culture called celebrities.

Freud and Jung's night world symbolism of the unconsciousness and dreams has taken over the day world of American culture. In the new hyper-reality, everything refers to something else. Very little is original radiating its own light. Like so many small groups of lost souls in the wilderness, we gather around the campfire warmth of particular brands and Gods. Products are at the town square center of postmodern communities. The result is that we feel greater kinship with fellow Harley owners, Dead Heads or Raider fans than with our real families in forgotten little towns we visit once each half decade at Christmas.

The Internet and its endless roads of hypertext leading to more hypertext and then more offers a technilogical symbol for our light metaphor. The effect is similar to being in a carnival house-of-mirrors. We search for the real Web site or original content radiating its own light rather than the hypertexted reflection of another Web site. It never occurs to us that the entire house-of-mirrors is one great reflection itself.

One of the greatest advances in search engine technology came with the ability to distinguish original radiating "authority" Web sites from reflecting "hub" sites. The technology formed the basis for the Google search engine. Just what percentage of those billions of Web pages and sites are creators of original content as opposed to navigators or directors to original content? I think it might scare even the most cynical of us out there.

When I think of the original content on the Internet - and in fact all of life - an image of the Wizard of Oz comes to mind. The image is from that scene in the movie when we see the Wizard for what he really is - a little old man behind a screen speaking into a great sound-enhancing microphone. With the Internet there is the promise of the greatest network in history. The promise in many respects has been realized. But does the network create anything new or does it simply conduct power along its lines? Do postmodern consumers create their own light or simply reflect light from all the orbiting product moons of a flooded consumer culture?

IV. The Navigation Business

We live at a strange intersection of time. Like children too old to still believe in Santa Claus and the magic of Christmas but too young to enter the adult world. Joseph Conrad termed this period of time the "shadow line" in a story of the same name. We may have developed a great overriding cynicism about advertising and its goal of persuasion but at the same time we still believe that the greatest light in the world radiates from brands and celebrities rather than from ourselves.

The navigation business and its navigator agents has grown to show us the paths to the light of products. Its main production is information. Not the type of information that can get you into an Ivy League school, raise your IQ, your chances on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire or add a few bucks to the weekly paycheck. No its information attached to that radiant light of brands and products. Come to think of it, most information during this Information Age seems to have had this peculiar allegiance.

Yes, it's got some attachment to the economy and the ideology of capitalism. But we should have learned in our new cynicism that information is always contextual and never just contentual. As argued by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Information, it's got a life, stays out and parties at night and doesn't just live and die inside your computer or in that ambiguous area called cyberspace.

The navigation business became the purveyor of contextual information leading ultimately to brands and products. In navigators, the advertising industry has perhaps found the "promised land" it has been searching for since it was forced by cynical consumers to leave its old home in media. In navigators it has perhaps discovered that transparent ubiquity it had wanted for so long.

After all, these navigators were a powerful army of cultural abductees. They were the critics of culture, the reviewers, the analysts, the commentators, the pundits, the spin doctors. Yes, they were even the journalists. And to the extent that a lot of us found new families in the community of similar product users, to the extent we were willing to post a good review of book up on Amazon, heck these navigators were also us.

In ways this navigation business fits nicely with that marketing buzzword of the late 90s called "relationship marketing" which offered the rather silly suggestion that you and products can establish an interactive relationship. Products might be able to employ the same democratic interactive relationship of Internet technology. No longer did the product simply bark its headline copy at you. Rather it was someone you might want to BS with at a cocktail party. As stated in the popular book from 1999 The Cluetrain Manifesto, "Markets are conversations." The message to corporations and brand marketers was obvious. Your products better be out there partying 24/7 having meaningful conversations with your customers.

Critics of culture used to march pretty much under that tattered old flag of liberalism. They were a pretty depressing and "get a life" type of group. Definitely not someone you would want to bring home for the Thanksgiving dinner with mom. In the twilight hours of the day they found themselves putting smeared radical pamphlets on cars in the Sears parking lots. Members of some rent a mob organization that would journey to political hot spots across the nation when labor unions or others were not up to the task of being as obnoxious and difficult as they could for corporate management.

But the big postmodern break-up of that grand American mass culture of the 50s into a bunch of tiny yelping consumer segments also had the effect of breaking up these small but dedicated and persistent critics of consumerism. They alone seemed to remember that past of youth and radiating life. They alone. But to look at them, this was not saying much for the continuation of collective memory in America.

It said even less for them (and collective American memory) when they begin to break up into yelping little segments themselves. They morphed from grand, bumbling critics of American consumer culture to simply film critics, media critics, political critics, book critics, restaurant critics, car critics, wine critics. They morphed into those two political pundits (one from each side) which CNN brings in immediately to comment on anything important happening in life. Even former President George Bush Sr. told one reporter that he had to wait for the response from one of CNN's commentators for him to decide how he felt about something. In effect, Americans postponed feelings and responses to events by deferring to navigator comment. As the great American mass culture deconstructed into waring cultural factions, critics also got smaller and smaller. Honey I shrunk the kid.

In the constant hum of these critics, even greater than the musak infiltrating our offices and airports and shopping malls, this constant comment by navigators on culture seems to have one effect of putting the large part of society into an extended type of trance. Why think or try to find your way to some product today when these wise men of postmodern culture have already done it for you? Why try fanning the flames of any internal fire and radiating light when there are all those others out there to provide the light? This new millennnium trance idea should not be too hard to accept if one realizes our Prozac, television culture came out of the 80s with a pretty good propensity for trance in the first place.

But apart from their segmentation into smaller and smaller niches, mirroring of course the consumer culture they were supposed to be critics of, they also became a bought out group. Previously, those dumb liberal critics of America had little more than some measley few bucks from a liberal, leftist publication to support them.

But now, the grand connective media of the Internet had given these navigators something never before possible in culture. Just as consumers might have a relationship with products through Internet communities, postmodern navigators might have relationships with products through strong financial links called affiliate relationships. In effect, the Internet in its democratic method was able to connect everyone to brands who had a computer with an Internet browser.

Yes, consumers might have discovered a peculiar new democracy in chat rooms that expose bad products, the fact that the Wizard of Oz behind a certain brand is no more than an angry old man behind a curtain, barking into a microphone. But as usual, that old, crafty advertising gang is again just a little ahead of consumers in this little dramatic story we're spinning here. Consumers might have used the Internet to bond with each other. But the bond of bad mouthing products does not have that lasting incentive and life-style supporting inducement of being a product supporter through the relationship of affililate marketing.

Sure, one can say that never before in history have consumers had the ability to congregate and discuss things. But even more easily one can observe that never before in history have advertisers had the ability to be so technically connected with a vast sales force called navigators through the economic incentive of affiliate relationships. In this sense it certainly makes more sense to say good things about that latest Disney animation film you hated and make a few bucks than be naggingly critical with no effect and ultimately probably a negative effect.

These economic relationships turn fellow cynical consumers, yes even members of Generation X, into smiling abductees of advertising. They turn nice people into sales agents for particular brands. No, they are not exactly employees of the corporation. But then, in the postmodern era how exactly does one define a corporate employee? Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos once suggested that all who write reviews posted on Amazon are really Amazon employees. Over the past few years, Amazon has developed a technology for rating its reviewers. Here is a big question so listen up. Is a reviewer ranked number three on Amazon more important than a top salesperson at Amazon? Should a reviewer ranked number three on Amazon be defined as a top sales employee of Amazon?

Yes, today seems a lot like that favorite 50s science fiction film of mine, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The salesman who tried to wedge his foot in your front door now turns out to be your husband or your wife. Your children. You hopelessly try to shut the door on something already inside your home. Ah, that's the nature and beauty of our postmodern world of persuasion. The advertising gang is so pleased it has all come down to this. Finally, their propagandist ubiquity has exrtended to consumers themselves not through the reflected light of old media ads but through a new radiating light coming from navigators themselves. Praise the day!

Yes, it was part of that always elusive part of persuasion which built consumer culture called public relations. That branch of persuasion that went into hiding and became invisible long before advertising ever thought of hiding itself. It understood propaganda and creation of ideology much better than advertising and its presence in American consumer culture with an invisible ubiquity almost from the start.

And yes it was part of advertising's attempt at camouflage in its technique of endorsements and sponsorships. Much of it was a play on the ancient homeopathic logic of magic itself that Sir James Frazier exposed in The Golden Bough. Those who have connections to the Gods possess a particular magic transferred to them by the Gods. And, in the postmodern world, brands were certainly the new Gods. Being close to them might confer a modern magic. Not to mention a hefty extravagant life style supporting economic payoff.

Maybe we finally arrived at in real life that fictional inspiration of Ayn Rand for Atlas Shrugged when the "motor of the world" simply stopped.

The rise of navigators and their importance was the real subextual message of the important 1999 book from Harvard Business School Press titled Blown to Bits. In it, Boston Consulting Group executives Philip Evans and Thomas Wurster argued that the rise of the navigators as independent business is destined to be one of the most dramatic aspects of cultural deconstruction.

Old Nostradamus himself could not have provided a more right on definition of the future than Evans and Wurster.

Advertising and consumer culture, through that democratic network of relationships called the Internet, has finally been able to recruit its once critics as afffiliates.

Still, in the haze of cynicism brought about by this new economic trance for navigators, there still exists in a few out there that small spark igniting a hope that a new Columbus type of navigator for this weird postmodern era might emerge.

And ultimately that he might lead us to a new land.

In fact, to a new, and radiant, America.

© 2001 John Fraim. All rights reserved.

John Fraim, President
The GreatHouse Company
700 Coney Court
Santa Rosa, CA 95409
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John Fraim has a BA in History from UCLA and a JD from Loyola Law School(Los Angeles). He is President of The GreatHouse Company, a publishing, consulting and research firm with a focus in the area of the symbolism of popular culture. His book Spirit Catcher won the 1997 Small Press Award. Scheduled for publication in 2001 are two books by John Fraim -Symbolism of Popular Culture and Symbolism of Place.

Spirit Catcher, Winner 1997 Small Press Award (Best Biography)