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A Magazine of Ideas

Why I’m an Adbooster

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Here’s why champions of the 99 percent should applaud advertisers.

While the Occupy Wall Street movement targets inequality, and especially the financial industry’s role in it, the protests were originally inspired by the Twitter feed of the Canadian magazine and foundation with a circulation of 120,000, Adbusters, better known for its critique of consumerism and corporate branding than of credit default swaps. (Perhaps this was because Canada had avoided U.S. banking excesses, as Mark J. Perry has explained in The American.) Kalle Lasn, co-founder of Adbusters, has reportedly signed a contract to edit an economics “textbook of the future” for the Occupy movement. But should advertising really be blamed for our financial woes? The case is doubtful.

There is a parallel between Occupy and the Adbusters agenda: both are striking at moving targets. Even before the September 11 attacks, trading floors and many corporate headquarters were moving out of Lower Manhattan as new technology made the physical delivery of securities increasingly unnecessary and classic skyscrapers lacked the square feet needed for 21st-century operations. There was justice in Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s criticism that the protests, whatever the symbolism of the nearby New York Stock Exchange, were poorly matched to the emerging character of the area as a “family” neighborhood. The number of securities firms located in the area had declined from 1,002 to 286 between 1998 and 2009. Of course, many of the new residents still work locally in finance, but a growing number of Lower Manhattan businesses, approaching 60, are media companies. The advertising industry, too, is occupying Wall Street.

Should advertising really be blamed for our financial woes? The case is doubtful.

But advertising is also ebbing in influence, at least in its traditional forms. Advertising Age reported in April that, while revenue was continuing to rebound, 76,500 fewer people were working in U.S. advertising and marketing organizations than at the industry's peak in late 2007. The field is shifting from its classic genres, from the elaborately produced magazine display and the television commercial, to social media advertising that values the amateur contribution, from lasting design products to evanescent promotion. (A 2009 Congressional Research Service report presents the background of technological change.)

It’s premature to declare the death of newspaper and magazine display advertising, and the traditional television commercial, but they are becoming more marginal to publishers’ plans. Magazine advertising pages have been especially disappointing, declining nearly 7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 instead of recovering as expected. The Atlantic, which is still free online, made news when its digital advertising revenue exceeded its print advertising income; on the other end of the spectrum, the Financial Times, which has a paywall, continues to raise the price of its print edition in a conscious effort to become even less dependent on advertising.

Advertising has often aided green and liberal causes. Volkswagen ads of the 1960s helped make small, economical, easily repaired cars chic, preparing the way for today’s hybrids. Ronald Reagan’s campaign commercials may remain the standard setters in production values and overall impact, but Bill Clinton’s “The Man from Hope” (1992) and Barack Obama’s “Country I Love” (2008) showed how modern liberals could appropriate the Horatio Alger narrative. And Lyndon Johnson’s ruthlessly anti-Goldwater “Daisy” ad of 1964, while quickly pulled, may have been the first television commercial that went viral, repeated on countless news programs. Almost 50 years later, over a half million people have watched copies on YouTube. In fact, last spring, before the Occupy movement began, conservatives were angrier than liberals about Madison Avenue values.

Advertising people are as concerned as anybody else about the growing proportion of the low-income population; they can’t rely only on luxury brands but need broadly based prosperity.

Champions of the 99 percent should applaud advertisers. Advertising people are as concerned as anybody else about the growing proportion of the low-income population; they can’t rely only on luxury brands but need broadly based prosperity. The economist Amar Bhidé has even extolled the American consumer’s responsiveness to new products as a primary engine of prosperity. Where would the Adbusters Twitter feed be without Steve Jobs, who was mourned by many of the demonstrators in part because of his unmatched advertising and marketing prowess?

Advertising is one of America’s contributions to artistic patronage. It helped artists and writers make their livings by serving a broad marketplace rather than depending on wealthy patrons. As the art director and historian Steven Heller put it in a classic essay, it is “the mother of graphic design.” Many of the classics of typography and layout were developed for it, and without ample advertising even such editorial design icons like the Depression-era Fortune Magazine would have been inconceivable. Prestigious museums have recently featured commercial artists like Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish, originally celebrated for his otherworldly calendars.

Among major postwar artists, James Rosenquist valued his early years as a billboard painter–now a sadly endangered profession, incidentally. Andy Warhol, who changed the relationship between advertising and fine art, was originally famous for the blotted-line technique of his I. Miller shoe ads. While some conservative critics like Hilton Kramer savaged the Museum of Modern Art exhibition High and Low, which called attention to advertising’s influence on high art, and the curator Kirk Varnedoe added fuel to the fire by modeling for an Ermengildo Zegna ad, the controversy hardly hurt Varnedoe’s career. Before his early death he had been appointed to a chair of art history at the Institute for Advanced Study. The artist Richard Prince, who began by re-photographing advertisements discarded as he was clipping articles as a Time-Life employee, is now a Guggenheim Museum superstar.

Advertising helped artists and writers make their livings by serving a broad marketplace rather than depending on wealthy patrons.

Copywriter-authors include not only such recent figures as Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo (both Ogilvy & Mather alumni), but also Charles Dickens, who, recent research in historic newspaper ads suggests, was paid anonymously for jingles lauding the products of the very blacking factory where he had toiled as an abandoned youth. And where would photography be without advertising work as bread and butter–and often art in its own right.

Even the strongest apparent case against advertising, namely its role in promoting tobacco, needs qualification. The economist John E. Calfee presented strong evidence that the most effective publicity of smoking’s health hazards came from the unregulated advertising environment of the 1950s. Advertising’s power to shape habits may be exaggerated. Coffee, tea, gin, sugar, tobacco, and even marijuana all spread well before low-priced, ad-supported magazines like McClure's (founded in 1893) and 20th-century radio and television. The United States didn’t even have a federal trademark law until 1870.

In sum, attackers and defenders of advertising are waging a looking-glass war. Such classic anti-ad tracts as Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957) were based on some gurus’ hyped claims (the power of advertising!) for their skills of subliminal manipulation, a tradition still alive 50 years later as “neuromarketing.” And aren’t liberal critics who accept advertisers’ prowess at face value questioning ordinary people’s critical ability to weigh claims rationally? Media studies academics tend to take a middle ground with concepts like “negotiated meanings,” in which the public is neither classically rational nor passively manipulated. (The scholarly literature on the topic is immense.)

The advertising industry, too, is occupying Wall Street.

Graphically, opposites can converge. Consider Adbusters’s American flag parody with the blue field adorned by corporate logos rather than stars, which the organization’s website says “absolutely captures the spirit of the omnipotent control of corporate America.” Yet it could also be read to signify that corporations are the true stars of national greatness. Does that sound far-fetched? Consider The American’s own 2008 essay in defense of marketing, illustrated with a similar U.S. map populated by brand names rather than state borders.

Adbusters has created the flag and other highly successful graphics of anti-consumption, which it markets with a social media expertise that must be the envy of the opposition. As a Seattle protestor, noting the use of corporate technology and Warner Brothers’ V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks, acknowledged, “There's a lot of inherent ironies in protesting corporations in a corporate world,” and even the ballerina in the signature Adbusters Occupy poster is supported by the Wall Street bull sculpture. As Steven Heller observed in an email: “Anti-advertising IS advertising. There is no such thing as guerilla advertising anymore, the ad agencies have figured it out.” Audiences and fashion marketers have turned even the satire of Mad Men into a style love-in.

Yes, most advertising is mediocre. But, as Theodore Sturgeon said in defense of science fiction, 90 percent of everything is crud. I’m for an existential embrace of advertising as essential to American culture. After all, resistance is futile.

Edward Tenner is author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity, and is a visiting scholar in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information.

FURTHER READING: Tenner also writes “The Dismal New Science of Stagnationism” and “Wizards: Cupertino vs. Menlo Park.” Christopher DeMuth describes “A Great Economist; A Greater Humanitarian.” Roger Bate contributes “Google's Ad Freedom Wrongly Curtailed.” Douglas Smith discusses “The Democrats' ‘Corporate’ Obsession.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group