Save Yourself

Sanctimony hit an all time high with the re-release of the First Things First manifesto in 1999. The public promise to stop being bad and start being good was quickly endorsed by all manner of advocates, many with questionable social credentials. Emigre published both the manifesto and a plaintive call for “Saving Advertising.” Were so many really convinced of their own diabolical leanings?

Save yourself.

If there was any worry that our vast design industry stockpiles of political naivete were dwindling, one need look no further than Emigre #53 for reassurance of their inexhaustible abundance. The feature article, Saving Advertising, coupled with the continuing responses to First Things First manifesto, stand as testimony to the ascendancy of over-simplification and the decline of nuance.

It is remarkable that design and advertising workers are so conflicted about the value of their work, so intent on the radical reformation of the professions they practice. Perhaps that deep dissatisfaction is a by-product of an education system that promises more than the industry can deliver. Perhaps that anxiety is the lingering effect of a variety of modern ideologies that suggested that designers were either artists, free of the chains of commerce, or agents of progressive social engineering. Whatever the root cause, the worrisome aspect is that we don’t seem to be developing any useful theory to lead us through this maze. As a result we continue to get the lite-radicalism Emigre and Ad Busters have popularized.

Saving Advertising starts out earnestly enough, but in place of insights into the dilemmas facing advertising designers, author Jelly Helm regurgitates well-worn pieties and planet-saving programs, skillfully avoiding any original ideas. Its only after four pages of incisive insight — such as “I disagree with the critics who think that people in advertising are creeps…” — that Helm unveils the shattering conclusion of his research (set-off in italics for emphasis): “…the reason advertising is criticized [may be] the role we play in helping create a consumer economy.”

My god, stop the presses! Where has Helm been for the last two-hundred-plus years of critical discourse? Since Dr. Johnson first muttered “Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement” library shelves have groaned under the weight of analysis from writers as diverse as Carlyle, Huxley, Russell, Barthes and Williams, all clamoring to excoriate the ad-men of their time. Helm seems blissfully unaware of such precedent. His sense of wonder and injury is palpable.

Helm follows his stunning revelation with a radical methodology for spiritual resuscitation that can be summed up as follows: 1. Promote good things, 2. Don’t promote bad things 3. And for god’s sake, protect the innocent children. But by the time he actually works his theory down to the level of individual action — the true test for any of these sanctimonious programs — all he can come up with is: “Talk about these things at work. Have a conversation with your boss. Talk with your friends. Start a discussion group.”

While I rest easier knowing there are discussion groups breaking out in ad agencies worldwide, I am left with the sinking feeling that all these prescriptions won’t get us very far. The suggest we inhabit a blissfully simple world. There’s a bubble labeled Capitalism, a bubble labeled Consumers, a bubble labeled Advertising and clean, straight arrows connect them in orderly systems. There is no free will on this planet, no critical perception, no ambiguity. Consumers, especially angelic children, sit transfixed in front of televisions taking orders from the great advertising gods (of which, until his recent enlightenment, Helm was one.)

The point that seems to elude our pious friends is that it is impossible to separate good advertising from evil advertising. Changing the content of an advertisement may save the soul of the individual art director but will not change the function of advertising or its operational language. They try to have it both ways; they want to make advertising nicer without upsetting its profitability or the centrality of its role in consumer culture. But that vision of nice advertising is a façade, the theoretical equivalent of tossing the tapestry over the dunghill.

The ideology of a dominant culture is incorporated in all discourse contained within in it, including the discourse of resistance. Taken in this light, the stand against bad advertising makes two inferences: 1.) Advertising CAN be sanitized, and 2.) Advertising actually has the power he reports it to have, that it is an overwhelming force that must be checked. But rather than deconstruct the power underlying the advertising industry, such resistance simply builds the myths that advertising agencies want to build anyhow, i.e. it is both ethical and omnipotent. (Can you imagine agency heads around the world are crying out “Please don’t tell them all how powerful and effective we are!)

In addition, for all the prancing around capitalism and consumption, there is silence on the issue of privately owned and controlled mass media. Yet commercial mass media and advertising are inseparable as audience is the product advertisers buy from media outlets like television networks, newspapers and magazines. Ad campaigns are called campaigns for a reason, they are pitched political battles in a war for the hearts and minds of consumers — which is the current name for what we used to call citizens. And let’s not forget, it’s the multiplication of the media and the huge growth in media outlets — funded by advertising dollars applied to gain access to all those ripe markets — that creates the spiraling demand for all us graphic and advertising designers on both sides of the editorial/advertising divide.

All public speech is inherently political precisely because it is persuasive and designed to shape consciousness. That after all is the point of a mass media. At the moment I live in a city (Rome) full of art and architecture, most of which was crafted to market hardcore Catholic ideology. (The Vatican may have originated the cross-platform branding campaign.) The fact that it is persuasive doesn’t necessarily condemn it. Advertising has a much more complex and integrated role in society than a simple equation of good versus evil. Like any language it is a highly articulate and developed social construct. Audiences actually can enjoy advertisements, even manipulative ones, often finding them more entertaining than the surrounding content. And contrary to popular mythology, advertising is not an omnipotent force. Most research shows it is actually weaker than promised.

Advertising will always reflect all the contradictions already embraced in our culture. We have been willing to live with advertising to gain the advantages of an expansive mass media. But as a form of public speech, it unreasonable to expect that advertising wouldn’t be as diverse, and as often disagreeable, as public speech itself.

Ultimately, money, power and persuasion are inextricably linked. The only way to effectively transform advertising is to propose significant changes in the economic structure that supports it — for instance, public funding of election campaigns. The real problem — and it’s a problem that plagues contemporary discourse — maybe the lack of a definable enemy. Negri and Hardt spell it out: “The identification of the enemy is no small task given exploitation tends no longer to have a specific place and that we are immersed in a system of power so deep and complex that we can no longer determine specific difference or measure. We suffer exploitation, alienation, and command as enemies, but we do not know where to locate the production of oppression.” We want to lash out at something, we just can’t figure out what.

Helm ends his plaint with the winsome question: “How many people reading this have the power implement such a dramatic plan in an agency? Some of us do.” Sorry to burst your bubble, but actually you don’t. And neither do a handful of sanctimonious designers passing manifestos from successful studios and insular academic offices to enlightened agencies. You may personally decide to live a pious life, and organize discussion groups, but that will not change the functional capabilities of the medium you attempt to manipulate, and from which you simultaneously benefit.

My problem with all this piety peddling, and this includes treatises like First Things First, is that, this hand-wringing just won’t produce results. Let’s try an experiment. In every instance of these arguments, substitute the word speech for advertising. No one goes around claiming that everyone who speaks should only speak about good things. And no one blames language itself for the existence of hate speech, slurs, obscenity or insults. No one argues we should reform language because people use it to do bad things. (Well actually some do, but that’s a different story.) Simple plans to make everyone start acting nice will never work. Imagine if all writers took a pledge to be meaningful or thoughtful or kind? Can you imagine a world where people only said nice things?

Obviously I can’t.

© Michael Rock