Cost Per Impression: Anti-history of The Persuaders
Nobody really gives a shit about the history of adveriting. This isn’t a complaint. It’s a thesis.
When I asked my advertising portfolio school why they didn’t include a course on the history of advertising, the director of teacher hiring told me that all curriculum had to be approved. There are so many things I don’t understand, but this isn’t one of those things.
Advertising doesn’t have a history, because it doesn’t want one. Advertising, the gaping, whoring mouth of the capitalist beast, would prefer to exist totally in the present, without past or future. Like the ideal customer. Pleasure button. Flashing tits. Chemical burrito under Kino Flo studio lights. The director screams at the food stylist one last time, then jogs to the talent trailer for nap.
What advertising wants is a handjob and another ten million minds to feed with plastic desire. Why read? Why think?
What I want is a little context, a little background. I’d like to put together my own working understanding. It probably won’t happen.
The 1970s (1968-1996)
The cultural revolution was emediately monotized. The point, perhaps, was to change the means of production (why not incorporate love™ and justice®?), codify the culture of America. Not written in stone, written in clouds, TV production traffic, sand of meaning. Change was in the wind, but perhaps not the sort originally intended by the Beatniks, the hippies, the social democrats.
Exterior sunny beach high noon. A woman in a bikini sips a wine cooler and we feel the total rush of California in our final product shot.
America began to sell itself to itself. Masturbatory commerce: skillful, expert want-before-need. Want-as-need. The Baby-Boomers boomed and The Only Me Generation That Matters™ was born into the wet, wild world of global brands and global marketing. America set the world on fire with desire for all the products that had made post WW2 life easier: appliances, cars, fast food, sugar water. At the same time, technology emerged and the rich-people-only finance sector balooned. Institutional real estate racism took up the slack from Jim Crow, sending cities deep into poverty, allowing the deep contradictory premise of the American State project to remain an open wound. There have never not been race riots in this country. We watched it on TV, between the commercials.
Through cold wars, hot wars, recessions and oil shocks, the marketing industry soldiered on, convincing everyone what they needed, what we were lacking. This was mostly done with 30 second commercials, mostly targeted at adults.
Something happened in the mid 80s that would change marketing forever. The Me Generation® had children. The Echo Boomers began to boom. The people born in 1957 turned 30 in 1987. It was time.
We call it Generation Y because we want to forget that they have parents, but we don’t remember why. We call them Millennials because we want to think that technology can have some kind of positive impact, that time can equal progress.
These kids grew up with MTV. It is a cliche of media criticism. It means very little.
What matters is that marketers thought that the young could be spoken to differently than their parents had been spoken to. Billions of dollars of disposable teen income, and untold billions more in lifetimes of brand loyalty whispered to the money men, like a fire truck in a library.
Extreme sports, hip-hop, Kurt Cobain. New skin on old products. New target market.
The rest is advertising history.
Eventually, teens weren’t convinced that radder was better. Snowboarding Sprite commercials weren’t testing as well with boys above age 14. The solution was social engineering at the collegiate level: shame, anxiety, and cultural torture in the form of fratty humor and inane stunts. One agency comes to mind, dominating this period of white-male-centric laughs that certainly did more harm than selling: CP+B.
To their credit, even they have moved on, to a large degree.
Broadcast TV was dying. Cable was encouraging whole new kinds of subcultures. Something called the Internet had already been around for decades.
At some point, the 30-second TV spot started to look old. Certain people began selling snake oil about how consumers wanted a deeper relationship with their laundry detergent. The Internet could make it possible. Digital was born, and social media soon followed. A few lucky people made jillions of dollars and the industry moved a millimeter to the left, inching a bit closer to the lives of the ty[ical consumer, several miles away, huddled in a exurban housing development with a newly underwater mortgage. Talking to a brand on Twitter is about as easy as taking to Jesus Christ, and way less productive.
Speak to power. What does power say?
I’m not so concerned with technology. It doesn’t love us. We can’t eat it. The recent developments in advertising may appear largely technological. But if you look into the tone and the stories that are (still) being told, I think you’ll recognize a kind of de-masculated hyper-conservatism at work: the glossy sheen of a faux-feminine touch, nail art bloggers, the wet dew on the organic ingredient product shot, the post-Etsy post-craft photography embracing the jar of fructose jelly in the 30 seconds of obfuscation about where that exact jelly actually came from. We’re finally improving the culture of these products, without improving the products themselves. The public wants junk, we give the public organic junk.
Twee is a word that will see a lot of use in cultural theory over the next year. The origins of it’s current meaning probably stem from certain music scenes in the UK in the 1980s. It was a middle class tone, with a bit of upper class schooling. There was a gentle conservatism behind it, warm wool sweaters in Scottland. Jangle pop. Margaret Thatcher’s pets. Privatization of public good.
But the puppy born in Scottland has gown up in the American cultural production machine, turning into a delightful mask for the old power centers, the old product tropes. Indie was its little brother. Emo was its sad sister. Twee is now beyond music, beyond art. It’s an Instagram filter for the horror of modern life. Tweevertising is a nod to optimism and family values, with one hand on the stealth drone kill button, and another going for your wallet. It’s youth under a flag of war. It’s treating death like an idea you can solve.
History. If it doesn’t sell itself, hire someone to convince you it does.