Thursday, April 12, 2007

Don Imus: where the cultural and financial economies converge

Cultural theorists have written about two economies, one financial and one cultural. But I wonder as with the current controversy surrounding shlock jock Don Imus whether or not we can really separate the two. Within the financial economy at least three advertisers have announced intentions to withdraw their advertising support from the Imus program: Procter & Gamble, Bigelow Tea, and Staples office supply chain. As MSNBC decided to suspend airing of the program we could also say that General Electric owner of MSNBC also has for the time being withdrawn its economic support. The economics of syndicated radio are more complicated than this simple scenario for advertiser withdrawal suggests; there are plenty of advertisers, for example, including General Motors that have not as yet withdrawn their advertising from the program. Sometimes pop culture transcends the financial economy as controversies like the one Imus finds himself involved in enter the cultural economy. Think Calvin Klein Kiddie Porn, Heroin Chic. Think Benneton. One could suggest, perhaps, that within a capitalist economy there is a self-correcting mechanism: if demand for Don Imus remains strong then he will probably survive either over the airwaves or on satellite radio. However, if his listenership wanes or if the intensity of his current fan base lessens continuing interest on the part of advertisers may also become depleted. When it comes to culture we can see the cultural economy play out like a marketplace, although instead of trading shares on the New York Stock Exchange, trading in the “cultural shares” of Don Imus take place in the Blogosphere, talk television like The Today Show, among others as well as traditional media like magazines and newspapers. Day after day we can see in these various venues trial by pop culture. However, I do not think the financial economy operates separately from the cultural economy. Rather, I think they work together, not necessarily in tandem, but they reflect the complex nature of the players in this game of culture both corporate and political.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Seamless integration of advertising and prime time sitcom

Have you heard the news? The GEICO Cavemen are going prime-time. ABC announced that the commercial characters will become the basis for a sitcom. This represents, I think, a great example of “seamless integration,” which refers to the ways in which advertisers work their products into movies, music and television. Think BMW Minis and The Italian Job. From a theoretical viewpoint the intertextual nature of this shift between advertising and prime time television represents the ways in which texts and images bleed as media cross contaminate. I think this would also qualify as an example of convergence culture where the text (advertisement) from one form converges with that of another form (the prime time sitcom). I have written elsewhere about what I think is the importance of the depiction in advertising of men as cavemen (along with the depiction of men as wolves and men caught in public with their pants down) and the implications of this depiction for American culture and society. From a critical perspective, I’m not too thrilled with this latest move. But the lighthearted side of me can’t wait to see those crazy cavemen make their way through all the social awkwardness that prime-time television can muster. This isn’t the first time commercial characters have made the leap into prime time as "Baby Bob" and The California Raisons both of commercial fame, for a brief time, entered the hallowed halls of network television.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Shock and Awe Advertising

Advertising, along with other forms of popular culture, promotes public discussion. The Super Bowl ads that were perceived by some viewers as anti-gay, anti-restaurant worker, and pro-suicide took a lot of heat in the public forum; so much heat that the ads were pulled from rotation. Suicide apparently has become a theme in contemporary advertising as the GM robot's demise was followed by a Volkswagon spot that featured a depressed man teetering on the ledge of a building. Then there is a Washington Mutual bank ad that also depicts a man who threatens to jump off a roof if the bank doesn’t stop offering free checking, and there is a current spot that depicts office workers diving off a cliff. That’s a lot of suicide, don’t you think? And, no doubt the various groups out there concerned with the prevention of suicide have advertisers directly in their sights. What’s going on in these ads must be more than “shock and awe,” a trend we have seen of late: you know those VW ads where two guys are driving down the street and suddenly a car crashes into them? The ads are meant to demonstrate the automobile's ability to withstand such a crash, but the startling way the advertiser accomplishes it is a little over the top for some. I suggest that these “suicide” ads may also be considered within this current trend, but they are much more. As I wrote about in a previous post, ads that get talked about are considered successful. And, in advertising as in show business, it’s not what they are saying about you that matters, but that they are saying anything about you at all. In an world of multi-tasking and inattentiveness to advertising, ads that get talked about are those with which we are engaged. Conversation extends the life of the ads. It is in this way that such extended conversations make advertising a part of participatory culture. But participatory advertising is such that meanings are extended beyond the advertiser's intended message through public discourse and individual deliberation of the rightness or wrongness of such depictions. This is high risk business on the part of the advertiser; somewhat calculated, however. But this newer leap--excuse the pun--into the dark side of life raises the question what is advertising today competing against? Are ads like this necessary to distract people from real events, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? As a spectacle advertising does draw our attention from the important and redirects it to the less important aspects of life. I guess talking about two men kissing while eating a Snickers or watching a group of people jump off a cliff (especially when you know it isn’t real) provides a diversion from all the misery of daily life. Plop. Plop. Fizz. Fizz. Oh what a relief it is! Advertising, that is.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Advertising is an ideological forum in a participatory culture

When we consider the concept of participatory advertising, it is important to acknowledge there are myriad ways in which to participate. Mostly we talk about the Web 2.0 social networking of commercials that takes place via YouTube and the like. But there are other ways of participating. In the case of this year’s Super Bowl, groups concerned with gay rights, suicide prevention, and even restaurant workers used the opportunity to publicly react to three commercials in particular and to use the opportunity to engage the public in discourse concerning what is right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate. This social use of advertising allows competing ideologies to be presented and it is through this unintended use of advertising that “we” get to make sense of our world. The group GLAAD, took offense to the depiction in a Snickers commercial of two men kissing who then declare that they need to something manly. The group claims the ad is homophobic. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention criticized General Motors for using a perfectionist robot who jumps off a bridge because it dropped a bolt during the assembly line process. And, the National Restaurant Association reacted to the KFed depiction as a fast-food worker as insulting to the nation's almost 13 million employees in the restaurant industry. From time to time the American Family Association will launch an attack as they did some years ago against Calvin Klein who at the time was running what some have dubbed the “kiddie-porn” campaign. Needless to say, the Super Bowl is an opportunity for groups that otherwise wouldn’t be heard to have their voice included in the public discourse. I’ll bet that you never thought about advertising playing such a role in American culture and society. What we are witnessing is certainly an unintended effect of advertising. But in a participatory culture it makes sense that there are any number of ways to participate with advertising; this is just one.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Super Bowl Spectacle is About to Descend Upon Us

I read this week that "If people don’t watch the Super Bowl"…"they are not part of the American culture." This statement gave me pause to considerjust what is American culture and is there even such a thing as one American culture. Before addressing those issues, I want to point out that just about half the U.S. population views the game; gender is split 60/40 in favor of males. The Super Bowl is not only an American festival, but it is a media spectacle. Media spectacles like the Super Bowl become a means for the mainstream media, which are beholden to mainstream corporate interests, to distract citizens from the issues that really affect us. As a spectacle, therefore, the Super Bowl takes us away not only from the mundane quality of everyday life, but also distracts us from the serious political issues of the day. Even the Army Bowl, which this year was sponsored by Bell Helicopter, provided a way to combine--and therefore integrate--the experience of sports and war. I offer this brief critique as an introduction to the ways in which ideology is managed in American society. It is through spectacles like the Super Bowl that we celebrate commercialism. By the way, Christmas and several other religious holidays have been elevated to the level of spectacle. In the end, I’m wondering where are the other 160 million citizens of the United States, many of whom may be elderly or below the age where they are likely to be interested in the spectacle of sport. If the elderly and very young are not part of American culture, who else isn’t a part of it? And, even for half the country that does engage with this spectacle, it seems to me the nature of their engagement is quite varied: some people come together to watch the game (with varying degrees of interest depending on the teams that are playing), others watch for the commercials, others may not watch at all, but want to participate in the intimacy of the celebrations which themselves will vary greatly depending on age, income, ethnicity, among other factors. Is there one American culture? I think not. If you don’t participate in the Super Bowl celebration, don’t feel bad, as I maintain you can still keep your membership card in American culture. Invariably, even for those who watch, the game is likely to be disappointing, and in studies following the game, many people can’t even remember the products that were advertised, or worse, they confuse one product for another as in one study a respondent described a commercial for Doritos as being for Tostitos.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Attention getting cultural excess

What do Clearblue Easy pregnancy testing kit and the Philips Bodygroom have in common? They are both examples of culture excess. We normally associate this term with taking culture to the edge of acceptability or beyond: the new film starring Dakota Fanning is an example out of pop culture; so is Borat. In marketing, I associate the term cultural excess with products like the Burger King Texas Double Whopper, and the Hummer SUV, among many other products that are inherently excessive. This notion of culture excess is associated with a postmodern culture in which products are a reflection of an image that may symbolize something greater than the product per se - a hamburger or a car. Marketers like Clearblue and Philips adapt this postmodern approach to fit their own needs. The Clearblue Easy viral spot (which you can find on has a number of masculine markers, even though the product--one would think--is directed toward a female audience. What do I mean by masculine markers? For one, excuse my frankness, but the pee stream in the commercial is more guy-like as it takes accurate aim at the Clearblue Easy pregnancy testing device; something women tell me is not typical of the way in which women urinate. In other words: guys take aim; women merely pee. And because of the “Star Wars” quality of the visual and the “movie trailer” announcer’s booming voice over, this ad is gendered toward the masculine. And, so we might expect that it is male YouTubers that will circulate this ad; their wives and girlfriends are likely to be secondary receivers of the message. Furthermore, I sense a certain infantile anger at work behind this ad if for no other reason then peeing as a public act is considered lewd behavior (excessive). Indeed in most places (Amsterdam not withstanding) it’s illegal. Peeing in a commercial, a public act, may be considered an infantile way in which to gain attention. Ah ha! Attention - gaining and maintaining it. That’s the ticket to successful advertising for a distracted generation.

In the Philips Bodygroom viral spot, when male viewers see themselves as a reflection of what appears on the screen, such depictions raise questions regarding what it means to be a man. Making masculine gender identity problematic--in other words, forcing male viewers to question who they are--is a way for advertisers to nudge male consumers in the direction of the advertisement’s message. Grooming one’s body--feminizing the male body--may be a way in which a male may recoup his lost social standing - depending on the type of male viewer one is talking about. I say this because a hyper-masculine male is likely to reject or psychologically deflect such images and the message of the advertisement. If you think of masculine gender identity as points on a continuum--with the hyper-masculine male at one end, and the feminine male at the other--you can begin to locate the type of male to which this ad might appeal. I have been writing about this issue (the depiction of masculine gender identity) for several years now. In particular I have been focusing on the depiction of men as wolves (Honda, Quiznos), the depiction of men as caveman (GEICO, FedEx), and the depiction of men caught in public with their pants down (the list is too long). Each of these advertisements represents in its own way cultural excess. Cultural excess encourges consumer participation as these ads are distributed virally through

Friday, January 12, 2007

User-generated Super Bowl Ads

The consumer-generated advertising--what I have been calling participatory advertising--lends an air of authenticity to the commercial form which has to a great extent lost its ability to gain and maintain consumer attention. During the holidays, BMW utilized an older video they found in a commercial; this represents a hybrid form. Other marketers haven’t been quite as successful with consumer-generated advertising. Chevy’s Tahoe and Wal-Mart are among them. Anheuser-Busch will launch its own at this year’s Super Bowl. It will feature videos created by Budweiser that consumers willing to click on the website can view. Yesterday, the NFL announced the winner of its consumer-generated Super Bowl ad contest featured on the website pictured here. Some advertising pundits claim this newer form--I’m not convinced it really is all that new--represents the loss of control on the part of ad agencies. As I reported in my earlier post, allowing consumers to become producers within this system of symbolic consumption is nothing more than a negotiation between the advertiser and the consumer; a way to engage core consumers utilizing a newer approach based on Web 2.0 social networking. But make no mistake; advertisers are not really giving up control, only trying to management the process and the outcome to their advantage. That’s the way advertising has always worked (or not). The consumer-generated advertisements appearing on the Super Bowl are special because of the size of the audience that will see them and the amount of money advertisers are willing to plunk down to have them shown. Just like last year’s ads and the year before, the marketers are only trying to break through the clutter and sustain the amplitude of the commercial beyond its 30 second appearance on television. In other words, “water-cooler” talk is a major objective - ads that get talked about the next day and beyond are considered effective. These consumer genderated ads will make their way onto where they will further be circulated by Bloggers, among others. What media convergence provides advertisers is an extended opportunity for consumers to experience the advertisements, if those consumer so choose.