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.