Advertising's Punch Bowl, Round One

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Last year, Jim Twitchell (advertising scholar cum Creativity columnist, and the author of several books on advertising and popular culture) learned that a good friend of his had a cousin in advertising. Jim promptly introduced himself via e-mail to this fellow, a creative director at a large New York agency. What began as a friendly exchange quickly escalated into a flurry of heated electronic debates on a variety of topics. Ironically, their positions indicate a reversal in occupational disposition. The scholar and professor reveals himself as a staunch supporter of the advertising arts. The advertising pro is chronically repelled by advertising's heart of darkness. When Creativity got wind of this virtual grudge match, we asked the two combatants to continue their war of wits in a public forum. To protect life, limb and that second house in the Hamptons, the creative director has opted to remain anonymous. (Besides, it worked for that Primary Colors guy!)

James Twitchell (JT) to the Phantom Menace (PM)

"I thought of you the other day when I heard some pseudos on the radio talking about the new `McCulture.' A bunch of pompous prattle ensued to the effect that advertisers homogenize the world and all us poor, deprived citizens are starving from lack of nutritious cultural sustenance. If you agree with that worldview, which I suspect you might, I bet you think you got a big hunting dog of an argument here. But only cultural snobs like you think advertising dumbs down culture. So this hound don't hunt."

PM to JT

"Leave my dog out of it, and tell me what kind of culture you're talking about if such a culture is restricted to only that which is buyable?"

JT to PM

"What good is any culture if you can't buy it? Besides, what advertising does is just the opposite of homogenizing. Advertising separates parity items by generating admittedly phony differences. The same cotton T-shirt from Taiwan means entirely different things depending on whether it carries DKNY, a polo pony, CK or a happy face. The big argument here is, should consumption, and the advertising that supposedly directs it, be countenanced as a serious meaning-making pattern of life?

And the fact is, consumption is about meaning. When I was growing up in northern New England back in the 1950s, life was simple. Be Protestant, be white, be male and be `properly' educated. Nobody ever said that was unfair -- except for Jews, blacks, females and working stiffs who had too many vowels in their names. So in this new inclusive system of consumption informed by advertising, you have to buy your way into status. Better than being born into it.

Pinko critics like you whimper that consumption has elbowed aside `better' culture. You moan that an advertising culture is wasteful, shallow, repetitive, mindless of art, heedless of friendship, prejudicial to the poor, blah, blah, blah. True enough. But it is not barbaric like the elite meaning-making systems of western life: religion, bloodline, racism and sexism. And, best yet, if you don't like it, you don't have to buy into it."

PM to JT

"Wow, what big thoughts you have, Grandma! And all this time I thought advertising was just a way for the damaged and deranged to make a living off the crumbs of Capital. As for your argument that consumerism beats other systems -- you're giving credit where it just isn't due. Consumerism isn't a system, it's a parasite. For consumer culture to flourish it must feed off other cultures by incorporating, cultivating and celebrating the inherent values of the society in which it resides. It doesn't have a social conscience. It just goes along with whatever is popular and prevalent and purveyed. If Michael Jordan ever spoke out about serious political, economic or social issues (like Jim Brown did and does -- which is why you don't see the greatest running back of all time being courted by corporate America) he would be dropped from the Nike, Gatorade and Wheaties payrolls faster than you could say Benedict Arnold.

It's capitalist apologists like you who profess to find meaning where there is only shrewdly planned propaganda. Just because Michelangelo worked his butt off to give meaning to a religious dogma, doesn't mean he bought into it. It just means the poor sucker had to make a living. Do you really think that what can be sold to people is the same thing as what they want? Or need? Well, excuse me a moment here . . . but it's the oldest trick in the world. I control the means of production, and in order to protect my turf I get you to believe that the means of production are not really in my hands at all but in the hands of the gods. It isn't me you are working your fingers to the bone for -- but a great and glorious God. When you buy Nikes, your money supposedly isn't going into the pockets of a soulless exploiter of desperate peasants in Indonesia, it's going to further the betterment of the world where every man woman and child will have the opportunity to jump, run and soar to the sky if they only believe they can `Just do it.' Puh-lease."

JT to PM

"Personally, I'd rather arrive in a Lexus than on the Mayflower. What's the problem with that?"

PM to JT

"Nothing. Except the minute you step out of your Lexus, you'll still have to face a whole bunch of natives who never invited you and don't give a fuck what kind of car you drive."

To Be Continued

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