ADVERTISING FOR PEOPLE WHO DON'T LIKE ADVERTISING

NOTES FROM THE ONLY MAN TO DIE OF TRENCH FOOT IN THE MEDIA WAR. 

BY DOUGLAS HADDOW.

 

Douglas Haddow is a cultural commentator, journalist and former AdBuster. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Slate and Eye.    

 

Another day, another desperate grasp for the dollar. Another morning squandered staring into the dark heart of an empty bank account, and another evening spent listening to a drunken social media director drone on about the future of advertising.

 

This is your life, and it’s going down the sweaty toilet of late capitalism one pint of lager at a time.

 

If you want to be a freelance writer and maintain a marginally civilized lifestyle, it’s best to keep cozy with anyone who can facilitate the transfer of funds into your wallet. Part-time prostitution is a good gig if you can pick your clients and fetch a decent rate, otherwise, it pays dividends to maintain copywriting credentials and occasionally dip your pen in the company ink.

 

Last week, after dealing with the latest in a long string of absentee cheques from crooked magazine publishers, I was itching harder than ever for a day job. Creative agencies always need fresh meat to flop about on their beanbag chairs, so I asked a mate in the know and he arranged a meeting with one of the city’s up and coming account executives.

 

A young guy, he was spearheading a new experimental digital division at one of those conglomerates with nothing but consonants for a name. He was looking for “thinkers”, and had taken an interest in my career, which I attributed to my minor status as “that copywriter dude who quit a cushy gig to go work for peanuts at Adbusters.”

 

We were in an upmarket tapas pub that looked like a fertility clinic crossed with a strip club. Flatscreen televisions speckled the pub’s glass and steel aesthetic, making the space feel like a futuristic courtroom where poor sods like myself were sentenced to death by laser for being too gauche. 

 

The type of place where mixologists throw bits of leftover chicken into a blender with some vodka and call it a “protein-infused martini”. A regular “dog's breakfast” as they say, but after the dog had eaten the breakfast, vomited it back onto his plate, eaten it again, then shat it out. I had never cultivated the desire to partake in such gastronomic delights. Poor taste on my part, no doubt.

 

We shook hands and took our seats at an empty table at the far end of the pub’s

mezzanine. He smelled of Old Spice and was cloaked in Brooks Brothers. A real ad man if ad men actually looked like what you think ad men look like. I smelled of off-brand soap and was wearing my only pair of jeans that didn’t have a rip in the crotch.

 

His whole being appeared as if it had been curated by Henry Wolf. I loathed him immediately.

 

Five minutes into our conversation and he’d already used the word ‘sartorial’ eight times. His thoughts were probably rendered in Helvetica Neue, tightly kerned, no wasted space. My thoughts were stuck in a corrupt system font, punctuated by random garbled glyphs and the odd diacritical mark.

 

The disgraced IMF head was on the flatscreen closest to us; he was banged up in New York on sexual assault charges. Apparently he tried to rape an African cleaning lady. With a reality like this, who needs metaphors?

 

A waitress came and took our order. A Maker’s Mark Manhattan for him and a pint of lager for myself.

 

“Oh and can you please bring a tonic water with lime as well.” He said with a wink.

            

He explained to me that he was meeting with potential “community architects” for the new division he was building. It was the most disingenuous job title since “media optimizer” and probably meant “Luckless twit whom we can force to do anything” but I was more than ready to pull on my parachute.

 

The great print die-off of ’08 and ’09 may have plateaued, but the industry had changed forever. All the newspapers in the city were culling their ranks like so much bacon fat, surplus hacks were being tossed off into journo purgatory along with any remaining editorial scruples. Meanwhile, magazine and website publishers had all simultaneously come to the same conclusion as Arianna Huffington: They could make considerably higher profits if they didn’t pay their writers and kept all the money for themselves.

 

It was a merciless bloodbath, a thief’s paradise, a syphilitic orgy of ugliness. Print was on the losing side of a protracted war for ad spending, that much was clear. But it was all becoming the same shit anyways. Any magazine with good instincts had already developed their own agency, while all the forward-thinking brands were anxious to become “media properties” themselves.

 

The internet had created a power vacuum and everyone was scrambling to float their boats in new revenue streams. The first casualty had been us writers. Once paid up to a dollar per word, we were now seen as pesky, powerless pariahs. Impotent producers of body copy, Lorem Ipsum generators with egos. One even hears horror stories about freelancers being dragged out into the street and beaten by gangs of interns just for asking about a kill fee.

 

Designers were still smug, but they were next. Even blue chip corporations have started crowdsourcing their logos. Entire identities hacked together for under a hundred bucks by some fuckwitted teenager living in his mum’s basement. Established brands brazenly raided innocent flickr accounts and gutted Indexhibit sites just for the fuck of it. Fly-by-night vector sweatshops. Third world bitmap farms. Soon veteran art directors would be slashing their wrists with smart objects, full bleed, screaming “Viva La Rasterizacion!”

 

So maybe it was time to switch sides. Or maybe I just needed a cracking story of depravity that would land me a book deal. I’d get back into the ad game and record every sordid little detail, and then I’d use my notes to write a novella about sexy asexual SEO vampires, self-publish and profit. Get that Kindle money, that e-book swag. Out of all possible career moves, this was the most realistic way to ensure that my student loans would be paid off before I turned 40.

 

“Welcome to media hell, there is no escape,” I thought.

 

The waitress brought us our drinks, we clinked glasses and he began to explain the nature of the beast.

 

“Fundamental changes have and continue to occur in our industry. Traditional media is dead, the old models of communication are also dead, and the new models that were supposed to save the ad industry are stillborn. So, what’s the new new model? What’s next? What’s the future? That’s the first question I ask myself when I look in the mirror every morning.” He said, putting a coaster neatly under each of his drinks.

 

“Well, that’s a complex question, because it’s always evolving, you know, the future.” I said, my eyes glancing at the flatscreen, which now showed an advert where a man’s face was being prodded with a hot-dog wiener.

 

“Yeah, ok, but let me be more concise,” he said. “Viral, is it dead, yes or no?”

 

“Oh without a doubt yes. Viral is totally dead.” I said. The adman took a sip of his Manhattan and fiddled around with his iPhone, looking as if he was fingering a phantom clitoris.

 

“But that depends on what we mean when we say ‘viral’ right? What we know to be viral one day isn’t viral the next. Traditional notions of viral-ness may be obsolete, but, the future is still very much viral, it’s just that the future is unknowable, so we won’t know what to call it or what it will look like until it happens, viral or otherwise.” I said, wincing.

 

“Precisely, that’s exactly it, the future IS unknowable. Good answer, that’s very observant. Wait, let me write that down.”

 

He pulled out a Moleskin and a Staedtler fineliner and did a bit of scribbling.

 

This was supposed to be something of an informal job interview but it felt like a bad date. Swallowing the last mouthful of my pint, I noticed he had already drained his Manhattan. I flashed a peace sign at the waitress and she brought two more.

 

“The second question that I wrestle with, which is a dilemma that my division will explicitly challenge on a continual basis, is how do we make advertising better?”

 

“That’s a tough question, what do you mean by ‘better’?”

 

“Well, when you think of all the preeminent ad mavens, the iconoclasts who redefined the industry and changed the world, who’s at the top of your list?”

 

“Oh, you know, all the big names I suppose, they all did their bit …”

 

“What do you think of David Ogilvy?”

 

“Ogilvy? Meh.”

 

“Fuck Ogilvy.”

 

“Yeah, he’s shit, isn’t he?”

 

“The only man worth taking cues from is Bill Bernbach. He invented cool and popularized the marketing of individuality. Without him, there would be no Nike, no Apple, no iPads, no Google. He laid the groundwork that made all the world’s most powerful brands possible. If he never existed, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation, because creatives like us wouldn’t be working in advertising. I’d even go so far as to say that without Bernbach, we wouldn’t even exist.”

 

“Well, thank you very much Bill Bernbach.”

 

More like fuck you very much Bill Bernbach, you bastard. Individuality? Just another buzzword. Existence? Bah humbug. I blame you for the hopped-up mobs of web-savvy millennials that chase me through my nightmares with their angular haircuts and bloodlust for cloud computing. 

 

“What I’m getting at is … why was Bernbach so great? Because he made advertising better. How did he do that? By allowing advertising to serve as a vehicle for creativity and thus become a force of good in the world. Individuality, feminism, rebellion, racial equality, sexual liberation, environmentalism, eco-consumerism, anti-consumerism, and so forth, all were popularized by a style of advertising that was made possible by Bernbach’s creative revolution.”

 

He drained his Manhattan, I guzzled my lager. He gave a two-finger salute and we got another round.

 

My bladder was bloated, but I knew that if I emptied it now my urinary seal would be broken for the night and I’d end up in the pisser every fifteen minutes. I had to outdrink this fucker and force his hand without him knowing it. I think that’s how Don Draper did it. What exactly I wanted to do, I didn’t know yet. What I did know was that I was sick to death of being broke. No more digging through the garbage for unpaid phone bills because I couldn’t afford toilet paper. No more cereal with cloudy tap water. When I was in between paycheques milk was always the first luxury to go, then beer, then cigarettes. Always in that order, always me lying in bed, cigarette smoke and the bitter truth of Nescafe for breakfast. It used to make me feel like I was living the dream, now all I felt was an intense hatred towards bloggers who had successfully merchandised their identities. My identity wasn’t worth the skin it was printed on.

 

“Before Bernbach, people hated advertising because it didn’t say anything, it didn’t mean anything. It was just lies and manipulation. He changed that with ‘difference’. Difference liberated consumers from the status quo, it transformed consumerism into an act of self-realization. And ultimately, difference made it possible for brands to become truly iconic lifestyle symbols that signified meaning. And without that, a brand is powerless. That’s the difference between Apple and any other electronics brand. When was the last time you saw someone camp out in the pouring rain for a Toshiba?”

 

“Never.”

 

I’d also never seen anyone lugging around a Toshiba give off that air of scummy entitlement that came so naturally to Apple users. And I’d never seen an Apple fanboy autoerotically asphyxiate himself with an adapter cord, but I’m sure it’s happened.

 

“Exactly. That said, Bernbach’s revolution is ancient history, and once again, we’ve grown adverse to advertising. But now we have the power to avoid it. Don’t get me wrong, I dislike commercials or pop-ups just as much as the next man, but I love the idea of advertising and I believe in its power to inform and affect positive social change. But most people don’t see it that way, all they see is an annoying intrusion. We need to reorganize our approach so that our creative content brings something new to the table. Forget pushing the envelope, we need to set fire to the envelop and throw its ashes into the ocean, because more than anything, people dislike or disregard ads because they provide so little value, wouldn’t you agree?”

 

Nah, people hate ads because of cunts like you and me and conversations like this. And if they don’t, they should, because the ad biz is a shallow grave full of squirming snakes, and the closer you look, the harder it is to tell if the snakes are eating each other or fucking or both. It’s an ouroboric slurp and burp. All media is ugly in its own special way, but what distinguishes the advertising industry is that the muppets who work in it are completely unaware of their own intellectual bankruptcy. At least the fuckers working in cable news revel in the evil they do.

 

“Yes, I mean, I’m with you, creativity, we need more of it, right? And that’s where community comes in?” I said, all proactive-like.

 

“Exactly, but not the trivial type of community engagement that has characterized so much social brand interaction up to this point, we need real communities defined by brand exceptionalism, we need brands to step up and solve problems.”

 

Two more drinks. I had switched to Manhattans, ignoring the silly little glass they came in and swallowing the bourbon along with my bogus sense of pride. The sun was gone and the pub was packed with business district runoff. Our banter now set against a wall of equally inane banter of all different sorts: stock market banter, generic corporate banter, even little bits of legal banter jabbed in and out of focus like pins and needles to the eardrum. Another round later and the adman was telling me anecdotes about hanging in Silicone Valley with the ruling elites, describing the raw power of it all in pornographic detail.

 

“So then I told him, Faceboook Studios dot motherfucking com is the new Art of War, so you can take Sun Tzu and shove it up your ass.”

 

“Oh yeah?”

 

“Yeah bro. I’m talking real-time solutions, actually taking place in real-time. User-generated content produced organically without having to bribe the user with incentives. Fuck a value proposition, fuck a call to action, forget every bit of meaningless marketing rhetoric you’ve ever heard, we need to become liquid thinkers, and that’s where the big society comes in.”

 

 “The what?”

 

“Are you familiar with British government’s Big Society initiative?”

 

“Yeah, cut services and make people do everything themselves for free?”

 

“It’s the greatest thing to happen to advertising since television. Everywhere you look governments are falling to pieces, Britain, the US, Greece, Spain and even Japan, their services are going to shit.”

 

“Ok, go on.”

 

“The future of advertising is building powerful communities around brands, and the future of society is governments empowering people to self-govern, therefore brands are the future of society.”

 

“Yeah, that’s brilliant.”

 

More booze. My brain just swimming in it. Here we are, the vagrant orphans of neoliberalism’s third wave. Hunker down and bunker in. Get assets while you can or its permanent serfdom for the potential creatives swimming about inside your scrotum.

 

“We are at the dawn of complete political reconfiguration bro! Brands need to pre-empt this or they won’t be relevant. Think Wikileaks, think the Arab Spring.”

 

“Twitter, flashmobs, internet, revolution, fucking, uh, digital response mechanics!”

 

I could literally taste the piss rising up the back of my throat.

 

“Libraries are a teachable example. Books are done, dead and buried. So what use is a library if it’s just a building full of books?”

 

“Not fucking much, might as well burn the whole lot,” I said, sucking back another Manhattan. “Two more!” I yelled at no one in particular.

 

“Exactly, fuck all. So libraries must change, they must become indispensable data hubs, places where people connect and interact. And since governments can’t afford to fund them anymore, let brands step in. 800 libraries are about to be shut down in Britain, who can save them? Any brand with vision, any brand with a sense of social responsibility, that’s who. The first Starbucks libraries are already in the works. Boom! Radical synergy and cultural change. All of a sudden you have millions of consumers connecting, in person, vis a vis the Starbucks brand and boom! In ten years, you have a generation of adults who’ve learned to read thanks to Starbucks. That’s a real, sustainable community, oh, and campaign potential? Limitless.”

 

He was sweating now and we we’re both half cut. What had I gotten myself involved in, was this some sort of coup? I felt queezy, but the boldness of it all was intoxicating. It all made perfect sense as long as you didn’t think about too hard, you just had to decontaminate your thoughts. “Compartmentalization,” the word floated through my head in a stream of neon. I’d heard the word many times before but it just now made sense.

 

A girl in a tight black cocktail dress came up to us with a tray full of shots. She was wearing a pair colour contacts, her eyes an almost transparent grey-blue. 

 

“Hey guys want to try some Monkey Juice?”

 

“Sure, what’s that?”

 

“It’s Bacardi 151, Coconut Schnapps and Power Thrust, which is a really great new energy drink you guys should definitely check out some time.”

 

“Oh that sounds delicious, yes, we’ll have some,” said the adman. We slammed them. Then we ordered two more. I got goosebumps and my balls started to tingle. 

 

“You want to know what really blew my mind about the disaster in Japan? I mean, beyond all the obvious stuff, the horror, the devastation, the tragedy, et cetera, was the fact that no brands truly capitalized on the situation. Yeah, many companies donated but who gives a fuck, it’s immaterial, it’s flat, it lacks telegenics. It’s the Coca-Cola corporation this or the Honda corporation that, but there’s no brand value, nothing that sets anyone apart from the competition.”

 

“We should have seen Honda robots picking through the rubble and carrying victims off to safety, in real-time” I said.

 

“Exactly.”

 

“Dig this - both the Japanese tsunami and the Egyptian revolution had 24 hour news coverage on a level that we’d never seen before … wait OH SHIT.”

 

“What?” he asked.

 

“I’m going to Disney World.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“I’m going to fucking Disney World dude!” I felt my cock get hard and couldn’t tell if it was the Monkey Juice or if I was actually inspired.

 

“The Disney ‘What’s Next’ campaign, think about it, when a team wins the Superbowl, Disney gets a camera crew to rush onto the football field and they ask the quarterback ‘Hey Joe Sports Hero, you’ve just won the Superbowl, what are you going to do next?’ and the quarterback, who’s been paid off beforehand says ‘I’m going to Disney World!”

 

“I like where this is going.” He gritted his teeth in approval, smelling the same blood I was smelling.

 

“The ads run immediately during the next commercial break, it’s real-time advertising that embeds the brand in a historical moment and makes Disney World synonymous with the grandeur of victory. Now take that formula and apply it to Egypt or Japan, revolution or disaster. Imagine Top Ramen rapid response teams setting up small camps and feeding the displaced, the ads shot documentary style, but empathetic, making the consumer feel like everything’s going to be ok, the exact opposite of the newsmedia’s fear mongering. If you can do that without it being totally crass, it’s advertising gold.”

 

“Brilliant.”

 

We eventually got the bill, I made an insincere gesture with my wallet but he waved his hand and said “Expense account bro.” Then we went to another bar. Then a nightclub. More Monkey Juice.

 

Somewhere along the line we started buying drinks for a group of girls who worked in public relations and the adman ended up tounging the most piggish of the bunch on the dancefloor as I shrugged and shirked along to a dubstep remix of Kanye West’s remix of Daft Punk’s “Stronger, Faster, Harder”.  Right in the middle of their corpulent copulation, the adman grabbed me, and with a streak of menace in his eyes said, “You’ll need a suit, but no tie. Ties are dead.”

 

The club flicked on its ugly lights and we stumbled out to the street in each other’s arms. We were fellow travelers now, comrades marching towards the new world. We shouted straplines at the top of our lungs, pushed over mailboxes and jumped on the hoods of cars. A stray dog crossed our path and we chased it into an alleyway and kicked it in the ribs until it couldn’t walk. I felt so alive. He told me to come by the office in the morning to meet some amazing people that “I really had to meet.” I was elated. Soon after that I blacked out.

 

I woke up in my bed at around 4 PM the next day, hung to the gills like a piece of rotting tuna. My shoes were missing and I had a grubby wad of cash in my back pocket, along with an empty condom wrapper. “Oh dear,” I thought, before compartmentalizing the information, to be mulled over at a later date.

 

 

 

$$$$$

 

When an academic writes “A People’s History of 21st Century Media Wars”, someone similar to myself may end up in the footnotes.

 

And if during this precious moment of clarity that can only come about after a night spent binging on energy drink cocktails, I were to express my opinion on the current state of advertising for future reference, I would say: 

            

Advertising has always been inseparable from politics. Some go so far as to characterize it as the propaganda of capitalism, a mechanism of relentless indoctrination that keeps the caustic engine of consumerism chugging along. This is true up to a point, but I think advertising has always remained flexible in terms of ideological allegiance. Up until now, that is.

 

Those employed by the profession have inherited a rich tradition of using nonsensical newspeak as a means to an end. But over the years a wall of cognitive dissonance has been built between the realpolitik inherent to such language and its continuing usefulness.

 

Meaning, those who originally developed strategic gobbledygook, be it in advertising, marketing or government, recognized that their words were meaningless. But now we have a generation of adpeople who prattle on like headless cocks without knowledge of this crucial distinction.

 

Ten years ago, the corrosive potential of some wanker spewing trendvomit was negligible because advertising was still relatively traditional and primarily limited to traditional mediums. But with agencies desperate to reinvent their service models and expand their estate in all possible directions, the game has changed.  

 

It should be clear by now that we have entered a period of unprecedented political struggle. Parallel civil conflicts are occurring throughout the world. And a common theme between much of this turmoil is the contentious relationship between public and private.

 

In this context, any attempt to “change the world” by interjecting a brand into the public sphere should be viewed as a deeply political act.

 

But without even the ability to understand the words coming out of their mouths, many adpeople have alienated themselves from the implications of their work, and are in danger of becoming neoliberalism’s useful idiots. 

 
 
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