Alex Steer

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Releasing advertising into the wild

888 words

The other day I found myself in Strand Books, an enormous second-hand bookshop in New York. Specifically, on the top floor, which only seems to be accessible by taking the lift; in a tiny narrow passage near the back of the rare books section - quite literally two long ceiling-height bookshelves with a person-sized gap in between, and a sign above that says Books about books.

It's the bibliography section, and I think it's brilliant, so I'll be quite happy if no-one else ever finds it tucked away at the back there. But I can see why people might not share my enthusiasm for books about books, which may seem like the most abstract topic possible.

One of things I've been thinking about, occasionally talking about, over the last couple of weeks is the idea that a piece of communication shouldn't be judged on how much it resembles another piece of communication.

It sounds obvious, but think how little advertising really resembles anything else in popular culture. A linguist would say (and linguists have) that advertising has a remarkably consistent set of discourse features: a bunch of things that mark advertising language out as advertising language. You probably know what I'm talking about. The same is true of visual language. It's the reason all food commercials have a pack shot at the end, and all drinks ads feature someone drinking the product (just in case you've forgotten what you do with a bottle of beer, like Ted Stryker from Airplane!), to say nothing of acting staples like 'instant-relief-from-headache smile' and 'what-will-we-do-with-this-problem-debt? frown'.

Like my 'books about books', these are ads about ads. All their conventions come from advertising. It's a small, incestuous gene pool of features. And a lot of communications make sense because we're trained to recognize what's in them from previous communications.

When you compare advertising to other kinds of cultural production, you realise how different it's become, like the wildlife of Madagascar as it evolved in isolation, or the rednecks from Deliverance.

Marketing messages used to have it easy because they occupied their own space where they were surrounded by their own kind: ad breaks, billboards, predictable bits of newspaper and magazine pages. Now they don't.

Marketing messages now compete, more and more, with other kinds of popular cultural production. They live alongside all sorts of other creative and informative content. Take YouTube channels for example: some are from brands, some are from broadcasters, some are from people, with little to separate them. There are no ad breaks on the internet. In what we call ambient media (stuff you can see in the street, trip over, bump into or be given) the same kind of thing is happening, mainly because of the falling cost and complexity of production. TV and radio are a different story, still dominated by the logic of booking and paying for space, though internet/TV systems may challenge that, as does the growth of the web as a vector for entertainment media - streaming video and music services, that sort of thing - that are eroding TV and radio's share of eyeballs and earlobes.

It's not a breakthrough of analysis to say that a lot of advertising is aggressive and bullying and insistent and shouty, and has lots of other similar bad personality traits. But it's true, and it's amazing that it was ever allowed to get like that.

The fact that here in the US Congress has felt the need to ban advertising being louder than programming on TV shows that a lot of advertising is literally shouty. It's a law that shouldn't have needed to exist. But there it is, on the books, because advertising felt like it had a license to push itself increasingly aggressively on its audiences. That's what happens when you stop thinking about culture as a whole and start making ads about ads, entering into an arms race with other advertisers to see who can make the most ad-like ad: the biggest logo, the shoutiest voiceover, the smallest small print, the longest appearance of the phone number on the screen. That's when you end up with the Cash4Gold ads.

As the idea of 'ad space' falls apart, the space ads occupy is popular culture, and it's crowded there. Ads aren't just compared to other ads, they're compared to every kind of popular cultural production, and the benchmarks are things like interestingness, elegance, utility and entertainment, not the old metrics of consistency, uniqueness or reinforcement. The Old Spice campaign was great because it was funnier than most other things on YouTube; Nike Plus is great because it works better than lots of other run-tracking systems.

Great communications have always been interesting rather than shouty, so this is not new news. It's just that the stakes are higher than they've been for a while, because advertising is less protected as a practice.

It's been released into the wild, where like other elements of popular culture it will find itself having to do useful and interesting things to survive, rather than stand there talking loudly about itself.

# Alex Steer (13/12/2010)