Advertising has long attempted to persuade us to turn to industrially produced answers to problems produced by industrial society
Can the real dissatisfactions felt by people in our society be fixed by more mass production and mass consumption?
This basic contradiction –the patently false promises we are repeatly subjected to--opens ads up to criticism and mockery
-how long can we be fed the same fantasies and experience the same disappointments?
To combat this advertising fatigue, advertisers have increasingly tried to beat consumers to the punch by making their ads ironic and self-critical
Today we’ll be looking at what it means for advertisements to criticize themselves and consumer society; and what the implications are for other forms of critique
As we’ll see, irony can be used for a variety of purposes: although it is critical and even judgmental, it isn’t inherently radical
In the case of advertisements, irony may be used to reaffirm our sense of rebelliousness and individualism , while channeling our critical attitudes back into consumption
What is irony?
Irony is a form of signification characterized by the fact that not everything is made explicit
-focus on the implied meaning
-saying one thing and meaning another
-potential reversibility of meaning
-an evaluation is made, judgement is implied through ridicule and mockery
Irony is a reading position:
-I can make any image an ironic parody of itself; irony can also be built into texts, implicitly including the reader in ridiculing a third party
Ads often promise that with consumption will come love; this has long been an approach to selling products
We can read such images ironically: how could a sweater or a dab of perfume or a car or a cigarette make anyone more lovable?
50s as a site of happy consumerism is easy to mock
Ads are obviously susceptible to ironic criticism because of their unrealistic, utopian promises
What is a marketer to do?
Become pre-emptively ironic
This pre-emptive irony is a way of controlling the possibly critical response of members of the audience
An ironic text pre-empts this danger of criticism by using irony first; it attacks rather than waiting to be victimized
Ads routinely draw attention to their difference from other, more laughable ads
Quotation marks, or a wink, are often enough to signal irony
Using a recognizable style or form can be used as an ironic wink
All-Star Kola (1940), Lucky Strike, Kamel pin-up (1998)
What is the difference between these 40s pin-ups? The intervening 50 years; the feminist movement that has made us question the use of women’s bodies as sites of consumption
-the Kamel ad resorts ironically to an outmoded style of sexism to use a woman’s body to sell a product
This knowing wink interpellates or hails the reader as “one of us”
Irony can thus impart a sense of belonging, usually at someone else’s expense
The sense of belonging is what ads have always tried to impart; only now it is done through the wink of inclusion into a critical discursive community
This sense of inclusion flatters us as individuals even though it is a form of mass communication
Hierarchy is set up between those who get it and those who don’t
Ironic objectification of women, through use of out-of-date style of representation
A similarly ironic operation is underway where ads seem to criticize the promises of ads, without criticizing the basic function of the consumer model
Kellogg’s Special K ads attempt to harness to themselves women’s disgust with unrealistic images of women promoted by advertisers
Where do these standards come from? Special K was long marketed to women as a low-fat breakfast; its trademark was supposed to represent a curvaceous woman with a thin waist
Here we can see that there are different ways of using irony to different ends
It all depends on who is using it at whose expense
Bill Bernbach of Doyle Dane Bernback (DDB) invented honest, anti-advertising with his ground-breaking VW campaign of 1959, “as style which,” as Tom Frank notes, “harnessed public mistrust of consumerism—perhaps the most powerful cultural tendency of the age—to consumerism itself” (Frank 1997, 55)
VW ads used people’s skepticism about car advertisements and make it part of their selling strategy
Graphically plain; jokey tone; honest; respectful of reader’s intelligence; trumpet their anachronism; anti-obsolescence (suspicion of fashion); preconsumerist thrift; self-reflexive (attentive to apparatus of advertising); anti-conformity
From Nazi “people’s car” to Love bug (hip anti-consumerism) in a few short years
Articulate signifier of car onto a whole new referent system
VW’s anti-advertising strategy was soon followed by others
Frank argues that the youth counterculture of the 60s was fertile ground for the promises of rebellious consumption
In a word, marketers attempted to aquire the ineffable something that made objects in youth culture cool
This was done by appropriating imagery associated with drug culture and youth culture and through the ironic criticism of advertising itself
Far from being the antithesis of youth culture, consumerism made the shift from conformity to individualism without much problem
“The 1960s counterculture seemed to have it all: the unconnectedness which would allow consumers to indulge transitory whims; the irreverence that would allow them to defy moral puritanism; and the contempt for established social rules that would free them from the slow-moving, buttoned-down conformity of their abstemious ancestors. In the counterculture, admen believed they had found both a perfect model for consumer subjectivity, intelligent and at war with the conformist past, and a cultural machine for turning disgust with consumerism into the very fuel by which consumerism might be accelerated” (Frank 1997, 119)
Today, such cool ad strategies are very common; youth culture continues to be the leader in fashion trends and the fate of brands often depends on how cool they are: which means who is consuming them
In the lucrative youth market, being cutting edge and making lots of money are in a conflictual relationship: in order for something to be profitable, it must be sold in huge numbers, but how can something be both mainstream and cutting edge?
We musn’t confuse an advertisers quest for cool or use of ironic criticism as anything radical: they’re job is still to move product and if adopting the appearance of criticality will attract more people to their brand, then more fools them
So why does this hip, ironic consumerism work?
It taps into the dissatisfaction with industrial society and consumer culture discussed by Stewart Ewen: “Not only does hip consumerism recognize the alienation, boredom, and disgust engendered by the demands of modern consumer society, but it makes of those sentiments powerful imperatives of brand loyalty and accelerated consumption” (Frank 1997, 231)
These ads ironically present consumption as the escape from the meaningless pursuit of the image
-Sprite: Image is nothing. Obey your taste.
Ultimate move in hegemony: appropriate the cynicism and irony of the disaffected and bored consumer
Adbusters produces TV anti-ads that can’t get played on TV
While critical voices aren’t allowed to buy time on TV, ads themselves become the only outlet for the criticism of advertising messages
They thus appropriate our own negative feelings about consumerism, mass standardization and advertising and recuperate them for an advertising message
The truth is that consumption can’t make us rebels, even if we are appealed to as part of a cool group or if a rhetorical style treats us like insiders by winking at us
Only not consuming, or consuming thoughtfully, is a real threat to consumerism; short of that marketers will find many ways to make us feel like we are sticking it to the man by buying all his stuff