Can Advertising Ever Be Radical?
In other words, does normal commercial advertising ever produce messages that can be interpreted as anti-capitalist, pro-feminist, anti- racist and so on?
The No Case! Ads can never be radical.
These are three arguments which show us that it is unlikely that ads will ever be radical. We can also examine particular ads for patriarchal and pro-capitalist messages to show how ads embody dominant ideologies. For example some ads suggest that the rich have the best taste or that it is a woman's role to be attractive to men and so on. These issues are covered in most of the readings set on ads for this week.
- Ads are always used to sell a product and so make a profit, which adds to the wealth and power of the capitalist class.
- Owners of companies are not likely to approve of advertisers who put a radical message that might undermine their own power. They won't employ them.
- Most powerful positions in advertising companies are held by men who will tend to favour ads that maintain men's power.
The Yes Case. Ads are sometimes radical
It is rare to find an analysis of ads that points to the radical content of some ads. In the readings, the article by Bruck and Docker, the article by Gibson and the collection edited by Nava come closest. In what follows I will agree that most ads are conservative for the reasons listed above ( 1 - 3) but go on to say that nevertheless there are some examples and tendencies in ads that are not wholly favourable to ruling groups. Why?
1. Many ads are targeted to subordinated groups in society. The ad may try to get an audience with a subordinated group by putting views which reflect the interests of the subordinated group in opposition to the interests of a dominant group. Or at the very least the ad may celebrate some of the values and culture of the subordinated group. For example ads targeted to:
- Ethnically or racially disadvantaged groups
- Working class people
For example, there is an ad in which there are two working class mates sitting at a construction site, tucking into pies with gusto. They look across the road into a restaurant where two middle class men in suits are also having lunch. Looking at them, one of the mates says to the other - "They don't know what they're missing out on".
How is this ad anti-capitalist? This is the point at which interpreting ads becomes problematic. On the one hand, a definition of capitalism is fairly straightforward - private ownership of the means of production by a small minority of the population; wage labour etc. However what cultural discourses support this structure is a more complicated question. In this case, we could say that capitalism has come to depend on a hierarchy of levels within wage labour. People are encouraged to work hard to improve their station; to make more money and perhaps acquire the lifestyle of the level above their own, or even move into a higher level. The higher levels get paid more and have more responsibility for ensuring that the system works. They are in control of the work done by those lower in the hierarchy. Capitalism depends on this structure as a hierarchical chain of command, as a motivator for conscientious work and consumer spending and as a rationale for the inequalities of wealth that are intrinsic to the system as a whole.
Ads usually back up this structure, suggesting that the middle and upper classes have better taste, are more intelligent or better trained, deserve more wealth. They imply that every body envies their lifestyle and wants to imitate it. This ad contradicts these usual pro-capitalist assumptions. It represents a common working class cultural conception that the middle and upper classes are merely snobs who assume that their upper class lifestyle and tastes are preferable. However real knowledge - not just about food but also about how to make production work - is actually the province of the working class. This ad goes along with the comments of some Hunter Valley aluminium workers who referred to new technical university trained experts as "theory wankers" who did not really understand the plant.
2. Ads may want to promote something which is presented as a remedy for a common problem of capitalist or patriarchal society and call attention to the problem in promoting that product. While such ads dilute any radical impact by putting forward their product as the solution to the problem, most audience members know that these problems are intrinsic to the functioning of capitalism or patriarchy. In other words, the radical impact of the ad is in drawing attention to the problem and reminding people of its widespread effects.
What is anti-capitalist about this ad? It draws attention to something which is an unavoidable problem of capitalist society. People do not own and control the means of production. They have to work for someone else to get access to goods and services through their wage. Inevitably, their employer controls their labour leading to all kinds of problems experienced in the daily life of work. Being bullied by superiors in the chain of command, having to do work to make a living that you personally find pointless and uninteresting, having no control over the way work is organised and so on. The ad suggests their product (the employment agency) as the solution to these problems. But the reality is that the reader knows that these are normal aspects of life at work and that trying to find a better job is rarely a long term solution to all of these problems. Another myth of capitalism is also undermined by the ad. Capitalism promotes the idea that you can work hard at school and end up by getting a truly marvellous job that is different to those which the adults in your life find so frustrating. The ad refers to this contradiction between the ideals of the school child - whose limited experience allows them to continue believing this myth - and the reality of the adult world in which all jobs have problems of the kinds that the ads refer to.
For example when I was in London a few years ago an employment agency was running a set of advertisements that were designed to suggest to people that they might be unhappy in their current jobs and that they should approach the employment agency to get a better job. These ads were in tube stations on wall poster screens. They all featured a picture of a young person, aged about 11 years, who was quoted with a pithy statement about their ambitions in life. Slogans were such as "When I grow up I want to be bullied by my boss", "When I grow up I don't want anyone to say Thank You", "When I grow up I want to be bored beyond belief" and so on. In other words each slogan was meant to be read ironically as representing the opposite of the ambitions for work that young people might have. The adult reader of the ads was meant to be reminded of problems they experienced in their working life and to have it pointed out to them that their current job was nothing like what they had dreamed of when they were children.
3. The first two points refer to features of ads that can equally relate to whether ads are pro-feminist, anti-racist - for example we can have ads that remind the feminine reader of deep and ineluctable problems of patriarchy while promising the product as the solution. The third point relates to a central issue that a number of writers have noted in capitalist societies - the conflict between the values that are the foundation of dutiful and responsible work in capitalism and the values which have to be used to promote consumerism and spending (e.g. Barbara Ehrenreich - Fear of Falling; Paul Willis - Common Culture).
It is argued that capitalism in work and educational institutions depends on the protestant work ethic. People work hard and are responsible in their jobs despite the fact that they are often bored and can have little control over their work. As Weber argues in the Protestant Work Ethic, capitalism needs a dutiful workforce that can responsibly handle complex machinery. It needs an ethic that convinces people that work is a duty even if you don't enjoy it. Along with this, Weber argued, went the whole package of puritan values that were promoted in the reformation. Sexual purity, modesty and sobriety in dress, thrift, honesty in speech and actions, individualism, a rejection of entertainment, dancing, music, drugs, alcohol, colour and extravagance of all kinds. Why these go with the work ethic and whether there is a connection is an interesting question. For the moment I will take it that there is a connection - that duty in work means a renunciation of the pleasures of sexuality, social fun and accompanying forms of entertainment and togetherness.
Clearly in more recent decades, advertisers themselves have had a large part in undermining these puritan values. While many of these values are still what is promoted in schools and enforced by employers for work situations, advertisers tend to sell their products in the context of leisure and the abandonment of the constraints people feel at work. In contradiction to the culture of dutiful self-denial, capitalism depends on the promotion of leisure, fun and equal, friendly social contacts to sell many products.
So a lot of ads undermine the work ethic by promoting carefree leisure, fun and happy times with friends, not to mention sexuality, vanity, luxury, alcohol and other departures from puritan cultural values. Examples are endless but one that springs to mind is a coca cola ad that showed a group of young friends destroying their combie van by filling it full of water from a hose and using it as a swimming pool.