Excerpted (with permission) from the "Advertising" chapter of Rushkoff's recent book (published by Putnam); copyright 2000, Douglas Rushkoff
Once a teen has been identified as part of the "target market," he knows
he's done for. The object of the game is to confound the marketers, and keep
one's own, authentic culture from showing up at the shopping mall as a
prepackaged corporate product.
The so-called "Generation X" adopted the anti-chic aesthetic of
thrift-store grunge in an effort to find a style that could not be so easily
identified and exploited. Grunge was so self-consciously lowbrow and
nonaspirational that it seemed, at first, impervious to the hype and glamour
normally applied swiftly to any emerging trend. But sure enough, grunge anthems
found their way onto the soundtracks of television commercials, and Dodge Neons
were hawked by kids in flannel shirts saying "Whatever."
The members of Generation X are putting up a good fight. Having already
developed an awareness of how marketers attempt to target their hearts and
wallets, they use their insight into programming to resist these attacks.
Unlike the adult marketers pursuing them, young people have grown up immersed
in the language of advertising and public relations. They speak it like
natives. As a result, they are more than aware when a commercial or billboard
is targeting them. In conscious defiance of demographic-based pandering, they
adopt a stance of self-protective irony--distancing themselves from the
emotional ploys of the advertisers.
Lorraine Ketch, the director of planning in charge of Levi's trendy
Silvertab line, explained, "This audience hates marketing that's in your face.
It eyeballs it a mile away, chews it up and spits it out." Chiat/Day, one of
the world's best-known and experimental advertising agencies, found the answer
to the crisis was simply to break up the Gen-X demographic into separate
"tribes" or subdemographics--and include subtle visual references to each one
of them in the ads they produce for the brand. According to Levi's director of
consumer marketing, the campaign meant to communicate, "We really understand
them, but we are not trying too hard."
Probably unintentionally, Ms. Ketch has revealed the new, even more highly
abstract plane on which advertising is now being communicated. Instead of
creating and marketing a brand image, advertisers are creating marketing
campaigns about the advertising itself. Silvertab's target market is supposed
to feel good about being understood, but even better about understanding the
way they are being marketed to.
The "drama" invented by Leo Burnett and refined by David Ogilvy and others
has become a play within a play. The scene itself has shifted. The dramatic
action no longer occurs between the audience and the product, the brand, or the
brand image, but between the audience and the brand marketers. As
audiences gain even more control over the media in which these interactive
stories unfold, advertising evolves ever closer to a theater of the
Today, the cathode-ray tube is no longer a receive-only device but, through
the Internet, video games and camcorders, a portal to self-expression. Media
has become a two-way street. Kids are as likely to deconstruct imagery as
The proliferation of all these devices, plus the advent of fax machines,
VCRs, modems, and cellular telephones, has fundamentally altered the shape and
function of the mass media. It is now an open system -- a mediaspace. Anyone
can contribute, and no one can be sure how what he throws in there will be
deconstructed, repurposed, and distributed. A top-forty song might be sampled
and recycled by a rapper. A news report may be deconstructed and exposed as
propaganda by a public-access show or Internet newsgroup. A rock video may be
mocked by commentators like Beavis and Butt-head. A commercial can be satirized
by a late-night comedy show for its clumsy efforts at manipulation--and the
audience will get the joke.
The media is a chaotic place. Like an ocean or a weather system, it no
longer respects authority. In fact, those who attempt to impose their authority
are ridiculed, while brilliant and valuable tidbits emerge from the most remote
and seemingly inconsequential sources. Advertisements attempting to associate a
brand with a celebrity or lifestyle aren't nearly as effective as they once
were. No sooner are they broadcast than they are deconstructed into their
component parts. Younger, media-savvy viewers instinctively reject
authoritative voices and laugh at commercials in which people try to act
Advertisers are well aware of our changing viewing habits. Now that an
increasingly large proportion of the public has adopted this self-protective
stance toward the media, marketers have turned to what might best be called
postmodern techniques of persuasion.
Consider the microbrand. As consumers became weary of major beer brands
and their relentless over-the-top media campaigns, they turned to local
breweries and brands for a sense of authenticity. Like do-it-yourself media,
these tiny companies gave their customers a sense of local control and
connection. No longer content with supporting a national brand devoid of
character, consumers sought the distinction and individuality that came with
buying a bottle of beer that may well have been brewed around the
The major breweries were quick to respond to the microbrewery phenomenon.
Miller Brewing Company released a fake microbrew beer called Red Dog, whose
label advertised that it was brewed at the charmingly remote-sounding Plank
Road Brewery. There is no such place as the Plank Road Brewery. Anheuser-Busch
bought a quiet interest in Seattle's Redhook Ale Brewery, and Coors launched
its own line of imitation microbrews from the Blue Moon Brewing Company, whose
marketing campaign touted the beer as "handcrafted once in a blue
Fake microbrands are created for a new population of consumers who have
learned to resist the pressures of conformity imposed by well-known brand
images. Airwalk sports shoes are worn by millions of young people who resent
the overwhelming marketing campaigns and widely criticized labor practices of
Nike, and American Spirit cigarettes sell to smokers who want to believe they
are circumventing the notoriously manipulative cigarette industry. In the end,
they are simply succumbing to the counteroffensives of shrewd marketers who
have predicted and capitalized on their rebellion.
Advertisers are learning to stay one step ahead in the chaotic mediaspace.
If today's consumer will instantly separate a product from its spokesperson,
then the answer is to make advertisements that are more difficult to
deconstruct. Many billboards and magazine ads have resorted to showing isolated
body parts rather than full-body portraits of models using or wearing products.
This style of photography, known in the industry as abstract representation,
allows the viewer to see himself in the advertisement, rather than the model.
Instead of having to identify with a character, he can watch the commercial as
if it were from his own point of view. All of our hands and legs are pretty
much the same. Ads for Kool cigarettes show only the hand of the lucky man who
holds a pack, and the beautiful girl who has turned in his direction. A hugely
successful Dockers trousers campaign showed a group of men from the waist down
only, as they spoke in random, disconnected sentences.
The less specific or more iconic a representation, the harder it becomes
for an audience to resist identifying with it. As a result, icons have become
the new unit of communication in a mediaspace characterized by deconstruction.
Wary of stories, slogans, and other emotional traps, young people in particular
have been drawn to icons as a way of expressing who they are and what they
believe in. Kids paste iconic stickers on their skateboards, attach iconic key
chains to their backpacks, and collect trading cards and Pogs with simple
iconic representations. Because they seem universal and disconnected, they are
perceived as somehow safe from the influence of authority.
Advertisers exploiting this same principle have moved toward more iconic
ways of representing their products. The simpler and less descriptive the icon,
the more universal its appeal. Ask a group of teenagers what the Nike swoosh
icon means, and each one will most likely tell you something different--but all
the responses will probably have something to do with challenging authority,
excelling in sports, being an individual, or "just doing it." The swoosh
is a universal icon, capable of representing any number of youthful ideals.
Some young people identify so fully with the Nike symbol that they have
tattooed it onto their bodies.
Part of an icon's power comes from its indivisibility. The swoosh cannot
be further deconstructed into its component parts. Just as golden arches mean
McDonald's, and the little red tab means Levi's, the swoosh is Nike. The
product is its icon, inseparably and without exception. To buy a pair of Nike
shoes is to buy the Nike swoosh. By adopting the postlinguistic currency of an
iconic culture, marketers can reposition themselves and their brands in a
manner consistent with the operating system of today's point-and-click
Media-savvy television viewers pride themselves on their ability to watch
programming from the safe distance of their own ironic detachment. Young people
delight in watching "Melrose Place" in groups so they can make fun of the
characters and their values by talking back to the screen throughout the show.
Others turn to shows like "Beavis and Butt-head," whose characters' constant
commentary on the MTV videos they watch serves as a built-in distancing device.
The wisecracks keep the audience emotionally removed from the seductive charms
of the images on the screen.
In addition to using icons, marketers have come to recognize the way irony
makes a wary viewer feel safe, and now they regularly employ irony in the
commercials targeted at these more difficult demographic groups. "Wink"
advertising acknowledges the cynical stance of resistant viewers: Sprite
commercials satirize the values espoused by "cool" brands, sometimes even
parodying their competitors' obvious image-based tactics, and then go on to
insist, "Image is nothing. Thirst is everything." A brand of shoes called
Simple developed a magazine campaign with the copy "Advertisement: blah blah
blah...name of company."
By letting the audience in on the hollowness of the marketing process,
advertisers hope to be rewarded by the appreciative viewer. Energizer batteries
launched a television campaign where a fake commercial for another product
would be interrupted by the pink bunny marching across the screen. The audience
was rescued from the bad commercial by the battery company's tiny mascot. The
message: The Energizer bunny can keep on going, even in a world of relentless
Of course marketers haven't really surrendered anything. What's really
going on here is a new style of marketing through exclusivity. Advertisers know
that their viewership prides itself on being able to deconstruct and understand
the coercive tactics of television commercials. By winking at the audience, the
advertiser is acknowledging that there's someone special out there--someone
smart enough not to be fooled by the traditional tricks of the influence
professional. If you're smart enough to get the joke, then you're smart enough
to know to buy our product.
Like all advertisements, these self-conscious commercials help the viewer
define his own identity. The strategy is not as overt as showing Michael Jordan
in a pair of Nikes so that young athletes will identify with their hero.
Instead, a person's notion of "self" is defined by how sophisticated he feels
in relation to the images on his TV set. If he has grown up deluged by coercive
advertising and expended effort to break free, then he will identify himself as
a media-savvy individual. Wink advertising gives him a chance to confirm his
In the advertising wars between long-distance carriers, underdog MCI
attempted to show how they were friendly and perky, especially compared to
industry leader AT&T. A beautiful young operator mischievously whispered to
us that AT&T doesn't want their customers to hear about MCI's low rates, or
their discount Friends & Family plan. She ridiculed AT&T's ads begging
people to "come home," and implied that they revealed Ma Bell's desperation.
AT&T fought back with their own ads, highlighting the coercive nature of
MCI's marketing: that people were fooled into writing lists of their friends
and relatives so that MCI could make annoying phone calls trying to enlist
them. The advertisements were no longer about quality or service. They were
about the advertising campaigns themselves.
Wink advertisements very often borrow imagery from another company's
advertisements as a way of eliciting viewer approval. After Lexus made the ball
bearing famous by rolling it seductively over the precision engineered lines of
its luxury sedan, Nissan did the same thing in their ad to demonstrate how a
much less expensive car could exhibit the same qualities. BMW sought to rise
above the whole affair, demonstrating their car's unmatched turning radius by
putting the whole vehicle through the same tight turns as the ball bearing went
through in the other brands' meaningless test. Finally, in an irreverent spoof
of the automobile advertising wars, Roy Rogers rolled a ball bearing around the
edge of a roast beef sandwich. Get it? Wink wink.
In a similar campaign, Levi's made fun of Calvin Klein's heroin-chic,
ultra-skinny supermodels. The company pictured healthy models wearing Levi's
under the caption, "Our models can beat up their models."
As the techniques of self-consciousness and parody become more
recognizable and, accordingly, less effective, advertisers have been forced to
go yet a step further, taking the media reflexivity of advertising into the
realm of the nonsensical. It's as if by overwhelming us with irony, they hope
to blow out the circuits we use to make critical judgments.
The Diesel jeans company ran a series of billboard and magazine ads
designed to critique the whole discipline of advertising. One showed a sexy but
downtrodden young couple, dressed in stylish jeans and arguing with each other
in what looked like the messy, 1960s-era kitchen of a dysfunctional white-trash
family. The ad meant to reveal the illusory quality of the hip retro fashion
exploited by other advertisers. Diesel would not try to convince anyone that
those were the "good old days." We were meant to identify with the proposition
that the enlightened values of the sixties, as represented by the media, are a
crock. But the meaning is never made explicit. Another Diesel campaign
consisted of advertisements which themselves were photos of garish billboards
placed in ridiculous locations. One showed a sexy young couple, dressed in
Diesel jeans, in an advertisement for an imported brand of ice cream. The
billboard, however, was pictured in a dirty, crowded neighborhood filled with
poor Communist Chinese workers.
Benetton and The Body Shop ran similar ads, but at least theirs made some
sense. One Benetton campaign pictured Queen Elizabeth as a black woman and
Michael Jackson as a caucasian to comment on racial prejudice. A series of Body
Shop ads featured giant photos of marijuana leaves, presumably to call
attention to drug and agriculture laws. These are appeals to a target market
that feels hip for agreeing with the sentiments expressed and for grasping the
underlying logic. There is, indeed, something to "get."
We are supposed to believe that Diesel's ads also make sociopolitical
statements, but we never know quite what they are. In fact, the ads work in a
highly sophisticated disassociative way: They make us feel as tense and uneasy
as we do after a good scary story--but we refuse to admit to our anxiety lest
we reveal we are not media-savvy enough to get the joke. The campaign is
designed to lead the audience to the conclusion that they understand the ironic
gesture, while the irony is left intentionally unclear. No one is meant to get
the joke. In that moment of confusion--like the car buyer subjected to a
disassociative hypnotic technique--the consumer absorbs the image within the
image: two sexy kids in Diesel jeans. Thinking of yourself as hip enough to
"get" it--no matter what "it" may be--means being susceptible to lying to
yourself, and to being programmed as a result.
That's all coercion really is, after all: convincing a person to lie to
himself by any means necessary. The stance of ironic detachment, while great
for protecting ourselves from straightforward linear stories and associations,
nonetheless makes us vulnerable to more sophisticated forms of influence. After
a while, even a detached person begins to long for a sense of meaning or some
value, any value, to accept completely and genuinely. In spite of their
well-publicized cynicism, so-called Generation Xers reveal in numerous studies
that they often feel lost and without purpose. Disillusioned with role models,
the political process, and media hype, they are nonetheless seeking something
to believe in.
As people search for a sense of authenticity in their increasingly
disconnected "virtual" experience, advertisers seize on the opportunity to help
us delude ourselves into thinking we haven't really lost touch. A shrewd
advertisement for an airphone service shows a businessman stuck on a jet flight
while his young daughter dances in a recital at her elementary school. He has
foregone his family obligations in the name of business. But in the airphone
commercial, he calls his daughter from the plane after her recital, and, basked
in golden light, she is as delighted to hear his telephonic voice as she would
have been to see him in the flesh. The television viewer who is searching for
meaning in his life will accept the faulty premise of the advertisement: that
the airplane telephone can actually connect him with a life he has left
The back-to-basics authenticity of such advertisements capitalizes on a
growing sense that we are no longer in touch with who we really are. In the
past, advertisers worked to generate this sense of disconnection. In the 1950s
and 1960s, a marketer would present an image, personality, or story with which
we were meant to identify, and then stretch that image in order to make us feel
unworthy, to give us something to aspire to: The girl in the hair-color
advertisement looks just like me--when I was twenty years younger and five
shades less gray; the woman in the commercial has a dirty kitchen and noisy
children just like me...but she is confident enough in her rug cleaner to throw
a dinner party for her husband's business partners that night. The viewer
identified with the character, only to be made to feel unworthy by
Today, however, a deep sense of disconnection and unworthiness is just the
starting point for the detached viewer. As a result, the opposite effect takes
place: We welcome the opportunity to let down our guard, even for a moment.
Having grown to resent all the striving toward the ideals represented in
commercials, we yearn to get off the treadmill of yearning altogether. We yearn
not to yearn--to be still and content. To just be.
The newest approach to the antiyearning urge capitalizes on these
feelings. The Calvin Klein CK Be perfume advertisements offer the
media-fatigued sophisticate a chance to relax and literally "just be." Uniquely
beautiful and detached-looking young people stare confidently into the lens.
Beneath them are captions like "Be hot. Be cool. Just be." The slogans in
companion ads all stress that people should have the ability to express their
individuality and be who they really are. "CK Be fragrance is about who you
are...it's about the freedom to express your individuality...it's about the
freedom to be yourself."
The astonishing supposition of these ads is that the young audience for
whom they are intended does not feel they already have permission to just be.
Unlike the models in the advertisements, who appear to have earned their cool
resolve by draining the life out of themselves through dedicated heroin abuse,
the audience must expend effort to maintain a sense of self against the
onslaught of commercials and other coercive messages. The CK Be ads suggest
that if we just buy one thing--a single bottle of perfume--we can finally be
who we really are with no further effort.
Like all of the image-based advertising that went before it, the CK Be
campaign once again capitalizes on its audience's undetermined sense of self. A
person who is striving not to strive is striving nonetheless--perhaps even more
desperately than those who are simply yearning for a better lifestyle. Our
aspiration toward a simpler, less taxing way of relating to the world around us
makes us no less vulnerable to the suggestions of others on how best to get
there. Being "in" is a booby prize, since it depends on a false and further
self-defeating claim to exclusivity. The emergence of a protective, ironic
stance, though temporarily immunizing, only contributes to our longing for ways
to feel genuine and connected--and will likely turn out to be just one more
chapter in the greater narrative of the history of advertising.
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