Advertising about advertising

In our commercial culture the rise of reflexiveness as a creative trope was inevitable.

Marketing Magazine, September 28, 1998   

There’s been some recent note made that advertising is becoming more reflexive, more self-aware, more “about advertising.”


Some folks worry that this trend will undercut advertising’s effectiveness, that by lampooning itself and its methods, it will be taken less seriously by consumers. The problem with that argument is the presumption that anybody outside the marketing or advertising businesses takes advertising in any way “seriously.”


This reflexiveness shouldn’t be a surprise. What else can you do in a cultural climate where movies are about other movies, popular music is about other music (either by sampling or whatever it is Sean “Puffy” Combs does), and novels are about people writing novels? During the renaissance, painters made pictures of heavyweight nobles, nature or religion. Nowadays, advertising’s ubiquitous — so prevalent it’s almost environment. If you’re going to make culture and you’ve grown up in an advertising-saturated world, some old commercial is likely to be the first thing that pops into your head.


Advertising might as well be about itself, since the products it’s responsible for flogging often don’t really have any benefits that can be extolled. I have no idea what the sales figures have been for Taco Bell’s food since the chain started using that Chihuahua. But I do know the spots with the Chihuahua trying to trap Godzilla (“Heeeere, leezard, leezard, leezard”) were the only worthwhile things about that stupid, bloated movie. People will only make the mistake of eating at Taco Bell on the strength of those commercials once. But the chain’s doing a healthy side-business selling T-shirts with that Chihuahua on them. It’s becoming increasingly clear that advertising is becoming strangely divorced from its main job and more a kind of cultural product unto itself.


There’s also the undeniable boomer appeal in nostalgic old commercials (you think Cadbury resurrected those black-and-white Caramilk spots because it was really impressed by the 30-year-old production values?). Mountain Dew has a campaign consisting mainly of a hyper-cheesy black-and-white spot featuring a pitchman in a suit and a female assistant in 1950s housedress, both singing a deliberately goofy jingle, then jumping off a cliff. Every aspect has been carefully crafted to both celebrate and mock TV advertising from the ’50s, stuff that was made a couple of decades before the target audience was born. The spot ends with the “Dewds” nodding in affirmation of the ad’s “classic” status.


Commercials like these at least acknowledge that advertising is a fairly silly cultural byproduct, so its practitioners might as well have some fun with their — and the audience’s — thorough and intimate knowledge of its forms and approaches. As with movies, for which it’s said there are only three plots, commercials have few real options: product benefit touting, “mood creation,” or disparaging the competition. At least by taking advertising itself as a starting point, marketers and creative people can offer the notion that they know just as well as the viewer does that it’s only a commercial.


There’s enough of an audience for ancient commercials that the TV Land cable channel in the U.S. runs them all the time, and has found them a big draw. They were beaten to that punch by community cable access guy Ira Gallen, who used to have a Manhattan cable show that consisted of nothing more than his showing off items from his huge vintage toy collection and running ancient commercials for them.


A New York Times story about the rise of reflexive advertising quoted Adbusters’ major-domo Kalle Lasn as saying this self-referential approach will increase cynicism among consumers, and that that’s bad. Wouldn’t Lasn prefer folks were more cynical about advertising? Well, I guess then they might start being cynical about hypocritical dingbats who’ve set up “foundations” to make clumsy parody advertising that nobody ever sees.


Now that they’ve started mocking other commercials and the advertising process, people in advertising — and consumers — are ready for the next logical step: making ads about the making of advertising. Shoot a jittery “rattle-cam” meeting with a client where the marketing boss talks about the product benefits, the demographic the advertising is supposed to reach and what the market research indicates the campaign should be aiming to achieve. Move from there to a series of creative conflicts in the agency’s office about the best approach. After that, a commercial that shows people making the commercial. Finally, the series could end with the viewers watching somebody watching the spot on television and snickering derisively.


Why not skip even that process, and just have the agency list other campaigns it’s won awards for, ending with a tagline such as “Oh yeah — now we’re the agency working on Product X. We could come up with something equally brilliant for that, too. But hey — been there, sold that.”