My friend Elias and I had an interesting conversation last night on the current state and future prospects of the advertising industry.
Elias is an economics graduate student, and tells me (in his infinite wisdom) that advertising as a principle isn’t going anywhere. Advertising as we know it, however—static billboards lining expressways or flashy logos imprinted on soccer jerseys—will likely shapeshift to incorporate new ways of communicating the same basic message in new contexts. For example, the technology that allows businesses in Facebook’s portal to pinpoint your location or that enables ads in Gmail to cater to the topics you’re currently discussing with a friend are only going to get “smarter.”
Additionally, advertising is inching in the direction of a concept we in the postmodern world are total suckers for: authenticity.
But how can advertising be authentic? For decades, the postmodern emphasis on authenticity has defined itself in opposition to American consumerism, materialism, and the (rather brilliant) economic principle of disinterested greed. You may remember the YouTube incident a couple of years ago in which an unassuming 16-year-old girl (“Lonelygirl15”) posted a series of “wildly popular” videos the public later discovered were written and directed by amateur filmmakers at the Creative Artists Agency. That idea–that the public’s handle on the distinction between fact and fiction may be manipulated to serve the ends of a corporation—was previously considered (accurately) fraudulent and malicious. Now it’s hailed as a “brand-new art form,” and multimillion-dollar companies are looking to cash in.
For my part, I find the faux-authentic brand of advertising most obnoxious. I’m partial to advertising that knows it’s advertising, such as W.B. Mason office supplies or the 2007 Fed Ex Super Bowl commercial.
This approach to advertising is respectable not only because it’s straightforward, but also because it often ends up feeling more “authentic” than the approach that attempts authenticity through deception. The latter kind, for all its effort to “speak the language of the consumer,” actually patronizes them to the point of humiliation.
OK. Ranting aside, the real reason I’ve been thinking about advertising recently is due to the bankruptcy of numerous local newspapers. February saw the Rocky Mountain News close down, and just a week or so ago the Seattle Post-Intellegencer shut the door on its print edition. The oft-quoted reason behind these closures is the internet as a source of freely accessed news and information, but isn’t it also because main source of revenue for these papers is advertising?
Businesses pay to have their names printed beside the headlining story; they stock the home and lifestyle section with coupons and notices of discounts; they sponsor ballparks so that the sports section doesn’t read “Celtics Blowout Miami at Garden!”—but rather, “Celtics Blowout Miami at TD BankNorth Garden!”
The press in communist countries has to worry about being subject to their dictator for their livelihood, and the spokesmen and women in the journalism industry bemoan that fact daily. But our presses are tied to the interests of the giants of advertising, and no one seems to be bemoaning that fact amidst the tremors assailing local papers all over America.
What if we cared enough about being informed on current events and reading the opinions of well-respected intellectuals that our newspapers didn’t have to look to major corporations for their livelihood? Wouldn’t that also mark a new era for the “free press”?