What Is Advertising?
To some, advertising is an unnecessary assault on our senses--typified by a
loud-mouthed boor hard selling something we don't need or a billboard
blemishing a beautiful landscape. To others, it is an unnecessary economic
burden--inflating the price of everything we buy. When occasionally asked
how I could live in the less then democratic political climate of Peru for
almost a year, I would answer: freedom from advertising.
But advertising takes many forms, aside from the mass version which defines
the term today. In the highlands around Cusco, Peru, aside from the tiny
red Coca-Cola signs, there are cultural, public service and political
announcements. More importantly, the women wear fantastically colorful
skirts and shawls. Just as critical in Peru as on Park Avenue, fashion and
body adornment are also advertising, since they broadcast our personal and
cultural identity, marriageability, tribe, etc. Thus, advertising includes
all human communication that overtly attempts to elicit or facilitate a
transaction, action or reaction. Beginning where objective information
leaves off and stretching until subjective art takes over, advertising is a
hybrid of information and aesthetics that can be traced back to the
non-camouflage markings on animals.
While few social interactions take place without some advertising,
industrial democratic societies are built around and by it. Mass produced
products cannot be sold by word of mouth, just outside the factory
gates--they must be shipped to distant consumers, who must first know of
them. Similarly, an industrialized democratic society cannot function
without competition or the ability of competitors to offer alternatives.
Mass advertising, then, is freedom of speech, long distance.
Product advertising has long been with us: beautiful signage has been
excavated from the ruins of Pompeii, religions have built large buildings
covered with symbols, etc. But modern advertising began with the
Industrial Revolution, filling up the expanding newspapers and periodicals
with ads and financing them with ad revenue. This created the basic
feedback loop of information and desire that powered capitalism, built the
railroads to deliver the goods and expanded our economic circle from
village to nation to global economy. It also spawned our mass
entertainment and telecommunication culture. While each new media was a
gift from technology and capitalism to the arts, it generally had to pay
its own way through advertising.
The Evolution of Capitalism
Capitalism has evolved through four basic levels since Adam Smith suggested
that governments loosen up their monopolistic hold on society and let
business go to work. Inventors and entrepreneurs teamed up to create the
Industrial Revolution (#1), which vastly increased the "The Wealth of
Nations," just as Smith predicted. But it occurred in societies in the
throes of feudalism, colonialism and slavery, fuelling the fire of
traditional power struggles. The birth of modern industrial economies was
not a pretty picture--considering the human and environmental exploitation
that accompanied it. Nevertheless, capitalism did provide a portion of the
goods and technologies needed to maintain and organize our rapidly
expanding and increasingly complex societies.
Considering human desire, it's not surprising that the volatile mix of
technology and capital vested enormous power in the hands of a few and that
they followed Darwin's first axiom of evolution, "survival of the fittest."
If government had not gotten back into the business of regulating business,
the Monopoly Capitalism (#2) that emerged in the 19th century would have
undoubtedly expanded the feudalism it maintained in factory towns and on
plantations across the world. Marx suggested the state take over
completely, but politicians were little better at divining the
complexities of modern economies. The protectionism of the Hawley-Smoot
Tariff Act, for example, exacerbated the Crash of '29 which, in turn,
motivated Germany and Japan to seek monopolistic control over all sectors
of their societies, with disastrous results.
Nevertheless, the lure of monopolism has persisted. But as IBM finally
learned in the early '80s, after refusing to head the wake-up call of an
antitrust suit, without the diversity and innovation of democracy and
competition, monopolies eventually grow too big and stupid to even beat out
a garage start-up. While the downsizing of Big Blue doesn't speak highly
of the innovative abilities of the information industries, when faced with
similar legislation, Bell Telephone voluntarily diversified and prospered.
The Evolution of Advertising
Early capitalists assumed they were the only game in town and early
advertising followed suit, simply announcing goods or services in the
traditional placard style. But even if governments hadn't stepped back in
to counterweight Monopoly Capitalism, nature abhors a vacuum and a
competing force eventually comes along. Once they realize that they are
dependent on a single economy, adversarial entities are pragmatically
compelled to attract business through advertising rather than by
brutalizing the market, consumers and each other. And with two products of
similar value, sales are driven by what the products and their ads look
like, as well as what they actually are. Thus, capitalism followed
Darwin's second axiom of evolution - the emergence of secondary sexual
characteristics--into Competitive Capitalism (#3), with its colorful,
status or sex related packaging and advertising.
Human beings and cultures evolved out of the same environment that produced
peacocks with their tails, fireflies with their luminescence and flowers
with their color and scent. We also need to attract the attention of
others for mating and other social interaction. Genetic evolution may have
designed out our non-utilitarian appendages and markings as we became
"thinking" animals, but as soon as we became "self-identifying" animals, we
reinvented them to define and advertise ourselves. In fact, Darwin didn't
have to journey to the Galapagos to study evolution; he could have
researched Victorian England or his own closet. Thankfully, the
debilitating corsets his wife was obliged to wear, in accord with her
tribal culture, have disappeared, due to the groundbreaking re-emergence of
women as an independent political and economic force and to modern
fashion's breakneck pace--accelerated by advertising. Nevertheless, a few
painful customs remain --understandably, some of us will sacrifice almost
anything for sexual advertising.
The New Folk Culture
In today's mass produced society, we frequently make aesthetic statements
and accessorize our identities through purchases. Those who blame
marketing mavens for manipulating us fail to credit free will or explain
why manufacturers invest in market research. Advertising may sway small
children, but functional adults, by definition, only let it inspire
behavior if it correctly defines choices they're already considering.
Therefore, to function efficiently, advertising must speak our language,
reflecting and magnifying traits and styles culled from the overall
culture. Fashions, fads and culture can emerge from an artist's studio, an
entrepreneur's imagination or the lower classes, as rap music, baggy jeans
and baseball caps attest. We are all in this together, wired into Marshall
McLuhan's "Global Village" by our telecommunications networks, which scour
the planet for the hottest new thing to titillate our fancies, sell
themselves and feed the maw of our evolving and expanding culture. "High"
culture still defines the historical foundations and future
possibilities--and advertising also borrows from it while underwriting its
productions - but advertising has become our new folk culture--the cultural
wing of a consumer society.
In this high tech socio-economic setting, the dividing line between
information, advertising and art is fading fast. We now have cop
documentaries with superb production values and cop shows with jiggly
camerawork, Geraldo Rivera-style, audience interactive, talk shows with local
dramas more fascinating than soaps and newspapers and newscasts as colorful
as ads. Advertising, in turn, is borrowing from political imagery or
avant-garde art, as in the recent Benetton, Absolut Vodka or Coca-Cola
Meanwhile, Hollywood straddles the advertising/art frontier, doing product
placement and licensing and making feature length commercials for American
culture, to stoke the furnaces of this fantastically expensive, but equally
fantastic, mass art form, which is pouring the foundations for a common
global culture. If Jurassic Park is not currently on view in Ulan Bator,
Mongolia, it is undoubtedly the coming attraction.
Like any significant aspect of the human experience, advertising has been
interpreted through art, from pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstien
to Jeff Koons--who has taken to hanging verbatim liquor ads in museums. As
art incorporates advertising and information and information media includes
more ads and design, advertising cannot help but inch towards more honesty
and art, simply to compete with news and culture for our attention.
The hard sell is increasingly ineffective in a data rich environment.
Aside from impugning our intelligence and inviting litigation, the more an
advertiser hypes their product the farther it has to fall if doesn't live
up to its image. Manufactures hoping to make a killing before the chickens
get home evidently haven't researched their market and care little about
the bigger profits of quality products and repeat or word of mouth
customers. Generic brands are good examples of informed businesses
correlating product with image and giving consumers what they want: better
prices (with its perennial appeal to bottomline survival) without the hype
(although they still advertise).
Conscious Capitalism: Level Four
Our current information revolution is not the first: there was writing some
3,000 years ago, movable type in the 1400s (or earlier in Korea and China),
and then telegraph, telephone, radio and television, in mind-boggling
succession from 1850 to 1950 - due to the capitalist induced speed of
research, manufacturing and marketing. But with the arrival of the
microchips, satellites, cellular phones, faxes, fiber optics, infonets,
email and the ongoing deluge of cable channels, new magazines and other
information bi-ways, we are approaching the steep end of the curve. In
twenty years, the entire memory of all of today's computers may be
condensed, through molecular circuitry, into one laptop. Evidently, we
have earned the right to capitalize the "Information Revolution" but are we
really capitalizing on it? Are we saying anything new or different? Sure,
the hardware and software are in place for putting a person on the moon or
a television in every home but is the wetware--the ideas, images and
information--up to the speed we need?
As the Information Revolution ramps up, human choices are being
increasingly motivated by Conscious Selection, Darwin's undiscovered but
implied third axiom of evolution. One hundred years ago we bought
Campbell's soup because it was all there was (Monopoly Capitalism). Fifty
years later, we selected it over competing brands because the packaging
looked good (Competitive Capitalism). Today, some of us will only buy it
after reading the ingredients and checking for a recycled logo (Conscious
Capitalism). Although our primitive needs and impulses are still very much
with us--in terms of price, packaging and other issues--the mind has become
our biggest marketing zone.
While the environmentalism of industry is frequently more style than
substance, many businesses are already adapting aspects of Conscious
Capitalism. American business leads in personal computers and other
information technology and some are emulating the Japanese example of
non-hierarchical communication teams and streamlined middle management that
was developed by an American, W. Edwards Deming. Business is becoming more
conscious of consumers desires, the environment and their employees' needs
and cultures. Many have little choice: employee turnover and retraining
are expensive, as are environmental clean-up and discrimination suits. But
the bottomline is: top down production and poorly researched or designed
products are poison to an informed market.
Waste, whether in bureaucracy, tariffs, poor design or a less then enthused
workforce, will have be reduced by those who wish to compete in the global
economies of NAFTA and GATT. Because we are all in this economy together,
fair compensation is also crucial - after deducting for legitimate profits,
research and costs. Unless the total earnings from all the work done
worldwide does not approximate the total cost of all the goods and services
produced, the economic circle is broken and consumers cannot afford to
perform the reverse "trickle-up" Reaganomics that drive profits.
The revolutions of the 20th century closed half the world's markets for
three quarters of a century and will probably take another half of a
century to correct. They were motivated by working people understandably
interested in obtaining what they made themselves or heard about through
advertising. Most care little who owns the actual title to industry if
they are getting a fair deal. If capitalism is indeed a more functional
system, it now has a second chance to prove it to the workers of the world.
Ironically, troubled industries, like the airlines, have stockholders that
are more than happy to let the workers acquire the means of production--but
through employee buy-outs rather then revolutions.
Cheaper, longer lasting or better designed products and more efficient
services build a more productive society by freeing up funds for savings or
other purchases. Governments should maintain a level playing field so
that all businesses and institutions and peoples and cultures can compete
as equals, but Conscious Capitalism cannot be instituted entirely by
decree. Since business is the only force on the planet of sufficient size
to effect the required change, Conscious Capitalism must beat out its
competitors in the market place.
The success of a good product or service--one that benefits society at
large as well as individuals in particular--rests largely on its ability to
communicate. The first step is informing the public what a business or
entity does and where it takes place at an appropriate scale: a sign for a
corner store, a saturation campaign for a corporation. But Evolutionary
Advertising further suggests using identity, advertising and the
information it conveys to place a product or service at the front edge of
our rapidly evolving culture. That way, it stakes out a bigger piece of
the future, enjoys a longer shelf life (good design can be used longer and
in more marketing venues) and better identification and brand loyalty.
Although advertising must operate within the constraints of budget and
other inevitable compromises, it is cost-effective to invest in
information, art and the future. As the Information Revolution
accelerates, these investments will only appreciate quicker.
Although history tells us small businesses and start-ups are where critical
new inventions and innovations emerge, they cannot afford massive coverage.
But by balancing ad placement, printing and production costs with quality
design and concept through Evolutionary Advertising, a limited budget can
be employed more intelligently. If it causes a beneficial product or
service to fail, ill-conceived marketing is another waste of resources.
The Global Economy
Business is instintively supply-side multicultural--it naturally cares less
about language and culture than about bigger markets and profits. In
addition to accommodating the culture of their consumers and selling
through distant cultures, modern businesses must integrate the cultures of
investors, managers, labor and raw material producers.
But capitalism also has pernicious unicultural tendencies, as illustrated
by Monopoly Capitalism. Mass produced goods look alike, mass advertising
and transportation deliver them to everyone and multinationals are like
dinosaurs that can destroy entire societies with an inadvertent or
premeditated flick of their tail. Modern development--over-dependency on
industrialized foods, fertilizers, medicines and other items - is one of
the greatest threats to sustainable local cultures worldwide. This is
dislodging an even greater avalanche of dislocated individuals that could
wreak even more havoc with the global economy as they migrate to the
world's industrial centers.
After seven long years of GATT negotiations, the last battle was between
Hollywood and France over an 11% movie tax. Ultimately, it had to be
deleted from the agreement. While French and Mexican farmers, among
others, argued that free trade would destroy their local culture, their
national representatives choose to compromise because their overall
societies would benefit--the Mexican underclass desperately needs cheap
American grain to feed themselves.
The French adore Hollywood, making its product the topgrosser in their
country, but they rightly observe that they cannot sacrifice their overall
culture. Without a different culture, how can they develop the alternative
goods, services or ideas to trade with us or compel us to be more creative?
State-sponsored film industries have produced many great directors, some
now working in Hollywood. Judging from the disaster of Monopoly
Capitalism, few would benefit from converting the global economy to one
massive uniculture. Individuality, freedom and competition drive a much
greater, more innovative and more profitable economy.
Capitalism, Democracy and Multiculturalism
Freedom of trade cannot function without democracy, which, in turn, depends
on the freedom of ideas and culture. Capitalism, democracy and
multiculturalism are the three mutually interdependent legs of a modern
society, which only operate at peak capacity in the long term if they are
equals and learn from each other. Business becomes more democratic by
flattening its command structure, market researching how to provide the
public what it wants and abiding by law. Government becomes more
business-like through cost-efficiency reviews, eliminating bureaucracy and
introducing competition. And they both must integrate with culture to
provide quality of life, without which the ends don't justify the means.
A handsomely designed automobile, telephone or even urinal can be
aesthetically pleasing or even art, as Marcel Duchamp proclaimed when he
unveiled his urinal and other "ready-mades" shortly after World War One.
All creation requires some design and capitalism is no exception.
Since much of it is "bad art," it could benefit by being regarded as an art
form. But the "high art" of capitalism comes when the investor, producer,
designer, employee, raw material provider, advertiser and consumer can
relate in one efficient, mutually beneficial and environmentally
Communication is automatically multicultural if it is two way. Those who
wish to communicate must not only learn the language of those they are
addressing but respect it. While mass media is becoming increasingly
centralized, the new information technologies and mini-media -- local
papers, infonets, etc. -- allow us to relate to most of the little cultures
that make up and invigorate a mass society and better serve and learn from
them. Mass communication can also bring alternative views to problematic
sectors of society rather then just sucking out images for the evening
news. Public interest advertising, such as the successful "Designated
Driver" campaign, offers spectacular opportunities for inspiring social
change in the Information Age. Alternative media and multicultural
communication forums in societies beset by civil strife could provide the
information required by individuals to make intelligent choices.
Competition and History
The history of humanity is largely defined by competition between large
forces. The nation-state ended the absolute power of religion in the
Middle Ages and then acceded to the expanding business sector.
Capitalism and communism collaborated to defeat fascism, but now that
communism has passed from the world stage, what will compel capitalism to
redesign itself? How can we recoup the massive cost of the Cold War and
the even greater investment humanity has made in modern civilization
without developing politically, culturally and economically functional
The Information Revolution is a key. The fallout from its partnership with
capitalism tells us more about what's happening at the other end of our
transactions, enabling us to adjust our own actions more efficiently. By
blatantly extolling capitalism's positive attributes, mass advertising has
established a precedent and image that capitalism now has to live up to.
Since contemporary capitalism operates increasingly through the mind, it
depends on empowering individuals to choose the best product on the merits.
A powerful individual inevitably seeks out their own identity and culture,
which could offset the alienation from self, society and nature endemic
since the Industrial Revolution. In this manner, Western Civilization may
regain some of the community and socially integrated design found in the
altiplano villages in Peru.
Conscious Capitalism, in partnership with Evolutionary Advertising, has the
potential to advance design and environmental production, quality
information and art, democracy and multiculturalism, while generating
profits. Hopefully it can do so in time to deal with the onrushing
implications of the Third Millennia.