Guerrilla Ambush

July 17, 2013

The most memorable thing about the 2002 science-fiction movie Minority Report was its depiction of advertising in a few decades -- in particular the scene of Tom Cruise hurrying through a mall, besieged by holographic, interactive invitations to have a Guinness or use American Express, and asking him how he liked the tank tops he’d purchased at the Gap. The virtual shills address him by name (the character’s name, that is) thanks to retinal scanners, which are as ubiquitous in the 2050s as surveillance cameras had become in the century’s first decade.

They are pop-up ads from hell, swarming like hungry ghosts to devour everyone’s attention. (The people Tom Cruise rushes past are presumably getting their own biometrically personalized shopping advice.) The scene feels uncomfortably plausible; it’s the experience of being on the Internet, extended into public space and rendered inescapable.

How effective the film is as social criticism probably depends on what you make of the fact that a quarter of its budget came from product placement. Minority Report’s critique of advertising turns out to be, in part, critique as advertising.

Now, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that people have become so resistant to hard-sell advertisement (dodging TV commercials with their DVRs, ignoring or mocking how ad agencies target their desires or insecurities) that they have lost influence. By the 2050s, our psychic calluses should be really thick.

The bad news concerns what is taking the place of the hard sell: a range of techniques discussed at some length in Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Advertising (New York University Press) by Michael Serazio, an assistant professor of communications at Fairfield University.

“Cool” advertising, as Serazio uses the expression, does not refer only to campaigns that make a product seem hip, hot, and happening -- so that you will be, too, by buying it. The adjective is instead a nod to the contrast between Marshall McLuhan’s famous if altogether dubious categorizations of “hot” media, such as film or print, and the “cool” sort, chiefly meaning television.

A hot medium, goes the theory, transmits its content in high resolution, so that the recipient easily absorbs it through a single sense. A cool medium, with its low resolution, demands greater involvement from the recipient in absorbing the message. Someone reading Aristotle or watching "Citizen Kane" is more or less passively taking in what the hot medium bombards the eye with, while the “Gilligan’s Island” audience finds its senses quickened (auditory and tactile in particular, according to McLuhan) by a need to compensate for the cool medium’s low level of visual stimulation.

That makes as much sense as any of the sage of Toronto’s other ideas, which is to say not a hell of a lot. Nonetheless, Serazio gets as much value out of the distinction as seems humanly possible by adapting it to the contrast between the old-school “hot” ad campaign – with its clear, strong message that you should buy Acme brand whatchamacallits, and here’s why – and a variety of newer, “cooler” approaches that are more seductive, self-effacing, or canny about dealing with widespread cynicism about corporate hype.

A cool ad campaign, when successful, does not simply persuade people to buy something but creates a kind of spontaneous, intimate involvement with the campaign itself.  The consumer’s agency is always stressed. ("Agency" in the sense of capacity to act, rather than where "Mad Men" do their business.) The Dorito’s "Fight for the Flavor" campaign of the mid-‘00s empowered the chip-gobbling public to determine which of two new flavors, Smokin' Cheddar BBQ or Wild White Nacho, would remain on the shelves and which would be pulled. Bloggers and tweeters are encouraged to express their authentic, unscripted enthusiasm. “Buzz agents” are given free samples of a product, chat it up with their friends, then report back how the discussions went. (With word-of-mouth campaigns, the most important is authenticity. Fake that and you’ve got it made.)

And at perhaps its most sophisticated level, cool advertising will cultivate the (potential) consumer’s involvement almost as an end in itself – for example, by providing an opportunity to control the behavior of a man in a chicken suit known as Subservient Chicken.

Let us return to the horrible fascination of Subservient Chicken in due course. But first, theory.

Foucault plus Gramsci equals about a third of the stuff published in cultural studies -- of which “critical industry media studies,” the subspecialty into which Serazio’s book falls, is a part. The conceptual work in Your Ad Here is done with Foucault’s line of power tools, in particular his considerations on governance, while Gramsci seems along mostly to keep him company.

Advertising as governance sounds counterintuitive, given the connotation of state power it elicits, but in Foucault’s work “government” refers to processes of guidance and control that may be more or less distant from the state’s institutions. The teacher governs a class (or tries) and a boss governs the workplace.

Over all, “management” seems like a more suitable term for most non-state modes of governance, and it has the advantage of foregrounding what Serazio wants to stress: Foucault’s point is that governance doesn’t mean giving orders and enforcing obedience but rather “structuring the possible field of action of others” in order “to arrange things in such a way that, through a certain number of means, such-and-such ends may be achieved.”

Governance (management) in this sense is a kind of effective persuasion of the governed party (the student, the fry cook, etc.) to exercise his or her agency to perform the necessary functions of the institution (school, fast-food place) without being subjected to constant external pressure. Insofar as governance is an art or a science, it is through recognizing and anticipating resistance, and preventing or containing disruption. (Some remarks by Gramsci on hegemony and resistance also apply here, but really just barely.)

“Cool sell” advertising counts as governance, in Serazio’s book, because it tries to neutralize public fatigue from advertisement overload -- so that we’re still incited to spend money and think well of a brand. That’s the common denominator of viral marketing, crowdsourced publicity campaigns, plebiscites on snack-food availability, and so on.

It occasionally sounds like Serazio is criticizing these methods as manipulative, but I suspect that’s actually high praise, like when one horror fan tells another that a torture scene in "Hostel" gave him nightmares.

Which brings us back, as promised, to Subservient Chicken, whose role in promoting the Burger King menu remains oblique at best. But he undeniably garnered an enormous amount of attention -- 20 million distinct viewers generating half a billion hits. “By filming hundreds of video clips of a man in a chicken suit,” the author says, “and writing code for a database of terms that would respond to keyword commands for the Chicken to perform those videotaped actions, [the advertising agency] concocted something that was, its own words, ‘so creepy, weird and well-executed that many people who visited… thought they were actually controlling this person in a chicken suit in real life.’ ” I can’t help feeling this calls for more extensive Foucauldian analysis, but I won’t be sticking around to see how that turns out.


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