Tag Archives: Advertising

Labor, Consumption, and the Cadillac ELR

My grandfather was an advertising executive. Whenever we laity found an advertisement to be contradictory, esoteric, or downright offensive, he would remind us that even if we didn’t understand the message, the target audience did.

I was reminded of my grandfather’s stock answer when I saw this advertisement from Cadillac for the ELR, a new hybrid automobile.

The ad is pretty offensive for anyone who thinks that it would be nice to have a café to stop into while strolling home from work, or wouldn’t mind having the entire month of August to do things like read, travel, or spend time with family. But if that’s you, then this ad is not for you, leaving the beat until the next commercial for you to howl in outrage. My grandfather would remind you that the wealthy aging frat boys who need convincing that one can drive a hybrid without sacrificing one’s masculine facade will receive the message Cadillac intended.

Its outrageousness aside, it’s worth looking at how this ad works. The car doesn’t come until the end, and most of the time is downplayed as “stuff,” which is not the real point of working. Instead it softens the viewer up for the arrival of the car by flattering him for accepting the fantasy of endless work as ingrained into some sort of national identity (also, I think we can safely stick to the male pronoun in this instance). There’s a constant invocation of the third person, an act of interpellation underscored in the line “why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that?,” where the “that” are less driven foreigners, and the  we are what Benedict Anderson would call an “imagined community,” only now of people who work endlessly and have something to show for it. Now, many of us do work endlessly and have very little to show for it, but if you are cognizant of that, then once again this ad is not for you. It’s for the people who would like to identify with the speaker. That’s why it’s a good ad, because it creates a need through a wish-image of what we can have once we start out with the “right” attitude.

So what we have here is a fascinating neoliberal fantasy. Holding it allegedly puts us in company with the Wright Brothers, Bill Gates, Les Paul, and Ali. It’s an eclectic group, but they did have one thing in common: they weren’t crazy! “Why do we work hard?” the speaker asks. Because we are hardworking believers.Believers in what? The answer is not supplied, but it doesn’t have to be. In this fantasy we don’t work longer hours over more weeks because that’s what we have to do to pay the rent, feed that family we have for all our high-fiving needs, or to be able to get medical care when we get sick. That falls under the category of “stuff,” the “upside” of an endless labor process that is an end unto itself. One “upside:” the Cadillac ELR. Here we have the ad’s main contradiction, because I thought the upside was the work itself? Isn’t an “upside” the desired result? Maybe not, but for the purposes of the ad it is, because after all, the point of the ad isn’t really to take pride in our labor, but to use the money we earn to go out and buy Cadillacs. And if there’s an upside, do we now admit there’s a downside? No matter, because we are now supposed to be gazing at the car, the “stuff” that was really in question all along.

This fantasy is a problem because if the work is an end unto itself, then the “downsides” don’t matter anymore, as long as you are working. It’s there in the ad: time spent not producing value is time wasted. It’s a logic that does not allow for any pursuit that cannot be reduced to the metrics quantifiable by “the market.” Instead it endorses a “do what you love” ideology, what Miya Tokumitsu calls “the unofficial work mantra of our time” in this insightful critique. As Tokumitsu persuasively argues, it’s a mantra that actually devalues labor.

A couple of other observations:

Gender and the family: While the speaker is strutting about the house preparing for work, we see a woman, presumably his wife, and two daughters. The toys lie discarded (the panda thing, the table hockey, the doll house we saw behind the couch). Instead the girl in the foreground is engaged in her homework before a model of a DNA strand, while in the background the other daughter reads, again, presumably, with an end other than pleasure.

Scene 1

The wife occupies the kitchen and receives his discarded newspaper. But she is in her work suit and drinking a cup of coffee, presumably for the caffeine and not because of the deliciousness of real gourmet coffee. Our male protagonist speaks and he’s the one who leaves the house dressed in his uniform and inside his car to face the day’s dangers! But gender binaries don’t get in the way of labor that generates measurable value, or that might equip one to engage in labor that generates measurable value. In any case, they are all incidental to the scene, they occupy the space of the house much as the furniture does.

Scene 2

Prometheanism and boredom:

Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right, we went up there and you know what we got? Bored. So we left, got a car up there and left the keys in it. Do you know why? Because we’re the only ones going back up there, that’s why.

Even as fanciful history, this statement does not make much sense, not in the least because defunding of the space program suggests that we will remain bored with the moon for the foreseeable future. This strange line celebrates the overcoming of a seemingly natural limit, an overcoming done simply for the sake of having overcome, only to admit to admit to the futility of it all. In this vision, for all of the money, planning, and yes, labor that went into the moon landings, we were not even left with something capable of engaging our interest.

Ultimately that is what is puzzling about the advertisement. Why do “we” work hard? The monologue never really answers the question, but if you’re still wondering about it by the time the ad ends, then the ad really isn’t for you.

Nature Works for Chobani

A cup of Chobani yogurt I recently consumed yielded this little object of contemplation.

"Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid."

“Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid.”

What strikes me about Chobani’s claim that “”Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid” is that it performs a triple denial of the product’s own origins:

1.) “Mother Nature” plasters over the real labor of production and distribution that is as much a part of the production as the “natural” growth of strawberries and bananas or bovine lactation.

2.) Who is the “we” who make the cups and the lid? The cycle of production, distribution, consumption, and waste is populated by more people not on Chobani’s payroll. What’s more “Nature” bookends that very cycle.

3.) The lid tells a story of ingredients and containers. Chobani handles the former, “Mother Nature” the latter. When and from whom do we get the actual yogurt?

Then there is the worn-out gendering of Nature as female, both in the “Mother Nature” commonplace and, more amusingly, in that “she” produces the ingredients for a milk-based product. Then there is the fact that yogurt itself is gendered female (at least up until recently).

This may be a a lot of pontification for an object that is now trash (although like Grandpa Simpson I have always been the kind of person who reads things he finds on the ground). But I offer it as a micro case-study into why Nature has fallen into such disrepute in some circles.

Tourism, Labor, and a New Raabe Translation

I brought home a few interesting souvenirs from my trip to Chicago last week. Submitted for your contemplation is this billboard I spotted near my hotel:

Odd Billboard

“How Sublime it is to be Small”

One might say that the statement in the advertisement is self-explanatory, since one experiences the sublime because one is physically small relative to the object. Add to this that the advertisement is for skiing; it hawks an experience that commodifies the mountains. Not that there is anything particularly new or remarkable about this, the billboard is simply another document at the end of a two hundred year history of the erosion of the concept of the sublime. Context matters here, as the billboard stands in the middle of downtown Chicago. Finally, let’s not forget the legacy of Caspar David Friedrich in the advertisement, another testament to Romanticism’s long legacy.

Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich “Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer”

Another intriguing find comes from a strip mall in Avon, Ohio where I stopped in to get a burrito at Chipotle. Despite the fact that I had not request take-out, the burrito was tightly packed in layers of foil and paper. Chowing down, I noticed this on the back of the bag:

Odd statement on back of Chipotle bag from Ohio, January 2014

“Recycling turns things into other things which is like magic.”

There’s a kind of oddly self-aware commodity fetishism at work here (“like magic”), offered, I suppose, to enhance my experience of consumption by appealing to guilt over the needless use of a paper product. If recycling seems like magic, that is only because the labor processes involved are so opaque, and as it happens recycling is a particularly labor intensive industry, one which recruits both its official and unofficial workforce from the bottom rungs of the socio-economic scale. For the record, Chipotle provided no recycling or compost bins, and yes, my bag went straight to the landfill. Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014

On another note, it has recently come to my attention that Die Akten des Vogelsangs has been released for the first time in English. Michael Ritterson has released a translation through the Modern Humanities Research Association. Buy it! I have not had the chance to peruse it myself, but I am excited to finally have this book available in English. German Moonlight, Höxter and Corvey, and At the Sign of the Wild Man are also available from the same series.

Toys “R” Us and Alienation

We’ll start with Toys “R” Us’ by now notorious advertisement that has recently gone viral. In the ad, a group of disadvantaged children are loaded onto a bus and told that they are off to the forest for a nature lesson, only to take them to Toys “R” us instead, to “make all their wishes come true.”

Evidently the advertisement was a genuine charity stunt. For its part, Toys “R” Us also released this behind the scenes video on YouTube. Anyone interested can see what they have to say for themselves here.

It’s a “capitalism with a human face” stunt gone rather badly awry. The ad is blatantly offensive. The implied message “who needs nature when you’ve got big box toy stores?” is pretty bad. The caricature of a teacher is also insulting. But that’s just obnoxiousness. What strikes me as most awful, and is perhaps not as immediately obvious, is the fact that the ad also works by thrilling a mostly white middle and upper class viewership with the sight of disadvantaged children being allowed to briefly partake in the worst habits of consumption. As potential Toys R Us patrons, our hearts are supposed to be warmed because the rules are bent so that these children can do once what we could do any time. And the acquisition of a thing beats an encounter with a forest. As Stephen Colbert observed, the moral of this story: “nature sucks.”

Toys R Us has really captured the magic of having a stranger take your kids on a bus, lie about where they’re going, then take off his clothes and promise them toys.

Way out west, Chris Clarke has this thoughtful critique of the ad on the KCET website. Clarke suspects that the ad hits a “sore spot” with environmentally minded people, essentially that environmentalists advocate for nature while also being alienated from it. He observes that environmentalism has itself given in to a destructive techno-fetishism (in fairness, we should specify that this criticism applies mostly to establishment liberal environmental discourses). The basic thesis of the argument as it applies to the ad:

The Toys R Us ad comes from an unspoken sensibility that is so commonplace among adults, even among environmentally concerned adults, that the ad writers thought it unremarkable:

“Nature sucks: we want our toys.”

I’m no better at reading minds than the next person. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the outrage over this ad among my colleagues in the environmental realm came from the wounded realization that it describes something all too real, even among ourselves. It pushed our buttons. Those of us who advocate for the non-human world fight apathy and hostility toward nature all the time. We are constantly told that nature is boring and unimportant, at least compared to a moment’s dubious thrill catching air in an off-road vehicle. Or a quarter’s dubious thrill watching the value of your stock options go up four percent.

I tend to agree with Clarke’s assessment, and I wonder if ascribing it to intuition isn’t being a little demure. While I am disinclined to bemoan “alienation from nature” because doing so is rather cliche, the ad is not just a cultural document of such a condition, but revels in it as something desirable. As the Christmas season comes around, Toys “R” Us profits will spike as it hawks plastic crap, most of which plays with itself and will probably be off to eternal rest in a landfill by June.

What stood out to me about Clarke’s argument, though, was that he got there via an image that was wending its way around the internets a couple years back (I first encountered it here on Adbusters).

adbusters_84_name-these

Like the advertisement, there’s a message here, one that calls out those of us who more easily recognize commercial signifiers while being ignorant of the given world. Clarke offers a more specific reading:

The lesson of the exercise: we recognize what’s important to us. Most of us know what the swoosh and the apple with a bite missing mean. Identifying leaves by their shape? To most of us, that’s not important.

Good critical practice entails not taking a didactic text’s claims at face value, no matter how sympathetic the “message” may be. This image invites a reading against the grain. Because it’s visual, it’s message is agreeable, and it is easily digestible, it lends itself to the repost reflex. And for that it’s a rather dubious image.

First, while the image means to draw a contrast between two kinds of consciousness, it gets there by way of a false equivalency. We (post)modern subjects instantly recognize the brands at the apparent expense of the earth. But brands are signifiers, they stand for something else. What does a tree stand for? Or a tree branch? One might as well complain that English speaking humans will have an easier time turning the combinations of letters reproduced on this site into meaningful language than they will in identifying a birch leaf. For my part, I recognized the maple only because the shape has also been appropriated as a symbol of the Canadian state. As Clarke points out, the individual drawings could be identified with more than one tree. So the document itself raises the classic problem of a disconnect between signifier and signified. It always already is what it critiques. My point is not to level a cheap charge of hypocrisy, but to point out the difficulties of a line of argumentation I’ve seen elsewhere.

Second, the charge that the image reveals “what’s important to us” is a bit imprecise. The charge could place the blame for collective consciousness formation primarily in the hands of the individual. But if recognizing brands but not trees is a symptom, wouldn’t it be more a symptom of exposure? Given the diversifying channels through which advertising comes at us, it becomes impossible to will away the ability to recognize a logo. Because advertising works best when it subverts cognition, brand recognition does not demand the level mental labor required for reading texts or identifying trees. The point is, what the image calls out is not a question of individual fault. We’re dealing instead with the challenge of bringing into cognition what consumer culture would have us not cognicize. One might say that the problem with the Toys R Us ad is that it is too transparent, it lends itself too easily to critique. That’s how it ended up on the Colbert Report.

Third, what is really at stake in identifying trees by the shape of their leaves? Obviously this is a topos that is really about something else, namely taxonomy as evidence of caring, knowledge, and therefore connectedness. But that does not rescue this particular environmentalist commonplace. Taxonomic knowledge is not the sine qua non of being environmentally good. Ranger Brad is a caricature of just that mindset. It leaves you with an environmentalism that sounds a lot like the Monty Python bit “how to recognize different types of trees from quite a long way away.”

On a side note, the actor playing “Ranger Brad,” Bradford How, stands by his work.

Unfortunately the tweet misses the critical edge of Colbert’s satire. Or is that the idea?

HSBC on the Future

Natural futures, courtesy of HSBC.

HSBC on the Future, Advertisement Spotted in JFK Airport, June 2013

This poster is part of an ad campaign that I spotted recently at JFK airport.  I was being shunted down the jetbridge when I got out my camera, hence the rather poor quality of the photo.  The fish has a barcode on its side, and the ad campaign itself envisions a kind of free-trade neoliberal utopia facilitated by a world saturated by technology, as exemplified by our ichthyic friend here.  You can peruse other selections here.

There’s much one could say about this campaign, and more one should say about HSBC’s astonishing criminal record  (i.e. money laundering for drug cartels).  But I’ll restrain myself and offer this image as a blurry object of contemplation.

Massenkultur bei Theodor Fontane

Klaus-Peter Möller hat einen lesenswerten Beitrag zum historischen Vorbild der Werbung mit dem riesigen Kaffeemädchen im 13. Kapitel von Theodor Fontanes Roman Der Stechlin.  Fontane hatte einen sehr subtilen Sinn für die gesellschaftlichen Veränderungen seiner Zeit, der sich auch in den scheinbar flüchtigen Details seiner Erzählwelt spüren lässt.

Das Kaffeemädchen habe ich bereits in einem anderen Eintrag erwähnt.

Theodor Fontane’s Poetic Geography of Beer

It is not uncommon to see in Fontane’s novels an aesthetic geography that portrays North:South as prose:poetry.  As the Bavarian Baron Berchtesgaden remarks when listening to the birds and feeling the beautiful weather around the Stechlin estate towards the end of The Stechlin: “Wie schön! . . . Und dabei spricht man immer von der Dürftigkeit und Prosa dieser Gegenden” (GBA 454) / “How beautiful . . . and yet you always hear talk of the unpoetic barrenness of these regions” (Camden House Edition: 323).

This dichotomy manifests itself in the novel, amusingly, in the consumption of beer.  It may seem overwrought to say that Fontane has a poetic geography of beer.  But then, as is so often the case with Fontane, even thought the beer in Stechlin is a seemingly minor detail, this is an author who is famous for his “Poesie des Nebensächlichen” (“poetry of the incidental”).  To treat details like beer as irrelevant is to overlook the “große Zusammenhang der Dinge,” or “great interrelatedness of things” for which Lake Stechlin stands (GBA : 320, CHE : 226).

The first instance where beer becomes significant is when the day-trip party arrives at the Eierhäuschen, a real-existing outdoor restaurant in Berlin-Treptow and we see a sign advertising the Munich beer brand Löwenbräu.  Ostensibly about a flight from the urban milieu, this is the section in the novel when we glimpse the new industrial age most directly, namely when they see the Spindler cleaning factory at Spindlersfeld.  Spindler was also the inspiration for Adam Asche in Pfisters Mühle.

Later in the novel we meet Dr. Pusch, who, like Fontane himself, spent time as a journalist in England, but unlike Fontane, made it over to the United States, where “er fand indessen das Freie dort freier, als es ihm lieb war” / “he found freedom (although the outside or outdoors would also be a legitimate translation, AP) a bit freer than to this liking” (GBA : 353, CHE : 249).  He has settled in Berlin, and the narrator shares this with us:

Als wichtigstes Ereignis seiner letzten sieben Jahre galt ihm sein Übertritt vom Pilsener zum Weihenstephan.  “Sehen Sie, meine Herren, vom Weihenstephan zum Pilsener, das kann jeder; aber das Umgekehrte, das ist was.  Chinesen werden christlich, gut.  Aber wenn ein Christ ein Chinese wird, das ist doch immer noch eine Sache von Belang.” (GBA :353)

The most important event of his last seven years he considered to be his change from Pilsener beer to the Bavarian lager brand Weihenstephan.  “You see, gentlemen, from Weihenstephan to Pilsener, anybody can do that.  But the reverse, now that’s something.  Chinamen are becoming Christians, fine.  But when a Christian becomes a Chinaman, that’s still a matter of some importance after all, you know. (CHE : 249)

Switching beer brands becomes a symbol for a certain relation to the direction of the power shift in Germany after 1871, and worldwide in the era of colonialism.  What’s remarkable about switching from pilsner to Weihenstephan is that it runs against the centralization of power within Germany from the South to the North, and globally around an imperialist Europe.  Drinking Weihenstephan or Löwenbräu would seem to position oneself outside and away from the political culture of the German Empire.

Or does it?  As any homebrewer (such as myself!) is aware, the late nineteenth century was also the moment when beer brewing moved outside of the home or local tavern and became a mass market commodity.  Weihenstephan, supposedly the oldest brewery in the world, is a brand most Americans can find in the grocery store, and Löwenbräu is a global brand with a brewery in Texas that supplies the American market.  On the other hand, the narrator does not tell us which specific brands of pilsner are being consumed.  The Bavarian beers are the only named brands, and they are available at some distance from their sites of production.

I always enjoy Fontane because he has a particularly sensitive set of antennae, and he sees the creep of consumer culture in the nineteenth century.  In another moment in Stechlin, Woldemar is making his way through Berlin.  He passes a wall where

ein wohl zwanzig Fuß hohes, riesiges Kaffeemädchen mit einem ganz kleinen Häubchen auf dem Kopf freundlich auf die Welt der Vorübereilenden herniederblickt, um ihnen ein Paket Kneippschen Malzkaffee zu präsentieren. (GBA : 147)

a gigantic coffee girl some twenty feet tall, a tiny bonnett on her head, cheerfully looks down on the world of those passing by to present them with a packet of Kneipp’s malt coffee. (CHE : 102).

The ad is a monstrous, almost frightening document of consumer culture that appears between in a text that straddles German realism and aesthetic modernism.  And aren’t we here already on the way to the opening titles of Mad Men?