You make an interesting argument here that today’s guerrilla advertising represents the reverse of the culture jamming practices of the 1980s and 1990s, i.e. if culture jamming or adbusting involved the highjacking of Madison Avenue practices for an alternative politics, then today’s branding often involves the highjacking of an oppositional stance/style for branding purposes. Explain.
There have been various examples that have popped up here and there that hint at this hijacking: Adbusters magazine’s apparent popularity with ad professionals; PBR’s marketing manager looking to No Logo for branding ideas; heck, AdAge even named Kalle Lasn one of the “ten most influential players in marketing” in 2011. Similarly, you see this subversive, counterculture ethos in the work of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the premier ad shop of the last decade. But I think the intersection goes deeper than these surface ironies and parallels. There’s something about the aesthetics and philosophy of culture jamming that contemporary advertising finds enticing (especially when trying to speak to youth audiences): It resonates a disaffection with consumer culture; a streetwise sensibility; and so on. For culture jammers, such stunts and fonts like flash mobs and graffiti art are political tools; for advertisers, they’re just great ways to break through the clutter and grab attention. More abstractly, culture jammers see branding as an elaborate enterprise in false consciousness that needs to be unmasked toward a more authentic lived experience; guerrilla marketers, on the other, simply see culture jamming techniques as a way of reviving consumers from the “false conscious” of brand competitors. Think different, in that sense, works equally well as an Apple slogan and a culture-jamming epigram.
You cite one advertising executive as saying, “friends are better at target marketing than any database,” a comment that conveys the ways that branding gets interwoven with our interpersonal relationships within current social media practices. What do you see as some of the long-term consequences of this focus on consumer-to-consumer marketing?
In a sense, the whole book – and not merely the friend-marketing schemes – is an exploration of how commercial culture can recapture trust amidst rampant consumer cynicism. That’s what drives guerrilla marketing into the spaces we’re seeing it: pop culture, street culture, social media, and word-of-mouth. These contexts offer “authenticity,” which advertisers are ever desperate to achieve given their fundamental governmental task is actually the polar opposite: contrivance. (Sarah Banet-Weiser’s new book offers a sophisticated analysis of this fraught term across wide-ranging contexts in this regard.) As far as long-term consequences go, I think it’s important to keep in mind the complicity of consumers in this whole process: In other words, being a buzz agent is still just a voluntary thing. It’s not like these participants are being duped or exploited into participating. It’s worth accounting for that and asking why shilling friends is acceptable in the first place. Is it because of some kind of “social capitalism” wherein we already think of ourselves in branding terms and use hip new goods to show we’re in the marketplace vanguard? The book is, of course, only a study of marketers not consumers, so it’s pure conjecture, but I think understanding that complicity is key to any long-term forecast of these patterns’ effects on our relationships and culture.
Both of our new books pose critiques of the concept of “the viral” as they apply to advertising and branding, but we come at the question from opposite directions. What do you see as the core problems with the “viral” model?
From my perspective, there’s an implicit (and not necessarily automatically warranted) populism that accompanies the viral model and label. Viral success seems to “rise up” from the people; it has a kind of grassroots, democratic, or underground ethos about it. In some cases, this is deserving, as we see when some random, cheap YouTube video blows up and manages to land on as many screens and in front of as many eyeballs as a Hollywood blockbuster which has all the promotional and distribution machinery behind it. And because viral is supposedly underdog and populist, it’s “authentic,” so advertisers and brands naturally gravitate toward it, which, for me, makes it an intriguing object of study. Abstractly speaking, that, too, is at the heart of the book’s inquiry and critique: The masquerades and machinations of powerful cultural producers (like advertisers) working through surrogate channels (like viral) that exude that authentic affect in different guises (here, populist). Again, this is not to invalidate the genuine pluckiness of a “real” viral hit; it’s simply to keep watch on efforts to digitally “astroturf” that success when they show up.
While this blog has often treated what I call “transmedia storytelling” or what Jonathan Gray discusses as “paratexts” sympathetically as an extension of the narrative experience, you also rightly argue that it is an extension of the branding process. To what degree do you see, say, alternate reality games as an extension of the new model of consumption you are discussing in this book? Does their commercial motives negate the entertainment value such activities provide?
Oh, certainly not – and I should clarify here that I’m by no means taking the position that commercial motives necessarily negate the pleasure or creativity of participatory audiences. Alternate reality games (or alternate reality marketing, as I call it) are, in a sense, the fullest extension of many of these practices, themes, and media platforms scattered throughout the book. They feature outdoor mischief (e.g., flash mob-type activities) and culture jamming-worthy hoaxes, seek to inspire buzz and social media productivity from (brand) communities, and, above all, seem to be premised upon “discovery” rather than “interruption” in the unfolding narrative. And the sympathetic treatments of their related elements (transmedia storytelling, paratexts) are assuredly defensible. But they are, also, advertising – and, for my purposes here, they’re advertising that tries not to seem like advertising. And, again, I believe in that self-effacement, much is revealed about today’s cultural conditions.
You end the book with the observation that “more media literacy about these guerrilla efforts can’t hurt.” Can you say more about what forms of media literacy would be desirable? What models of media change should govern such efforts? What would consumers/citizens need to know in order to change their fates given the claims about structure and agency you make throughout the book?
I suppose I end the book on a lament as much as a diatribe. I’m not an abject brand-hater and I hope the book doesn’t come off that way. That said, I certainly do empathize with the myriad critiques of advertising mounted over the years (i.e., its divisive designs on arousing envy, its ability to blind us to the reality of sweatshop labor, its unrealistic representation of women’s bodies, etc.). The media literacy I aim for is awareness that these commercial forms are (often invisibly) invading spaces that we have not traditionally been accustomed to seeing advertising. In general, brands don’t address us on conscious, rational terms and, thus, if we’re wooed by them, our subsequent consumer behavior is not necessarily informed as such. In that sense, I guess, it’s as much a Puritan critique of commercialism as it is, say, Marxist. Media literacy like this would encourage consumers to think carefully and deeply about that which advertisers seek to self-efface and to (try to) be conscious and rational in the face of guerrilla endeavors that attempt to obfuscate and bypass those tendencies. The cool sell is an enticing seduction. But we can – and do – have the agency to be thoughtful about it.
Thanks very much for the opportunity to discuss the book!
Michael Serazio is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication whose research, writing, and teaching interests include popular culture, advertising, politics, and new media. His first book, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing (NYU Press, 2013), investigates the integration of brands into pop culture content, social patterns, and digital platforms amidst a major transformation of the advertising and media industries. He has work appearing or forthcoming in Critical Studies in Media Communication, Communication Culture & Critique, Television & New Media, and The Journal of Popular Culture, among other scholarly journals. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and also holds a B.A. in Communication from the University of San Francisco and a M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University. A former staff writer for the Houston Press, his reporting was recognized as a finalist for the Livingston Awards and has written essays on media and culture for The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and Bloomberg View. His webpage can be found at: http://sites.google.com/site/linkedatserazio