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December 04, 2002

The New Advertising


I love paying the occasional little bit of attention to advertising. So what if it's all about selling goods: there's lots of eye and brain food there to enjoy, as well as sometimes to be dazzled by.

Self-protectively, let me say that I'm sure there are writers and thinkers out there who look at and analyze ads far better than I do. And I'm just as certain that I'm years behind on noticing what I'm noticing. Ad people, and the people who write and think about them, are nothing if not quick and clever.

Still and all, I can't resist.

Exhibit 1: Old vs. New.

A fairly traditional ad for Newport cigarettes, and a new-style ad for ... well, for what, exactly? Rope? Wrapping material?

The Newport ad has a little designed-on-the-computer jazziness to it: the abruptness in the way the elements are juxtaposed, the way the photo falls so quickly into a space of its own, the brightness and flatness of the green, the way the cigarette boxes really pop, and then the copy really-really pops on top of that. But it's a pretty traditional ad, basically: product, people enjoying it, ad copy, product name. All of it arranged in swooping diagonals that converge on the product itself.

The other ad (for Gaultier sunglasses, as it turns out) is another thing entirely -- and entirely, it seems to me, of our new Quark 'n' Photoshop age. For one thing, what's being sold? Maybe the post-MTV generation gets these things instantly, but it took this geezer a couple of seconds even to figure out that what he was looking at was an ad. The Gaultier label being sewn into the fabric is a clever and effective way of achieving so-recessive-it-calls-attention-to-itself-ness. The ad also displays what I've come to think of as a "scanner aesthetic" -- the way what's on the page seems to be pressing up against a lens, or a sheet of glass. And that's it for the ad: a bunch of things brought together in a seemingly casual way on top of a scanner, with an i.d. carelessly dropped into the background of the mix. It's both a cool gesture and pure evidence of coolness, like a head of hair that's rumpled just so.

Exhibit 2: Coolness sponsorship.

For a geezer, both these ads rely partly on the "huh?" or "what the hell?" factor. What are they advertising? The left-hand ad is for Perrier; as for the right-hand ad, beats me. A clothing line?

What I notice about both of them, and what moves me to place them side by side, is a conceptual similarity. Both are 99% made up of a very cool photo. A great big one, in both cases -- and, by traditional standards, a rather odd one too. Not only is the question "what's being advertised?" an issue; the question "what the hell's this a picture of exactly? and why are we being shown it?" is being asked, at least by my arthritic mind.

My theory of what's going on here is this: that the image in both ads goes "whoosh!" in a variety of media-esque ways, including scale and peculiarity. Blam, you're arrested by media whoosh. Then, with the discreet little logo tucked in the corner, the company/product/whatever behind the ad claims not center stage but sponsorship -- sponsorship of the whoosh.

It's not the traditional "we're cool, have fun, drink our product and party like us" approach. It's more like, "we know so well what's cool and pleasurable that we don't have to make a big fuss about it," followed by a quick fade-out. It's like sponsoring a rock tour. You don't want to get in the way of the whoosh -- the kids will turn on you. But you do want them to notice who's making the party possible.

All of which reminds me of the way kids and copywriters these days are so fond of putting words and statements in nonsense brackets. [See what I mean?] It's kinda-saying but kinda-not-saying what it is you may or may not have to say. [I mean, really.] A sideways, commenting-on, sliding-one-by thing.

These-kids-these-days seem to want to ridicule ads; they seem quite stern about not wanting to feel they're being taken advantage of or sold too aggressively. But they also seem to crave, and even feel entitled to, the kinds of highs the ads embody and portray.

Exhibit 3: Ads as conceptual and performance art.

On the left is some kind of ad for something or other -- that's all I've been able to figure out. On the right is an ad for -- believe it or not -- a packaged cheese-and-pretzel snack. I've put them next to each other because they hit me in sorta-but-only-sorta similar ways.

In ways that remind me, in fact, of the way much performance/installation/ conceptual art initially hits me: "Huh, what?" Some kind of enactment of something is going on here -- I get that. Then I set about trying to figure out what. (By this point in my overly-arty life, I'm much more familiar with what's likely to be at stake in art than I am with what an ad is up to.) And then I remind myself that the feelings I'm having ("Cool!" "Huh?" and sheer annoyance, mainly) are part of the experience, and that the experience is the point.

As far as I can tell, the ad on the left displays some "scanner aesthetic" (the logos are pressing up against the glass), a touch of skateboard-punk (the breathless handwriting, or "handwriting"), and a groovy "what's it of?" photo. And what is it of? And why are we being shown this particular photo? Glows real nice, in any case. Again, the ad people have got me trying to figure things out, damn them. The ad on the right seems to me to lean almost entirely on ESPN2, edgy-extreme-sports, video-and-techno-music values. It's burying the product amidst a media blizzard, doing its best to sorta-but-not-really conceal what it's hoping to sell.

Given that I still don't know what it's about, the left-hand ad seems more purely avant-garde to me. Is it effective? How would a geezer like me know? I've been effectively blocked out of the exchange. (Kids like codes of understanding that shut out oldies.) The right-hand ad, for all its jiggling, strobing graphic aggressiveness, is finally rather traditional, provided you spend a little time decoding it. Once you do puzzle your way through the media-effects thicket, you arrive at the pretzel product being sold. Once again, you're being made to decode the ad to find out what it's selling -- that's the new approach. But the general strategy of the ad after that point is familiar: buy these pretzels and you'll feel such goshdarn excitement!

  • Step one: bring 'em up short with an arresting (dazzling, peculiar, whatever) media whoosh.
  • Step two: engage 'em with the ad by forcing them to puzzle out what's going on here, as well as what's being sold.
  • Step three: Very, very reluctantly and/or casually release the information (ie., the product) at the core of the event.

If I've got a general observation to make (and I do! I do! I've just been saving it up!), it's this: the page the ad is on used to be a magazine ad's basic medium. It was created on paper to be displayed on paper -- paper gave the ad its basic, stable structure.

These days, the fundamental medium is understood to be the computer screen. Ie., the paper magazine page you're looking at and handling is understood to be a surrogate computer desktop, a microchip-and-video environment where a variety of often clashing elements float (in an ever-ready-to-be-rearranged state) around, on top of, behind, and slicing into each other. Magazine ads as computer-game, worlds-within-worlds puzzles, in other words.

What are you noticing about ads these days?



p.s. Many thanks for demonstrating how well these visual postings can be made to work. It's a great advance in blogging, and all credit goes to you. Though, golly, it takes a lot of effort to put this kind of thing together.

posted by Michael at December 4, 2002


The denim-skirt ad is for Capitol Records. Names of Capitol artists are inked onto the skirt (Radiohead, Dandy Warhols, The Vines).

Posted by: Sporkadelic on December 5, 2002 12:26 PM

The ad with Danny Kass in it appears to be advertising the services of a company called "blades" which does snowboarding stuff.

Your comment on coolness, and exclusiveness of audience is very interesting. Like the radio station whose stated demographic is an audience 25 - 50 years old, who will cut off any callers who do not fit in that age bracket, ads can be seen as also quietly excluding the non-cognoscenti. If you don't understand it, you are not cool enough to need our stuff. If you do, then congratulations, and go right out and buy it, so you can show other ultra-cool people you are also cool.

Posted by: pinax on December 5, 2002 8:25 PM

Great post! I've been following the ad scene for some time, and am always discovering a new way of looking at things. Your "fogey-vision" (if I may) has given me yet one more angle into that world.

Your mention of "the post-MTV generation" got me thinking along another line. Yeah, off topic, but...

You hardly say anything about music videos. I know, you're hardly in the audience, are you? Same here, actually. Still, I've got more "in" and "youthful" friends who pass on things of note from that world, and while most of it is drek (as with most of anything), some of it is quite interesting.

Especially if you are into the craft of filmmaking or at all into dance (in a very broad way), you might want to turn your fogey-vision in the direction of music videos.

Where to start? Well, everyone loves Christopher Walken, right? Of course. So try this.

Um...whups. I've overstayed my time on the computer. (Yeah, we need a second one in this house!)

I know, not fair. Maybe I'll give you a more full survey later.

Posted by: Mac on December 5, 2002 9:38 PM

I concur! Great post. I especially liked your coinage of the phrase "scanner aesthetic." (You did coin that phrase, right?) I often wonder how ads are working on me but moreso when I see them on television than in print. Then again I haven't looked at a young-and-hip magazine in really long time and thus have not been exposed to the deliciously coded print ads that you write about here. All I see these days are sale flyers for KMart and Walgreens -- about as subtle as a cudgel to the knees.

Posted by: Tank Girl on December 6, 2002 3:49 PM

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