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« Milton Grenfell on Traditional Architecture | Main | "Glow" Update Redux »

October 22, 2003

Ad Update -- "The Glow"

Dear Friedrich

So far as the arts and the media go, the era during which we grew up -- the '50s, '60s and '70s -- was mainly interesting for what the creators were doing. During the '80s, '90s, and the aughts, watching what the creators have been up to has been less interesting than watching the impact digital technology is having on the arts and the media.

(I'm going to say this once and hope everyone will agree to let it hover over
everything in this posting: IMHO, and many exceptions allowed for.)

I often find that when I venture an observation like this, some people will treat me as though I'm either being perverse or have some vested interest in making the argument. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. I'm unhappy about this development. I'd much prefer to be spending my adult years enjoying a rich era of fascinating new artworks -- wonderful literature, luscious painting, etc., all of it illuminating our lives and fates in fresh ways ... I just haven't found this to be true. Like it or not (and I don't), it's been my strong impression that the last few decades have been, by and large, a time of adjustment to a changing tool-set.

So why isn't there more discussion of these developments? Not in whizbang tech-and-gizmo terms, but in terms of values, experience and esthetics? God knows it's fun to trade tips and compare notes about individual artists, and about individual works of art and entertainment. But coverage of the arts often seems to me stuck in 1970, with the (often really good) critics and reviewers discussing their fields as though little in the social/economic/technical matrix they're rooted in has changed since then -- here's a Charles Paul Freund piece in Reason Online that makes some similar points. Why isn't more notice being taken of the changes in the context?

I hope my critic and reviewer friends will forgive me for saying this. Back (say) in the '70s, individual movies and books gave reviewers plenty of opportunities to take note of larger social/consciousness/etc changes. These days, even the best art and entertainment often doesn't. So critics and reviewers, many of whom got in the reviewing game because of how exciting they found the arts in the '60s and '70s, are now stuck tending their gardens; they cover their assigned field, they recommend this and advise against that; they try to wing a joke, or an evocation, or an idea, or even a little writin' past their bosses ...

These days, the cultural coverage that resonates for me often doesn't come in the form of reviews or criticism. Instead, it comes from business books, sociological studies, writers on the economy, discussions about demographics. It comes from pros like Freund, Denis Dutton (here), Joel Kotkin (here and here), Virginia Postrel (here), Tyler Cowen (here), Malcolm Gladwell (here), Camille Paglia (here), Steve Sailer (here), Frederick Turner (here), Nikos Salingaros (here)and Christopher Alexander (here); and it comes from amateurs like Aaron Haspel (here), Alice Bachini (here), Mike Snider (here), David Sucher (here) and many other bloggers. I've been surprised by how much more culturally useful I've found it to read, say, a book about copyright -- Paul Goldstein's "Copyright's Highway" (buyable here) is a good one -- than it is to follow, for instance, the New Yorker's arts critics. I inevitably find that an hour spent blog-surfing delivers more in the way of perceptions about How We Live Today than does an hour with the Arts and Leisure section or the NY Review of Books.

Hey, come to think of it, we Blowhards have done our occasional best to launch such discussions too. We often chat about how computers are affecting feature movies; my own (admittedly debatable) contention is that what I call "traditional movie values" are being replaced by what it pleases me to call "digital media values." We've touched on the way pop music has been affected. We've noticed how literature, once turned into bytes, tends to disaggregate itself into discrete bits of writing.

Today's chat concerns print ads and print-ad styles. For some reason I've been musing recently about how magazines and ads have changed since the advent of the computer. How trusting and naive people were back on the early days of PCs and Macs, when it was generally assumed that the computers would help make doing the standard thing more easy and efficient. We'd create the same product, only we'd now be able to do so more elegantly. Visions of increased time for leisure, pleasure, creation and reflection danced in many a head.

In fact, it's clear that the new tools have incited a revolution in values. Long story made short: What didn't happen was what was expected -- that computers would become more like magazines. What happened instead is that magazines became more like computers. For instance: Quark boxes and rules, originally developed as devices designers could make use of to mimic traditional design, are now seen as cool, hip, and desirable in themselves. Where does that leave traditional design? Riddled with gunshot holes and gasping its last, as far as I can see.

Today's magazines are drastically, even categorically, different things than they once were -- there's more similarity between a magazine from 1850 and a magazine from 1970 than there is between a magazine from 1970 and a magazine from 2003. 30 years ago, standard magazines were largely text with (perhaps) some pictures; "picture magazines" were their own little genre. These days, mainstream magazines are nearly all multimedia extravaganzas, mix-'n'-match ragbags of color, typography, and imagery -- and, oh yeah, maybe some text used as gray stuff to fill in a little of that over-designed Quark space.

And how about on-the-page ads? It's an understatement to say that the old Bauhaus grid is long dead. So is the ad triumvirate we grew up with -- the product, the catchphrase, and the associated image of the good life. ("Winstons taste good/like a cigarette should!", accompanies by a closeup of a pack of Winstons and a photo of young and beautiful smokers.) Ads are now bulging, jitterbugging, exploding, experiential things, each one an installation-art, performance-art cosmos unto itself. The ad universe itself is one where everything is constantly made striking and new, where everything is relentlessly comin' at you -- either that, or where things are so blighted, deserted and quiet that it's, well, striking and new in its own way.

I find it fun to monitor the elements of the digital-media gestalt as they emerge and fall into place. And, eyeballing ads recently, I think I've noticed a new digital-media-values element. I think of it as "The Glow." It has a few components, all of them devoted to making the printed page resemble the computer screen in yet one more way.

Looking at a CRT computer screen, you're staring at a colored lightbulb, basically. It's lit from inside (or behind), it spreads out before you, and it's full of windows, icons and boxes, all of which pop, boing and twitch when clicked on. Bizarre to think that staring at a glowing electronic beachball is now considered not just a standard experience but a desirable one, isn't it?

Some art-history prof friends have told me that their students feel disappointed these days when they go to a museum and look at paintings. Viewed online, a reproduction of a painting glows, while in person it doesn't. Confronted with a real painting, the only thing kids who are attuned to The Glow see is dead pigment on cloth. What is there escapes them entirely. And the idea of entering into the artwork's world, so central to nearly all the traditional arts, is inconceivable to them. What they expect is for the artwork to be striking, and to be comin' at them.

The components of The Glow: Photography that's lit up from one corner to the next, from one side to the other. (I think of it as Big Box photography.) White borders -- these have become standard on a certain kind of ad, and remind me of the "fwoosh" strobe effect that's such a common trope in movie trailers and TV graphics. They remind me too of the effect of clicking open a new window on your computer screen; they're blasts of electronic energy, as well as reminders of the lit-up, pulsing sea of electrons we're all afloat on these days. And the way bodies are presented -- Photoshop heightening is used to turn them into "Final Fantasy"-like computer-game entities.

Stuck at home with a bad cold, I've been passing the time with magazines, scissors, my scanner, and what few functional brain cells I can command. Here are the results, which I hope you'll find amusing. First, a taxonomy of print-ad digital-media values and effects. And then some visuals: examples of what I think it is I'm talking about.

Here are the main digital-media-values categories I noticed:

  • Dancing typography.
  • The foregrounding of Quark boxes and rules.
  • Falling-off-the-page compositions. These often remind me, I'm not sure why, of the sulky, Brando-and-Dean looks male models are forever putting on.
  • An effect I think of as "The Bulge" -- think curved video screens; think Pam Anderson.
  • Am-I-on-acid hyperdetail.
  • An effect I think of as "The Whoosh."
  • Ren-and-Stimpy shifts in scale.
  • Warring gestalts.
  • Photographing the effect, not the thing
  • Scanner space.
  • The ad conceived of as a cool experience sponsored by the advertiser.
  • Deliberately jarring picture juxtapositions.
  • Lascivious excess, usually involving the exhibitionistically lavish use of space and color.
  • Transparent layering -- a sense of elements being floated one over the other.
  • Punk-rockin' with Photoshop.
  • Weirdo picture cropping.
  • Post-camp camp: nostalgia for the '70s and '80s, haute trash, etc.
  • Pixel pizazz. Since everything's made of pixels these days, why not watch 'em twinkle and explode?
  • And my new discovery: "The Glow" (white borders, CGI flesh, wall-to-wall lighting).

Now some examples. I've tried to hit an acceptable compromise here between readability and download-ability, but being a techno-moron I'm sure I've done a rotten job. Still.

Post-camp camp: '70s and '80s nostalgia on the left;
haute trash and jarring photo juxtapositions on the right

Am-I-on-acid hyper-detail; lascivious space and color;
photographing the effect and not the thing; The Whoosh

The Bulge; lascivious space and color;
photographing the effect

Jarring photo juxtapositions; Quark boxes; warring gestalts;
weirdo picture cropping

Punk rockin' with Photoshop; scanner space;
dancing typography

Ren and Stimpy zooms in scale; warring gestalts;
scanner esthetic; floaty layers

The ad as a cool experience sponsored by the advertiser;
weirdo picture cropping; The Whoosh

Pixel orgasm; CGI flesh;
the ad as sponsored arousal experience

Weirdo picture cropping; white borders;
the ad as sponsored post-coital experience

White borders; Quark boxes;
The Glow (subcategory Big Box photography)

White borders; weirdo picture cropping;
The Whoosh; scanner space

Am-I-on-acid hyperdetail; lascivious color;
floaty layers

The Whoosh; floaty layers; photographing the effect

Three variations on The Glow.
On the left: Big Box photography (plus weirdo picture cropping).
In the middle: The Whoosh, CGI flesh, plus The Thong.
On the right:Beachball backlighting plus lascivious space and color.

Photographing the effect; dancing typography;
clangingly juxtaposed photographs; scanner space;
weirdo picture cropping; The Whoosh

What comes to you as you eyeball these ads?

For one thing, and I don't know about you, but I can almost hear the Dolby sound effects: Whomp! Clang! Rattle-rattle-tinkle .... But what I'm first struck by is how much of this work represents what used to be called bad taste, bad design, and bad behavior. (I'm not judging it as such; I'm noticing it as such.) Like rap music, many of these ads seem made as deliberate affronts to traditional art and media values; they seem defiant, loud, grabby, vulgar and insistent -- my senses and sensibilities, raised on the old arts and media, can't help wincing. This, I should add, is saying a lot. Having listened to too much punk rock and having spent many years living in downtown hipsterville, I don't wince easy.

I find myself musing that there really must be a necessary connection between the digital media and pornography. Why? Because nearly everything in these ads seems to have been made overly accessible. Everything has been cracked open; the goodies are wet and glistening, and have been made obscenely, derangingly alluring.

I notice something else that's odd, which is that the fantasies that are being sold aren't being made to take place in my mind; instead they're taking place on the page. Which means that my imagination isn't being stimulatedp; it's being overwhelmed, it's being usurped. Everything in these ads seems to be doing its best to stuff my nervous system full of clatter and energy -- either that, or to leave me utterly bereft, so pfft, limp, and abandoned that the content itself is sliding off the page. Is this a function of mood swings and bad impulse control? Is it a metaphor for can't-hold-back arousal followed by the post-coital blues?

I once asked the famous ad guy Milton Glaser about the impact of computers on his business. He said that while he loves the machines, they have a terrible downside; they enable people to move into production 'way too quickly. The result, according to Glaser, is that too many half-baked ideas are being given too much overproduction.

Of course, he's an old-media and traditional-art-values guy. Presumably younger people find overproduced halfbaked ideas supergroovy so long as ... as what? So long as they have the right attitude? The universe suggested to me by these ads is one where everything is disposable, laid-open and twinkling lewdly -- and, hey, not to worry about overindulging because you'll always be showered with yet more pop goodies. It's all pop bliss, all consumerism, 24/7; it's consumer utopia, which seems to be a form of guilt-free pornography. And all of it followed by a hangover -- post-consumerism emptiness and blues. What is life all about anyway? (Sob.)

We're being put in the position of kids, forever saying, Tickle me, amuse me, don't let me grow bored, with pop culture itself as the eager, anxious (and to my mind very bad) parent. There's a really big gulf these days between the tastes and expectations of younger people and my own. I'm pretty good at discussing movies, for instance, yet I've had to learn that when I compare notes about movies with people younger than 30, they're likely to have no idea what I'm talking about. They seem unable to see what's perfectly evident to me: composition, structure, arcs, design, subtext, levels of meaning -- the way a visual and dramatic experience has been assembled. What they've registered instead is effects. And effects are all they seem to register; to them a movie is all about the booma-thwacka-whacka. But they're often much sharper about the effects than I am.

All of which leaves me convinced, if only for the moment, that changes in tool-sets do indeed lead to changes in taste, and that both of these lead to changes in consciousness, and perhaps to changes in the perceptual apparatus itself. When I muse about These Kids These Days, as I do here and here, this is largely what I'm marveling at -- the way the brains and senses (let alone thought processes) of younger people seem constructed along completely different principles than mine are.

A final question for you: you know how LCD screens are quickly replacing CRT screens as standard computer equipment? How do you find the experience of looking into them? I find the LCD image less harsh, and deeper and richer than the CRT screen; I'm much less aware of having electrons pumped into my eyeballs. What kind of impact would you expect that the changeover to LCD screens will have on layout and design? Any at all?

All of this offered up IMHO and as the musings of a mere amateur, of course. For some brilliant, on-top-of-things thinking and coverage of the design world, look for the work of the English design writer Rick Poynor. He doesn't have a website of his own yet, darn it. But in a posting I did about him here, I include links to some of his writing.



posted by Michael at October 22, 2003


I find myself musing that there really must be a necessary connection between the digital media and pornography...I notice something else that's odd, which is that the fantasies that are being sold aren't being made to take place in my mind; instead they're taking place on the page.

I would definitely second this, particularly considering the constant references to S&M. Which end up feeling really odd--they signal one kind of kink ("Hurt me") but are actually subsumed in another, more traditional model attitude ("Look how good my hair looks in that picture."). The effect isn't arousing; it doesn't invite me in; it makes me feel like a peeping Tom while the people on the page have their oddly sanitized little orgy. Weird; I'd be fascinated to know what is going on in the brains of the customers of these high end fashion outfits that print such ads--are they (the reader/customers) actually intrigued and drawn in by the kinkiness on display, or are they just flattered to realize that they can spot the ever-so-slightly submerged "transgressive" motif, which makes them feel "knowing" and "naughty." Any ideas?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 22, 2003 10:48 AM

Not a clue, but I'm eager to hear more of your musings and reactions. I really have no feeling for a lot of this stuff, curious semi-scholar though I am of porn.

Another possibly related thing? The taste for all things Goth. It seems connected to techno, which seems connected to digi-tech. Why all the skeletons, the piercings, the love of zappy death-imagery? My only hunch is that it's a reflection/expression of how digi-art makes people feel: frazzled, up, excited, pounded ... but also gutted. You feel stimulus/responsed to death. Twitching corpses. Tatoos and piercings make me think of the computer video screen, where everything becomes dematerialized, and where everything glows. If everything is like that, why not your own flesh? Which all makes me think that the stuff in between the pixels and the highlights (which is what digi-art seems to drop) is where the source of life must reside ...

But I'm getting too Vedanta, I know ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 22, 2003 11:16 AM

"just flattered to realize that they can spot the ever-so-slightly submerged "transgressive" motif, which makes them feel "knowing" and "naughty."
Has my vote.

M. Blowhard, if you left out anything, and I’m’ not sure that you did, it’s that, IM cranky bad-tempered opinion, modern ads and most of modern art live in a humorless world.

It also seems to me that the people who pitched "Winstons taste good/like a cigarette should!" took a salesman’s stance, with the assumption that the audience had some brains. Too many modern ads – despite all the talk about how media damn savvy we are these days – successfully hold the “aren’t we all just too cool” pose or else are deliberately unhip (Applebee’s) to let their crowd know they have no guff with the hipsters. Seems more evil and dishonest. Give me a personal injury lawyer or discount car paint ad over any perfume or shoe add on the market.

Posted by: j.c. on October 22, 2003 12:12 PM

I have nothing so intellectual to say, but just observing how I FEEL looking at those pictures...I just get a hurtling-toward-the-end-of-the-world-moving- faster-and-faster-drug-addict-nothing-matters-anyway-so-do-the-wildest-worst- thing-you-can-imagine-Armageddon feeling.

Think how different than "Have a Coke and a Smile" or "I'd like to teach the world to sing..." or "...clean, clean...Cover Girl clean..." Did we used to get drawn into things coz we (at least subconciously) thought they could bring us peace and joy (and great hair), and now they just want to terrify us into buying?

People have talked about the "politics of fear" this the "marketing of fear."?

Posted by: annette on October 22, 2003 1:43 PM

I think y'all are being much more perceptive about these ads than I was being. Thanks for enlightening.

Odd, aren't they? It's like they're saying, Whoa, man, we're all hip nihilists together here, right? And then expecting (god only knows why -- as a sign of assent and approval) us to buy something...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 22, 2003 1:51 PM

Well, S&M has been part of so-called "subliminal" marketing since the late 1950s.

As for old-media advertisements, one reason we don't see them now is that most media-savvy folks (kids as well as adults) already know how they work. I believe it was Goebbels who noted that propaganda only works when the audience doesn't know it's being manipulated. Hence those "new-media" ads, which are just harder to figure out.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 22, 2003 3:48 PM

Tim -- Good point about S&M. Which leads me to this brief brainstorm: What used to be subliminal has become the foreground, whether it's S&M, Quark itself, or "behind the scenes" stories. The backstage has become the stage. And digital tech seems to play some role in this. (Fascinating, by the way, to watch what's become of De Palma. He's been such a fulcrum in this, what with his themes: multiple screens, points of view, voyeurism, porn, etc. Now that the tech has caught up with his vision and bypassed them, he headed off to France to make a meditative art movie...)

As for ads, I take your point but I think you may kidding yourself about how naive people were back in the old-media days. How ads worked was pretty apparent to almost everyone -- hence Mad, hence Laugh-In. Kidding and joking (and occasionally getting really steamed about ads and how and what people were trying to sell you was a standard topic of conversation. One thing that was different then was the attitude -- it was accepted that that's what an ad was. What's comparitively new these days is the all-envelopingness of pop culture, and an intense self-consciousness -- it didn't used to have that hall-of-mirrors quality because it was easier to escape it. The tech, the media, and "the sell" have all snuck into places where they never belonged before -- you can't find refuge from them as easiliy as before, and it can seem like everywhere you turn you just bump into more of it. (Which doesn't leave young people much room to develop actual personalities; they're simply being worked on all the time, and they become addicted to that.) I think that helps explain a couple of things -- one being the very evident manic-depressive tendency you see in so much popcult. In ads, it's either pumpy-pumpy, or it's desolation-time; in movies it's either a blockbuster or it's a wan little indie. I think it also helps explain a bit of the horror-movie quality so much popcult has these days. It's alluring, it's throbbing, it's addictive -- but it's also like the scary ride at the theme park. I know it's common to talk about "today's media-savvy kids," and I do know what's being referred to, but I think it's an unfortunate label because it posits a previous generation that wasn't media-savvy, which is anything but the case. Prematurely-jaded due to overexposure? Trapped yet addicted? These descriptions ring a little truer to me...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 22, 2003 4:37 PM

It'd be nice if you provided some of the ads you're using for comparison and contrasting.

Some of the terms you're using don't make any sense to me and I can't see what you're referencing. "The Whoosh"? "The Bulge"? "Photographing the effect"? "Big Box photography"?

Goth-Techno-"Digi-Tech" Connection: The connection definitely exists, but I'm not entirely certain why. There's probably not one definitive answer, but there are a few more plausible theories than others...

"Cult of Technology" -- ie, Rivetheads. Worship technology, but have little real understanding of it. Their existence seems to perpetuate strangely, as the archetype is often seen in popular [science-fiction] movies. Moviemakers may be entirely responsible for this group's existence, as their own ignorance about technology is passed on through their characters and then the characteristics of the characters is gradually appropriated over the course of many years by impressionable audiences with a leaning in that direction.

"Techno-Angst" ie, New Wave, Dark Wave, Synthpop, etc. Connection between "Gothic" subculture and techno music deriving from the low-entry level in terms of equipment and skill needed to produce electronic music. "Angsty" lyrical content satisfies "Gothic" subculture shibboleth, electronic instrumentation thereafter becomes almost exclusively used in "Gothic" music.

"Transhumanism." Maybe just another side of the coin for the "Cult of Technology," humans are a disease. Much dwelling on personal hatred, possibly searching for escapes through "nature" or "technology."

"High Fashion Elitism," combining Manhattan-black and "intellect" with the computer as a perpetual symbol of the upper class urbane worker.

Pornography Connection: I definitely agree there's something here. I see it as the appeal to the lowest common denominator. Juvenile humor? Check. Poorly contrived situations and juxtapositions? Check. Extreme close ups? Check. Absurd dialogue? Check.

Of course, I am probably a 'prude' because I see the pornography connection as more than just stylistic, but extremely literal. I'm really amazed at what people can get away with, on TV especially. It's really surprising to me how mainstream porn has become. Do we really need to be talking about porn all over the TV and in magazines (and of course on the internet)? It's pretty self-explanatory in my opinion.

Posted by: . on October 22, 2003 9:22 PM

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