Monday, April 8, 2013

On Our Curious Tolerance for Visual Litter

Advertising bothers me. It bothers me quite a lot. Maybe it's wrong that it bothers me so much, in a world where so many people are hungry and homeless and otherwise lacking basic human needs. Maybe my preoccupation with the triviality of advertising is itself lamentably trivial. But it seems to me at least as important a subject as many others to which the public devotes a lot of serious attention-- gardening or sports, for instance. (And I have nothing against either of those two worthy activities, by the way.)

Yesterday I saw a billboard advertisement promoting a well-known Irish beer. As is common-- and as is strangely accepted-- the advertisement itself had absolutely nothing to do with beer. Instead, it had a rugby theme, exploiting the international success of Irish rugby in recent years. It showed the torso of an Irish rugby player, who is in some kind of action pose. (I don't have much time for feminism, but I do find interesting the observation of some feminist writers that, in advertising and in visual art at large, men are generally show doing something while women tend to be shown in elegant repose. Then again, I cherish the difference between the sexes, so I don't see anything awfully wrong about this.) The lighting and colour of the advertisement was dramatically vivid and full of contrast, and the caption was rendered in big blocky letters. It read: "Studied Arts. Chose Drama."

I found this advertisement extremely irritating and troubling. What was the point of it?

I suppose it is the height of naivity to ask, no matter how rhetorically, how it is supposed to persuade anybody to buy a particular brand of beer. I accept that the people who commissioned the advertisement are hard-headed men (and women) of business and that they had at least a reasonable expectation that it would sell beer. I understand as well that, in the case of major companies like the one who commissioned this billboard advertisement, simply keeping the name of the brand in the public mind is the goal, since everybody knows about the product anyway.

(When I visited America, I noticed that the American attitude to advertising is much more direct. They don't really go in for the oblique approach. They are less likely to make advertisements where there seems to be little or no discernible link between the product and the advertisement. Instead, you are much more likely to see a face on the screen explaining to you exactly why you should buy this powertool, or this life insurance, or this chocolate spread. Perhaps this comes down to American lack of squeamishness when it comes to talking about money. All in all, I don't know whether their approach is better or worse. At least it seems rather more tethered to reality, and less inclined to veer off into embarrassing irrelevance, but advertising seems even more pervasive and pugnacious in America than it does here.)

I accept that all advertising is not going to be a direct sales pitch. In fact, I can see how moving away from the direct sales pitch gives greater scope for advertisements to be works of art in themselves. They can be-- they often are-- pleasing pictures or vignettes in their own right. They can be-- and again, they often are-- amusing skits.

For instance (and staying within the realm of alcohol advertising) I remember a television advertisement for another beer which ran in the late eighties or early nineties. There was no dialogue, and the song "Caledonia" played over the whole thing. It showed a London office worker making his way to work, through the anonymous crush of the Tube and the casual aggression and discourtesy of the streets, and taking his place in a crowded lift up to his office. Before the doors close, he impulsively steps out, throws his identity badge down at the reception desk, strides into the street, chucks his briefcase into a passing dump-truck, and is next seen ambling into a pub in Scotland, where everybody is more relaxed and down-to-earth.

Now, that little film seems to me to express something admirable. It may be unfair to London. It may romanticize Scotland. And I appreciate the irony of an advertisement, produced by a corporation that almost certainly employed identity-badge-wearing cubicle slaves of its own, condeming corporate bureaucracy. But still, in spite of all that, the basic message is a worthy one. We should prefer a rooted, local, down-to-earth life to a big city, fast-paced, careerist existence.

But what is "Studied Arts. Chose Drama" holding up for admiration? Not patriotism. Not athleticism, per se. Not the history and traditions of rugby. Not the prospect of a family outing at a sporting occasion. No, it seems to me that the advertisement was appealing to the fantasy of being a professional rugby player. I think this is the least admirable way to advertise using a sporting a theme. Professionalism and winning and competitiveness are an inevitable part of sports, but wouldn't it better to stress loyalty, sportsmanship, and the dedication of fans rather than the prestige of elite peformers?

I accept that advertising is a fact of life. I'm not even even anti-advertising, since I think a well-made ad can be a work of art in its own right. What's wrong with standing at a bus-stop and having an idyllic tableau to daydream upon-- say, a tourism advertisement showing a sparkling blue ocean, or a bread advertisement showing a golden wheat field? But I do wish advertising would follow certain principles, which I would happily see imposed either by self-regulation, consumer power, or government imposition.

And here they are, for what it's worth:

1) Advertising should be restrained, not obnoxious. It should eschew silly voices, infectious jingles, flashing lights, enormous captions, the salacious use of sexuality, bizarre imagery, and other tacky devices.
2) Advertisements should strive for some kind of artistic value in themselves.
3) Advertising campaigns should be of longer duration; years rather than months. One of the more unpleasant aspect of modern society is a sensation of constant novelty and dizzying change. Longer-running ad campaigns would be a soothing thing. And I do believe that, when advertising campaigns enter the collective memory, they can enrich it. Captain Birdseye, the Milky Bar kid, and similar figures have almost attained the solidity of legend. Advertising is ephemeral, but it doesn't have to be that ephemeral.
4) Advertising should appeal to worthy emotions like love of family, or reliability, or tradition, rather than tawdry emotions like prestige, popularity, desire for novelty, or snob value.

I realize that these are rather quixotic standards, and I'm not holding my breath waiting for them to be applied. But I do think, if the customer and perhaps even advertisers themselves would bear them in mind, everyday life might be made a good deal more tasteful and aesthetically pleasing.

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