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“The future is there… looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become”*…

 

Octavia Butler

 

Tim Maughan, an accomplished science fiction writer himself, considers sci-fi works from the 1980s and 90s, and their predictive power.  Covering Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Steven King, P.D. James, an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Bladerunner, he reserves special attention for a most deserving subject…

When you imagine the future, what’s the first date that comes into your mind? 2050? 2070? The year that pops into your head is almost certainly related to how old you are — some point within our lifetimes yet distant enough to be mysterious, still just outside our grasp. For those of us growing up in the 1980s and ’90s — and for a large number of science fiction writers working in those decades — the 2020s felt like that future. A decade we would presumably live to see but also seemed sufficiently far away that it could be a world full of new technologies, social movements, or political changes. A dystopia or a utopia; a world both alien and familiar.

That future is, of course, now…

Two science fiction books set in the 2020s tower over everything else from that era in their terrifying prescience: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). These books by the late master kick off in 2024 Los Angeles and are set against a backdrop of a California that’s been ravaged by floods, storms, and droughts brought on by climate change. Middle- and working-class families huddle together in gated communities, attempting to escape the outside world through addictive pharmaceuticals and virtual reality headsets. New religions and conspiracy theory–chasing cults begin to emerge. A caravan of refugees head north to escape the ecological and social collapse, while a far-right extremist president backed by evangelical Christians comes to power using the chillingly familiar election slogan Make America Great Again.

Although it now feels like much of Butler’s Parable books might have been pulled straight from this afternoon’s Twitter or tonight’s evening news, some elements are more far-fetched. The second book ends with followers of the new religion founded by the central character leaving Earth in a spaceship to colonize Alpha Centauri. Butler originally planned to write a third book following the fates of these interstellar explorers but, sadly, passed away in 2005 before she had a chance. She left us with a duology that remains more grounded and scarily familiar to those of us struggling to come to terms with the everyday dystopias that the real 2020s seem to be already presenting us.

Not that this remarkable accuracy was ever her objective.

“This was not a book about prophecy; this was an if-this-goes-on story,” Butler said about the books during a talk at MIT in 1998. “This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is I certainly hope not.”

In the same talk, Butler describes in detail the fears that drove her to write this warning: the debate over climate change, the eroding of workers’ rights, the rise of the private prison industry, and the media’s increasing refusal to talk about all of these in favor of focusing on soundbite propaganda and celebrity news. Again, these are fears that feel instantly familiar today…

What Blade Runner, cyberpunk– and Octavia Butler– had to say about the age we’re entering now: “How Science Fiction Imagined the 2020s.”

* William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

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As we honor prophets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1984 that Apple aired an epoch-making commercial, “1984” (directed by Blade Runner director Ridley Scott),  during Superbowl XVIII– for the first and only time.  Two days later, the first Apple Macintosh went on sale.

 

Written by LW

January 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“[TV commercials] are about products in the same sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales”*…

 

Mikhail-Gorbachev-Pizza-Hut-commercial-James-Fosdike-homepage

 

Since his involuntary retirement, Mikhail Gorbachev has raised money for worthy causes, attempted to make a comeback in Russian politics, and, notoriously, made an advertisement for Pizza Hut.

The ad would have become a footnote were it not for its long second life online, where it’s rediscovered every few years. There’s an undeniable voyeuristic frisson of seeing a man who once commanded a superpower hawking pizza.

Each time it repeats, it leaves behind a new flood of clickbait—Time listing it among the “Top 10 Embarrassing Celebrity Commercials” in 2010, Mental Floss using Gorbachev’s birthday as a hook to link to it in 2012, Thrillist naming it the sixth-most bizarre celebrity endorsement of all time. Most of the facts dredged up in these deluges are recycled from a 1997 New York Times article.

More serious authors treat the commercial as a free-floating signifier to prove whatever thesis they are peddling, as when Jacobin cites it as another data point showing that Gorbachev was a sellout or David Foster Wallace uses it to prove the vacuity of popular culture.

But the conventional stories don’t really hold up. Gorbachev isn’t actually the star of the commercial. He doesn’t even speak. He’s a bystander to the commercial’s central drama, a fight over Gorbachev’s legacy between a fiery, pro-reform young man and a dour, anti-Gorbachev middle-aged man—possibly father and son. The two exchange charges and defenses of Gorbachev’s record—“Because of him, we have economic confusion!” “Because of him, we have opportunity!” “Complete chaos!” “Hope!”—before an older woman settles the argument: “Because of him, we have many things … like Pizza Hut!”

In a lot of ways, it’s a beautiful short film and a very weird advertisement: Who would have thought that a bunch of Muscovites bickering about the end of communism would be a natural pitch for pizza?

For the people who created the ad—the executives, the agents, the creatives—it was a professional landmark. But for Gorbachev himself, the story of the ad is a tragedy: one man’s attempt to find—and to fund—a place in a country that wanted nothing more to do with him…

Finally, the full (sad) story of the Pizza Hut ad that became a meme: “Mikhail Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut Thanksgiving Miracle.”

* Neil Postman

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As we grab for a slice, we might recall that this is an important date in broadcast history.  On this date in 1896, Guglielmo Marconi introduced “radio”: he amazed a group at Toynbee Hall in East London with a demonstration of wireless communication across a room.  Every time Marconi hit a key beside him at the podium, a bell would ring from a box being carried around the room by William Henry Preece.

Then exactly five years later, on this date in 1901, Marconi confounded those who believed that the curvature of the earth would limit the effective range of radio waves when he broadcast a signal from Cornwall, England to Newfoundland, Canada– over 2,100 miles– and in so doing, demonstrated the viability of worldwide wireless communication.

 

 

Written by LW

December 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness”*…

 

Japan-laundromat-awards-2019-top-670x362

 

Around this time of year, a coveted prize is awarded within a niche industry in Japan: the Laundromat-of-the-Year-Award (pdf). It’s presented at an industry fair in Tokyo known as the International Coin-Operated Laundry EXPO where excellence in laundromats are recognized within 3 main categories. There’s a top prize, a prize for best design and a prize for best user experience…

Meet the honorees: “Winners of Japan’s 2019 Laundromat of the Year Award.”

* John Wesley

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As we pre-soak, we might recall that it was on this date in 1934 that the Maytag company produced the first “Maytag Toy Racer,” a one-passenger automobile sold mainly to Maytag dealers, who raced them to promote the brand.  498 Maytag Toy Racers were built before production ended on December 1, 1941, and approximately 25 survivors have been located to date.

400px-Maytag_toy_racer source

 

Written by LW

October 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Commercials are about products… in the same sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales”*…

 

760px-Television_commercial_1948

 

In a civilization organized primarily around the funneling of capital to corporations, commercials offer a space of transcendent communion with the objects of our dependence and desire. They take place in a realm understood to be ideational without quite being imaginary—existing not in any one person’s mind, but ambiently, on a level of reality we rarely think to question, encoded in the daily order of things as neatly as the peanut butter aisle of a suburban grocery store. (This bare proximity to capitalism’s exposed nerves, combined with a habitual callousness to human dignity, is I believe why, in the recent words of A.S. Hamrah, “TV commercials are the worst thing to see on hallucinogenic drugs.”) These commercials embody and transmit all kinds of cultural norms, declaiming on the career-destroying horror of “even one flake” of dandruff, the correct way to manage a labor force, how women should interpret cough syrup viscosity, and so on.

Commercials also encode and preserve basic aesthetic and narrative conventions. Musically, they’re a trove of low-rent original product psalms, in styles ranging from quietly sophisticated poultry rock to funky rugged simplicity jams that sound like a person in a boardroom frantically describing the inner life of a coalminer. They introduce stock characters from discomfiting gym teacher to comic book nerd. They offer an education in America’s throbbing corporate epiculture, whose dark world they echo in a thousand ways—through who gets represented and who not, portrayals of nations and cultures, depictions of idealized daily life, enshrinement of a particular commercial landscapestyle parodiesintimations of eternitymessages of warningmessages of beneficence, and more—all calligraphed into air and sent streaming through the walls of our homes by giant corporate antennas…

From Ian Dreiblatt, “Toward a Theory of the American TV Commercial of, Oh, Say, About 1990.”

[image above: source]

* Neil Postman

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As we take it all in, we might celebrate National Tooth Fairy Day.

In the mid-1920s fairies were used for all sorts of health education from bath fairies to fresh air fairies as a way to get kids to remember to eat their vegetables, wash behind their ears and get a good night’s rest. Unlike toothpaste today, that advertises fruity flavors and sparkles to get kids excited to brush their teeth, in 1925 it was probably quite a bit more difficult considering the pastes were mostly peroxide and baking soda. One advertisement was for a Fairy Wand Tooth Whitener. This product promised to brush away cigarette and coffee stains.  The ad was aimed at both children and adults, we hope!

Then in 1927, Esther Watkins Arnold printed an eight-page playlet for children called The Tooth Fairy. It was the same year Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “proved” his claim that fairies and gnomes are real and “verified” with pictures of two little girls surrounded by fairies. The world was ripe with imagination and primed to have a tooth fairy about to come collect the lost teeth of little boys and girls and leave a coin or two behind.

Arnold’s play began to be performed in schools the following year, and the tooth fairy has been slipping into homes ever since.  She (or he) started leaving nickels and dimes under the pillows of sleeping children. Over the years there have been variations on the theme.  In 1942, in an article written by columnist Bob Balfe in the Palm Beach Post, his children received War Stamps to put in their books when they lost a tooth…

National-Tooth-Fairy-Day-February-28-1024x512 source

 

Written by LW

February 28, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The secret of my influence has always been that it remained secret”*…

 

bernayw2_

Edward Bernays, second right, with other delegates of the Committee on Public Information to the Paris Peace Talks, 1917

 

Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, began his professional life as a press agent.  But with the advent of World War I, he found his true calling when he served on the Committee on Public Information, the war-time propaganda office, in the Wilson administration.  After the armistice, he took his experience in shaping public opinion, as guided by his uncle’s emerging theories, into the private sector, helping to establish “public relations” (and later modern advertising) as professions…

Bernays’ methods… opened a new chapter in public relations, a profession that he and others pioneered in the 1920s. Bernays was not the first man in the field. There were a handful of others before and beside him, notably his great rival Ivy Lee. Bernays, however, may have had the greatest impact. He bolstered the new profession with theory, gave it a philosophical framework and processed the findings of the blossoming psychological disciplines by coming up with new methods of manipulating the public. Although practically invisible to the outside world, Bernays became an influential architect of modern mass persuasion techniques, which continue to inspire the PR industry. Harold Burson, CEO of Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest PR enterprises, was quoted in the 1990s as saying: ‘We’re still singing off the hymn book that Bernays gave us.’

Bernays was related to Sigmund Freud on two sides: Freud’s sister Anna was Bernays’ mother and his father Ely, a grain merchant, was the brother of Freud’s wife Martha. Bernays was born in Vienna in 1891 and emigrated to the US with his parents a year later. He was to die on March 9th, 1995 at the age of 103 in Massachusetts. Another member of the Freud family followed in his footsteps: Matthew Freud, who is considered one of Britain’s most successful PR men.

Influenced by his famous uncle, with whom he corresponded regularly, Bernays got to understand the power of the unconscious, of universal longings, of emotions and instinct. He exploited them for whatever he had to sell: artificial flowers, racehorses, gramophones, politicians, ideologies. No matter what it was, he often worked according to a certain dramaturgy, which his biographer Larry Tye described thus: ‘He generated events, the events generated news, and the news generated a demand for whatever he happened to be selling.’ In Bernays’ eyes, generating events was one of if not the most important task of a PR adviser. He himself labelled it as the ‘creation of circumstances’, the staging of apparently spontaneous events to influence people’s behaviour, according to the wishes of the clients. This was genuinely innovative, because until then business advertising was relatively straightforward: extolling the product and its functional advantages. Bernays, by contrast, aimed at the unconscious and trusted in the indirect method. ‘It’s like shooting billiards’, he once pointed out, ‘where you bounce the ball off cushions, as opposed to pool, where you aim directly for the pockets.’…

More on the uncanny ability to mould public desire that made Edward Bernays one of the 20th century’s most influential – yet invisible – characters, the architect of modern mass manipulation: “The Original Influencer.”

And for more, both on Bernays and on the world that he did so much to create, see Adam Curtis’ award-winning documentary Century of Self.  It’s available in four hour-long “chapters” or here, in its entirety.  Either way, it’s eminently worthy of a watch:

* Salvador Dali

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As we muse on our motives, we might spare a thought for a man who had absolutely no time for lies of any sort, Immanuel Kant; he died on this date in 1804.  One of the central figures of modern philosophy, Kant is remembered primarily for his efforts to unite reason with experience (e.g., Critique of Pure Reason [Kritik der reinen Vernunft], 1781), and for his work on ethics (e.g., Metaphysics of Morals [Die Metaphysik der Sitten], 1797) and aesthetics (e.g., Critique of Judgment [Kritik der Urteilskraft], 1790).  But he made important contributions to mathematics and astronomy as well; for example: Kant’s argument that mathematical truths are a form of synthetic a priori knowledge was cited by Einstein as an important early influence on his work.  And his description of the Milky Way as a lens-shaped collection of stars that represented only one of many “island universes,” was later shown to be accurate by Herschel.

There is … only a single categorical imperative and it is this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

– Chapter 11, Metaphysics of Morals

 source

 

Written by LW

February 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”*…

 

 

Food

Food regularly plays a role in religious life, in forms that range from communion wine to Kahlua cheesecake…

A sampling of 34 cloistered comestibles: “A Guide of Heavenly Cuisine.”

* Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

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As we devour with devotion, we might recall that it was on this date in 1993 that the first “Got Milk?” ad premiered.  Created by the advertising agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners for the California Milk Processor Board, it  was later licensed for use by milk processors and dairy farmers nationwide.  The campaign launched with the now-famous “Aaron Burr” television commercial, directed by Michael Bay.

 

Written by LW

October 29, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it”*…

 

Dan Wieden explains how the infamous Gary Gilmore inspired him to create what is probably the most famous ad tagline ever:  “Nike’s “Just do it” slogan is based on a murderer’s last words.”

* Bob Dylan

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As we go for it, we might send cinematic birthday greetings to Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee; he was born on this date in 1957.  The creator of 35 films (and counting), he is an acute observer of race relations and the role(s) of the media in contemporary American life.  One of his best-known films is Do the Right Thing.

 source

 

Written by LW

March 20, 2015 at 1:01 am

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