Capitalism talking to itself

by Kathy Newman

Advertising, according to media scholar Michael Schudson, does not always increase sales. So why is there so darn much of it? Schudson points out that advertising is a form of corporate self-affirmation, or, as he puts it, "capitalism's way of saying 'I love you' to itself." He argues that like the Soviet Union's 1930s Socialist Realism, America's visual advertising is a form of "Capitalist Realism," designed to represent "life as it should be" rather than life as it really is.

I agree with Schudson on most counts, and I have frequently used his books in my college courses on mass media. But I could not help wondering what capitalism is saying to itself these days as I attended the 42nd annual Clio Awards -- the advertising industry's most prestigious awards ceremony -- held last week in South Beach, Fla.

From what I could see of the stretch Lincoln Navigators, the pastel-colored art deco hotels and the grilled salmon Caesar salad, moving the Clios from Manhattan to South Beach was a savvy maneuver. The Clios have had a hard scrabble back from the low point in 1991, when, in response to a debacle created by the Clio's owner going bankrupt, angry participants stormed the stage, denounced the festival and pillaged the cache of statuettes.

In spite of the naysayers, the festival has come back to life. And the biggest day of the festival is still the day in which the television ads are screened. The screening of "shortlisted" commercials lasted four hours, and here is what I gleaned from watching upward of 300 ads from the U.S. and around the world:

LOVE STINKS. Conflicts between husbands and wives structure a vast majority of contemporary advertising. Whether it's a husband calling on a band of Vikings to ruin his wife's family reunion so that he can go on vacation with his buddies, or a wife destroying the family's washing machine so that she can convince her husband to buy her a new appliance, or a man adding his wife's eye-mask cucumbers to his club sandwich (yuck!) -- the battle between the sexes is part of the international language of consumerism.

THE KIDS ARE NOT ALL RIGHT. Another high percentage of advertisements feature conflicts between parents and children. In one ad for Staples, a mother lines her daughter's hallway with bubble-wrap so she can hear when her daughter comes home late. In one of the kitschiest ads, a longtime General Hospital actress plays the mother of a Gen-Xer who is living at home. When he asks for a "data-port," his family laughs uproariously: "What do you think this is? A Holiday Inn?" In the most violent ad, a smart-ass kid with his eyes glued to a computer screen is knocked out when the yellow pages drop out of the sky and hit him in the head. The yellow pages are open to "Military Schools."

THE NEW ECONOMY IS SCARY. An ad for retirement insurance shows a woman who pretends that her dead husband is still alive (a la Weekend at Bernie's) so that he can keep drawing a paycheck. All of the ads for IBM show cabals of new-economy workers contemplating their worst organizational nightmares ("and that's when it hits you, you are so ready for IBM"). In one of the most disturbing ads, a man who has spent too much time downloading a movie-trailer over his phone-line dies of rigor mortis.

EUROPEANS ARE EDGIER. We knew this already, but there is nothing like seeing a commercial for IKEA in which a child is playing (unwittingly) with a set of vibrators to drive the point home.

Clio, according to one of the award booklets, was the muse in Greek mythology who recorded the great deeds of the Gods and was a "source of inspiration for those who sought to learn from the past." Oddly, these ads betray little consciousness of actual historical events. And, ironically, with 100 years of mass culture under their belts, advertisers are still not exactly sure how to perform the contradictory tasks of mass-marketing individuality and creating desire without fostering social unrest.

But the Clios are, perhaps, quite aptly named. Advertisements record the great deeds of King Kapitalism, and are a source of inspiration for those of us who seek a record of our cultural past. They tell us more about ourselves than they do about the products they are meant to sell.

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