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Brand Name Kvetch

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In 1959, a British writer named Alan Sillitoe published a short story called “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” in which the narrator and, I think, his brother, turn to a life of juvenile delinquent crime soon after their first exposure to television, whose images of middle class life and middle class “stuff” expose them, for the first time, to what is really to be had in the world–if they only had money.

To be fair, the story isn’t really about advertising–it’s just that the role of advertising is what I remember about it after all these years. 

Part of me can see the point.  If you live in an area where nobody has Reeboks or plasma TVs or shiny German cars that can do 140 if you can ever get them to the Autobahn, finding out that the world does contain these things is likely to be a shock. 

And no matter how sensible it is to say that such knowledge should spur you on to work hard for the money to buy what you want, that particular idea doesn’t always occur to fifteen year olds even from wealthy neighborhoods.  In poorer neighborhoods, where people either don’t work at all or work very hard at jobs that pay too little even to handle the rent, the connection between work and stuff may be even harder to make.

I wasn’t brought up in a poor neighborhood, but when I was young the fact that some people made lots of money and other people made very little confused the hell out of me.  And I think that may have been the good news.  I grew up with a lot of people who seemed to assume that the fact that their parents made a lot more than the parents of other people just proved that they and their parents were far superior in every way to those other people.

And they were largely wrong, too.

But I got started on this as part of the kvetch, and specifically as a comment on the end of Barber’s book.

Because Barber’s book ends with advertising, and I think that people have been uncomfortable with advertising at least since the start of the 20th century and the advent of what I thnk of as “modern” forms.

That is, if you go back to the 19th century, what you find is mostly the kind of handbills that announce, “Great product!  Does laundry!   Pays for itself!”

It’s the 20th century that birthed the advertisement as lifestyle statement, or whatever you want to call the things that Benneton does.  And not just Benneton.  Back in the 1920s, you had advertisements meant to associate products with flappers and debutantes. 

Barber’s contention is familiar–that advertisements not only show us what’s available, but make us want what we wouldn’t want otherwise and don’t need.

I don’t usually give much credit to this idea.  I’m not a very unusual person, and advertising almost never has any effect on me at all–I don’t notice it, half the time, and when the commercials come on when I’m watching TV I tend to get the remote and surf for something interesting.

It may have been very different at the start of the advertising blitz we’ve all recently come to assume is normal, but I think most people these days, once they’ve passed childhood, tend to be more annoyed by advertising than seduced by it.

And a lot of the things that annoy Barber annoy me too, to the point where they’re probably counterproductive.  When some city renames its historic baseball stadium “Capital One Park” or “Fedex Stadium”–and I’m not making those up–it doesn’t make me want to get a Capital One card or to ship my stuff Fedex.  It makes me not want to.

I even think I’ve got a certain amount of science to back me up here.  The marketing textbooks my kids carry around say things like:  about fifty percent of advertising “works,” but we don’t know which fifty percent, and 96% of all new product launches fail.

It’s like the old story of the “manufactured” best seller.  If we could really do that, we’d do it all the time.  Instead, we keep falling on our faces and having to swallow the loss.

But even if I don’t think advertisers are able to brainwash us into wanting things we wouldn’t ever want otherwise, the extent to which this society has become almost monotonally oriented towards “business” is making me close to crazy.

The other day a student of mine gave a presentation on career strategies, in which she presented a series of a dozen “personality types” and the kinds of jobs they would be best suited for.  When she got to “artistic/creative,” she calmly announced that there were almost no jobs that were good for that type, so they have to settle for something they don’t like and express their artistic side in hobbies.

Now, I live in a world in which most people are the “artistic creative” personality type, most of them are making a living (and lots of them are making good ones), and there is no lack of demand for the kind of people they are and what they do.  Even the strictly artistic fields actually suffer from a dearth–not an oversupply–of talented people.  There are lots of people out there who want to do these things–writing, animating, computer graphics, publishing, television programming, designing, you name it–but not really a lot of people who can do them.

At least, not a lot who can do them well enough to give Disney, or NBC, what it wants and needs.

The idea that such jobs don’t exist and that if your personality draws you to them you have no choice but to settle for doing something you hate is a result of envisioning the entire world as if corporate organization is not just normal, but the default mode.

The result of thinking that corporate organization is the default mode is that more and more areas of society begin to adopt corporate organization for themselves, even though historically they were resistant to the very idea.

The principle examples I can think of at the moment are colleges and universities and nonprofit charitable foundations like hospitals.  Both of these are nonprofits, and they were given tax breaks for being nonprofits BECAUSE it was assumed that they did not operate on the same assumptions as did for-profit entities.  They were organized differently, and brought different processes of operation to their endeavors, because their purpose was not to make money (never mind maximize profit) but to do something specific that was assumed to be probably not profitable:  care for the sick, for instance, or educated even the impecunios young.

When the standard of success for Hallowed University or  Prestigious Research Hospital becomes making sure the organization expands its wealth and reach, instead of how many students receive a first-class education or how many sick people are cared for and how much knowledge about their sicknesses produced to help others–at that point, the nature of the world we live in has changed.

It’s not just “artistic creative” types who don’t necessarily want to spend their lives maximizing the health of an institution, whether labeled for-profit or non-profit. 

There are other ways of being in the world, and at most times these other ways predominate.  Some of us will go into business and maximize profit and help our corporations grow in wealth and power.  Some of us will teach because what we want is the sight of a child’s face glowing and happy when she learns something new.  Some of us will go into research because we just want to know how things work.  Some of us will give up money and “stuff” to stay home with our children when they’re young.  Some of us will  climb mountains or go trekking through the rainforst because, well, we just want to see it.

The issue, in first world countries, at any rate, is not making enough money to survive.  Most of us can do that in a variety of ways, and without the making of more and more money and the accumulation of more and more stuff be the focus of what we do. 

But what has happened, lately, is that we seem to have come down to a single life model that is supposed to apply to everybody and everything, and our institutions–hospitals, universities, musems, governments as well as corporations–are all hell bent on following it and only it. 

I feel like I’m tying myself up in knots here again.

Maybe I should just say that it seems to me that, on one level, the founding principle of the Harvard  Business School–that management is a skill, and if you learn it you can manage anything–has become the operating principle of most of American society. 

It’s all business now, and if somebody gets well the only significance is that it will make our brand stronger, if somebody graduates knowing the meaning of Greek philosophy it doesn’t matter at all.

Hell, with the Greek philosophy, what we seem to have with a lot of people is not a desire to learn that sort of thing, but to adopt a shallow erudition in it as a kind of fashion.

But that’s another discussion, and I’ve stopped making sense.

Written by janeh

April 29th, 2010 at 7:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Brand Name Kvetch'

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  1. I think advertising , while it might not work all the time or always very well, works enough for companies to pay for it, and therefore probably works better than you think. A LOT of people seem to be influenced by them, especially if they’ve been thinking about replacing the car when they see the ad with a snazzy new model, or buying clothes when they read one of those women’s magazines that’s basically all ads and closely-related articles. Me, I’m always astonished that people buy new and special clothing every year, so they’re in style, but I can’t help but notice a lot of people don’t think like that.

    I have observed with dismay both the ‘anyone can manage anything’ and ‘business models are universally useful and appropriate’ ideas in action. I like to hope that their time is nearly past, and we’re ready for the next bright idea, but I may be unduly optimistic. Or pessimistic, if the next wave of fashionable ideas for structuring and running our society are even worse.


    29 Apr 10 at 10:41 am

  2. This may pertain more to yesterday’s topic. One result of selling an author instead of the book is the book factory: three, four, six or more books a year from James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Danielle, Steel, Clive Cussler, Stuart Woods, and so on. There is no possibility that one writer can write every word of these books. Danielle Steel will publish 6 books at least by the end of the year and I lost count after 10 for James Patterson.

    MBAs managing libraries look for profit–charging for services that are usually free, fees for internet use (MLIS grads do this as well), and taking a hard line on overdue fines–and miss the mission of serving the public, and in beach towns, giving a good impression of the community, all for a bit of cash. Adding fees generates more ill will than profit.

    Also, I understand from several British friends that English adverts rely on humor and are not as blatant as American commercials. Humor can go a long way with viewers and there’s not much of it in our commercials.


    29 Apr 10 at 11:21 am

  3. 1. Advertising. Back when I was majoring in Linguistics, I was minoring in Advertising. I guarantee you that no matter how much you believe you’re unaffected by advertising, you’re wrong. Part of any advertisement is, of course, to make you want to buy Product A from Spiffy Industries. But another part, and this is consistent from the very start of any sort of advertising, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, is a sort of “awareness concept” wherein whatever Product A is, the possession of *some* sort of Product A is absolutely necessary for a decent and civilized life.

    For instance…deodorant. Do you use it? Do you know what percentage of adult Americans use it? Back in the 18th century, no one did, and they didn’t bathe daily either. But advertisements starting with very delicate insinuations about “freshness” and femininity (and why Stella is an old maid) established the concept that strong (or any) body odor was socially undesireable. That concept spread until we’ve got all sorts of deodorizing products for the body, the clothing, and the home. Men and women both are supposed to be nearly scent-free in work and social situations, unless one works at physical labor, or is exercising. Even then, you’re not supposed to stink.

    Deodorant itself was a concept pretty much introduced and inculcated by advertising. If you consider deodorant a part of civilized life, you’ve been affected by advertising.

    Do you own a toaster? Why? I’m sure your oven, turned to broil, produces perfectly tasty toast. Yes, a toaster is easier, faster, and probably more energy efficient. But it isn’t *necessary*. Toasters and other “labor saving devices” are also creatures of advertising. Not just that you buy a Sunbeam toaster, but that you consider some kind of toaster is an essential part of any well-equipped kitchen.

    Advertising isn’t just specific, it’s also the carrier of social constructs as to what is necessary or possible. Those wonderfully clean and tidy homes that are portrayed in ads are the ideal. To see how people *really* live, watch any episode of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and look specifically in the background of the segments. But we all feel our homes should be neat, clean, and ready to welcome visitors at all times. If they’re not, and people arrive anyway, we apologize for the mess.

    2. The culture of business everywhere. Perhaps this is more a phenomenon of the East Coast. Having just returned from a trip to Northern California, which is essentially southern Oregon, culturally, I can tell you there are plenty of people opting out of the consumer lifestyle. Many people are off the grid, growing food (and pot), fabricating their own lives, and yes, many of them are making a living out of creative endeavors.

    I’m not sure why it’s so surprising that in colleges, which are currently serving as business-training schools, the culture of business dominates. Get away from academia, particularly East Coast academia, and it’s not quite so pervasive.

    3. Non-profits. It’s a mistake to think that profit-based business principles cannot apply to non-profits. While non-profits are not supposed to derive profit, one of the methodologies of achieving profits is driving costs out of the system. This applies to non-profits as well, because by reducing costs, whatever funding they do have can go much farther in fulfilling their mission. I have worked with non-profits as clients in the past. While I can’t appeal to them with greater profitability as a return on their investment in my services, I can certainly appeal to them in the cost-saving department. The bottom line is how much they can do with whatever funds they raise.

    4. The single-culture feeling. You need to get out and away and spend time in other areas of the country or the world. It isn’t true. I used to wonder how all the NY and East Coast media could buy into “the world is filling up, it’s so overpopulated” crap, until I lived there. It can get darn claustrophobic in the urban areas, and if you never go anywhere else, you think that *is* the way the entire world is. Drive cross-country on small roads. Look at the empty spaces. Rest your mind. Spend time in small towns, medium-sized towns, and other big cities.

    Really, it’s not so bad.


    29 Apr 10 at 12:42 pm

  4. Let me throw in another couple of areas in which a ludicrously inappropriate business culture has taken root–churches and the military. Just try to join a church or report to a new unit and not be confronted with the “mission” and “vision.” There are intelligence agencies which can’t get through a week without saying “service to the customer”–all three the result of sending people off to an MBA course instead of seeing they learned something.

    And the really worrisome thing is–I am dead serious–the resemblance to Sparta. Yes, the Spartans famously despised money and I live in a world in which many people are for sale cheap, but there’s something deeper. Spartan military dominance was broken when the Thebans beat them three battles in a row with the same simple trick. All the flexibility had been bred out of the Spartiates, and their response to defeat was not to change tactics, but to do exactly the same thing as before only, perhaps, with more bravery and enthusiasm. One calls to mind the famous definition of insanity–doing the same thing, and expecting different results. After fighting bravely three times, and losing heavily each time, there were few Spartans left to learn.

    There may be managerial things which can be taught–ways of counseling subordinates, how to give clear orders, or how to detect lies, errors or ommissions in reports received. I could believe in a good semester, though I can’t see it as a major. But when the heads of major manufacturing firms, pastors, bankers, ship captains and brigade commanders all use the same techniques, I conclude that they haven’t learned management at all. They’ve just been given a limited repertoire of tricks–and Heaven help them (and us!) if the tricks have nothing to do with solving real problems.

    As for whether there is in fact a single course of instruction suitable for bright ambitious young people regardless of their intended career, I’m not going back there today.


    29 Apr 10 at 5:59 pm

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