Tag Archives: marketing

NKLA and Participatory Advertising

In the age of the internet, advertisers can rely on consumers to do a lot of work. Because people in this hyper-connected, digital culture are in the habit of constantly looking things up, only to forget them because they can call back that knowledge at will (think wikipedia) less and less information can be provided in advertisements. It is up to the consumer to figure out what’s being sold. What the message is.

To over-simplify a bit, this trend started nearly 100 years ago, when advertisements became less about long-form essays detailing the benefits of a product, and more about images that conveyed the feelings one would get by consuming said products. Now, there’s a type of ad that uses a combined strategy of images and limited accompanying text, relying on consumers to either guess at or go looking for the message and even the very product it’s attached to. These advertisements don’t even have to be about selling something. They can be about conveying an idea; making it “go viral.” It’s propaganda that masquerades as subtle, all the while hoping the masses will whip out their smartphones, find the hidden message on the internet, and hit themselves over the head with it.  Oh, and tell their friends, preferably via tweet. The marketers have passed off their work to us.

Take, for example, the NKLA billboards that popped up in the greater Los Angeles area. These consist of black-and-white photographs of cats and dogs, the letters “NKLA,” and a tiny emoticon-like logo in the bottom corner that suggests a doggie face. That’s it. What the hell are these for? Is it a new clothing line? A rap-group? Soap? Unless the viewer of these ads already knows what they’re supposed to take away from this collection of signifier-less signs, it’s a mystery. And I’d argue it’s designed to be obscure in order to pique the viewer’s interest, igniting a burning curiosity that eventually forces them to take to the interwebs and find out what these billboards and bus-stop ads are supposed to mean. It’s designed to force participation on the part of the view–or in the case of an ad for a product, the potential consumer.

Far be it from me to do the same thing and keep you, my imagined reader, in suspense. It turns out that these “NKLA” ads are for a campaign promoting the idea that no “viable” pet animals be killed in the city of Los Angeles. Here, you don’t even have to go looking. The campaign is backed by a coalition of like-minded organizations, some corporate and some non-profit. What they’re really selling/proposing is an old idea: eugenics. Like Bob Barker used to remind us after every “The Price is Right,” they want us to remember to spay or neuter our pets, and these organizations are mounting an effort to make that easier for people to do. I won’t get into the politics of this or why I find this problematic. For the purposes of this discussion, it’s enough to note that this is not a revolutionary idea that this campaign is trying to promote. Rather, it is the method of promotion and dissemination of this old message that’s somewhat revolutionary. It’s not word of mouth; it’s words from technology.

It is curious that the coalition’s strategy was to rely on viewers to figure out what campaign they were seeing. To do the work to figure out what the message was. Now that is some clever propaganda, and a risky move. Predicting the crowd is not an easy thing to do. And baiting them to do what you want them to do is arguably harder. If not for our digital, internet-connected, give-me-the-info-now culture, this would have no chance of working, of getting the message across. The images would just sit there, not being “read;” not being understood as their makers intended. The message would remain un-conveyed, or at least misinterpreted by the many consumers who were now going to be sorely disappointed the next time they tried to find NKLA’s newest album release.

This type of advertising strategy implicates the viewer–it requires that they participate. It demands their effort and their involvement in the campaign itself. They are part of the advertising team. It is self-directed marketing. Only those with the curiosity bug will exert the effort to get the message. It is self-selected, in a way, as it is more likely that someone with a soft spot for vaguely sad-looking pet animals will be inclined to take the time to find out what those puppies and kitties are trying to tell them. The black-and-white images help set the down-and-out tone, but that only really clicks and becomes part of the message when the viewer looks on the internet and finds out what the ad campaign is “selling”–the idea of a society in which no animals qualifying for the “pet” category have to be killed. (I won’t hold my breath for an “unhappy cows” spin-off.)

It’s all quite clever. And would seem to usher in a new era of marketing methodology.*  The consumer is the partial-producer of the advertisement that encourages them to buy (or in the case of NKLA, buy in to an idea and possibly become involved in either materially realizing it or further disseminating it). The consumer becomes a partial producer of the ad’s message because only after going through the effort of finding the message does the entire campaign gain its layers of meaning. And now, the idea has another follower. Perhaps another member of the movement who is willing to participate even further. Because that viewer searched and found the site and read it and understands. Understands that they now have to decide whether to cruelly say “no” to a campaign that is only trying not to have stray pet animals needlessly die to make room for more stray pet animals. The manipulation is palpable, but is over-ridden by the ostensibly “good” message that is so benign and “right” that no one who took the trouble to find it could possibly, in good conscience, disagree with it. Propaganda’s sneaky that way.

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*Or maybe this strategy has been employed before. It would be worth looking into from a history-of-advertising perspective.

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Edible Miscegenation: Food for Thought (groan) on a Recent Ad Campaign

Full disclosure time: I have a nasty note-taking habit, and as a result, the forthcoming book review of Sorry I Pooped in Your Shoe has turned into a bit of a term paper. A term paper that needs some serious work. We’re talking outlines, spreadsheets, coding, lists of themes and tropes, meta-structuring–obscene amounts of (dis)organization, here. And, if history is any indication*, most of this thorough preparation will be ultimately ignored in a sleep-deprived “holy fuck, fuck this fucking shitpile of amassed notes and ragged half-finished paragraphs I’m just gonna write the fucking thing I can’t even gaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhrgh!” moment of desperation.

So stay tuned for that monstrous gem. In the meantime, here are some disorganized and underdeveloped thoughts on a commercial about a new snack food. Fair warning–it’s a messy one:

Mel the Milkbite “has issues.” Yes, yes he does. Milkbite is basically a granola bar, and the advertisers have been tasked with coming up with a clever way to convince American consumers that this particular granola bar is different. It’s what we’ve all been waiting for. It offers hereforeto undiscovered combinations of deliciousness. Their marketing strategy has been to produce a virtual mini-series of these commercials. In each, we are made privy to the fraught inner life of one, Mr. Mel Milkbite, depressed offspring of milk and granola. “Who are you?” he asks his reflection. “I don’t know,” is the whispered reply. This identity crisis seems to stem from his mixed-food lineage.

One commercial in particular seems to play on the idea of a (damaged) mixed-parent child who confronts said parents about their decision to procreate. “You didn’t think, did you?” About how it would affect me, he goes on to say. The idea is that inhabiting an interstitial category makes life hard: one is “unclean” based on normative social structures, matter out-of-place. Mel is a product of miscegenation, and we’re supposed to laugh at this, or at his having “issues” because of it. This is where things get complicated, and I’m not going to pretend that I can tease everything out perfectly. But I do think it’s worth at least trying to unpack what’s going on here.

On a superficial level, it’s pretty dumb that a milk/granola-bar is talking and has an inner life. There’s a type of surreal, absurdist humor in that by itself. But to make the character’s inner life so fraught with the internalization of social stigma is…crazy awful. And in that awfulness, in that banging together of expectations, also comes the humor.

Broadly stated, humor says what cannot be said in serious contexts. It draws its power from placing categories of things together that cannot normally coexist, often exploding them. This is the unexpected aspect of humor–combining those things that are not normally combined (e.g., a granola bar that talks…to a therapist, no less). The other, related aspect, is that one of speaking the unspeakable: drawing attention to what is rendered invisible in daily life. In a way, humor combats erasure and epistemic violence. The ugly side of this is poorly timed and unsympathetic “ironic” humor, to be discussed further on in this “essay.”

To get back to the break-down of the layered humor in the commercials, besides the inherent silliness of a talking snack food is the fact that Mel takes himself very seriously. This is another source of the intended humor of the whole ad campaign: we, the audience, are not supposed to take Mel seriously. We are meant, on some level at least, to dismiss his serious concerns as those of a fake, normally (hopefully!) inanimate character made of food. It’s ridiculousness played as seriousness, which I’m tempted to call satire or irony, but I’m just so confused at this point that I can’t quite suss it out.

The humor of Mel’s milkbite commercials at least partly comes from making fun of the very serious issue of racism and how it plays out in cases where children have parents that society marks as racially different. The commercial serves to reinforce this taboo against miscegenation…or does it question the taboo? I’m not entirely sure if the “humor” in these commercials is combatting or exacerbating the stigma…or denying that the stigma exists all together. But I’m obviously leaning toward the last two.

The commercial takes license to make light of racism because its creators seem to believe that our society is past all that. Look how ridiculous we were to have had anti-miscegenation laws! If those still existed, we’d have a bunch of depressed Mels wandering around, blaming their parents for giving them such a hard life. Boy, I sure am glad we aren’t racist, anymore! In any case, the fact that we identify with Mel and feel sorry for him (do we? or do we think his problem isn’t serious in this day and age? are we just laughing at him?) means that we recognize the taboo being referenced. In encouraging the audience to both understand and then dismiss Mel’s perspective, it at once negates real people’s lived experiences and makes the (faulty) declaration that we are post-racism. But we can’t be post-anything if we still understand the signs of that thing. And anyway, is this laughter at all healing? Because the humor is very dry…almost ironic. And that gets dicey, as I will try to discuss below.

I’d argue that the existence of this campaign and all the cultural baggage it is trading on doesn’t point to a post-racism culture, but rather to one that has a more complicated relationship with its racism. This commercial can only exist in a culture where its producers (in this case, marketers and advertisers) believe that the culture is post-racism. This makes the brand of humor “safe” enough for a mass-media audience. It still messes with expectations, but in a more meta way that comments on a social situation that is assumed to be long past. The producers seem to believe this humorous take on a historical reality–setting it in the present and using a snack food as its face–won’t offend consumers. That it will resonate just enough and in the right ways in order to sell the product. But it’s also arguably a present reality, and even if it weren’t, its “humorous” take on a decidedly un-funny cultural taboo that oppressed real people in real ways is insensitive. (The argument against the insensitivity claim would be something about irony and being post-race and why can’t I just take a joke, which I will touch on later and you can read more about at Jezebel.)

The commercial may trade in deadpan ridiculousness, but it’s still based in something very real. The undercurrent of (anti-)miscegenation is extended to and reintensionalized in this extremely absurd context, rendering it less serious, less worthy of careful consideration. But it is serious. The commercial is playing on the idea that the children of people who aren’t “the same” in one way or another have it harder. That they’re damaged. So, it’s both that this creates issues for the kid, and then creates the stereotype that these “types” of kids have issues, thus making the “project,” if you will, of actually combatting these taboos a bad thing in itself, instead of creating a world where these taboos don’t exist because there are more interstitial people, who then become accepted categories in their own right. (I know that sentence is confusing, but it’s too far gone to help at this point. I don’t even know.) But the point is that making light of the history and ramifications of anti-miscegenation sentiment and policy, “mixed” children of all kinds, and the current (effectively ignored) lived realities of people who inhabit this interstitial social categories is harmful. These commercials operate in a sort of post-racism haze of denial. Anti-miscegenation is over, so it’s okay to joke about it. These commercials try to get us to believe that taking it all seriously would be ridiculous in this day and age–we’d be like Mel.

The thing is, we don’t live in a post-racial world, as Lindy West points out. The “humor” of trying to make it seem like we’re post-race by framing someone’s difficult lived experience as mixed-race individual as funny–implicitly discounting that this experience could be less-than-rosy–falls flat. It makes fun of the individual for having “issues” as a result of their racialized social location; it belittles their own understanding of their particular experience. And that is pretty wrong.

Now, not being what our society would deem a “person of color,” I cannot speak to the lived experience of someone from a mixed-race background. But I don’t imagine it’s always a walk in the park, simply because our society remains socially stratified, and one of the markers that keeps certain populations in disadvantaged socio-economic positions is skin color. Skin color is taken as the definitive sign that signifies one’s race; as if it were a natural thing. As if it weren’t a cultural construct (which it is, and an arbitrary one at that). And in America, we still see people’s skin color. We treat each other in various ways because of this type of discriminatory vision. Now, are mixed-race couples more accepted than they were 50 years ago? Sure…but only in some contexts. Are the children of  mixed-race couples less subject to ridicule? Again, it depends. We can maybe make a sweeping generalization that things are “better,” but it is dangerous to do so. And to base an ad campaign on this very real and personal part of our cultural history (and cultural present) is hugely problematic… and because it’s meant to be funny, it’s quite insulting, as well.

To wrap up before this all gets even more out of hand, let’s get back to the milkbite character himself. Mel, if we are to take his perspective, is the product of an unholy union between milk and granola. The irony, of course, is that plenty of folks enjoy this very combination. The fact that mixing them is “normal” is why milkbite exists as a product in the first place: created to fill a newly discovered [read: invented] niche, marketed as the answer to granola-and-milk-eaters’ as yet unrealized unfulfilled need for a convenient snack that pairs their two favorite things. Milkbite was created because he should have existed all along–so the marketers want us to believe. He’s what’s been missing in this world of fast “health” food.

Is that why we laugh at Mel? Because his underlying “issue” is that he fails to grasp his true role in the world? Bringing us all together in a holy harmony of interstitial bliss? Is milkbite the future? Let’s look to the heated discourse surrounding the controversial ad that South Africa’s Democratic Alliance party put out… They don’t live in the future, and neither do we. In fact, the very existence of this series of commercials implicitly arguing that we do live in the post-race future proves, ironically, that we don’t.

*UPDATE* Balancing Jane has also written about the disturbing nature of this ad campaign and provides a link to sign a petition against it.

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*For example, I once compiled over 200 pages of notes in preparation for a ten page final. Yep. Rifuckingdiculous. It’s kind of a problem.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Racism

Teasing Out Some Gendered Assumptions in “The Saturday Evening Post”: Cars, Love, and Tailfins

One of the more long-term projects I’m working on centers around 1930s print advertisements for cars and masculinity. In the process of researching these topics, I hope to test-drive (see what I did there?) some of the ideas these topics inspire on this blog. Additionally, I may occasionally post about things related to these topics that I come across as I move reluctantly through the contemporary minefield of life. While these posts and the research and stumblings from which they come may never yield the extended investigation that I hope for, these posts (some of them centering on the Post) can still hopefully be enjoyed as arbitrary loci from which to radiate out to broader topics and tangents. Today I offer up one of those random posts:

Way back in April (because this blog is nothing if not behind-the-times), the woeful shadow of what used to be The Saturday Evening Post featured an article about America’s national obsession with the automobile. Its author, William Jeanes, proposed that this vehicle “not only displaced the horse and buggy, but changed us in every way possible” (30). This post will review “VROOM! VROOM!: Celebrating America’s 125-year Love Affair with Cars!” and explore some of the issues and themes it touches on. Especially the subtexty ones, ‘cause that’s just how I roll: somewhat unfairly.

The title* of the article immediately sets up the romantic nature of American’s relationship with cars: it’s a “love affair” between people and machines. And not just the physical objects themselves, but the idea of them and all that they represent. Jeanes’ article offers up a small social history of the automobile in America, if not focusing on the time period when it really became ubiquitous, then holding that era up as the moment when things really got good between us and our vehicles. The images overwhelmingly  represent the 1950s—five of the nine Post covers it reprints are from the decade, not to mention a few other images.

Speaking of images, let’s talk a little bit about race. The article offers up several old pictures and previous covers from the Post to illustrate “the impact of the automobile on American culture” and the glamour of life with automobiles (35). And that glamour is white. In fact, all of the images offered up on a platter of nostalgia are of white people. The erasure of all other American peoples is staggering when you think about it, especially since they drove cars, too. But the imagined audience of the front-pages of magazines and car advertisements was hardly ever a marked category of people: it was usually upper-middle-class whites.

All right, all right. Back to what Jeanes thinks he’s doing in this article: giving us a nice narrative of how widespread automobile adoption changed Americans’ everyday lives. He gives the example of mobility: one can simply go farther, faster in a car than by horse—the alternative as far as personal vehicles went. He hyperbolically argues that the car “freed every American from the tyranny of geography and the loneliness of isolation” (30). Good, safe, interesting point in a narrative that is cozy and familiar even if we haven’t specifically heard it before. It just jives with common sense, right? So far so good. (Except maybe the “every American” assertion, as obviously not every people could or can afford to own a car.) Jeanes takes his readers to Europe in the late 1800s to remind them that no, Henry Ford didn’t invent the car, he just made it crap-tastic and mass-produceable by adopting Taylorism. That’s right, he didn’t really invent the assembly line, either. Come back when you’re done crying in your corner of smashed illusions and we’ll go back to dissecting the minutiae of Jeanes’ article, rather than widely held grand-history notions.

Right. So gender. The women in this article don’t have names–they are stand-ins for their sex, held up as a novelty in a world where cars have become inextricably intertwined and associated with (notions of) masculinity and the male sex. The fact that it was a woman who invented windshield wipers is touted as a grand achievement and little-known fact. Well, lookie here, this little lady’s gone and rigged up a device to fit on an automobile. A thing like that! Are we supposed to congratulate the author on being so magnanimous as to include the contributions of non-males in this automobile narrative? When he couldn’t even bother to look up their names? Women in Jeanes’ American automobile narrative are treated as an anomaly: a fluke. When of course, women have always been involved in all things automotive. Not in as high numbers on the development and production end, perhaps, but certainly as consumers and drivers of cars. Not to mention livers in a world with cars, and thinkers about cars and their meanings and everyday practical uses.

From a marketing angle, women were used to sell cars in advertisements almost from the beginning of the rise of print advertisements in the 1920s–and not just as sexy meat to dangle next to the chrome bodies. No, images of women were positioned as savvy consumers making evaluations of the various accoutremonts of this or that model. I should perhaps be fair: Jeanes is, after all, writing for a magazine intended for a mass middle-class audience. It is perfectly natural of him to go for the safer narrative, just throwing in a few details framed as surprises amongst the flat humor and expected mentions of Benz and Ford. All right, that’s enough niceness for now.

Jeanes, positioned as he is in contemporary society, looks back and assumes the same conflation of sex and gender that exists now, as well as the association of men with production and women with consumption. But the interesting thing is that men are also imagined to be the consumers when it comes to cars, rather than the standard woman. In fact, men are perhaps most often imagined as consumers in the context of automobile-buying and car advertisements. This complicates the tired dichotomies of men/women; producer/consumer. What’s with that? Why is it cars that messes up the normative intersection of these two false dichotomies? (Questions I hope to find answers to with further research and conversations with other interested parties.)

Back to the article, Jeanes takes us from Germany back to America, where Ford has just trotted out the Quadricycle.  I. Want. One. How awesome is that name? !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ahem. Excuse me. So, we stick with Ford for a bit, get introduced as expected to the Model T, and are fed some statistics about how quickly and completely they dominated the market in the ‘teens and ‘twenties. Then comes a section about automobile manufacturing as a locus of one-ups-manship. Cars became tools for racing and record-setting almost immediately. Jeanes insists this is human nature, and I won’t take the time to quibble because that would just devolve into a one-sided shouting match. Institutions such as the Italian Grand Prix are introduced, and Jeanes continues on his narrative of progress: of course cars got “better.” (Better meaning faster.)

Then the author turns to infrastructure. The automobile, like all mass-adopted transportation innovations, significantly altered the landscape of transportation. More people buying and using cars created a higher demand for surfaces that were easier to drive upon. Hello, system of roads and highways! See ya, railroad tracks. Jeanes touches on some interesting points: that municipal and federal governments as well as corporate interests and wealthy individuals looking to make names for themselves in addition to butt-loads of cash (such as Goodyear and the owner of Packard) would be wise to collaborate on these new systems of roads. This really was a national project: the transformation of America into a culture of car-drivers and riders. Planning began in the late 1930s and the building really got going in the 50s—which fits with the accepted narrative that the 1950s was the golden age of automobiles in America.

As Jeanes moves from infrastructure back to the machines themselves, he touches on gender once again. He notes that before 1911, most cars had to be started by turning a crank, but then the electric starter was introduced, meaning that “now even small women and little boys could operate an automobile” (33). Before, they were physically associated only with men and big, strong women. Perhaps this is one reason why cars have from very early on in their history been tied with men in the American imagination. Then again, “in 1924 alone, women inventors came up with 173 devices for automobiles” (33). So where does this leave the gendering of cars? Obviously there were many female contributions to the machines themselves, not to mention the use of female images to advertise cars. And yet the dominant gendered association has been male. The author falls back on this when he mentions the tailfin trend of the late forties and fifties, calling the invention of these decorative body-additions “a ‘mine are bigger than yours’ styling war” (34). But maybe that is my fault for interpreting that type of contest as primarily male. Shit, I’m as guilty as Jeanes!

Maybe. Jeanes repeatedly says that it is America as a whole (with all it’s component male and female parts) that has had this long-lasting love affair with the car—but his underlying emphasis on the “natural” association between cars and masculinity suggests otherwise. As I mentioned, women in this article are treated as a surprise—why, what are you doing here? In spite of the fact that the majority of images included in the article are female-dominated, Jeanes’ narrative assumes the male as the subject, framing the inclusion of women players as something to take note of. There is no need to set up mens’ parts in the development of cars as something special—it is merely assumed that their involvement would be natural.

It is men who are tied to the history of the car, and women are thrown in as an afterthought, when they are allowed written space at all. Jeanes decides that the Ford Mustang was a boon to men going through a midlife crisis (34). What about women going through a midlife crisis? Do cars not mean as much to them? Are cars a symbol of only male youth and virility? Why is that? When did this association take hold? Jeanes’ article, as it is a short survey of the history of cars in America, can’t be expected to answer this. But it sure does confirm the need to find out, as he relies so heavily on these tropes and assumptions that both overtly and covertly tie men and masculinity to automobiles.

*****

*Jeanes, William “Celebrating America’s 125-Year Love Affair with Cars: How the Automobile—once reviled as a smoke-belching, unreliable creation—not only displaced the horse and buggy, but changed us in every way possible” May/June 2011: 30-35

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Merrily Spring-boarding from a Book Review to Thoughts on Nostalgia: A Review of a Review of “Ready Player One”

In the September 5th issue of Time magazine, there was a one-page book review of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. This post isn’t going to discuss the book itself, as I haven’t read it, but rather some issues that the reviewer, Douglas Wolk, touched upon in his article.

Briefly, the book seems to be about 1980s video games being played  in a dystopian future, and one game in particular that, if beaten, can give the winner unimaginable riches. In his review, Mr. Wolk points out that this book has been talked about for a while now, and that this talk is “acutely nostalgic.” Then he goes on to a section entitled “Pop Culture Eats Itself.” Yum!

Wolk ties the excitement surrounding this novel to a particular idea presented in Simon Reynold’s Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. The idea being that the current turn in artistic expression is toward rehashing. Toward the celebration of the bygone. Toward nostalgia. Sequels and mass-culture entertainment drawn from existing stories and cultural landmarks abound. The presumption is that art used to, once upon a “better” time, strive for originality. (This is itself a nostalgic lament.) I would point out that all this re-making and referencing capitalizes on an imagined audience’s predilection for nostalgia. After all, movies and books and even some visual art gets produced because those with the money to back these projects believe that they will see a return on their investment. This artistic turn toward nostalgia that Wolk and Reynolds note we’re being bombarded with in popular culture is in no small part in the service of marketing. In the service of commodifying (self)reflexive nostalgia to feed the masses, in the hopes that they might fill the pocket-books of the creators and their patrons (if we want to stick with the idea that this is all art in some form or another).*

Onto a second, slightly related point that comes up in the article about the value of nostalgia in and of itself–at least in the world of (pop)art/culture. Again, my thoughts have strict limitations as I have not read any of the books being referenced in his review (shame on me!), but when Wolk writes that we should rue the day that science fiction starts looking toward the past (and, oh crap, thanks to Cline’s book, that day is today!), I wonder what kind of “trouble” he thinks we’re in, either creatively or socially. He concedes that “all that crap clearly meant something to people,” but bemoans the fact that Cline’s book doesn’t explore this. It just presents the 1980s games as a saving grace in and of themselves for the inhabitants of the dystopian future. (Oh yeah, there was also that winning money thing.) Wolk thinks there should be more commentary on that meaning.

Wolk essentially criticizes Cline’s novel for glorifying something that isn’t real enough; that does little to push the boundaries and say something new as it presents the nostalgic for mass consumption. Or maybe he’s angry that the glorification offers little analysis or critique. In any case, Wolk claims that this building-upon and making-new is an artist’s job, “not just to offer up comforting familiarity as a talisman against the void.” But I wonder if perhaps this could be one of the points of Cline’s book: that nostalgia is emptier than we’d like it to be.

*One final tidbit: Wolk refers to what he sees as Cline’s overuse of pop-culture references to the 1980s as “maddeningly fetishistic.” Exactly.

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Filed under Art of all Kinds, Book Reviews, Commodification, Media