Tag Archives: meaning

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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Filed under Animals, Contemporary, Technology

A Preemptively Curmudgeonly Prediction

Given the number of young people today who rarely look up from their electronic devices when in the presence of other people, and the lack of parental figures saying “hey, turn that off,” it would not be at all surprising if in the near future, this type of scene were no longer considered rude. Digital/electronic communication would gain primacy and precedence over face-to-face interactions. Tending to one’s far-off acquaintances via a mobile device would be prioritized over tending to one’s here-and-now relationships. Indeed, would the very meaning of “here and now” change, or merely be transferred over to those relationships that exist in the ether? Will anyone look at one another in the future? Will that be rude? Existence will be acknowledged primarily through electronic/digital/whatever-they-think-of-next media.

In the interest of forestalling evil cultural change and saving the hug as we know it, we must either institute some serious programs to teach kids-these-days some goddamn manners, or somehow stop them from gaining power and taking over society as they are destined to do like every generation before them. Hell in a hand-basket, I say! Who’s got an immortality pill?

Hey, you damn kids! Look at me when I yell at you to get off my lawn!”

 

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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

Performing Togetherness: Sartorial Coordination at School Dances

In an effort to procrastinate on the promised treatment of that dog book, I’ve decided to take a little time to dissect another youthful phenomenon. Today it’s not cheap-ass broken friendship hearts, however. No, this topic is even more worthy of copious eye-rolling and the activation of gag-reflexes. I’m talking about high school students who go to dances together wearing matching outfits.

I’m almost nauseated thinking back on it now–realizing the implications. The market-place/political economy of securing a date for the dance, and being able to identify them as your date with visual cues. Cultural capital made materially concrete through dress. The (gendered?) performance of mutual ownership…turning “relationships” into a parody of themselves. I am ashamed to have actually participated in such displays. (Although I am rather proud for having once done it by wearing a “mens” shirt. Take that, gendered expectations!)

The tradition of dates wearing similarly colored clothing (or a corsage/boutonniere) to dances all seems to boil down to a social performance of togetherness and mutual ownership. Making visually obvious the fact that these two people came to this dance with one another. It “marks” your date as yours. This performance is so that others recognize these two people as being together–if only for the evening. I wonder at what point this matching is for the couple themselves…the chance to recognize themselves in the other and vice versa via the very obvious medium of clothing (a representation or manifestation of their inner emotional connection, if you will)…and at what point it becomes more about the outward appearance of togetherness. My guess is that this phenomenon is heavily weighted toward the latter. It’s mostly about the public’s perception of two people as a couple. The assumption that two people are receiving recognition of their togetherness is made salient in the very performance of this sartorial togetherness. TOGETHERNESS!!! (must. find. synonym.) Ahem.

One aspect of this phenomenon that bears discussion is the fact that all these school-sanctioned social functions are in an effort to play at adulthood. As one of my more arrogant professors smugly loved “revealing” to us, the Prom is in many ways a practice wedding. But these dances-as-social-spaces encourage couples to perform adulthood to a cartoonish degree. What real adult couples make a conscious, agonizing effort to match their wardrobes at social functions? (Irritating ones.) Sometimes this type of couples-dressing is sanctioned, but it’s all about context. Perhaps the most “allowable” social occasion is that of Halloween, but even then adults who match one another can be a bit much. Especially those who are romantically involved. Okay. We get it. You’re together. Enough already. But if we take high school dances as opportunities for young adults to “practice” being actual adults, it seems odd that they perform imagined adulthood to such a hyperbolic degree. Maybe you have to over-do it before you can do it, do it. (Control yourselves.)

The other adult social context in which sartorial coordination is sanctioned, even encouraged, is the wedding. This is the ultimate ritualized performance of couple-dom in our culture, and wedding parties often don similar colors, if not identical outfits. This, it need not be noted, is a special occasion. As is the school dance (albeit a more frequent one). If school dances are a shadow of the ultimate couple ritual, then matching the colors in one’s outfits makes a certain amount of sense. This is, after all, playing at being recognized as being together: practice for the ritual where you perform your together-forever-ness in front of your sacred social circle.

So the color-coordination teenagers endure can be accounted for quite easily. What I cannot fathom an explanation for is why the matchy-matchy gets so overblown at Sade Hawkins dances in particular. Is there a worry that because the girl asked the boy, it won’t be pheromonically obvious that they are together? (That’s stupid and I would never argue that.) The most I can work out is that it somehow off-sets (or complements) the relative informality of the dance. The fact that the girl is supposed to ask the guy, that the traditional gender roles are reversed, seems to be a mere correlation. Why would a switch of gender hierarchy entail the hyper-matching of clothing? Couples often literally wear the same thing, rather than simply matching color-schemes. At the Sadie Hawkins dance, there’s no mistaking who asked whom. It’s an aggressive sign of mutual ownership, commemorated forever in an embarrassing photo in front of a cheesy, themed backdrop. But exactly why the hyper-matching occurs at the informal Sadie Hawkins dance is a mystery to me. So if anyone wants to venture a theory that helps explain why this happens, I’d love to hear it.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary

Scattered Fragments and Other Musings

I’m in the process of working up quite a long piece on the complexities of the human-pet relationship as illuminated in a sometimes-trite picture book. It will appear soon. Dammit. But until then, I thought I’d get a few thoughts off my figurative chest and literal scraps of paper that have been waiting quite a while to be made legible, if not logical. None of them have inspired any real burst of verbose or coherent analysis, but they aren’t entirely worthless, either. So here they are for your consideration, fresh from the nearly-discarded notecards and stickie-notes of my car, in all their fragmented glory.

“Best Friends” Necklaces At least a decade ago, there was a(nother? probably) wave of “best friend” merchandise marketed at young girls–ages 9 to 13, say. Things like a set of necklaces that had half a broken heart each, one with the word “best” inscribed on the cheap metal, the other with the word “friends.” To state the obvious, these types of trinkets represent in a very material way the commodification of friendship, not to mention the performance of it. They had the potential to exacerbate the pre-teen drama seemingly inherent in female friendships (and inevitable falling-outs). Choosing to don or eschew a broken heart necklace could be as hurtful or meaningful as “breaking” a real heart or finally making a “real” friend. This commodification and fetishization of necklace and the ideas it represented put volatile meaning to things. But how do you explain all that to a twelve year-old?

Evolution of Art A now-forgotten segment on NPR about some art happening sparked a hastily scribbled note about conceptual art as prioritizing the making rather than the saving of a work of art. Art as process itself. An engaging-with art-making; participatory art. Making something lasting that can be saved or sold is beyond the point. Art as the performance of itself.

Performance vs. Static Identity Another NPR story dealt with the idea of “genius”–that at one point, the word was used in a very different way and that this difference has significant implications. To be general about it, “historically,” one was spoken of as having genius, rather than being a genius. It was a quality external to the self. Now it is a quality part and parcel of the self. This change in meaning seems to jive with quite a few things I’ve been reading lately about the shift from the external performance of personhood to the internal coherence of a static self. The shift to the concept of identity as an internal and fixed aspect of being. The self was not always such a concern–emphasis was placed, rather, on how one upheld the values of one’s community: it was more about service to one’s society than a concern with one’s inner being, which was not necessarily thought to be separate from the outside world or fixed. This shift is dealt with in Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles as well as Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America. Perhaps it is because both books deal with gender and trace its movement from being located in social performance to its current location in an internal and fixed identity that explains both author’s attention to this overarching ideological change. But to bring it back to the beginning, I think this shift that they both identify illuminates the changing meaning of “genius” with respect to its use. As the ideology of the self evolved into its present state, it became more acceptable/made more sense to use the word “genius” as a quality that one could posses as part of one’s identity. It was no longer some third-party muse that chanced upon the lucky individual, sparking a happy accident of knowledge production or art. (Yet another example of meaning deriving from use. Ling-anth!)

Beating the Dead Horse of the American Dream This is why I get angry and am not so hot for America much of the time: One of our most enduring (yet constantly refuted) national myths is that of the American DreamLand of opportunity for all, life liberty, etc. That it persists is the backdrop of my anger at our constant boundary-making, social policing, and general intolerance of difference. Sure, if we want to play the comparison game, other cultures and nations are “more” oppressive, but because of this myth I’ve been indoctrinated with, I feel we should do better. We should try harder to live up to this (impossible) myth of opportunity–which requires tolerance of difference. Especially in a capitalist society; some concession must be made to temper the inhumane hand of the market so that difference is taken into account. Is valued. Is given the space to create opportunity that looks a little different. We can’t just provide opportunities for those who follow our arbitrary rules. This makes “success” too unattainable. We must do better. Even if the myth is just that. If we keep telling it to ourselves and slamming it down and telling it to ourselves, shouldn’t we try to make it true, if only to stick it to all the cynical authors of the past 100+ years? (I’m looking at you, Fitzgerald and Miller.)

Whew. Now to the recycle bin!

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