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