“We should remember, too, that in a society where everything is strictly subject to the laws of selling and profit, advertising is the most democratic of products, the only one that is ‘free’ – and ‘free’ to all. Objects are always sold; only advertising is offered gratis.” – Baudrillard
(Hold a cigarette + look pensive = Generic philosopher pose)
Baudrillard’s ‘System of Objects’ made me want to be an Account Planner. This is somewhat bizarre as anybody vaguely familiar with his work will tell you that he has, to put it mildly, ‘issues’ with Capitalism. Baudrillard is labelled as a Freudo-Marxist philosopher, which is unfortunate (mostly because Freud is oh so wrong in so many ways) and perhaps misguided, as some of his work can be read as a defence of some specific aspects of Capitalism, namely planning-orientated marketing and advertising.
I recently gave this book to another Planner. His response was ‘this is brainy,’ which I kind of translated as ‘this is pretentious.’ It’s annoying that ‘philosophers’ or, less pretentiously, ‘people who always ask why’, seem incapable of expressing themselves simply (excepting Alain De Botton and Confucius). Planosophy is an attempt to cut through philosopher’s crap in order to reveal why their often incomprehensible babblings are more than just a self-congratulatory form of intellectual masturbation and do hold relevance for planners.
Baudrillard’s book was penned in the ’60s, in the pot-fume hazed, psychedelic heyday of Hippie leftism. Those idealist, utopian, mystical days of ‘free love’ and LSD were perhaps a result of students having their noses in Marcuse, Adorno and other leftist psychobabble courtesy of ‘The Frankfurt School.’ Baudrillard’s ‘System of Objects’ was written in the very year, 1968 (also the same year JWT’s Tony Stead coined the term ‘account planning’ [I have linked you here to Martin Weigel’s radical blog, do read]) and country in which Hippie anti-Capitalist sentiment climaxed. France’s student and lower-class working population sought to upturn their own Capitalist economy in the hope of retrieving their holy grail; the lost ‘real meaning’ of existence. They blamed Capitalism for the death of poetry, art, love and all things meaningful. In May 1968, Parisians branded the streets with slogans highlighting Capitalism’s tragic contradictions ….
The boss needs you. You don’t need him. (Le patron a besoin de toi, tu n’as pas besoin de lui)
They are buying your happiness. Steal it back. (On achète ton bonheur. Vole-le.)
Yet, how could Capitalism be blamed for the death of anything meaningful when some of their more poetic slogans, ironically, wouldn’t look entirely out of place on a whisky, HD TV or car ad?
It is forbidden to forbid. (Il est interdit d’interdire)
Be realistic, demand the impossible. (Soyez réaliste, demandez l’impossible.)
I treat my desires as realities because I believe in the reality of my desires. (Je prends mes désirs pour des réalités car je crois en la realité de mes desirs.)
This last slogan brings me back to Baudrillard’s ‘System of Objects’ and its relevancy for planners. Planners are, as I understand it, in the business of articulating and sympathising with how different consumer’s worldly realities fall short of their unconstrained fantastical desires.
(NB – Read the book backwards, not like some sort of sinister satanic text, but by starting with the last chapter on Advertising.)
I interpreted Baudrillard’s book to be about how the reality of the products we hope to flog (their material actuality, their tangible existence) fall short of our desires and don’t satisfy any real need. None of us need soap, shit tickets or toothbrushes. We don’t need clocks that tell the time to an incomprehensible degree of accuracy. We don’t need jewellery or make-up. Cavemen got by perfectly fine without these things.
Baudrillard explains how objects carry significance, not because of their use, but because we attach meanings to them that enable these objects to fulfill our symbolic, intangible desires. In our consumer-capitalist society, this meaning is made simple through branding. Advertising, then, can be considered to be a sort of meta-discourse on how we fulfill our desires through objects. Baudrillard writes, “we consume the product through the product itself, but we consume its meaning through advertising.” Planners could be seen to help to give meaning to objects that speak to consumer’s desires and plug a hole in how unrewarding reality can be. So far, so simple.
Here’s Baudrillard’s less simple way of putting it:
“Like the dream, advertising defines and redirects an imaginary potentiality. Like the dream’s, its practical character is strictly subjective and individual. And, like the dream, advertising is [often] devoid of all negativity and relativity: with never a sign too many or a sign too few, it is essentially superlative and totally immanent in nature. Our night-time dreams are un-captioned, whereas the one that we live in our waking hours via the city’s hoardings, in our newspapers and on our screens, is covered with captions, with multiple subtitling. Both, however, weave the most colourful of narratives from the most impoverished of raw materials….If all advertising were abolished, individuals would feel frustrated by the empty hoardings. Frustrated not merely by the lack of opportunity (even in an ironic way) for play, for dreaming, but also, more profoundly, by the feeling that they [their dreams] were no longer somehow being taken care of.” – Baudrillard
“Advertising fulfills this function, which is futile, regressive and inessential – yet for that very reason even more profoundly necessary.” – Baudrillard
Baudrillard (in typical planner style) uses an extended metaphor to compare advertising to parents pretending to be Father Christmas. He states that whether Father Christmas actually exists is not important. What is important is what he unknowingly signifies to the child; their parent’s affection and sense they are being looked after. Thus, he writes, “Without believing in the product, therefore, we believe in the advertising that tries to get us to believe in it.” Certainly, Baudrillard is right when he states that “advertising is itself less a determinant of consumption than an object of consumption.”
Baudillard considers that advertising aims to communicate inter-personally; to say to the consumer ‘this toothbrush has been engineered entirely with you in mind.’ This makes us feel that all of human progress has been made specifically to benefit us. Baudrillard writes that what advertising essentially tells us is that “society adapts itself totally to you, so [asks that you] integrate yourself totally with society.” This is powerful stuff. Instead of feeling alienated in a world in which cold, hard, shiny objects are made by machines to benefit so-called ‘fat cat producers’, we feel that the consumer is king. As Baudrillard puts it “Both choice and advertising serve to transform a purely commercial relationship into a personal one.”
This is why it is interesting that the first account planner roamed the earth at about the same time that Baudrillard argued that consumption, rather than production, was the driving factor of a capitalist economy. This is why objects ‘chat’ to us like innocent smoothie bottles or cereal brands ask us how our day is over social media. In most cases, if a brand has the chance to hide its ugly corporate faceless face, it should probably take it. It’s a bit like how Gordon Brown needed humanising, and why Kim Jon Il is both terrifying and implausible – and consequently silly. We want to be able to ‘relate’ to brands. As Stephen King writes in ‘What is a Brand’ “People choose their brands as they choose their friends. You choose friends not usually because of specific skills or physical attributes … but simply because you like them as people.”
Agencies that don’t prioritise planning can be identified from a mile off by the kinds of ideas that get taken up and made. A sort of client-orientated arrogance emanates from them. They rub the brand’s power in the face of the consumer and merely want to make ‘a lot of noise.’ Like a bad dinner guest, they haven’t learnt that it is rude to brag. The London riots of July 2011, for me, were, in part, caused by rubbing Nike trainers, widescreen TVs and Apple Macs in the faces of people who could not afford them (Keep your eyes peeled for a post on Marx on this subject, coming soon). Client-orientated work creates and reinforces desires that are out of touch with their consumer’s reality. These brands lack self-awareness and sensitivity to other’s needs.
Where Baudrillard aggressively attacks advertising, it is directed less towards the concept of advertising itself, however, towards client-orientated marketing. Baudrillard’s ‘System of objects’ can actually be read as an explanation of how planning-orientated advertising helps us to treat our desires as realities and to believe in the reality of our desires.
He writes, “One of the first demands of man in his progression towards well-being is that his desires are attended to, that they be formulated and expressed in the form of images for his own contemplation (something which is a problem, or becomes a problem in socialist countries).”
This is why Baudrillard made me want to be a Planner. Baudrillard made me want to ‘be the voice of the consumer’ (the stock, clichéd response to the question ‘What do planners do?’ – although I will get onto ‘Multiple Voices’ in later posts) and give them much more power in how the meanings of adverts and objects around them get formulated.
To sum up, Baudrillard saw that advertising itself is more the ‘object of consumption’ than what we are trying to flog. This means that what we are selling is ‘cultural meaning’ and a way by which consumers can make choices based on whether a brand ‘relates/speaks’ to them. Planning goes way beyond making one toothbrush seem more appealing than another. We not really selling toothbrushes (or at least I’m not); we’re selling smiles, a fresh cleanliness that has become a signifier of social standing (think of a celebrity’s teeth before and after they were famous) and other intangible human desires. The planner makes objects a bit more human through branding, which is, I suppose, nice. We can become so entwined with what brands we choose, what objects we buy, that we can feel like we ‘need’ them to feel ourselves. Although many of us would object to the idea that we are defined by what we buy, we do feel attached to things – some people can experience an existential crisis when they lose their phone.
Still reading backwards, Baudrillard’s book will explain the desires that each of the objects in his system is associated with and why. The book explains the psychology of collecting, focuses extensively on why useless technology ends up being a ‘needless need’ (you are probably not a meter from your phone right now, you might even be reading this article on it) as well as forays into concepts such as social currency – “if a suburbanite desires to move up into class, he will buy antiques – symbols of old social position bought with new money.”
I’ll be delving into these insights more throughout this blog, however, I encourage anybody in advertising to read Baudrillard’s book. It may be ‘a bit brainy’ but it is the only philosophical book that I have encountered that could be said to be stuffed full of those elusively genuine consumer insights that keep someone like me (who has had Freudo-Marxist thought drip-fed to them throughout University) working for, or perhaps even against, ‘the man’ on a daily basis.