Introduction: Regarding Emotion and Regarding The Pain of Others

AdAutopsy, Mediating Thoughts

“Shock can become familiar. Shock can wear off. Even if it doesn’t, one can not look. People have means to defend themselves against what is upsetting.”

“There is nothing wrong with standing back and thinking. To paraphrase several sages: ‘Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.’” – Susan Sontag, Regarding The Pain of Others


(Ash over shoulder as if you’re mind is too weighed down with all the injustice and inconsistency in the world to worry about the state of your carpet = Generic Philosopher Pose No. 7)


This post has been incubating for over two months. Bloggers will be familiar with those odd pangs of guilt that come from not writing for a while. For those who don’t blog, it’s a bit like putting off your full-body (and eventual personality) transplant whilst continuing to scoff yourself silly, sloth about, smoke like a small chimney and haemorrhage money at your local boozer on a daily weekly daily basis. We are masters of procrastination and of cheating ourselves in the process. I suppose the general theme of the next few posts is about how we can know what the right thing to do is but don’t feel like doing it. It’s about how we are masters of ‘legitimising’ our actions or inactions to make ourselves feel better.

Susan Sontag is perhaps the broodiest philosopher I can feasibly tolerate. Of course, she’s a lefty (as in left-wing, not left-handed), as let’s face it, there are very few philosophers who come from the right. She’s an activist. She says the wrong thing at the wrong time (evidenced by her comments on 9/11) and her ramblings are riddled with contradictions. I tolerate her because these contradictions are undeniably human. She knows that only self-awareness and humility allow her to reassess her personal views and experiences. Such self-criticism prevents intellectual and moral conservatism. More importantly, I tolerate her because she rubs people up the wrong way, as all intimidatingly intelligent women do.


Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ ponders on the effects of emotionally engineered and manipulated photographs on society at the hands of the media. She examines how we can sloth-out in front of the 10 O’clock News, get terribly upset about Ebola’s grip over West Africa, compare the scenes to a zombie apocalypse or a medical dystopian thriller (like Contagion) that we saw on Netflix last week, then cynically berate the American media for it’s histrionics and wind up posting an article on Facebook about how you’re more likely to spontaneously combust than you are to catch Ebola.

Sontag identifies that photography’s claim of ‘eye-witness’ authenticity is false – after all, #nofilter wouldn’t have caught on if Instagram snaps were more likely to be un-filtered than filtered. Photographs are manipulated to be more effective emotional tasers. Sontag considers our growing immunity to photography-as-emotional-taser as we are exposed to more and more of it’s ‘shock therapy’ and we are more savvy as to the methods engineered and used to elicit an emotional response.


Sontag explores how and why we crave the emotions aroused by shocking and horrifying images of suffering (so often used in those “for just £2 a month” adverts). Why do we simultaneously wallow in guilt, pity, shame and disgust whilst displacing and alleviating this plethora of negative emotions through media-cynicism and pointing (rather than lifting) fingers? She believes that such a craving for shocking images has led to their commodification and this in turn is lessening their emotional impact. The mass production of such images has degraded shock into cliche. Perhaps the manufacture of ’emotionally engaging’ pictures, films and adverts is also degrading a whole plethora of emotions into cliche?


Sontag’s book has never been more relevant. Emotion is the advertising buzzword of the decade, followed closely by ‘engage’ and ‘content’. Selling moisturiser to women now entails making them cry about their low self-esteem and body image as a not-too-subtle-reminder of why they should buy the product. Emotion is incredibly important in brand building. Unless you have forged an emotional connection between consumers and your brand then you don’t really have a brand. The whole point of brands is to justify a price premium for that emotional connection. However, I have three problems with how ’emotion’, in the broadest sense, is used in Adland:


1.We tend to just pull out the above graph from the infamous IPA Databank, nod knowingly, then reiterate to our clients how important it is to be ’emotionally engaging.’ Emotions are complex, and one big fat descriptor, ’emotional’, is hardly adequate. In advertising we have a morbid fear of complexity, of nuances. As a result we often swing violently between gormless positivity, cracking jokes or (usually for Christmas) we try and make people cry. With charity adverts, we tend to know only one emotion: guilt. I am privileged to work with creatives who create great adverts with fantastic emotional range. There are, however, too many adverts out there that have the emotional range of a teaspoon.


2. Sometimes we confuse emotion as a ‘input’, when really it’s an ‘output.’ Showing a lot of happy smiley faces and people dancing around elated or crying african children does not constitute emotional advertising. If anything, my emotional response to this kind of advertising ranges from sheer indifference to overcome with annoyance (and the desire to throw the nearest object to hand at the telly). Sometimes rational inputs have a more emotional output, as is with the case with the UN’s Open Defecation campaign. 

3. We assume that ’emotional’ is diametrically opposed to ‘rational.’ It’s not that simple. It’s the connection between our emotions and our rational thoughts that is currently under-explored and under-valued. Although our emotions often lead the way when it comes to decision-making, we’ll dismiss our emotions as ‘irrational’ if we cannot post-rationalise them and make sense of them. We need to feel that our emotions are rational to justify any actions they have led to. Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 21.35.47

Emotional disengagement is perhaps a rational response to advertisers going whole hog emotionally. My boyfriend argues until he is blue in the face that he is immune to advertising’s emotional manipulation. He’s part of a growing population of advertising-cynics who are willing themselves to be emotionally disengaged. People are consciously emotionally disconnecting and this is disconcerting. I loathe to be a portent of doom, but when you deal in emotional manipulation somebody needs to ponder on some potential consequences of such a manipulation:

1.  Is the emotional one-up-manship going on in advertising inadvertently fostering a coldhearted cynicism? Does shock therapy work well enough for us to keep administering it despite our continual desensitisation?

Part I: Emotional Desensitisation and The Ugliness of Shock

2. What if we came to think that love had to be “like the movies”? What if we came to think that love was just a concept manufactured by advertisers to sell De Beers diamonds and boxes of chocolates? What if the media owned our perceptions of what emotions should be like?

Part II: What is ‘Real’ and What is ‘Represented’ Emotion?

3. What would the world look like if we never thought about our actions and just went on emotional autopilot, reacting to everything without thinking? What if, in wallowing in guilt, pity and misery we feel like we’ve done enough when in fact we’re just relishing in the spectacle of it all from our couches?

Part III: Apathy is Not The Only Cause of Inaction

As ever, as much as I loathe to be a portent of doom I loathe more being unprepared for that potential doom. Here are some ‘ways in’ to the ‘ways out.’

Part IV: The Known Unknowns

Debord: The Society of The Spectacle and The Spectacle of Social Media

Mediating Thoughts

“All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” – Guy Debord, Society of The Spectacle (1967)

guy-smoking(Light a Pipe Nonchalantly Through Extremely Thick Spectacles = Generic Philosopher Pose 5)

A few months ago I gave Debord’s Society of The Spectacle to a planner friend along with Baudrillard’s ‘System of Objects’. I wrote this inside the front cover of Baudrillard’s book:

50% of books in people’s homes are never opened. This book made me want to be a planner. It is inspirational and stuffed with insights. The other is the darkest and most harrowing portrayal of modern life I have ever read and should come with the warning “may cause existential crisis.” The other book is not to be opened, it is intended as a sacrifice for the sake of a (dubious) statistic.”

Debord’s book is a total headfuck. It’s a double headfuck because once you’ve got over the headfuck of deciphering this ludicrously impenetrable text you are confronted with the headfuck of it’s meaning. Philosophy can take you to some very dark places. There are times when I thank goodness that these philosophers don’t just lay it all bare in plain speak. This kind of philosophical bluntness could be terrifying, and, extremely dangerous. There are philosophers whose ideas and observations about the world we inhabit are so bleak that one fears these ideas reaching mass consciousness.


However, Debord’s ideas are already reaching mass consciousness. The Guardian is writing articles hailing Debord as a futurologist and to have predicted in 1967 the current state of our distracted society. The very same concerns Debord had about TV and Radio have been amplified by social media, ‘Big Data’, ‘earned media’ and our always on, always online, always watched, always watching ‘Society of The Spectacle.’

Debord was a ringleader of a band of (not so merry) 60’s political revolutionaries called the Situationist International. Their movement is associated with Hippy anti-capitalist sentiment that pervaded the champagne socialist intelligentsia at the time. They sought to update Marx’s critique of Capitalism as the rise of the USA’s glitzy brand of Capitalism and Cold War tensions bubbled away in the background. Here’s Debord’s argument in four über simplifying steps:

1. “The spectacle’s ‘lonely crowd’ “unites what is separate but unites it only in its separateness.”

Capitalism’s competitive individualism creates a man-eat-man world where individuals trample each other striving for similar goals and aspirations. Individuals perpetually strive against each other, but together. We are united in corporations, housed in close proximity, do ‘team work’ but are becoming increasingly specialized cogs in the economic machine. Some of us do such specialized jobs that we can’t even have a conversation about what it is we do with people outside of work. We all go to work physically together, but sit in silence on tubes and buses psychologically alone.


2. “The basically tautological character of the spectacle flows from the simple fact that its means are simultaneously its ends. It is the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory.” – Debord

Companies want profit but don’t know why. We want progress for progress sake. We strive without realising exactly why. We haven’t questioned our definitions of progress. We haven’t evaluated, we just do stuff “moving forward.” Debord argues that man is now the economy’s puppet.


3. “The more readily he recognizes his own needs in the images of need proposed by the dominant system [Capitalism], the less he understands his own existence and his own desires.”


Many of us do not question why we want a bigger house, why we want a faster car and why we might commute for two hours a day for five days a week in order to buy more stuff. Society, advertising and the media tell us what we want, Debord argues. It’s not about driving the car. It’s about what we think the car represents to others. We constantly need approval from our peers. Debord laments life’s poverty despite affluent appearances.


“The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing [to have], from which all actual “having” must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function. At the same time all individual reality has become social reality directly dependent on social power and shaped by it.”


4. “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.”

We used to understand what we wanted by having real emotional reactions to situations and people. This used to be done through lived, live and unedited ‘intersubjective’ experiences (a heart-to-heart with a whiskey bottle you might say) in which we read other’s body language. We react and interact. Debord worried that our emotions and values are shaped by the media. He considered that the media represents our emotions and values in easy to understand symbols, slogans, corporate speak and email conventions. Debord considers that social interactions, when “directly lived”, are messy and full of ‘guesswork’, or what we might call empathy. Now, representations of what social interactions should be like have stifled an empathetic, “directly lived” experience of conversations we have.


We speak in embarrassingly corporate meaningless jargon to hide what we really want to say (“moving forward” = ‘I want to talk about things in the future but seem to have forgotten how to use the future tense’, and “manage expectations” = ‘be pessimistic, because I am’, are my personal pet peeves). This language, which helps to grease the cogs of the corporate machine, does not foster strong bonds between colleagues. It helps us sing from the same hymn sheet as workers yet masks real communication as people. Emails do something similar.


We ‘read’ a bunch of clichés, symbols and slogans that are designed to make the guessing game or empathizing with other people a bit easier. If a man drives a Volvo we might guess that he valued the safety of his family and would be the kind of person who has a black Labrador. If a woman wears Chanel No5 we know she sees herself as glamorous. If a man has a beard we expect that he fancies himself as a trendy creative-intellectual type. We might then use that beard to sell products that we want to be associated with creative-intellectual bohemianism and Hipster culture.


(Schick’s ‘Free your Skin’ campaign by Y&R)

“When I got my first television set, I stopped caring so much about having close relationships.” – Andy Warhol

The more we let the media mediate our lives the less we live for us, for now, Debord argues. Instead of accepting the now, the ‘me’ and our messy human emotions we are trying to fit into ideas that have been represented to us. The media has helped to formulate our understanding of what is beautiful, who’s successful and what’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Now our interactions are mediated by the media and social media. We worry about how we come across. We worry about ‘I’ (a crafted image of ourself that we portray to others) rather than ‘me’ and we think about what we’re meant to feel rather than just feel it. We mediate ourselves, we mediate other people, the media mediates society. Everything is mediated. Nothing is directly lived.

tumblr_mhrehrSUR81qj73e2o1_500-7698How tasty our breakfast looked on Instagram is more important than how tasty it actually was. Instagram would give Debord a heart attack – we upload pictures of us having fun to represent the fun we were supposed to be having. How much fun we look like we are having is more important than actually having fun.

Instagram down, describe lunch

This all seems fairly bleak (I did warn you) but I feel that there are positives planners can take from Debord’s extreme Marxist views. We shouldn’t shy away from advertiser-bashing and bury our heads in the sand. There are huge amounts of people who think advertisers are scum. We should figure out why to see if there is anything that can be done about it.

“All the branches of knowledge, which continue to develop as the thought of the spectacle, have to justify a society without justification, and constitute a general science of false consciousness. This thought is completely conditioned by the fact that it cannot and will not investigate its own material basis in the spectacular system.” – Debord

Debord can help provide the ethical, rather than practical, answers to several debates that seem to be gathering momentum in advertising and marketing at present. I believe that marketeers, in general, want to do the right thing but are lured into the easy or more practical approach. If we can debate the ethics, however, then maybe we could work upon improving the practicalities of reaching some ideals. If we don’t debate the ethics then we have not questioned our goals – we are upholding what Debord considered to be the tautological conditions of Capitalism, where our means are simultaneously our ends.

Firstly, Debord can help planners to understand and counteract a growing public scepticism of advertising and ‘The Media.’ Everybody hates being sold at. Everybody hates being told what to buy and what to think. They no longer want to be spoonfed information, yet, at the same time, the Internet has made spoonfeeding all the more necessary. It simply isn’t possible to read and see everything, but how do we choose what we find on the Internet? People have not only become increasingly suspicious of what they read and what they see but how and why they have come across it. Who has the power now when it comes to ‘The Media’?

Part I: Mass Media vs The Media of The Masses

Secondly, planners can use Debord’s writing as a way of analysing the social and cultural worth of online interactions. It seems to me that advertising no longer serves a purely commercial purpose. On the one hand advertisers are arguing that commercial success will depend on CRM (Consumer Relationship Management) on the other there are those who believe that creativity sells. How much is a Facebook ‘like’ worth? Should planners regurgitate culture by looking at what people have ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ online and reproducing something similar or should we aim to create something completely new? Should advertisers follow culture or aim to lead it? Should we let brands shape the world we live in or should we let society shape the brands we live with?



Thirdly, reading Debord’s book is, to craft a rather torturous metaphor, rather like watching a CCTV operative watching a crowd of stalkers stalk each other. Planners could do well to look through Debord’s eyes when evaluating social media interactions in which people stalk each other online in full knowledge that they too are being stalked. CCTV is like ‘Big Data’, it gathers all the information on how the two stalkers stalk each other. CCTV and ‘Big Data’ can track their every move, when they move and what they do. The planner can use CCTV/’Big Data’ to observe the stalking game in a detached way.

banksy21Detached observations are objective, yet are, well, detached. We need to empathise too. The planner must ask the ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions to evaluate what the data actually shows. When people don’t know that they are being watched they act differently. They don’t edit their behaviour. On social media we know we are watched. Interrogating social media interactions might involve asking questions like: Who is following? Who is leading? Who’s trying to camouflage? Who’s conspicuous? Are they conspicuously trying to be conspicuous? Who has quickened their pace? Are they are worried that their stalker hasn’t followed suit?

In real life, when we feel like our every move isn’t being recorded we behave differently. We definitely forget about CCTV as Coca-Cola’s advert below demonstrates, but do we forget who’s following us and watching us on social media? How much value can we place on social media interaction when it comes to revealing internal whirrings of consumers? How should brands use social media to better people’s lives? Is it ethical to use ‘Big Data’ or is the CCTV operative a bit creepy? Annoyingly Channel 4’s documentary, CCTV: Caught on Camera, (as always) sat on the fence.

There’s a storm brewing in Adland. ‘Old school dinosaurs’, or Technophobes are questioning ‘Big Data’ and the validity of Social Media and Digital marketing. ‘The digital evangelists’, or Technophiles, are questioning the effectiveness of TV or printed adverts and taking a ‘gut feeling’ over data as a viable means of strategising a marketing plan. It’s that age old debate that Stephen King’s “Advertising: Art and Science” 1982 article discusses and was reinvigorated at an APG event on Planning 3.0.

Part II: The Lonely Crowd