Adam Corner traces how advertizing agencies co-opted anti-consumerism and irony to create more effective copy. He writes, “It seems almost quaint, now that popular culture is riddled with knowing, self-referential nods to itself, but the aim of advertising used to be straightforward: to associate a product in a literal and direct way with positive images of a desirable, aspirational life”:
Genre-subverting ads started to emerge as early as 1959, when the Volkswagen Beetle’s US ‘Think Small’ campaign began poking fun at the German car’s size and idiosyncratic design. In stark contrast to traditional US car adverts, whose brightly coloured depictions of gargantuan front ends left the viewer in no doubt that bigger was better, the Beetle posters left most of the page blank, a tiny image of the car itself tucked away in a corner. These designs spoke to a generation that was becoming aware of how the media and advertising industries worked. The American journalist Vance Packard had blown the whistle on the tricks of the advertising trade in The Hidden Persuaders (1957), and younger consumers increasingly saw themselves as savvy. Selling to this demographic required not overeager direct pitches, but insouciant ‘cool’, laced with irony.
In subsequent decades, self-aware adverts became the norm, and advertising began to satirise the very concept of itself.
In 1996, Sprite launched a successful campaign with the slogan ‘Image is nothing. Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst’. In 2010, Kotex sent up the bizarre conventions of 1980s tampon adverts (happy, dancing women, jars of blue liquid being spilt) by flashing up the question ‘Why are Tampon adverts so ridiculous?’ before displaying its latest range of sanitary products.
‘Companies try to convince you that they are part of your family,’ says Tim Kasser, professor of psychology and an expert on consumer culture at Knox College in Illinois. ‘They want to create a sense of connection or even intimacy between the viewer and the advertiser. An ad that says: “Yes, I know you know that I’m an ad, and I know that you know that I’m annoying you” is a statement of empathy, and thus a statement of connection. And as any salesperson will tell you, connection is key to the sales.’
Copyranter, from his new perch at Vice, recently examined this phenomenon on a more meta level:
The purpose of an advertising agency’s existence is to advertise things. You would think, then, that they would be great at advertising their own services. That is not the case. In fact, ad agencies, even the so-called “creative” ones, are nearly, universally terrible at it. Not just not good—terrible. They do things like create insipid videos that make you wonder why the place is still in business, or create ads that are pathetically derivative or pointless or laughable or worse—look like they were created by a 10-year-old boy. But, if you really want to show potential clients how edgy you are, you make your employees pose nude in space helmets, and without a whiff of irony call it “The Creative Influence.”
The above ads and ideas were all hatched by big or “hot” shops. Which is just sad. However, there is one agency that seems to have at least a clue: john st. in Toronto. For several years now, john st. has released videos that perfectly mock a current advertising trend. Mocking advertising trends is like bashing a dead horse in the face. But doing it memorably and originally and as an insider is another thing.
The latest example from john st.:
(Image: An ad for South African newspaper The Cape Times, part of a series turning iconic photos into selfies, via Laughing Squid)