It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Advertising) Revisited

pop_classics_2.jpgMaybe the Flaming Lips have it right on their new album…

If you knew all the answers and could give it to the masses?

Would you do it?

No no no no no no are you crazy?

Almost THREE years ago I wrote the following piece about online advertisements, spyware, banners, pops, email and the general state of online and affiliate marketing at the time. I think this is still particularly appropriate for our current place in space and time.  When I wrote this, I’d been in the industry for a while at this point and I was getting particularly upset with the state the of the whole enterprise by this point.

However, I believe in the general mission of online marketing more than anyone and know that affiliate marketing, in particular, has incredible transformational potential for society (at least of the American variety) due to its emphasis and ability to stress relationship.

Three years from now, let’s make sure we can look back on this point in time and space and realize what we have learned.

Here’s the piece…

Try to imagine life without advertisements. At this point, it is ultimately worthless to attempt such a feat. However, the backlash against advertisements has been an ongoing phenomenon well before digital recorders, email filters and pop-stoppers. The advent of the VCR brought the same apocalyptic predictions from advertising analysts. However, these reports of impending doom soon proved baseless. However, products like TiVo, the Federal Do Not Call list (60 million Americans have signed up), and email “junk boxes” (present in 54% of American homes) do present a different sort of challenge to advertisers looking for eyeballs. Can consumers ever filter advertisements out of their life? Ultimately, what do advertisements mean to the mythos of our society?

Andy Warhol took the symbol of the advertisement and was able to express an incredible amount of meaning from common icons of pop culture. Part of Warhol’s genius was his ability to reproduce images that were seemingly so mundane into complicated representations of contemporary life. In Warhol’s works, Coca-Cola bottles, Brillo boxes, Campbell Soup cans and everyday brand images become hieroglyphs (literally translated means “sacred texts”) of contemporary American life. In Warhol’s vision, advertisements serve as an important key to understanding the complex visual nature of pop society.

Public feelings and opinions aside, what fundamental service and meaning do advertisements serve in 21st century American culture? Are ads contemporary hieroglyphs as Warhol posed, or are they more defined by Dylan’s contention in his 1965 song It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)?:

Advertising signs that con you
Into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.

As direct marketers, we’d certainly like to think that Warhol’s canonization of advertisements is more valid than the opinions of those who would love to see their demise, whether on email, tv or radio. However, returning to the first question posed in this article, imagine a world devoid of advertisements. Certainly, culture as we know it would be radically different.

Advertisements supply a great deal of contextualization, meaning, and dare I say, value to pop-culture. It can be argued that ads actually supply a socialization tool that helps to predict and secure norms within the culture. If it were possible to choose every advertisement that we saw as consumers, or block them entirely how would that affect the social situation held together, in large part, by advertisements?

Good or bad, advertisements have become the sacred scripture of the American dominated global pop culture. In the global culture held together by “market capitalism” the signs of the world’s great religions have been usurped by the Golden Arches and the red and white Coca-Cola bottles. Warhol tapped into this by exposing the sanctification of advertisements in their ability to supply and convey cultural truths, norms and ultimately, definition.

Where is the line to be drawn? Is spyware or adware acceptable forms of advertising? What does “acceptable” mean? Should we be subjected to so much advertising in our daily lives that it fills our memory banks to the brim and spills over? Advertising has always existed. No doubt, it always will. Advertisers have constantly sought the most eyeballs available for the dollar and looked for ways to codify themselves in the normal life of consumers. Post-modern bombardment of the sub-conscious can truly seem like a troubling issue that we as direct marketers and advertisers must face and answer. However, at a certain point, advertisements do fill the gap in our collective need for stabilization and provide social “norms” in a fragmented post-modern society.

As consumers continue to invest more time and money into “ad-blocking” technologies, the question of advertisement’s place among the masses is raised in this new context of direct, targeted and instant marketing. Will the Warhol of the 21st century proclaim the sacredness of weight-loss or mortgage html email creatives?

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