Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Oct 29, 2007 7:08am

blog all dog-eared pages: where the suckers moon

(This is a regular series, see previous entries on Kuhn, Whyte, Buxton, Kidder, Whyte again, Levinson, Edgerton, and a recent name-check from Adam)

Where The Suckers Moon is Randall Rothenberg's account of Subaru's search for an advertising agency in the early 1990s and the campaign that resulted. It traces the strange roots of the car company, diverts into histories of the advertising industry, communications, semiotics, and psychology, and follows the creation of a campaign from its first creative development through the trenches of production and out to public release.

The first half of the book is largely historical, and doesn't provide a lot of quotable material for these excerpts. That's not to say it isn't good reading, just doesn't chunk well.

Reading this book reminded me of the blessing and curse that is YouTube. A blessing, because many of the early 1990s ads described in the narrative are readily available on Google's monster video sharing site, such as Tibor Kalman's work for Pepe Jeans. This ad has lurked in my subconscious for the past 17 years. A curse, because anything of recent interest is inevitably scrubbed from YouTube at a rapidly accelerating clip. Exhibit A is my post on the London 2012 identity I love so dearly, whose linked videos have been pulled for bullshit copyright reasons. I have a half a mind to write the minimal amount of Python and Actionscript it would take to mirror posted videos and keep them as presentable as they are now - the hive mind shared memory functions of sites like YouTube and OiNK are as deeply valuable as the communicative functions of the recorded media they store and share.

Anyway, on to the excerpts.

Page 211, on pomo:

Beyond placing emphasis in filmmaking technique, Wieden & Kennedy's Lou Reed ad helped foster the development of a postmodern sensibility in the advertising industry. In the minds of the youngsters who were entering the business, advertising no longer had to be advertising, or entertainment. It could be, in Larry Bridge's phrase, "metacommentary": art that explicated, through irony, camp, iconic references or self-reference, the commercial itself and the consumer culture of which it was a part. It was a living, evolutionary answer to Walter Benjamin's denial that art could exist in the modern era - "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art."

Page 212-213, on pomo some more:

It may have looked like "metacommentary", but semioticians term it a "false metacommunication" because, through its production techniques, it pointed the viewer in a wrong direction - toward the preferred interpretation of freedom and license - in order to mask its covert purpose, selling mass-manufactured goods, which it did by the implicit linkage of the product with the message of independence. Robert Goldman and Steve Papson, sociologists who have studied this school of advertising, refer to it, with good reason, as "the postmodernism that failed."

Page 225, on conflicted creative direction:

And the truth was this: Jerry Cronin, the new creative director on Subaru of America's advertising account, despised cars. ... "I always hated cars," Jerry said one day in his office. "I didn't own a car until I was twenty-eight. We had no money when I was growing up. We always had these old Ramblers. I always heard the old man complaining about cars. Every time he left the house, he never knew whether the car would get him home." ... "People are far too attached to their cars. I want them to see that cars are a hunk of metal. Automotive advertising is the biggest lie of all time. You want to live better, look better - buy a grill, go to the gym!"

Page 230, on art direction influences:

Jerry was thinking. What he was looking for was inspiration. He had already decided that the look he wanted derived from the heroic Social Realism prevalent in public and commercial art during the 1930s - the "dawn-of-the-Machine-Age" style popularized in friezes by the Works Progress Administration and photographs in Life. That this look was also prevalent in the hortatory art of both Hilter's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union did not escape the agency men. Larry sent his assistant to a local video store to pick up a copy of Leni Riefenstahls's Olympiad, a celebration of Nazi power, to review it for cinematographic stimulation.

Page 301, on Chait/Day and fighting clients:

Watching the agency win, and build, Apple Computer and Yamaha motorcycles and other prestigious accounts taught Luhr the essential lessons of account management in the era of postmodern advertising. To do good work was the purpose of advertising, he learned. And good creative people didn't operate by the same rules by which, say, good bankers do. And clients don't always recognize the value of good creative work or good, quirky creative people, so an account exec had to be prepared to fight the client, anger the client, even risk dismissal or fire the client if the going got too debilitating.

Page 309, on slow hiring:

Everything Wieden & Kennedy was grew out of a creative philosophy that required immersion in the convolutions of American culture, everything the agency could be depended on the collegial spirit of the men and women who filled its offices. Although hundreds of creatives at other agencies across the land would have overturned their lives for a chance to work, however briefly, at Wieden & Kennedy, Dan was not an easy mark. You can't just... just... hire people overnight! You have to talk to them, again and again and again, test them, tease them, scrutinize their work and their philosophies. Since it was difficult to schedule time with Dan (his insistence on approving everything that went on in the agency made him difficult to pin down) Wieden & Kennedy generally took months to hire even relatively junior copywriters and art directors. On the Subaru account, the delays took their toll.

Page 328, on faith:

Faith, while hard won, is easily lost. It can be shaken by many things: misguided words, obstinacy, an inability to grow along with one's partner, suddenly seeing the partner through eyes unblinded by desire. Relationships, of course, are maintained by faith. No matter how fervently contemporary ad agencies insist that they are entertainers or artists, advertising is still founded on relationships. So in advertising, as in marriage, a loss of faith can be debilitating. It is the only quality, really, that binds a client to an agency.

Page 415, on reading between the lines:

"And so this campaign really does explain the key features of the car," Walter said, "in a very simpleminded way, not unlike the way Lexus is doing it." (Features: That meant Wieden & Kennedy had learned to talk about engineering. Simpleminded: That showed the agency was not striving to be creative. Lexus: That proved the agency had learned to sell by overselling.) "It hits on something we learned in the research: Impreza considerers need to be sold." (Research: That meant the work wasn't the invention of artsy types. Sold: That spoke again to the agency's new willingness to huckster.) "It also has a new tactical element, a videotape that we'll send consumers and ask them to respond to, via toll-free number." (Tactical: That showed Wieden & Kennedy was ready to deploy gimmicks. Toll-free number: The kind of gimmicks used by the big, boring agencies in New York.)

Page 427, in conclusion:

Subaru of America had learned the lesson of advertising. Advertising did not work by entertaining or assaulting the intellect of its audience, as the company's previous agencies had believed. Nor did it work through subliminal manipulation, as so many Americans, ever on the lookout for conspiracies, misguidedly thought. Instead, advertising, as the great ad man Bruce Barton had acknowledged decades before, was "something big, something splendid, something which goes deep down into an institution and gets hold of the soul of it." To succeed, advertising cannot seek to invent a new soul. Instead, it must reinforce and redirect the existing image. It must serve as a form of mythology, providing the corporation's various and often competing constituencies - of which consumers are only one of many - heroes, villains, principles, rules of conduct and stories with which they can rally the faithful to remain true to the cause. Only then, with luck and effort, can they win new converts.
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