Of Illusionists and Hostage-Takers

Remember when beer was just beer? (No? OK, maybe you’re not old enough.)

Jesse Frederik of De Groene Amsterdammer does, though, although from the mini-vignette of him that we see at the top of the column to which the above tweet links he doesn’t seem to be that old himself.

Beer was not always a branded article. From surveys among retailers just after the Second World War [remember, this is written within a Dutch context], it was apparent that only ten percent of customers ever asked for a specific brand. Beer was beer, and nothing more!

Ah, but things eventually changed. “Brand consciousness arrived only when brewers realized that marketing, the selling of illusions, could show consumers differences where there weren’t any.” Beer from Heineken – the company which turned out to be most successful at this new game by far – became perceived as the social tipple, Amstel (a brand later purchased by Heineken) as the “people’s beer,” Hertog Jan as “chic.” Physically, though, they had only minor differences if any.

So what did we get? Lots more marketing expenses among brewers, and of course an explosion in Dutch beer consumption over the years – from ten liters per year in 1950 to 86 in 1980. “The glass of beer, once a brand-less product, comparable to sugar, became a great vehicle for solving all your problems.”

Except that we know it only sometimes seems to solve our problems, and then only for limited times, before the hangover sets in.

The point is not alcohol, however; the point is advertising in general, for which it is estimated that it will be worth some $600 billion worldwide by 2015, according to figures that Frederik cites. But what is the social value-added gained here? He also quotes an early Marketing Professor, Paul Nystrom – not Dutch, either, but affiliated with Columbia University and more particularly with his “philosophy of futility,” whereby he asserted that advertising has as its aim robbing us of any true meaning to our lives, so that our possessions, what we can buy, can move in to that psychological void to take over. Frederik summarizes in that tweet you see above: “advertising is a senseless exercise and sickens our culture.”

Obviously I am sympathetic to such views, but I am particularly struck by them in view of a certain Dutch phenomenon that Frederik does not mention (perhaps he wasn’t allowed the space). That is the Gouden Loeki Awards (= “Golden Loeki”; Loeki is just a silly name), which you can read all about (but in Dutch) at a website with the handy URL “We love advertising!” These yearly awards are meant for the “best” ad spot of that particular year, with candidates tracked month-by-month towards the awarding of the top-prize at a gala televised ceremony each mid-December – selection for which is heavily (although not exclusively) influenced by viewing audience votes submitted by phone or social media.

The greater point, though, obviously is to glorify advertising and the advertising industry. All of this can’t help but make me think of the famous “Stockholm Syndrome,” in which those who are victims of some hostage situation come to feel sympathy or even solidarity with their captors. I submit that with the Gouden Loeki Awards we are faced with something similar, whereby people inexplicably are willing not just to tolerate but indeed to glorify what is but at best an annoying exercise in deliberate psychological manipulation, in illusion-selling.

I am all for, say, dramatic works which try to capture the anguish a mother feels as her son grows into a man and so away from her, and surely for such a piece to appear on TV – but please, spare me a sixty-second spot shaping the motif around pushing Old Spice deodorant! In the same deodorant vein, I’m also all for world peace, but – as already highlighted in this article in the German Huffington Postthis ascends to dizzying new heights of politically-correct pretentiousness:

It turns out that this spot is among those awaiting its formal coming-out at that analog to the Loeki awards within American culture, which is of course the Super Bowl and the painstaking examination, nay adoration, of the associated television commercials swarming around its broadcast.

Again, Frederik also did not bring up in his piece this evidence of how the world’s most prosperous single-language market has itself been so successfully brainwashed to be in thrall to hucksters’ messages. Nonetheless, he makes several very good points as it is, and what’s also remarkable is the degree to which he is willing to bite the hand that feeds him as he does so. For there is also a good side to advertising, and that is the money it makes available to keep alive creative institutions which otherwise might be at a loss for funding. Like De Groene Amsterdammer, for instance – this cultural/literary magazine is surely already struggling financially in the current environment of on-line competition and generally shortened societal attention-spans, one need not even ask.

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