Debra Goldman’s Postscript

Leggo My Ego

The Ad and the Ego sounds like a documentary about the One Show. In fact, it’s the name of a new video that wants to wake up consumers to the overwhelming influence of advertising in their lives. It debuted recently in New York at an event formerly known as the Counter-Clios (the real Clios threatened to sue), a gathering of Consumer Republic dissidents who presented awards to various advertisers for their distinguished contributions to society’s ills.

Perhaps you missed it. The idea of professors and journalists kvetching about commercials sets Ad Land yawning. The Ad and the Ego, however, is an hour of advertising that ad professionals can, if not enjoy, at least appreciate.

Directed and co-produced by Philadelphia filmmaker and editor Howard Boihem, it meets the enemy on its own turf, splicing together 1500 ads at warp speed and multilayering the montage with a soundscape from the noise band Negativland, which is so cool they were approached by Wieden & Kennedy to do a radio ad for Miller Genuine Draft, reports ad critic Leslie Savan, and so ideologically pure they said no. The result–a phantasmagoric deconstruction of advertising’s wall-o-images–is an impressive communications tool.

But make no mistake. The Ad and the Ego blames the ad industry for everything up to and including the Gulf War. Yet in watching, I was reminded of how little separates an institution’s critics from its avid admirers. If you believe the social critics’ analysis, which is interwoven with the video’s mesmerizing images, advertising, far from being trivial, is our culture’s main event: pervasive, resourceful and effective. (This notion makes one wonder why ad people are so hot to get into movies and TV; moving from the ad to the entertainment business would be a demotion.) As University of Massachusetts professor Sul Jharry says, ‘Advertisers understand the (human need for symbolic meaning) much better than the critics do.’

In their understanding of how and why ads works, the critics and the criticized are in accord. The dividing line is their attitudes toward the consumer. ‘I don’t think people are totally stupid,’ Jharry says. But the ultimate message of The Ad and the Ego is that people are pretty stupid–much more stupid than marketers think they are. One commentator, Stuart Ewen, compares consumers to Pavlov’s dogs. In this vision, consumers are witless victims advertising ‘does’ things to. But as marketers see it, it is the consumer who ‘does’ it, craving the symbolic meanings and dreaming the dreams that show up in ads–while they hold on for dear life. Advertising’s critics fear for consumers; advertisers merely fear them.

Advertising is everywhere. Does it logically follow that, being everywhere, it is responsible for everything? The creepy thing about consumer society, where the objective world and the dream-filled subjective world are so intimately intertwined, is that the whole question of who or what is responsible becomes meaningless. Who is to ‘blame’ for consumer culture, the ad or the ego? There’s no simple answer.

Yet The Ad and the Ego neatly proves its point about our culture’s domination by the ad world. That is, there is no place to see it. Thus far, the video has not found a spot on any of our 50-plus channels, which seems a shame. The program is a natural for the desirable 18-35 demographic, appealing both to its members’ fascination with the empire of images and to their queasy hatred of advertising’s omnipresence.

I predict it will be a hit on the college rental circuit, even though PBS has turned it down. Like the slogan says, if PBS doesn’t do it, who will? The Ad and the Ego is not sponsorable. And in an age in which everything is marketed, and marketing is everywhere, that’s saying something.

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