The Consumer Republic: Same Time, Next Year

Perhaps there is no breakthrough coming because advertising and marketing have already become the lingua franca of all culture.
For an industry obsessed with the new and improved, advertising is awfully predictable. Since the ’90s–the 1890s, that is–the business has endured regular cycles of creative boom and bust.
During the ’60s, we witnessed the Creative Revolution, itself a reaction to the “scientific” methods of the preceding decade. By the ’70s, the wheel had turned–and the gospel of hard sell ruled once more. Then came the ’80s and the flowering of regional ad agencies, where it was again glorious to be young and creative. Which brings us to the present day.
Anyone who watched the spots on the sitcom that just ended after nine seasons (I’ve sworn off mentioning the S-word) would be justified in thinking that the old patterns hold true. Here were ads whose only Big Idea was the sheer volume of the audience that watched them; not one justified the cost of its airtime. Meanwhile, New York, the erstwhile capital of American advertising, hasn’t had a hot shop to call its own in more than 10 years. On the West Coast, the creative situation is less dire, yet no one knows when–or if–the next Chiat, Wieden or Goodby will emerge.
Still, no one can say creativity is passƒ today. Judging from the creative director chairs that have languished empty for months, there’s a screaming demand that far outstrips supply. Creativity’s value to the industry can be measured by the sums agencies use to entice worthy candidates. The trouble is there’s too few of them.
By any objective measure, the ’90s should be a golden age of advertising. Even if the discipline’s role in the marketing mix has shrunk in the past few decades, the consensus is that no brand can do without advertising’s alchemy. Clients are fattening their budgets, while the prognosticators hurry to adjust their spending predictions upward. Agency holding company stocks are buoyant. New categories–pharmaceuticals, energy utilities–are flowering. Most important, the consumer is everything a devotee of cutting-edge creative could want: flush with prosperity, eager to spend and experience. Here’s an audience not only open to “breakthroughs” in culture, but addicted to them as well.
Amid all these blessings, however, it feels as if American creative is going nowhere. Sure, there are good, effective ads out there, probably as many as in any era. For every category that is sinking, such as soft drinks, there’s one like cars, which, thanks to Volkswagen, is showing signs of life. Yet it seems as if the revolving wheel of creativity’s fortunes is stuck, or worse, fallen off its axle.
Perhaps there is no breakthrough coming because advertising and marketing have already become the lingua franca of all culture. The reality of the ’90s is that no matter what a company makes or does, it’s got to be in the marketing business. In the ever-escalating battle for audience attention, there can be no draft dodgers or conscientious objectors. Either you join the branding chorus or you drop out of the conversation.
The fact remains: The creative costs of uniformity are high. You remember the Establishment, the ’60s clichƒ that launched a thousand ad lines? Today, marketing is the Establishment, an invulnerable moving target always rushing to the Next Thing, mysteriously going nowhere. Despite the creative director crunch, I believe advertising has the talent, not to mention the budgets and cultural esteem, it needs. What it lacks is the resistance on which to whet the cutting edge.
In a pointed essay in last week’s U.S. News & World Report, Todd Gitlin takes readers on an alliterative tour of pop culture in the 21st century. In the future, he sees saturation, segmentation, synergy, sensation, scandal and speed. He leaves out one word: sameness. In this vision, the next century is governed by the same trends, preoccupations and techno-obsessions that inform our own–except there will be more of them. It’s the ’90s all over again, but at a higher velocity. Writing as a bitter, if fatalistic, critic of the global marketscape, Gitlin cannot imagine, let alone hope for, the breakthrough that will lead to the next wave. Pop culture will migrate and multiply. What it won’t do is change.
In such a world, the cutting edge becomes a matter of shifting surfaces: the flavor-of-the-month director, the photographer du jour, the fashionable typeface, the latest computerized special effect. The problem is that talent is available to anyone who has the budget to pay for it, while the most startling special effect, once seen, devolves into a visual commodity. Advertising can and does champion the Next Thing, but it can’t stave off creative parity.
The irony is that parity among products is what forced everyone into the marketing business. It’s a commonplace today that technology has rendered differences between products obsolete; their only “real” distinctions are the unreal images that advertising and marketing create. So what happens if advertising itself becomes a parity product? We’re about to find out.