Critical Approaches to the Study of Advertising

Organizer: James F. Hamilton
Curator: James F. Hamilton
Conversationalists: Robert Bodle, Helen Kennedy, Andrew McStay
Download a PDF Version of this Conversation: Culture in Conversation March 2014

James Hamilton, Curator
The idea for this conversation emerged in the wake of a preconference at ICA in 2013 organized by myself, Robert Bodle, and to which McStay and Kennedy—among many others—contributed. Titled “Exploring and Remaking Critical Studies of Advertising,” preconference attendees excavated strategies, theories, and histories that might be deployed to develop what might be considered a “critical approach” to advertising studies and grew from the following problematic:

Current and impending practices of advertising have outstripped in many ways the reach of traditional modes of critique. The culture-industry thesis developed by the Frankfurt School, the mass-culture thesis of social criticism, theses of cultural imperialism, of semiotic criticism, and Baudrillardian theories of simulacra (to name just a few) emerged at a time of and are premised upon advertising and media systems up through the 1980s, which were generally highly centralized, professionalized and routinized. However, emergent advertising/media systems today increasingly exceed such characterizations and the perspectives upon which they are premised. A growing and digitally-driven advertising ecosystem depends more and more on marketing research to improve the efficiency and value of ad spending. The practice of tracking consumer behavior across ubiquitous computing environments to profile and personalize ad content is reconfiguring the ad industry and its practices, with important social implications. … Yet, digital profiling and personalization based on tracking user content may usher in new forms of manipulation and social discrimination that current critical approaches are ill-equipped to address.

Preconference contributors probed traditional critiques of advertising and the contexts of their emergence, as well as considered recent and emergent theoretical resources for more historically responsive bases of a critical assessment of advertising in society. As described in the above rationale, contemporary conditions obfuscate prior lines of critique, yet it is important to not lose the concerns that motivate critique in the first place. The following conversation continues and solidifies some key lines of discussion. I posed the following questions to my colleagues….

Critical studies of advertising seem to have hit a crossroads. I’m no longer convinced that traditional critical perspectives (Critical Theory, semiotic/structuralist, political-economic) can simply be mechanically applied to the current times. Advertising practice and the hyper-extension of consumer culture into the digital realm has changed so much since the formulation of these “classic” critical positions. Is this just me? Or do you also see the same problems with applying existing critical positions to today’s practice?

Robert Bodle
I am looking at how advertising is driving privacy practices on social networks, especially Facebook. I am also using a critical political economy approach to identify, theorize, and critique unequal social relations on the social network site (SNS). I am not totally sure that this approach is entirely adequate given the major challenges presented by social media advertising, which includes: difficulty tracking all the third party players and their relationships and data handling practices, the ubiquity of tracking from site to site, the combining of offline and online data, and the role of people’s participation in disclosing information.  I tend to revert back to political economy because the very difficulty in determining what is going on is part of the critique–that people online are not able to know what is known about them, do not have access to this information, and do not have the right to opt out of it while participating in the main currents of online life. I am also aware of some limitations in using political economy when theorizing agency and I am in trying to address this in some of the questions I ask of my own work and in developing a synthesis of approaches.

Andrew McStay
Advertising is broadening its reach, and representational approaches are of less use than they once were. For me this is twofold: as addressed in my book the Mood of Information, we need to be looking more closely at advertising technologies; however, as laid out in another book of mine Creativity and Advertising, representational approaches to creativity are of limited use too.

For me the question on critical approaches to advertising today is a difficult one because the terms of the proposition have changed so much (“critical approaches” and “advertising”). The neo-Marxist aspect to the first is problematic and while the audience-as-commodity observation is interesting on first reveal, I’m not sure how far this gets us. This is always a fun session to do with my students so to have them think in terms of audience, aggregation/deaggregation, profiling, economic value and so on, but where do we go with this? What do we want? What can we recommend? What are we able to point out that is not relatively plain to see?

Further, if we are going to do critical studies, do we take on board all of the neo-Marxist baggage that goes with ‘being critical’? Do we seek wholesale change to markets, politics and society; or, do we really want employment of liberal values, a little more respect for individuals and less privileging of corporate interests? If we eschew Marxism and prefer instead the Foucaultian variety that questions norms, epistemes and formations, we seem to be getting closet to the nub of things (I also tend to the belief that despite Foucault’s protestations, his views are closer to J.S. Mill’s account of liberalism than he would ever admit).

This still does not get us to answers about what we should be doing. Do we want “critical-lite”? Critical-lite I guess is that which admits of a status quo but is interested in the smaller issues rather than the huge macro issues that Hegelian-inspired Marxian theorizing engages in. Critical-lite for example involves the specifics of technologies, work practices, regulation, legislation, development of norms and protocols (I’m thinking about privacy here), and so on. This does not have the romance of critical theory, but to me these are the sites where criticism can make a real difference.

Helen Kennedy
Maybe the term ‘critical-lite’ is not quite right, as it’s a bit pejorative. It reminds me of a talk I gave from my book Net Work: Ethics and Values in Web Design where someone in the audience described the ethics I was talking about as ‘ethics’ lite’ – ie not real ethics, fake or faux ethics, ethics for personal gain.

Does critique have to be Marxist, neo-Marxist, Marxist influenced? I know that historically the term ‘critical’ has been linked to Marxism, but maybe a project for critical advertising studies is to disaggregate them. After all, as Robert suggests, such approaches are not useful for making sense of agency. I don’t think we should have to defend non-Marxist influenced approaches as ‘not critical’ or ‘not sufficiently critical’. To my mind, the best recent effort to connect up political  economy with other approaches which acknowledge agency is Jose Van Dicjk’s, The Culture of Connectivity.

Does everything need criticizing though? Sometimes not. For example in relation to my research with social media monitoring companies, I’ve observed practices that reassure me that the ethic fault lines in people’s non-work lives permeate the workplace – there are things that individuals will not do (work for particular bodies, explore particular topics), so companies don’t do them. That nuance needs to be acknowledged.

I *really* like Robert’s point that advertising practices are shaping social media privacy practices – I think this is an observation worth pursuing.

James Hamilton
Great points about “critical” too easily becoming not only a euphemism for an ostensibly unified Marxist perspective (more on this below) but also simply a synonym for “grumpy,” as in always nitpicking and finding fault with everything and anything.

Personally, I’d hate to equate “critical” solely with “Marxist,” if only because it doesn’t make any logical sense. After all, KM himself quipped “All I know is that I am not a Marxist.” Rather than a dogma or, even worse, a Theory (with capital T), recalling the sense of “critical” as attention to the radically historical/contextual constitution of phenomena (rather than locating the nature of phenomena in some kind of predetermined essence)–including this very premise!–captures for me more clearly the impetus of a critical approach.

Seen this way, I can’t imagine any ethically responsible scholarship *not* attending to the historical/contextual processes that constitute the phenomena under study as well as the means by which it is conceptualized and studied and emerging as a phenomenon important enough to study in the first place.

This leads me to thinking about advertising. The very conditions of advertising practice today we’re talking about are in my mind requiring a critical approach. The supposed identity of the phenomenon itself seems to be crumbling under the weight of current practice.

Andrew McStay
Again, it’s interesting how the word “critical” is being employed. This is interesting and broader than I how I normally consider the work. As mentioned before, in the UK “critical” has a definite neo-Marxist character to it (certainly in the domain of Media Studies). As to the broader point about how advertising is changing, I agree about the point about the problem of discrete pieces of advertising. This is a problem for both practice and study. In general, as an industry, advertising is far more conservative than it supposes and it’s modeling of communication is almost one that can be expressed in engineering terms (effectiveness, force, reach, targets and so on).  There are interesting pockets of practice though (I’m thinking Droga5 and B-Reel) who do not even refer to themselves as advertising agencies (actually few do now [see homepages of top 10 agencies], but the majority still make very traditional advertising nonetheless). B-Reel is interesting to me because of the degree of media innovation that goes into their work (see The Wilderness Downtown for Google’s Chrome). This is a point I raise in a chapter titled ‘Excessive Media’ in Creativity and Advertising where I discuss the move from discrete communication to transversal creativity in advertising. Less wordy, this means how media are harnessed, layered, hacked (as in repurposed) and used so to creative co-authored (with us) media experiences that have emergent and ecological properties (i.e. they are predicated on the interaction of multiple media forms and people). Coca Cola’s 2012 reworking of Hilltop and much of Sony’s work in Japan are also good examples. And then we come to the question of how to study all of this. Much of what is interesting to me in advertising has very little to do with traditional notions of representation, linguistics and those approaches found in books such as Decoding Advertisements. This is because this approach both separates the text from both the medium and the place in which it is corporeally and viscerally experienced. Agencies seem to be cottoning on to the latter, why aren’t why we? Long live real media studies! 😉

The point about the borders of advertising is very interesting one and I don’t think this one we would find easy agreement on. Borders usually imply an entity or system within an environment, but these are incredibly porous and while functionally distinct we will not find absolute borders, not least as systems require sustenance from environments. That said, I don’t mean to say that one ‘mushes’ into the other – there are functional distinctions, e.g. ad networks, agencies, clients and media organizations. However, this is porous when we consider their interaction and independence on people, cookies, non-paid for media, imbibing and reproduction of branded outlooks, and so on. The latter point is an important one too as we wouldn’t want to get up to caught up in the ‘new’, as questions about brands and influence are clearly much older.

James Hamilton
What’s “critical” is almost a misnomer if seen in the way I’m describing. One needs an “anti-definition” of “critical,” as a definition is a positive(-ist) term that fixes, defines and thus turns into a thing with its own independent (reified) existence. A lot of this I soaked up many years ago in graduate school from my adviser Hanno Hardt at Iowa, who helped me understand far beyond the comic-book version of the Critical Theory of Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, etc. as simply a Teutonic version of the mass-culture critique. Martin Jay wrote a wonderful essay published in 1986 on the theoretical project of Critical Theory in which he characterized the Frankfurt School’s project as a critique of Marxist humanism and thus of positivism. He calls it “the rejection of identity theory”–meaning in other words that presumptions of an ultimate unity as an explanation. Other materialists (my preferred term) put the same point differently. Theory is historical, not trans-historical. To my mind, this is a different claim that relativism. A theoretical position emerges within and gains traction within a particular historical context. But just as that context is variable and complex, so too are the variety of theoretical explanations that seem to speak to that moment.

I just see in my email box this morning a posting about the just-released issue of Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, in which editor James Hay apparently commissioned a number of contributions from authors to write on the issue of critical studies, cultural studies, etc. So, it seems that our ruminations about what critical can be are in good company!

Andy, you’re exactly right about the redefinition going on in the industry today–that even for some on the cutting edge the title of “advertising agency” is being set aside (although not the common position yet). Yet, still, the scholarly study retains that term (although recent efforts such as the Routledge collection edited by McAllister and West seeks to expand this by adding on “promotional culture” to its title).

Your thoughts about what you call “transversal creativity” is a critical aesthetic in the terms I’m talking about critical, in that it is exploding the notion of a singular author and thus of a text as her/his expression. I guess this pushes one step further the notion of a “corporate author” which has been around for some time (I mean, a corporation is not a single person, although it is legally regarded as such), but in a much further direction.

And your point about the ecological situatedness (or, in other terms, its radical contextuality) as determining this activity is to my mind exactly right and what is too often lost in textual analyses, which depend first on isolating the text in a petri dish for extended dissection.

I think this is precisely where the new kinds of (let’s call them) contextual practices of the practice-formerly-known-as-advertising (like the artist-formerly-known-as-Prince) can be approached, which is an emphasis on their radical contextuality. That way, the traditional “center” of discrete campaigns and so on can be addressed along with all the cutting-edge practice, instead of partitioned into “old,” “new,” etc.

What kind of topics then present themselves? In what ways then might scholars avoid the isolate “silo” of “advertising” while still not dissolving it into everything else? In what ways might we recognize the specificities while at the same time acknowledging the interrelationships and mutual constitutions?

Robert Bodle
Picking up the difficulty of assessing the identity of the object of study—James Hamilton’s point about advertising as “crumbling”–seems provocative and appropriately transformative in conceptualization. Advertising as a cultural, social, economic, ideological and technological practice is so entangled, embedded, and situated that, as Andy mentioned, cannot be seen as merely “discrete” representational approaches or aesthetics. So then critical approaches would have to encompass the broader context of advertising’s emergence within a broader context of communication practices that would involve the most recent social, database, and algorithmic driven techniques as well as taking into account the historicity of these new fangled practices.

I tend to dwell on the online ecosystem aspects of advertising, how code, interoperability, data, and interactivity undermines user autonomy, discriminates against people, and intrudes into private daily lives. However, it seems to me a critical approach to user agency should also take into account user participation as a critical feedback component (perhaps related to AMs “feedback loop” in the Mood of Advertising), where brands are interdependent with consumers in their co-creation and management and in unpredictable uncontrollable ways, as Banet-Weiser points out in her new book Authentic: the Politics of Ambivalence and AM suggests with his term “transversal creativity.”

As the identity of advertising is crumbling, it’s worth identifying the new contours, parameters, edges, and interrelationships.  I like Andrew McStay’s discussion of specific campaigns and practices, and I agree with James Hamilton that here might be a good place to situate critical theory of advertising as grounded in real world examples that are historically and ecologically situated, and radically contextualized in a way that rejects the “ultimate unity as explanation,” independent reification, and ideological over-determination.

Andrew McStay
Following on from Robert and returning back to the original question of what critical advertising scholarship is today, it seems like we collectively agree that traditional conceptual canons that support studies of “representation” are not enough. As has been broached, the technologies and associated practices that support novel means of doing advertising increasingly take center stage in “new critical advertising scholarship”. This is not to say we have somehow surpassed questions of identity politics, cultural theory and meaning creation. These remain pertinent questions but at least temporarily they are surpassed by ongoing questions about the implications of new technologies. It seems the public are very interested in these topics too. For example in recent weeks I’ve written a number of popular articles and done radio spots on the personal and social implications of new advertising technologies (e.g. Sky TV and personalized advertising, and Xbox who via Kinect seek to scan living rooms and subjects and objects therein). Of course, brining these together, classic questions of meaning and ideology are also represented in the “politics of code”.

As to what critical scholarship is, increasingly this is interdisciplinary, is it not? I’m not sure I can identify one particular modus, but it seems to involve using what ever tools are required to understand the development or object at hand. Whether this involves philosophy, law, computer science, cultural theory, art practitioners, or whatever, or some collaborative work between all of these, this is what it takes. As to objectives and purpose, I tend to see this in terms of mindfulness, dissemination, doing social good, and providing context and understanding for both folk and decision-makers.

James Hamilton
Obviously, we have not solved any of the knotty problems faced by critical scholars of advertising. But, the above conversation does the important work of pinning down where the knots lie. As we identified the competing definitions and traditions of critical work that preclude our objects of interest, we hopefully have clarified fruitful future directions. How definitions and traditions of critique might be creatively rethought or perhaps discarded is an open question, but one always well worth asking.

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