Monday, December 4, 2017


When I think of advertising in fiction, my mind goes straight to the futuristic dystopias like Blade Runner, where the ads were the height of buildings, and Minority Report, where ads would register your identity via your eyes, and advertise directly to you. Firefly/Serenity also had advertising jingles, which were used as a trigger for River because they could appear anywhere without notice.

Jingles are interesting because they are most effective when they are incredibly hard to forget. Too many of us remembered the Oscar Meyer song, and the list of Big Mac ingredients, from our childhoods. Che said she thought that they had gone out of style in favor of pop music, but we could still think of what we called micro-jingles, like the very brief Nationwide jingle, or the Intel Inside series of four notes, that are in current use.

I created a fictional scenario that falls into the category of the future dystopia with advertising in my story, "Mind Locker." In that story, everyone had augmented reality with internet in their heads, and the slums of the city were hidden from citydwellers by a layer of virtually projected advertising.

To take it back to the opposite end technologically, we can look at fantasy scenarios where taverns have signs hanging out front, and where vendors sing songs or have calls to hawk their wares.

Che told us how in the Rome HBO series, there was a town crier who shouted out the news, and interspersed the news with an advertisement for a bakery. People in the city could apparently pay him to advertise their bread.

If you are running a business in a fantasy or science fictional world, what would be the optimal method to get the word out about it? You don't necessarily know who the interested people are. If you get the word out, that means you get more business, which means you have more work to do. What is the economic system into which your business fits?

We could think of more fictional scenarios with very little advertising, or a great deal, than with a middling amount of it.

Businesses are always looking for better reach, new and better ways to reach consumers. There's an insidiousness to advertising, also, because it can be extremely manipulative, selling a lifestyle, or a feeling, or making you feel as if your life is incomplete without a product that you don't really need. This is one of the reasons why it can be illegal to advertise certain products to children.'

In our world, consciously navigating advertising can require a lot of self-awareness and smarts.

There are three things going on here.

1. Actual need. There's a product someone is making, and another person needs to have it for life, and they need to find each other.
2. Cultural narrative. There is a product that becomes part of a significant cultural narrative of value, which then results in people feeling they need it for status or inclusion, when in fact they would not die without it.
3. Manipulation. This is the further extreme of the cultural narrative scenario, when people are convinced they need a product when obtaining it will harm them, either literally or by denting their means to do other things that are critical for their success.

A lot of ads tell tiny stories about how with this thing you will be healthy, or happy, or have something else terribly important.

Cliff spoke a bit about ads that target children, because he has had to explain to his twins that "they are paying this woman to pretend to be enjoying this toy." Ads can be disguised as an enthusiast making a video.

We spoke about viral marketing, like the case of the Chewbacca Mom. In her case, this was a spontaneous video of someone enjoying a product, and it turned out to be such a winning endorsement that it made a huge difference for the product and the company involved, who then turned around and rewarded her - sort of a backwards way of advertising. Not quite the same, but closely related, was the joke that KFC hid on their Twitter feed, which got news when a person discovered it, and the company then rewarded that person.

Amazon reviews are an interesting question here, because some are endorsements, and others are paid advertising masquerading as endorsements.

I brought up the idea of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. When a person's actions are motivated from the inside, they are called intrinsic. This is what was going on with Chewbacca mom. The excitement of a person in a TV ad for a product is motivated by external reward, and is called extrinsic. The two are quite different in their effect.

This is one of the reasons why learning about persuasive language is very important.

If you are setting up advertising in a fictional scenario, ask:

What is appropriate for whom, and when?
Who benefits?

Are there worthy projects that people should support?

Is your society a capitalist society, or is it not? Advertising will be markedly different in those two different models. State advertising overlaps with propaganda. We also have propagandizing advertisement, as when we have ads for July 4th barbecue items which are meant to evoke childhood, patriotism, but can also evoke fear of others, and fear of invasion.

Music is often used in advertising to evoke scenarios that the music was originally connected to, such as musicals.

We get a peek into other cultures when we watch advertisements from other cultures. This is one reason why advertising can be such a useful tool for worldbuilding. It shows cultural narratives and ideals. In the new Bladerunner, the ads had progressed.

Brian Buhl asked what kind of responsibility is associated with advertising. Capitalist ads can be dehumanizing. Is there legal regulation of advertising to avoid this?

In the US, lawyers and medicines didn't used to be able to advertise. Cigarette ads used to appear on TV. The Joe Camel character was made illegal because it was deemed to have been targeting children. Such ads were moved to Asia because there are no such laws there (predatory companies will take advantage of such things). Cliff noted that there has been a significant change in culture, where his dorm used to have a cigarette machines, but now such a thing would be unheard of.

In the Hunger Games, previous winners of the games were used in advertising. The Hunger Games was all about its survivors and their prizes, and their product endorsements.

We have the Superbowl, which for many people is more about the advertising than it is about the game. Companies will spend millions just for a thirty-second spot.

Advertising is both a window into culture, and a driver of culture.

I explained an ad I had seen in Japan for a type of bread that was perfectly square and white and an inch thick, and so fluffy that when you pinched one corner it would spring back. As an American I found it unappetizing, but it did reveal what qualities many Japanese people associated with ideal bread!

Thomas' English muffins used to have ads that were historical dramas about how sad people were when Thomas left England. They were selling Englishness to Americans.

Advertising can also be a hotbed of cultural appropriation. There are lots of ads featuring people in costumes that portray them as stereotypical Others. They can therefore be used in worldbuilding to show who is oppressed. Cliff mentioned a 1970's ad featuring a crying Indian, who was in fact not even portrayed by a Native American actor. It was an attempt to tie the idea of the noble savage into the idea of not littering. Don't Mess with Texas was also an anti-littering campaign, but the phrase has moved away from that limited context into others because it was so well tied to Texan self-image. The "I <3 NY" ads were actually an ad for upstate New York and New York City, but they are now used in far more contexts.

Here are some important questions to ask: Who owns the default narrative? Who is being advertised to? Who is allowed to be mocked? (Different countries target different groups.)

Ads can reveal social strife. There have been recent examples of extremely racist ads out of China (a black man going into a washing machine and coming out Chinese) and the US (a Dove ad showing a black woman removing a brown shirt and turning into a white woman with a pink shirt).

There's a lot more to this topic than we could cover in an hour, but thanks to everyone who attended and made for a lively discussion!