Walter Benjamin’s Files
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Some Thoughts on Advertising Updated for the Modern Day
Figuring out the 21st century is tough—but very stimulating to a cultural critic like myself. My fragmented observations about Paris are hard to emulate, but I have lately been inspired to apply my discussions on advertising from the chapter entitled [Exhibitions, Advertising, Grandville] in my magnum opus The Arcades Project to the modern world. In the spirit of that work, I thought I'd share a new collection of observations, oddities, emblems, and quotations about today's world. Still a work in progress… as usual.
- The billboard and the banner ad have much to reconcile. The one, a large-format object made up of paper stuck to a framed background; the other, a shimmering, blinking, annoying mini-message that appears and disappears. (And rollovers—forget it!) What is preferred: the ever-present public signage, an example of democratized viewing; or the identity-directed commercial message that can torment one into epileptic-type frenzies? Note: Think more about theorizing pop-up blockers.
- It used to be that advertising promoted, packaged, and sold the bourgeois lifestyle. Now it's all about spreading the word on the latest cinematic scourge and obesity-inducing soft drink. Look what mechanical reproduction hath wrought! Though films do not have an aura, the actors seem to have claimed an excessive amount of worship muscle. Disturbing. Tom Cruise makes me long for a sacred relic.
- I have always been fascinated by a passage from J.F. Reichhardt describing an oil painting from the Palais Royal in which "a French General in full-dress uniform is having his corns excised by a podiatrist" (from The Arcades Project). Not sure why this image compels me so much, but I do have to say, I am positively flummoxed by reality TV and the lack of decorum. Not sure I have the mettle for the 21st century; in fact, I barely had it for the 20th.
- As I wrote: "In 1867, a wallpaper dealer put up his posters on the columns of bridges" (still Arcades). Today, posters, stencils, and guerilla sticker campaigns are the norm. (Banksy, anyone?) And while I'm on the subject, I do not need to see a television while I'm in line at the supermarket or pumping gas. Where's the revolution? It's not going to be televised.
- I was once shocked by a poster I saw on a sidecar. I could not get this image out of my head—the shock was profound and disturbing. How do we induce the shock element in advertising today? I know those Superbowl commercials are supposed to delight and surprise, appall and move product, but they hit a new low with that Bar Rafaeli kiss. That turned my stomach.
- Have been reading my own discussion of the exhibition of 1867 and how it was arranged so as to guide the visitor to different regions of the world, where—I say— "enemies are coexisting in peace" (yep, still Arcades). In such descriptions, my mind drifts to our modern equation of this phony global amity in the form of Disneyland's "It's a small world" boat ride accompanied by lurid looping tunes of an excessively jovial nature. Represented by dolls in native dress, hundreds of countries blur together in mock merriment of our global village. War, hatred, oppression have no place among Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and Aladdin. Please don't get me started on Las Vegas, which is arguably a more severe perpetrator of this kind of whitewashing exhibitionism.
- Trompe l'oeil advertisements were really amusing to me. In The Arcades Project, I recall "an illustration showing a poster that covers half a housefront. The windows are left uncovered, except for one, it seems. Out of that a man is leaning while cutting away the obstructing piece of paper." Whither the delight of the advertisement? The most shock we will get today is a racy billboard towering over Sunset Strip reading "CougarLife.com … for Mother F*ckers." Seems really banal if you ask me.
- What to make of those wrap-around advertisements that go on cars???
- Arcades: those marvelous exhibitions with their mixtures of merchandise and propaganda; their huge palaces of self-promotion and worship of commodities have simply been replaced by the Internet. So much for the flâneur. Now we have the web surfer. Sigh.