The trend in advertising toward a ubiquitous presence in our lives, as documented in this New York Times article, is a natural outgrowth of the mythologic function of advertising. As advertising becomes truly ubiquitous, and therefore environmental, and before it becomes completely invisible to the average eye, it is a fitting focus for Media Ecology. The question one might asked is why the total penetration of advertising into all venues is considered an imposition. If advertising is our culture's mythology, as I have claimed, why is it perceived as an annoyance?
Reason #1: Due to a misunderstanding of its true nature and impact, to date advertising has been segregated in minutes between programming or spaces in magazines and newspapers. We find advertising annoying because it interrupts our stories, sporting events and news reports. That will change with product placement supplementing and then replacing separate commercial breaks (Think "The Truman Show").
Reason #2: The structure of current advertising is (sometimes) warped by a corporate agenda. Sometimes the conscious attempts by corporate advertisers to bend the message to fit their agenda works against the underlying mythology. This gets our attention, but is also disquieting. Some things just won't work in our current culture. Imagine an ad that tries to convince men to start wearing makeup. What aspects of our current conception of sexual roles would need to change for this to become a reality? Would Avon or Maybelline be willing to take this on to increase profits? What other factors would work against this? The point is that corporation advertising must operate within certain pre-determined structural boundaries to be successful. Sometimes corporations try to push that envelope and it doesn't work.
Reason #3: We haven't yet become numb to its influence. As advertising changes our culture, we adopt new "corporate" identities. We already proudly display corporate logos on our clothing and artifacts. We gain parts of our personal self-image and identity by assimilating corporate images and icons. (In Supersize Me there is a scene where children more readily identify Ronald McDonald than George Washington or Jesus Christ.) Identity change is an uncomfortable process, and as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, can lead to things like social uprisings and war.
Would it be fair to say that the ubiquity of advertising suggests that we are living in the Age of Advertising?
Would it be fair to say that the Age of Advertising does not vaunt reason (logos) alone as though it were everything?
Would it be fair to say that in this respect the Age of Advertising is seriously at odds with the Age of Reason?
Would it be fair to say that the Age of Advertising reminds us of the non-rational factors in life that Plato (thumos and eros) and Aristotle (ethos and pathos) mentioned?
In my paper “The Heart of the Matter” which will soon be published under “Proceedings of the 2005 Media Ecology Conference,” I examine the implications of the Greek concept of
which is transliterated as either “thumos” or “thymos” and translated as “mind,” encompassing memory and consciousness.
Classical Greeks believed that consciousness resided in the lungs and was expressed in speech, the dominant communication medium of the age. Thoughts were breaths that originated from a divine source, hence the origin of the word “inspiration.”
In Plato’s time, writing was beginning to supplant speech as the dominant mode of communication and the popular concept of the seat of consciousness and memory began to move from the lungs to the heart. We still speak of ‘learning by heart’ when we want to memorize something. “Reason”, as Plato defined it, was an indication of this shift from speech to writing. He could split reason (“logos”) from feeling (“thumos)” and sexuality (“eros”) as a result of this shift. This differentiation was something that wouldn’t occur to Homeric Greeks.
In our age we see the beginnings of an era of secondary orality. The exact parameters of are still working themselves out, but considering the celebrity and authority granted to our entertainers (that is our singers and actors) it may be that we will see a decline in logos considered as an aspect of consciousness.
The connotation of the term “Age of Advertising” is that we are somehow controlled and defined by beliefs and values dictated by corporations.
My claim is that the advertising of our age is a manifestation of the universal human tendency to apply categories to the elements of our environment and then reconcile the inevitable contradictions that arise. In other words, advertising operates in our culture the way mythology operates in primary orality cultures. I might also add that, compared to the subtlety and complexity of these early mythic systems, our advertising is truly primitive.
This may not involve the type of reason espoused by Plato and Aristotle, but may be a result of a type of intellectual activity of primary orality cultures which Claude Lévi-Strauss called a “science of the concrete.”