Creativity and Self-Actualization? Or Just Co-opting and Manipulation?

Putting the I in Advertisingpdf

Companies have long involved consumers in their marketing efforts through contests to, say, write jingles or name the new Crayola colors. But now, in ways large and small, a culture of open-source software and Wikipedia and online interactivity is reconfiguring the business of selling.

The traditional advertising models are collapsing. Where once there were mass media, with the audience a passive receptacle, we are moving toward what branding expert Rob Frankel calls “the masses controlling the media.” An audience empowered by hundreds of cable channels and TiVo pays less and less mind to TV ads. And the marketers, well, some might suggest they are desperate.

“You can smell the fear,” Garfield says.

Which means that smart marketers will figure out how to get the people to do much of their work for them. […]

[…] Should we be more or less suspicious of advertising that we have helped to spread or to create? Perhaps it’s no big deal, since one could argue that we shill for corporate America whenever we put on a T-shirt with a logo. And besides, there’s a kind of democratization at work when an audience is empowered to act as its own filter. Perhaps someone e-mails a friend a link, implicitly vouching for its value, or perhaps marketers “seed” their short film to a video-sharing site, where it is rated by thousands. In any case, it is the audience that determines what gets seen.

Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist affiliated with MIT, says participatory advertising represents a “revolution” in thinking. It means marketers are actually “inviting” consumers “into the production of meaning,” he says. “Just a few years ago people were still talking about trying to find and push the hot button inside the consumer.”

On the other hand, what of the time-honored divide between Madison Avenue and ordinary people? It’s an American tradition to decry advertising’s growing encroachment into our lives.

But we can’t blame the outsiders, the brainwashers, the clever admen, when we are all complicit, when we are all One of Them.