Alison and Peter Smithsons’ “Today We Collect Ads” became famous as the first article that first used the term Pop Art. But the reason I like it so much is that it gives a great overview of how what impact among art and designers the advent of a form of image whose final purpose was to sell products had on them.
to understand the advertisements which appear in the New Yorker or Gentry one must have taken a course in Dublin literature, read a Time popularising article on cybernetics, and have majored in Higher Chinese Philosophy and Cosmetics. Such ads are packed with information - data of a way of life and a standard of living which they are simultaneously inventing and documenting. Ads which do not try to sell you the product except as a natural accessory of a way of life. They are good “images” and their technical virtuosity is almost magical. Many have involved as much effort for one page as goes into the building of a coffee bar. And this transient thing is making a bigger contribution to our visual climate than any of the traditionally fine arts.
Despite being a proof of resilience of a certain economical model, able to repurpose even the most revolutionary, antagonist instance into a a new way to sell goods (The Great Rock and Roll Swindle), the role of advertisement in inventing and documenting culture and lifestyles is certainly a powerful engine, that does an important work in spreading and amplifying underground movements - turning them (albeit disarmed and formalized) into forms of art and culture available to everybody.
But if we look at online advertisement (a multi-billion worth business making around 90% of the revenues of both Facebook and Google - just to name two…) what we see is a profoundly different model. Data driven advertisement, its best feature being the ability to programmatically “target” the very specific audience for a very specific product, has none any of the propulsive force that the advertisement praised by the Smithsons had. When working at its best it manages to find our exactly what we already want.
Of different nature, but with similar taste, is viral marketing. Recently I’ve attended a lecture by somebody from a famous ad agency focussed in web marketing. They were proudly championing themselves to be able to turn any content into a viral one (and in minutes), leveraging their knowledge of social media and the use of “influencers”: bloggers, YouTubers, Facebook personalities… that they hire to help “viralize” the content. Without questioning the merits of the agency, I cannot help to think that this way of advertising a product or service, measured in number of persons reached, can be appreciated more for its merit of social hacking than ones of craft and creativity, personally not something I’d have a collection of.
The great Maciej Cegłowski wrote an essay on why ad technology is not an healthy industry. It’s short, informative and even entertaining.