February 27, 2008

Short Shameful Confession

I wouldn't miss the TV version of TMZ for quids.

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February 23, 2008

Research Shows…

Spurred on by a recent posting on That Convoluted Marketing Romance I finally got around to reading David Ogilvy's "Ogilvy On Advertising" the other day (yes, it's another of those "I can't believe I haven't actually read this book" books).

Like its author, the book unwittingly evokes a disappearing Jet Age (of both Western culture and advertising in particular) with nearly every word or picture, and does so in a jaunty patrician tone that won't suit everyone. It's a book that famously starts:
"I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don't want you to tell me that you find it 'creative'. I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product. When Aeschines spoke, they said, 'How well he speaks.' But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, 'Let us march against Philip.'"
Begin as you would go on, I guess — this is not a book that's going to spend much time on self-reflection or deconstructing the ad industry, but I think we already knew that.

Just look at that paragraph — a classic Ogilvy sleight of hand: he uses the word "information" when he means "rhetoric" or "disinformation", just as he uses "interesting" when he means "persuasive". Advertising isn't about product information in any way we lay people might recognise; it's primarily about consumer information; and the medium involved is increasingly mostly about getting information from you or about you as the target of a particular ad rather than getting information to you about specific products (which is why consumer tracking technologies like Web 2.0 are such a godsend for advertisers). A good advertising man like Ogilvy will not release pure unedited and unmediated information about the product to the potential consumer, especially if that product is more of a lifestyle or image (it would be a typical Ogilvyism to deliberately conflate "image" and "information"). And since Ogilvy's product in this book is advertising itself (and himself, of course — pity the title "Advertisements For Myself" was already taken…), what else would you expect? He's trying to sell advertising as a business, a concept, and if that means "informing" with Doublespeak, well, you've been warned, you know the territory. As Ms Natividad puts it, Ogilvy's got "a PhD in elegant bullshit, braced by decidedly supple morals." In other words, he'd like us to think that he's unashamedly and unapologetically an advertising man (in the Jet Age sense), but he can't publicly articulate what that means without resorting to, well, bullshit.

He adopts what I suspect is supposed to feel like a no-nonsense conversational tone in a lot of the writing, but that's as much a front as the rest of it. Large parts of the book also seem to be written in a rather self-satisfied and slightly arch way that can't quite hide the insecurity and combative self-pity that seems behind some of it (what is it with ad execs and design creatives wanting to be Bad Boys up against all those Nasty Left Wing Academics or politicians and do-gooders who doubtless held them back so long from greater glories, anyway?).

What I do like about the book, though, are the bits on the thinking behind and / or effects of a lot of (sometimes dated) "timeless" ads (many, but not all, of them his), and the sound (or, at least, sound-sounding) and reasonable advice on everything from getting a job to what makes a successful ad (and what "successful" might actually mean in this context — he's big on "research", without always being able to either define it or to do more than wave his hands distractedly with another flourish of his "research shows…" mantra). But it's difficult to take even this discussion at face value: the man's constructing a story to go along with the image, after all, and since the image is always infinitely more important than unmediated information, well, the narrative might have to bridge a few factual swamps or detour smoothly around inconvenient truths here and there, no? And a lot of the example ads are famous for being, well, famous, but did they sell the associated product well? "Research shows" that research on such things is typically either inconclusive or anecdotal, I'd guess, especially reading between the deliberately deflective lines in this book.

But as I said earlier, the book's really an artefact of, and a bible or manual for, the fast-disappearing Jet Age of advertising (and Western culture in general), and taken on its own terms, it's actually a lot of fun to read and contains enough wisdom and quotable quotes to make it a classic.

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February 19, 2008

A Scientist Writes…

Robbe-Grillet dies, and, ironically, of all the mainstream press it's the crusty old Torygraph that so far seems to have the most sympathetic and encyclopedic obituary of this agronomist, scriptwriter, novelist, and general all-round storyteller.

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February 17, 2008

Exotica

Doing my grocery shopping in Berkeley at Andronico's yesterday I stumble across something called a "Woolloomooloo Bar", and just have to buy it. It's an upscale self-described "exotic candy bar" apparently made in Chicago with a bunch of unlikely ingredients that don't immediately bring to mind the down-at-heels Woolloomooloo of earlier times, or the New! Improved! Woolloomooloo of today, let alone the University of Woolloomooloo (still remembered with affection in this overgrown college town). "Looks like something from down your way…" the checkout clerk says from the other side of the checkstand with an ironic smile (I'm sure she's thinking "Bruce!").

Well, maybe. I seem to have a studio full of American Australiana or fake Australian products now, from the Aussie Land "Blue Mountains" shampoo I found in Oakland a few years ago to the plastic boomerang I bought at Stone Mountain outside Atlanta a decade ago, through the Wallaby Yogurt in my fridge (every time I see it I struggle with the temptation to mutter the obvious slogan "made from real wallabies!") and the "Aussie Sun-Touched Shine" conditioner in my shower ("Add some Roo to your do!", as it says on the container (Urgh! I'm not making this up, you know)), to the very Californian-looking (read: clean, lean, fat-free, organic) pies advertised as "Authentic Aussie National Food!" in a local deli the other day. It all seems so exotic.

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February 13, 2008

It's Never Enough…

…but this year's "Sorry Day" was a start, at least (and a serious change in tone, at last). Now for some followup…

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February 11, 2008

Wired

In the wired utopia only the privileged will be allowed face-to-face contact; only the privileged will have offices and be able to separate work from home; only the privileged will be able to unplug.

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February 09, 2008

OLPC

OLPC

I got to play with several One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO laptops a few weeks ago as the result of some colleagues being part of the funding program (or something. Actually, I'm not entirely sure where the laptops came from, or why we were invited to play with them. Never mind). The XO's are physically rather cute machines (they have ears for the wireless antennas, and they're brightly-coloured), and seem to be built strongly enough to last a fair bit of use and abuse. The Linux-based OS and bundled software seems to me to be easily usable without needing instructions or instructors (but then I'm a nerd), a reasonable platform for downloadable content and games or teaching apps, and somewhat useful as-is. The networking includes a nice mesh network setup for use to communicate between the XO's when there's not a reliable WiFi access point nearby to communicate with the rest of the world. Overall, not a bad little combination of hardware and software (well, a Hello Kitty version would be nice, and the keyboard's a real pain to use, but in general it's just fine).

But fine for what? And that's the question everyone I know who plays with them asks. The obvious criticism is that the laptops solve the wrong problems or that they divert resources from the real problems (like lack of clean water, lack of trained teachers, etc.) that their target users face. And these laptops are primarily both an artifact of, and a way to interact with, a connected technological society, and in the absence of that society (or at least some facsimile of it), it's not hard to imagine these descending like UFOs on some sub-Saharan desert village, unwanted, unusable, and basically just inert objects of derision or disdain (or of instant commerce). The whole thing has the air of a classic technological fix — a technologist's fix — looking for a suitable problem to solve.

And that's all probably true. And yet… the law of unintended consequences can work the other way too, and produce something interesting and useful in unforeseen ways — it's hard to guess what the creative instincts of kids might do with something like this. And in any case what seems most likely to sink the whole OLPC idea are commercial and political machinations here in the First World, not the lack of power or connectivity or trained teachers in the third. But I'm not too optimistic, at least for release 1.0; I'm guessing a lot of these (or their like) will end up as playthings in the hands of first and second world kindergartners. Or, maybe more likely, ironic accesories in the hands of hip City artwankers.

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February 04, 2008

Like I Care

"Confronted with a collection like [the Refco Collection of Contemporary Photography], the question of what makes one photograph or one painting 'art' and another not 'art' is an honest one. The simplest answer is that pictures become art when we love them for themselves. The more modern answer would be that pictures become art when we love them for themselves, and they seem on the verge of obsolescence, when we are fearful for their survival." — David Hickey, ruminating on Art and All That in an introduction to "Subjective Realities: Works from the Refco Collection of Contemporary Photography" (2003, Refco Group; bought as a remainder at Moe's the other day).

What an odd answer (especially for something written in 2003): it seems to fetishise the isolated art object (the photograph) itself, and seems to want to put the art in individual and sentimentalised relationships to it. I'm never too sure how to respond when someone talks about art that way, but for me the real question when confronted with a collection like this isn't about art, it's "why should I care (about the image or art)?" That's always a much stronger question, a much more interesting quest in the long run.

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