Sunday, 22 March 2015

Everything Must Go

When the headache-coloured skies of winter descend, the ubiquitous advertising hoardings and illuminated shop fronts take on a new role. Giant backlit transparencies, neon signage or electronic screens punch holes in the drab, proximate environment. Amidst the sleety drizzle and along the wind-whipped pavements, you find sun-blushed, luminous visions that mock the dull muddy greys that fashion the neighbourhood. Through the general hangover darkness of mid-afternoon, you glimpse the gleaming Mediterranean blues of Davidoff Water (and Davidoff eyes); through the dank curtain of another overcast Wednesday you catch sight of Colgate’s smile, Nivea’s pout, and L’OrĂ©al’s self-satisfied grin.
In the 1980s I was taught that this world of advertising needed decoding. Advertising was a text that smuggled in ideologies of a certain kind of life while flogging you unnecessary luxuries. But in many respects the dream-world of advertising is an easy one to interpret: buy this and become attractive; make people envy you by having a fitted-kitchen made out of floating minimalism. And it is easy to recognise that the world fashioned from advertising is made out of impossible bodies, improbably at ease with themselves and each other, living in environments untouched by the worldly forces of decay, disease, poverty, or even something as ordinary as rough, lined, mottled skin. All you have to do, after all, is to look out of the window of the bus and compare the ad-world and the ad-people with you and your fellow passengers. Perhaps rather than decode advertising we just need to see the scale of it. How could you do this? Perhaps some multi-billionaire will buy all the advertising space of a entire city, and all the advertising slots on broadcast media, all the algorithmic adverts on the internet and replace them all with one image: of fire, burning, consuming, crackling...
Rather than interpreting adverts I think I want to return to Raymond William’s 1960s notion of advertising as a magic system, conjuring illusions through misdirection and sleight-of-hand. To get some grip on advertising requires less attention to its manifest and latent contents, and more attention to its phenomenal forms: the way it chases you down as you waft across the internet; the way its impossible images belittle real affection; the way its grammars of value inveigles ordinary talk. It’s a bonanza and everything must go. 

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