Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Monday, July 23, 2007

Commercial: Advertising and high culture

Here’s a question to consider: are advertising and high culture fundamentally incompatible?

The question is asked in the light of two recent quotes about advertising’s role and purpose in the wider culture.

Firstly, Russell Davies in his Campaign column a few weeks ago talked about the fact that, despite what hysterical Cassandras might say, there is still a role for advertising in the modern world. The role – and rise of – design as a philosophy and a series of methodologies for brands to connect to consumers will not work for all brands as authenticity is not what all brands need:

what advertising does well [is that] it makes myths, it tells big stories, it adds magic. A great piece of advertising can change pop culture in the same way that a great piece of music or a great movie does, and that's a powerful commercial tool.

Secondly, John Hegarty’s comment on the eve of his recent knighthood:

People keep asking me - they asked me back in 1985 when I cast Nick Kamen in Launderette and I was 42 years old - how a man of my years can dare to interfere in pop culture," he says. "I just think there are certain things, certain qualities in people and ideas that are eternal. It's about having a culture that is perennial. It's no good just responding to a moment in time, because that moment will pass.

What strikes here is the emphasis of both on pop culture. While it is not a particularly new or revelatory point, it’s rare to see it mentioned so starkly. Advertising, in nearly all its modern forms draws upon, is inspired by, is designed to be a part of, reference, make a noise in popular culture. The world of the mainstream, the obvious, the already discovered, the mass.

None of which is to be taken as being bad and wrong. After all, pop culture is how most of us discover cultural artifacts in their widest sense, and from there politics, ideologies, philosophies. Or at least one hopes that path of cultural transmission still occurs.

But at a philosophical level, it raises some interesting questions. One is that posed above. It sounds anachronistic to use the term ‘high culture’ nowadays, but still, why is that Hegarty didn’t talk of interfering with it? Can it be as simple as the fact that that advertising as a commercial act can never be considered as having an impact or effect on or consideration of high culture? That clearly isn’t the case. After all, don’t museums – vehicles for the transmission of high cultural artifacts – use advertising as part of their tools to attract patrons?

Another question is, how does advertising respond to evidence that there is a growing desire for ‘seriousness’ within the wider culture? Andrew Keen’s recent philippic about the negative culture of web 2.0 was let down in part because of its failure to recognise that rising sales of publications such as The Economist and Prospect show that not everyone is being cheapened or coarsened by endless mindless inanity on YouTube. While not assuming this means that Radio 3 audience will reach ITV-like sizes any time soon, there is an implication that if people are demanding more intelligent content, won’t brands need to start talking in a more ‘intelligent’ way in their advertising soon? And what might that mean?

A final dimension to consider is that high culture can start to look more attractive when the overwhelming discourses of the day are so rooted in popular culture. What does that mean? Well, if one is feeling overwhelmed by the constant chatter in the age of conversation, the hype, the endless noise about whatever the latest thing is, a retreat into elitism is – paradoxically – is attractive. One could even wager that this is where the tastemakers and cool hunters will move to next.



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