March 10, 2010

Lessons of the Ad Men

Ads, especially the ones that appear on television, have become one of the premier American forms of creative expression. We can debate their merit, their agenda, and their ethics, but their efficacy and popularity are established. I’d argue that television ads are essentially product poems, employing analogies and metaphors, images, lyric, narratives, and precise language in a condensed package. From the Alka Seltzer jingle to the absurdist Burger King commercial, ads have been employing poetic modes and elements for decades.

I don’t mean to suggest that poetry is the lone parent of the television ad. Cinema, plays, folk tales, parody, etc. have contributed their DNA to the ad. But the kinship between television ads and poetry is one that is seldom considered. This seems partly because the ad is anathema to art; the ad is a vehicle of corporate propaganda, and unlike art, which promotes discourse between viewer and subject and allows for diverse experiences, the ad is single-minded, unresponsive, and prescriptive.

And yet, the American Joe and Jane is happy to look past the obvious agendas of ads, and discuss, sometimes in great depth, what about the ad is clever, astute, accurate, humorous, moving, etc. Viewer’s share their experience of advertisement with others, and gravitate to other viewers who share their preferences and their reading of the ad, and, just as readers of poetry often do, viewers of ads will recite ads to express some aspect of themselves that they are unable to articulate. This discourse and recitation is neither meaningless nor necessarily shallow, though the product that is invariably exalted as relevant, or required, or corrective is of course empty of meaning.

The success of an ad generally hinges upon its ability to express its understanding of, and sympathy for the viewer. The ad must engage the viewer before it can sucker them. Of course, ads connect to viewers with many unscrupulous, dishonest, stereotypical, and manipulative devices: from fallacious narratives, to the generation of new desires and deficits, the ad gropes after the viewer relentlessly. But as viewers are exposed to more ads, they develop a kind of savvy and an often ruthless critical response to new advertisements, which suggests a level of earnest consideration on the part of the viewer, this despite the mongering of the ad.

Ads pander, they fawn, and flatter, and the efforts of ads have had a marked effect on our cultural psychology, our idiom, our intellectual processes, and emotional expectations. I would not argue that the ad is in any way moral, or preferable, or superior; I personally find advertisements to be gratingly disingenuous. But poets and writers can learn much from the mode and method of the ad, just as the ad men learned from poetry. Successful ads emphasize the engagement of the other over the expression of the self (or product). Successful ads study (or conversely prescribe) human nature and human experience, reaching out to encompass more of the masses even as they bumble with and strike against their own absurdly magnified significance. This is especially interesting as the number of purely expressive ads continue to grow, ads which don’t clearly promote a product but which rather stimulate our attention and curiosity.

Television ads continue to evolve to fulfill, among other things, a cultural need for a common point of comparison and an immediate, studious, and accessible creative expression; this is a role that poets should be fighting for. Unlike ads, poems typically don’t prescribe a specific, physical solution, don’t depend on the reader’s insecurity and conformity to succeed in establishing a connection with the reader. Poetry is capable of offering an alternate cultural touchstone, but to challenge the dominance of ads, poets will need to engage, study, and sympathize with an audience that’s broader than themselves.

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