December 9, 2002 at 11 AM
Music for the Masses
I've long held the belief that a lot of the faith behind advertising is bunk. It may be clever or funny, or more likely it's totally stupid, but does an ad really make you want to buy something? Does it even try? Or are companies shoveling millions into a bottomless pit of empty marketing?
There’s no question that advertising works. A simple ad shows you the product, and tells you why you need it. Sometimes this is enough. A juicy burger, no money down, the Harry Potter Lego Set: see it, like it, want it. Companies advertise because they sell more products afterwards.
But the most expensive and psychologically rich advertising is often the most vague. It’s image-based marketing, despite what Sprite tells you (“Image is Nothing”). The big companies, who spend the most money, deal in style. They don’t necessarily want you to know why you want something, they just want you to intrinsically need it. The sneakiest and increasingly common method to accomplish this is to dress advertising up in sheep’s clothing. Make it entertaining and informative, with any crass salesmanship cleansed away. Of course, just because you take a shower, doesn’t mean you’re not still crawling in bacteria. You’ve just washed away the weakest offenders.
BMW Films is one of the most celebrated examples of this new marketing. Aimed at the white-collar employee looking for a quick diversion at the office (mea culpa), the site offers short films made with big budgets by talented and famous directors. The ostensible star is Clive Owen, a Bondesque Englishman, but really the stars of the films are the cars, which race about glamourous locales at high speed with impressive handling while purring impressive car sounds.
My first instinct is to dismiss this effort as a colossal waste of money. BMW Films is fun, but does it really make me want to buy a car? Well, no, but then again, I’m not about to buy a car, nor could I afford a Beamer if I were. But what BMW is doing is laying the groundwork for my future consumption. When I do become wealthy and extend my overactive consciousness of status to fine automobiles, maybe I will want a BMW. They are, after all, stylish cars.
If you can’t imagine a Generalmotorsfilms.com, it’s because GM either doesn’t try, or fails utterly, to market its products as cool. (They also aim their ad dollars at people who aren’t as likely to have high-speed Internet access or remember who Ang Lee is, but who will want a Big Heavy Truck To Command The Road.) On the other hand, you probably can imagine Volkswagenfilms.com because Volkswagen is another car company that tries hard to associate its products to a lifestyle, and correspondingly, people buy Jettas and Golfs and Passats because they fit into a general aesthetic theme, one that might have Nick Drake playing in the background.
What is the poor consumer to do? On the one hand, the money Volkswagen spent is allowing a talented artist like Neill to get ahead and promote his music, so in a sense, he is taking advantage of VW as much as the reverse. And if we enjoy his music, what’s wrong with that? On the other hand, is it healthy to allow our taste in art and culture to be dictated by a Madison Ave. shop of MBAs in marketing?
Personally, I think there is something fishy about it, but as long as you and I think about what’s going on behind the front from time to time, why not profit from it? You can enjoy Ben Neill’s music, or BMW Films, and not ever purchase a Volkswagen or BMW. Advertising isn’t a loaded gun at your temple. You don’t have to consume.
Of course you may decide that the new 2004 300i Special Edition with 200 HP is a rather nice specimen and plunk many thousands of dollars on a down payment, and hey, that’s okay. A car may just get you from point A to point B, but no matter how hard we try to fight it, we like things better when they look good to us. The Adbusterish idea that ads are an evil scourge ruining the planet is simplistic. But before we blindly follow the wishes of corporate executives, we can at least give it some sober thought. Think about what you wear, the stuff with which you fill your home. Did you choose it, or did it choose you?