From zitty to pretty
Recently, I was struck by a busstop billboard for a well-known teenage brand, stating that using its product will help you go 'from zitty to pretty' and be 'clear-skin gorgeous in only four hours'. There's no hidden meaning, it's a simple message: if you have spots, even the slightest pimple, then you are a drop-dead ugly loser in the teen stakes.
You might not need to be Barthes to interpret 'zitty to pretty' but most postmodern advertising is about riding the zeitgeist of kids too cynical, sophisticated and savvy to fall for a simple sales pitch. It's not the company sponsoring Coronation Street or even product placement you need to worry about (invasive as they are), but where advertisers are disguising their sales messages by becoming the film and game makers, editors, novelists - and even your best mate.
This is advertising that plays on our cynicism and panders to our familiarity with advertising techniques. They deconstruct their own message, use stealth pitches to blur lines between entertainment and marketing and are now appropriating new media at an alarming rate.
'Cultural jammers' (see Red Pepper print issue, May 2004) are part of the fight back against advertising, playfully parodying and changing ad messages like semiotic Robin Hoods. The Billboard Liberation Front (BLF) and Adbusters work on the principle that if images can create a brand then they can destroy it too. But one thing the advertising boys have that cultural jammers don't is money and they've been quick to adapt antiadvertising techniques.
Companies now spoof their own ads on YouTube and Flurl - even doing spoofs of spoofs, such as last year's 'Tango Clear' spoof of the Sony Bravia ad.
Tango dropped fruit, instead of coloured balls, through the streets of Swansea and the mess left behind so upset Swansea residents they set up a protest and petition on their Swansea North Residents Association website saying 'Swansea North Will Not Be Dumped On!' Except they didn't; their website was created by the ad agency (http://swanseares.org.uk/news.html).
The memetic buzz
The Swansea story is a relatively unsophisticated example of how we are all being 'tango-ed'. The buzz is now over memes. Richard Dawkins' theory of memetics hypothesised that, as with genetics, information and ideas (memes) can be self-replicating and spread from brain to brain.
Ad agencies are appropriating the best media possible for this - the mass media of social networking sites, blogs, emails and even RSS feeds - to ensure their message lives on after the advertising campaign has ended.
Word of mouth (WOM)
Agencies are also employing actors to spread the word. Next time you hear an overly loud conversation about a great skin cream or find a swarm of random 'tourists' using a particular cameraphone, it could be a gaggle of resting actors.
Individuals are paid to talk about their cool new product, the great film they've seen, or even how a certain politician is 'really for real'. By using peer-to-peer networking routes such as blogs, myspace and facebook profiles, chat rooms and forums it's becoming much harder to detect the 'puff'. Sometimes these ambassadors from ad land are not even paid; the 'social currency' of being the first to try a new product is enough.
Hyped as 'genuine' and underpinned with the argument that these best friends 'don't have to say anything positive if they don't want to', the new-style WOM advertising is both free and effective - that is, until the public wises up.
Don't be a walking billboard; get rid of the tags and logos from clothing and other items. Remove brand packaging and brand names from your appliances, computers, TVs and CD players.
Get rid of spyware - use programmes to remove it at www.safer-networking.org
Reduce or eliminate junk mail. Sign up to opt out at the Mailing Preference Service at www.mpsonline.org.uk