In a recent Moto X commercial, Kanye West’s “Black Skinheads” plays in the background as a sleek and sexy new smartphone flashes across the screen, changing colors and flaunting the customization possibilities available to those who purchase the new Motorola (aka Google) device. Initially, it feels a little strange that Kanye would license one of his newest singles to a corporation like this, but under further review it makes some sense. Kanye is on record as saying “the world can be saved through design,” so I guess it generally fits that he’d lend his work to a product championing personality through innovative style.
It still feels a little dirty though. Not because it’s “selling out”—Kanye can twist any move he makes into a cool, visionary statement, probably even something as ridiculous as voting Republican—more because of how aware it makes me that I’m the target demographic for this product. TV commercials and ads in general have always been disruptive, but creativity as of late has made some of them surprisingly enjoyable. That’s really the point of advertising—to make an audience feel something when interacting with a TV spot/banner ad/what have you—but even when the connection is made, it still feels rather wrong. At the end of the day, you’re being sold something.
Once you’re aware of it, it becomes difficult to consume any advertising without ambivalence. Why would I ever pay attention to an external force actively trying to influence my decision-making? On the surface, this isn’t too troubling. It’s a smartphone. It’s a car. It’s a bag of chips. Just don’t buy it if you don’t want it, right? What’s more concerning is the package deal that comes with the product being advertised. Companies have long since abandoned the notion of merely selling a product. Brands, reputations, and sales quotas are made by the sale of an experience. The critical and cultural success of Mad Men has highlighted that aspect of the ad industry recently—nothing sells slide projectors like Don Draper’s nostalgic time machine carousel ride. So it’s unsurprising to recognize Jon Hamm’s voice in commercials for cars, airlines, and anything that wants to scream elegance. They’re channeling his famous character to sell a luxurious, sexy experience above the competition.
Given these attempts to sell an experience, It’s interesting to watch commercials that fall completely flat, and consider why that might be. More and more, I get the sense that it’s a very subjective thing—a commercial will swing and miss terribly with some, but connect right in the middle with others. Does a negative response happen because the latter rests miles outside of the target demographic? Or is it because the agency/company framed their demographic all wrong to begin with?
Furthermore, to what degree are the decisions we make, styles we adapt, and even our very personalities a product of the advertising we’re exposed to in this media-saturated culture? I may have the foresight to avoid buying a smartphone just because I like Kanye’s music, but what about even deeper, subliminal messaging now, and more obvious selling that I couldn’t see through when I was younger? Do I like sandwiches because I actually like sandwiches, or because Subway told me that’s The Way It Should Be when I was a little kid?
If these questions make you feel uncomfortable, join the club. Short of packing up and moving into the jungle, it appears that advertising is always going to follow us wherever we go. The fact of the matter is that we built this city on rock and roll, but also on Coca-Cola, Pringles, and Old Spice. Self-awareness of your own susceptibility to marketing schemes is noble, but it hardly means you’re going to stop buying stuff and renouncing your loyalty to certain brands. Yes, advertising will continue to follow each and every one of us, which kind of sucks in some ways. Feels like we lose some sense of independence in that reality.
Then again, next time you feel lonely, just think about your toothpaste. At least Crest is always and forever your friend. That’s comforting, right?