Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.
Advertisements offer the best and fastest sociology. The extreme economic Darwinism of the industry - where accounts, even the most successful, are rarely kept for long - ensures a constant scrabbling after the very latest in ideas and trends. Furthermore, the format of advertisements demands that concepts be simple, striking and memorable; tapping into society's deepest fears and desires - particularly if hitherto unarticulated - has proved to be one of the most effective ways to achieve this.
This sociological aspect of advertising is well-known; what is recognised less widely is the industry's assumption of the Church's mantle of unending textual exegesis.
Once the place of Christianity at the heart of medieval society was assured, expansionary proselytism was replaced by consolidating interpretation, and action by thought. The rich and powerful monasteries were filled with the best minds of the day, with little to do but read the unchanging word of God. As a result, with time and through a natural desire to surpass predecessors and teachers, simple commentaries blossomed into ever more recondite investigations of meanings and patterns.
A single phrase, of little import in itself, might, in the obsessive mind of a monk, attain through brilliant if empty explication some pivotal significance. And pondered long enough, most sequences of events or sets of relationships can be mapped on to any other; hence the Bible was found to be an endlessly echoing, self-referential book of inexhaustible complexity.
And so it is within the domain of advertising. Latter-day monks in the form of account executives are similarly closeted with a fixed text - that of the product - which they must then expound to the world, and find new ways of explaining. Like their medieval forebears, they are burdened and constrained by all previous interpretations - that is, all previous campaigns. Sometimes they will react against them; sometimes they will build on them, extending an idea by a series of elaborate mental tropes and toccatas.
Advertisements provide the most detailed, most ingenious examination of our lives that there is. Just when we thought that every nuance, every angle, every possible allusive joke had been dug out of the baked bean, the latest young advertising star pushes an idea further, notices another avenue, produces another pun. This frenetic investigation proceeds on several fronts: the basic concept and its gamut of cultural, intellectual, economic, sociological and sexual references; the name of the product, and all its associations, rhymes, similes, homonyms and homophones; and visual elements, be it in terms of the shape of the product, its colour, a typeface or simply a design associated with the brand.
The net effect is that we are amazed that our world even in its most trivial aspects is so rich; we are grateful that each day we gain a fresh and exciting perspective on everything in it. And if we buy the concept, we might even buy the product.
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