In today’s world, anything that is out in the public eye is fair game to have a corporate logo or name pasted on it. The glasses of that well-dressed professor down the hall that elegantly declare “Versace” whenever he turns to the side. The jerseys of the Chelsea football team playing on ESPN2. The bags from the department store that only catch a glimpse of daylight before being thrown in the trunk. For a price, anything can be turned into advertizing space. As the New York Times reported Monday, thousands of Americans are paid up to $800 a month by companies to have their cars wrapped in ads. It sounds like a lot, until you consider what that buys:
Drew Livingston, the president of the advertizing agency FreeCar Media, which matches car owners with sponsor businesses, believes that the benefits are not just about pure numbers but also about targeting specific consumers:
“A company like Procter & Gamble will come to us and say, ‘We have a new and improved Tide, and our target is stay-at-home moms with two-plus children who live in these 20 markets,’” Mr. Livingston said. His company then finds drivers in that demographic. “We feel that when you can wrap a mom’s car and get it to her P.T.A. meeting or Curves gym, you’re getting the acceptance from her social circle.”
To most, this all seems completely acceptable—a proverbially “win-win.” Corporations get their message out and Americans have more spending money—to buy the great products listed on the sides of their SUVs. Indeed, many Americans don’t just find this unobjectionable; they want to take part: FreeCar Media “claims to have a database of more than a million car owners who say they are open to wrapping their cars in ads for a fee.” And this makes sense—advertizing, the conventional narrative goes, is harmless.
But is it? Social psychologists, advertising executives, and others know that marketing techniques are not just about “getting the word out” so that people can make good choices. They are also incredibly effective at getting people to engage in all sorts of behavior—harmless and harmful. With proper marketing you can get a person who drives three miles to work every day on paved roads to buy a Hummer. With a good advertising campaign you can get people to inhale smoke, which they know may lead to a habit that kills them. Even the simple logo can be a tool, not of broadening choice, but of limiting it. A well-known swoosh or set of arches can actually shape perceptions. As reported in an earlier post on the Situationist, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health in Baltimore recently documented that preschoolers find food wrapped in McDonald’s packing to taste better than identical food wrapped in unmarked packaging. With childhood obesity rates at record highs this is particularly unsettling. More logos are not what the doctor ordered.
Yet more logos are exactly what seem to be in our futures and the threat is not just to the environment, or our bodies, or our ability to make decisions without deliberate manipulation from external sources. As I recently argued in an op-ed in the Washington Post, the text of which appears below, some of our most important institutions are endangered by the great marketing push.
The Art of Advertising
Currently hanging outside the East Wing of the National Gallery is a large banner of Jasper Johns’s 1955 “Target With Four Faces,” advertising a show celebrating the first decade of his work. The painting is dominated by the title motif: a blue dot surrounded by four concentric circles of alternating yellow and blue. Walking in recently, I joked to my companion that I was surprised that Target wasn’t sponsoring the show.
Out of the mouths of babes . . .
It turns out Target is sponsoring it, “proudly,” in fact.
Offering financial backing to the exhibition was undoubtedly a savvy move for Target. After all, the show is filled with paintings that, though they aren’t red and white, evoke Target’s corporate logo. Johns’s targets also appear on the exhibition catalogue and posters for sale in the gift shop. On the busy Sunday I was there, hundreds of people were strolling through, staring intently at various depictions of an image that has been engrained in our heads as standing for one of America’s most powerful and successful companies.
As a groundbreaker for the Pop Art movement, Johns was very much interested in symbols, everyday household objects and popular culture, so perhaps the exhibition ought not to trouble me as much as it does. But I left that day feeling rather sick to my stomach.The corporation as art critic may be inevitable. The wealthy members of society, in their role as patrons, have always had a profound influence on the course of art. But the current trend does not sit well with me. If financial realities force museums to cede control to corporate America, art may lose its magic. The artists and works to be celebrated will not be those that Inspire, explain or expose, but those that get people to buy more Taco Bell burritos, iPods and Michelin radials. The very definition of art will be that which maximizes shareholder profit.
While the Johns show, which runs through April 29, presents a particularly strong example of rising corporate influence over the art world, it is not an isolated instance. Last summer I was wandering through “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting” in the West Wing, wondering why the curators had devoted so much space in the exhibition to how x-radiographs and infrared images could be used to reveal insights into the creative process. Perhaps it arose from a genuine sense that the public needed to be educated on important technological innovations in the world of curatorship, but then—call me cynical—perhaps it was because the exhibition was made possible by Bracco, an international leader in diagnostic imaging.
So, what is to be done?
First, if we care about art—if we value it as a social good—we must increase public funding so that museum directors and artists can remain independent. While the United States is unlikely to shift to the centralized European model of art sponsorship, the federal government’s stingy arts budget could be increased without any of us feeling much of a bite in our pocketbooks.
Second, we should demand that corporations give money to art galleries without sponsoring particular shows. If Target is really committed to “arts and education,” as it says in the Johns show brochure, then it should be just as satisfied with its donation going to support the excellent exhibit on Rembrandt’s prints and drawings in the adjoining building.
* * *
For previous Situationist posts looking at the role and effect of logos, see “Subliminal Ads on the Brain,” and “The Big Game: What Corporation Are Learning about the Human Brain.” To review numerous Situationist posts discussing marketing and its effect, click here. To listen to (or read the transcript of) a superb NPR series by All Things Considered four-part series, entitled “The New Ad Age” looking at “how digital media and the demise of the mass market are changing the advertising industry,” click on the the following links: Part I (“On Madison Avenue, Old Players Learn a New Game), Part II (“In the Age of Tivo, Advertisers Scramble To Keep Up”), Part III (“In a Crowded Mediaverse, Some Ads Stand Out”), and Part IV (“State-of-the-Art Ads are Increasingly One-to-One.”). For an intriguing three-minute video narrated by Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and, more recently, The Shock Doctrine, click on the video below.