Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Brand cults, brand culture, brand ideology, pt. II

What is a Freegan? As a Freegan website explains:

Freeganism is a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations and where massively complex systems of productions ensure that all the products we buy will have detrimental impacts most of which we may never even consider. Thus, instead of avoiding the purchase of products from one bad company only to support another, we avoid buying anything to the greatest degree we are able.

And though this choice is not without some significant costs in creature comforts (garbage picking, etc.), it’s also a pretty good example of ideological resistance, or the capacity for it in our consumer economy vs. say having to stand in front of tank in order to vote.

Ideology has a lot of definition. In it’s most basic sense it means a “body of ideas” or a “worldview,” but even when people use it causally, they generally mean more than just any idea. They usually mean an idea that expresses some form of social or economic power. In this way, it still carries the Marxist implication of “dominant ideology” i.e. a set of ideas that is designed to make the interests of ruling class appear as the interests of everyone. Or to paraphrase Althusser, “a fantastic relation to the real material conditions of existence.” It’s a message or image or set of ideas that makes us believe something about role in the world contrary to the material facts of our lives. (Wikipedia isn't bad on the subject. Here is a summary of some of the key terms in a popular culture class at Georgetown)

By any of these definitions, all advertising is ideological: the whole point of advertising is to reproduce the desire that drives the consumer economy. It would almost be impossible for advertising to not be ideological. So, when academics or marketers talk about the ideological impact of advertising, I have to agree, because what else could it possibly be? If it failed to be ideological in some minimal way, it would have to be some really poor advertising.


Beecham said...

Am enjoying the thoughts on ideology. The pun on culture/cults is clever, and it also gets to the heart of the matter here: is there a line to be drawn between culture (shared background, values, customs, allegiances) and cults (with its sense of exclusive adherence, compulsion, power of a promulgator, etc.)? this is much the question you seem to be asking of our use of the word "ideology": sometimes we use it to mean something as broad as a shared "world view," at other times we use it to describe a form of coercive social control.

Can I retread the ground you've already covered, for my clarity's sake? (realizing this may be useful for no one but me!) I'm with you on taking issue with the (rather flippant and inexact) use of "ideology" in the context of advertising and consumerism: this use appeals to the understanding of "ideology" as coercive social control (and advertising uses ideology, is ideology, reveals ideology?). Depending on your perspective (assuming for a moment that this is a useful way of describing advertising), this "ideological" aspect can be good or bad: advertising as nefarious exploitation or the much creepier advertising-as-control,-but-for-
social-good,-I-swear model (do these people even listen to themselves as they say this?).
The problem, either way, with the use of "ideology" as applied to advertising, at least in this way, is that as you say the analogy overreaches. Regardless of whether we think the power of advertising is a negative force or a force for good, it's hardly as you say ideological in the stricter sense of coercion.

So in your next post, with the example of the Freegans, I think you show how absurd it is to say that advertising and consumer culture work as repressive coercion: after all, the Freegans can opt out. (But don't opt out of ideological structures entirely: they reflect a counter-culture, with a counter-ideology. I think this is often confusing; that ideological thinking in general is hard to avoid, while particular ideologies sometimes less so.)

Ok, so I think this pretty well shows us how unhelpful the use of the concept of "ideology" is to think about how advertising works, if we mean by it some totalitarian coercive force.

All of this is effective criticism and, assuming I've understood you right, I'm pretty convinced. My feeling is to ditch the word and concept in this context altogether! Blech!

But you start to offer us a different sense of ideology and how it might actually work in the advertising context, and the fun of you applying Althusser to advertising is too good to resist! Can we have some more?

Beecham said...

Oh, and I think you could read your Two Cultures posts and your Ideology posts against each other in really interesting ways.