Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Fake Ambush Marketing: When Ads Go All-Concept

Hot on the heels of this great example of ambush advertising, the ad blog How Advertising Spoiled Me sent out a post via RSS last night showing this image:

But the post has since been removed from the blog. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess it was a fake and that someone - the airline? - fooled our friend Arvind. It's always fun to see something you're not supposed to (ever seen a retracted post from Think in Pictures?) but that wouldn't be enough to merit pointing it out, so bear with me. I think this incident highlights one of the most overlooked aspects of our current media age, in which the Internet has pushed progressive advertising methods to be almost entirely conceptual. The actual audience for the physical work is secondary to the virtual audience who will consume it in a manner dictated by those who document the product. And this is a big change. Let me elaborate.

I noted a while back that tone of the main benefits of the Internet for non-permission-based public artists (i.e. graffiti artists) is that ephemeral works can be documented and shared far beyond the place they are created:

Illicit art created in the physical world now has the power to reach vast audiences through its documentation and dissemination via the Internet, and while some of the pleasure of discovery may be missing - imagine stumbling across that row of tanks in Basel versus seeing it here - the objects' poached presence in the real world, and the knowledge that many others have stumbled upon them, and others have walked by them without noticing them, is no less delicious. This accessibility is, of course, wildly divergent from artwork's context in the real world; there, the piece will soon be discovered and likely removed, if this has not happened already. In rare cases, citizens lobby and win the right for a piece of illicit art to be adopted and "legalized," but this requires organization, speed, and open-minded governance. On the web, however, the piece is available to all for as long as it is of interest, and can be passed around among viewers, reinvigorated by new discussion, and take on a virtual life of its own. This is one of the wonderful ways in which the Internet is not like the "real" world: Everyone has a wall to tag, paint, or advertise on, and the strength and relevance of one's message plays a much greater role in its successful infiltration of a virtual visitor's life than any other form of visual or written communication.
But while this development allows graffiti art to live on and be a part of a conversation far broader than the local and temporary effect it used to have, it also has the effect of reducing the significance of place, that is, of making the obviousness or accessibility of the graffiti site far less important, because so much of the work's audience is virtual. This means that good, effective public displays may actually be less accessible, less productive, less meaningful for the human beings who interact with the work in the "real world."

Advertising has undergone the same transition. Take, for example, a work of conceptual advertising like the one Germany's BUND (Friends of the Earth) documented a few weeks ago [via Art Threat, which is getting better every week]:

The balloon reads "The world can't take anymore [sic] CO2." When the car starts, it inflates, then bursts, surprising the automobile's driver and, presumably, briefly displaying its message to others before doing so. But as a live event, the action is an abject failure. Think about it:
  1. Balloon is surreptitiously affixed to tailpipe, and must not be seen by the driver.
  2. Balloon inflates, revealing tiny message that is too small to be legible.
  3. Balloon pops, alerting driver to something amiss.
  4. Driver checks tailpipe, finds obliterated balloon.
Who does this action serve? An exclusively virtual audience. Like any good conceptual artwork, it is the documentation and explanation that provides pleasure and stimulation, not the experience itself, which may be confusing, absurd, or mundane. As Art Threat noted:
The most common critique, however, damns the guerrilla tactic as pointless, as it may be near impossible to read the message on the inflated balloon before it explodes. Given that the campaign has already generated a ton of media, discussion and debate, I think it's fair to say that these detractors have missed the point entirely...
There is balance of power - akin to evolution, or to an arms race - between advertisers and their audiences that media critics rarely recognize. We do not simply absorb advertising, but critique, selectively acknowledge, and/or deflect it, and advertisers are always looking for new ways to work around or subvert audience barriers or defenses. I think what I find interesting about the developments in such "secondary" advertising methods (which have been around at least since the days of radio, but have been flourishing in the age of the Internet and digital photography) is that they are, in essence, advertising about advertising, and they utilize new forms of manipulation, against which audiences have not yet developed any successful defenses. As a result, we are all implicated and even enmeshed in these advertising efforts by our receptiveness to, or even our participation in creating, the fictional stories that complete them.

Take (again) the image above. What is true, and what is false? The concept survives whether the actual billboard was placed or not. The status of the advertiser as "trickster" only increases. They are also more likely to appear "Internet savvy," because someone in their organization knows how to doctor a photo, and is willing to do so. They get their advertising message out, and they save the expense of putting up a billboard, which might not even be possible at the site. So many questions remain. If the billboard were not in a prominent location (I have no idea where it is) and we learned that the number of viewers who saw the photo online far exceeded the number who saw it live, did Kingfisher waste their money putting up an actual billboard? Or is Kingfisher's physical counter-advertisement a necessary element of the set-up for GoAir's hoax?

More broadly, when real-world events are faked, simulated, or heavily enhanced, when and how do advertisers cross the line between advertising and straight propaganda?

Arvind's original post.

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