Anat Rosenberg on her book, The Rise of Mass Advertising

Interview by Astrid Van den Bossche, Kings College London

Oxford University Press

Astrid Van den Bossche: One striking focus of your book is the presence and treatment—legally, culturally, and scholarly—of enchantment as a recurring, and potentially structuring, market experience. As you note, there is much debate on the (dis)enchanted status of modern life, but what led you to this focus in a history of mass advertising in Britain?

Anat Rosenberg: In truth, I did not come with this question to the research. Only after delving into the sources I realized that the tension between disenchantment and enchantment was central to the history of advertising, to ways of loving and hating it, and to its legal ordering.

When you start thinking about it, connecting advertising and enchantment might seem obvious, because there is such a huge body of literature that does just that, both in the critical tradition (think about Barthes, Baudrillard, Raymond Williams and others), and recently with more interest in the possibility that enchantment is not a danger or manipulation, but a form of agency (Jane Bennett for example, David Morgan and others). And yet I saw three gaps in this literature. First, there is almost nothing about enchantment by advertising in the first era of mass advertising in Britain, around 1840 -1914 – it has simply not been a theme for most historians of the period. Second, what you can glean from existing histories is dominated by material from the producer-end: interpretive studies of adverts and archives of businesses and advertising agencies. Additional scholarship is philosophical in nature, the Frankfurt School for example. Finally, there was nothing about the legal treatment of enchantment. 

So, my opening chapter responds to the first two gaps with a study of reception sources for advertising. I have used everything I could find: testimonies of consumers in court suits against advertisers, comments in the press, autobiographies and diaries, fiction, works of art, albums and scrapbooks. I trace what readers of adverts were looking for, how they imagined the mysteries and adventures of their world by inhabiting environments of mass advertising. Then, the rest of the book examines how law was mobilized to respond to mass advertising on the level of social ordering, and particularly how responses disavowed enchantment. That is why I argue that there was a normative project of disenchantment. While disenchantment was not a historical reality – here I side with revisionist historians, it was much more than a wavering ideology. It was an active enterprise made up of multiple legal investments across British culture, which gathered momentum despite of – or because – enchantment was such a constitutive experience of the capitalist economy.

Astrid Van den Bossche: By looking at gambling and indecency, Chapter 6 in particular pushes against the limits of discourses of modern disenchantments, and points to the consequently sketchy theorisation of enchantment. What are your key takeaways for the historical study and conceptualisation of enchantment?

Anat Rosenberg: The censorship of gambling and indecent adverts was my last hope for a significant legal conceptualization of enchantment. Until that point, I encountered disavowals. Almost everywhere, debates about advertising gravitated towards its legitimation and criticism within rationalist paradigms. I then expected debates about gambling and indecency to be the exception to the rule, because they started out by worrying about consumers’ non-rational responses to mass culture. The theory of gambling highlighted gamblers’ defiance of reason and quasi-mystical views. The theory of indecency placed primacy on the power of print to interact with receptive minds, ignite desires, and draw affective responses. However, the potential of theories of enchantment to reconceive advertising was checked, and they ended on a weak and even banal note. The legal logic and practice of censorship in fact shielded the better part of advertising from a developed discussion of enchanting appeals, and so censorious theories ultimately affirmed that adverting was compatible with a disenchanted culture.

This limited conceptualization of enchantment was not a failure of understanding, or a historical accident. It reflected a cultural commitment to modernity-as-disenchantment, which relied on law to make itself present in everyday life. In other words, what might seem sketchy or inadequate was in fact a serious effort to insist that capitalism was a disenchanting force and that modernity was a victory of reason, while a messier possibility was looming large.

From a historical perspective we could ask whether this effort was successful. The answer is complex. Despite its analytic weakness, modernity-as-disenchantment became common sense. The host of perspectives it involved in terms of the rationalities of cultural fields and the dispassionate mentality of economic life itself, were and remain dominant. Yet, all this did not preclude enchantment, it just deprived it of normative conceptual languages, which had ironic outcomes. Because enchantment was disavowed, advertising was treated like a failure: it was described as biased information, vulgar aesthetic, knowledge corrupted by exaggeration. Such attacks unwittingly liberated advertisers from rationalist inhibitions – since they were failing anyway, and finally drove professional advertisers to adopt a theory that celebrated enchantment. This theory was attractive because law had little to say about it. Professionals branded themselves as masters of the nonrational mind, a myth that has held incredible sway.

Astrid Van den Bossche: This leads us, in fact, to the other main argument of the book, which is that the boundaries between advertising and other cultural fields such as the press, the arts, and the sciences, were continuously tested, contested, and redrawn. As you point to above on the celebration of enchantment as the advertiser’s craft, advertising as we know it is the result of this boundary work. Reversely, we might imagine that advertising had a hand in shaping the cultural fields that sought to distance themselves from it.  How far could we go with this argument, in your view?

Anat Rosenberg: Pretty far, I think. Advertising developed by defying and testing cultural boundaries, as it traded and trod on the cultural authority of other fields. Legal boundary work dealt with these challenges, and created differentiations. In this process advertising functioned as a cultural scapegoat, which carried the burden of commercial corruption for other fields. The dangers of the profit motive were attributed to advertisers, who were associated with concepts of bias, vulgarity, or exaggeration, while other fields could claim to represent higher ideals of aesthetic appreciation, objective knowledge, or impartial information. Of course, no field was free from market pressures at this point, but advertising salvaged them because in the ongoing comparison they fared better.

So, the broad argument of the book is that advertising energized an entire culture to examine and explain the terms on which it lived. Its history should not be examined only from the perspective of consumption or commerce – it had a world-generating power across fields in terms of aesthetics, epistemology, and ontology.

Astrid Van den Bossche: Drawing on legal archives, from legal treatises to case reports, has allowed you to unpack the norming and legitimisation of advertising practices. What advice do you have for those who might be less familiar with these resources?

Anat Rosenberg: Law is too important to leave only to lawyers, don’t be afraid to delve into these sources. We have not seen book-length histories of advertising that work with law seriously (as far as I know), which is unfortunate because it has limited our understanding of the its history. Without the legal angle, it is hard to see the commonalities and broad implications of seemingly different areas in which advertising was being contested, challenged and shaped, from art through journalism to medicine and more.

To integrate law into our sources of cultural analysis is more straight forward than might first appear. After all, it consists of very human efforts to formulate social meanings, resolve cultural dilemmas, and frame normativity. It involves not only legislators and courts, and not only trained legal professionals but also local organizations, practices, and material environments that are part of daily pursuits, market relationships, and substate structures. Multiple actors create, adapt, and perform normativity in these environments, and attempt to formalize it within their distinct constraints and opportunities. From this perspective, law is emergent and dispersed, and often non-lawyers will have unique insight. What is more, from this perspective most resources you examine can have a legal angle, if you only ask them the question! Yes, many resources require us to develop expertise in legal fields and their history in order to fully understand them, but the knowledge is available, and worth the effort.

Astrid Van den Bossche: Much of the book celebrates audiences, their engagement, their responses, and the balancing of imagination and reason. There are no crowds or masses without attention to the particular circumstances in which consumers read their advertisements. At the same time, you point out that using reception evidence allows us to see a phenomenon at “the level of wholes,” thus theorising the effects of advertising not as the result of exposures to single images, but as the result of their accumulation. What have we missed in our histories of advertising by not attending to these wholes?

Anat Rosenberg: I love this juxtaposition between masses of people and masses of adverts, I hadn’t considered the conceptual play here!

            Yes, I argue in the book that the accumulation of adverts en masse was a historical form in its own right. It was at the forefront of cultural consciousness as all media were characterized by unprecedented advertising concentration.

When we focus on accumulation as form, we include things that otherwise look banal and have received little attention from historians. For example, one- or two-liner text adverts or unknown advertisers. As we move beyond leading advertisers and spectacular campaigns, towards the numerous and trivial, we can also move beyond the animation of the commodity, which is the most theoretically developed aspect of consumer enchantment. A focus on commodities and brands is insufficient because advertising in the long nineteenth century advertised the market, or more precisely life as a market. This was the broadest and yet very concrete imaginary that forged audiences. Hefty mixtures of adverts for commodities, second-hand goods, entertainments, services, labour and financial opportunities, politics, personal messages and more are critical, because they gave shape, feeling, and meaning to abstract ideas about market society.

A focus on accumulation as form cannot limit itself to semiotic approaches that begin with single adverts and campaigns. There have been famous studies of accumulation, like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but I have tried to join historical readers for walks through a variety of British passages, physical and imaginary, and see how they experienced the world with and through them. It was often fascinated (and fascinating) travel. In other words, the question of accumulation invites a study of ways of reading, where my analysis of readers of adverts joins other cultural studies of reading mass culture.

Astrid Van den Bossche: You draw on many fascinating cases that bring people’s experiences with advertising to life – is there one in particular that has stuck with you?

Anat Rosenberg: Many, but to connect to your question about the accessibility of legal resources, and my emphasis on the banal, the trophy goes to a case of an obscure businessman, which made no legal precedent or economic drama.

Arthur Lewis Pointing was the mind behind the Oriental Toilet Company, which advertised “Invisible Elevators.” The adverts urged short people to buy elevators, promising a magical transfiguration that would raise their height by up to four inches. He was in fact selling pieces of cork to place inside shoes. Within a year and a half, he sold 4,150 pairs. The trouble was that not all consumers got high; the elevators were too small, or too painful, or both. The company was not responsive and so some consumers went to the police. Pointing was charged with fraud in the Bow Street Police Court, but when the case moved to the Old Bailey it was dismissed.

There are two lessons to learn from his case. First, the testimonies showed how the power of commodity advertising played out in the lives of ordinary people. The stories revealed the extent of imagination in the reception of adverts, which continued even after the pieces of cork arrived, when consumers’ dreams of transformative science met with the simplicity of conception and with the actual smallness of size. For example, a domestic servant said she did not use mirrors and did not know whether she looked taller with the elevators. What we see here is a projection of dreams and an active avoidance of knowledge, which I have found to be a peculiar characteristic of modern enchantment. When knowledge was readily available, people had to make efforts not to know.

Second, Pointing defended himself by arguing that his adverts were just puffery, which is not enforceable in law. Puffery is an extraordinary legal doctrine. It licenses advertising by keeping advertisers immune to claims, but it also ridicules it by explaining that legal immunity reflects the fact that advertised claims are exaggerations that no reasonable person believes. This explanation is another evasion of the seriousness of enchantment. But anyway, because of the ridicule, as soon as Pointing won with his puffery defence, he rushed to the newspapers to fix the damage done to his reputation. This turn of events helps use appreciate the ridiculing effect of law, which legal scholars have not examined.

Pointing went on to become a successful seller of quack medicines with a flair for bodily transformation. He sold remedies to prevent inordinate blushing, getting too fat, and getting too lean. When he died in an asylum, his will, which was a huge $40,000–$80,000 (approximately £4.8–£9.6 million in 2020), was fittingly contested by an advertising agent!

Alex Fattal on his book, Guerrilla Marketing

Interview by Winifred Tate

Winifred Tate: The title, Guerrilla Marketing, evokes advertising, and in fact Amazon lists a number of similarly named advertising books. Why did you choose it?

Alex Fattal: Because it’s dense, evocative, and slippery, like the book’s contents. In a sentence, the book is an ethnographic analysis of the feedback between marketing and military strategies, how each set of experts are learning from the other in their respective efforts to conjugate furtive research, surveillance, and planning with spectacular media interventions. Guerrilla marketing, the term, references a set of trends in the private sphere to camouflage the advertisement; and as the title of my book, it references how the state is marketing a new life of consumer citizenship to guerrillas — the book’s ethnographic ground. The book documents a mashup of these worlds, which the title encapsulates.

Winifred Tate: One of the central arguments you make is that programs that are marketed by governments and consultants as humanitarian and contributing toward peace often, as in this case, involve policing, surveillance and frequent detention of targeted individuals — that is they employ a logic of militarization and ongoing warfare. Can you explain the Colombian case you examine?

Alex Fattal: The program that I studied in Colombia, the Program for Humanitarian Attention to the Demobilized (PAHD), is a special initiative of the Colombian Ministry of Defense. It began in 2003, the year after peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government fell apart. It was in lieu of a peace process and sought to coopt the language of peace policy by “demobilizing” fighters that were really defecting or deserting. It might strike some readers as a picky semantic difference, but one of the key claims that I make in the book is that the temporal difference between war and peace — like other modernist distinctions — matters and should not be relinquished lightly. At the level of academic critique, we see how the two bleed ineluctably into each other, but I do think there is something worthwhile in not giving into the Marshal McLuhan’s prognostication that World War III will be “a guerrilla information war.” His vision is proving increasingly prescient with the confluence of the unfolding of the Global War on Terror and the technological moment, and it’s very troubling to say the least. By theorizing what I call “brand warfare” I am trying to articulate something that is in global circulation. While it’s been interesting to share the work and hear from colleagues about how they find the concept useful in their field own sites, it’s also been disheartening because it points to a troubling tendency toward dangerous new forms of mass manipulation.

Winifred Tate: In the conclusion, you document how the Colombian government evangelizes this program, showing it off to delegates from other conflict-torn countries such as South Sudan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Somalia and others. Why did the Colombian government do this?

 Alex Fattal: It is part of Colombia’s striving to position itself on the upper rungs of a global hierarchy of security expertise and establish itself as a country that has come back from the brink of “failed state” ignominy, and therefore has knowledge to export. The pony show of the “South South Tour” (which was mostly funded by the global north) was just one piece in a wider re-narration of the nation and served as a performative intervention to create the impression of the government having “solved” the conflict — all while the war was still raging. Kimberly Theidon has aptly described this cunning temporal conflation as “pre-post conflict”. The bi-annual South South Tours were part of the Colombian government’s “mission accomplished” moment, a performance that involved the mobilization of state symbols, bureaucracies, and resources. Anybody who has been following the post-peace accord violence knows how utterly premature such triumphalist projections have been.

Winifred Tate: An important contribution you make is bringing an analysis of the intersections between the worlds of marketing and branding, and government demobilization efforts. How do these bureaucrats and consultants try to sell peace? How do you think these campaigns have contributed to the current skepticism about the peace accords in Colombia?

Alex Fattal: You are very right to point to skepticism as the other side of the coin in such strategies of affective governance. Quite simply, I think the government blew its credibility on peace initiatives during wartime to gain a military and political advantage. When it came time to persuade the Colombian public that a strikingly similar set of programs would be necessary during negotiations with the FARC in Havana from 2012 to 2016 and then during the plebiscite and implementation of the peace accord, it was much easier for the right wing to sew doubt around the motives of the pro-peace camp. It is a telling case of how the right-wing benefits from playing politics amidst a hall of mirrors, unphased by distortions and shameless in taking the non-correspondences between signifier and signified that Baudrillard poignantly highlighted when discussing consumer culture decades ago to its logical conclusion — outright disinformation.

Winifred Tate: A growing number of anthropologists are conducting ethnographic research within government and military bureaucracies. What lessons can you share for anthropologists and others who want to do this kind of research?

 Alex Fattal: Be careful. It’s a fraught field and the rules of the game are in flux. Journalists and academics are in a tough spot across the globe. Ayše Gül Altinay, among others, is being arbitrarily detained in Turkey. The translation of Guerrilla Marketing into Spanish and a few promotional events in Colombia seem to have earned me my first death threat, a picture of a man hanged and tortured that was sent to my Colombian cell phone. (It was a new SIM card and I had hardly shared the number with anyone). Institutions, like the Colombian military, that project such a powerful image of themselves publicly are often hypersensitive and don’t deal well with criticism and they have a kit of repressive tools to use as part of the brand warfare they wage to sure up their often shaky legitimacy. I did my best to convey the scope of my research and its disposition to critical analysis, but despite my best efforts to communicate openly and continually — tensions arose. Embedded ethnography tends to assume an ideological affinity between the anthropologist and her field site, but when that’s not the case things can get tricky. One of the parts of the book that I am proud of is the “Access and Ethics” section of the introduction, which digs deeper into these dynamics.

Winifred Tate: In addition to your analysis of the logic of the demobilization programs, you offer complex and fascinating glimpses into the complexity of ex-combatants’ lives through life-history excerpts in-between each analytical chapter. How do you understand the role and importance of these testimonies of lived experience?

Alex Fattal: The testimonials, which are accompanied by Lucas Ospina’s wonderful drawings, do a lot of work in the book and they have been one of the elements that has really impacted readers so far. They give the analysis another dimension by bringing the discussion down to the level of everyday life, not in a way that is illustrative of my interpretations but rather in ways the exceed the interpretative frame, allowing readers who are unfamiliar with the Colombian context to feel the intensities and trajectories of lives marked by the conflict and their many layers. The stories also open a space for readers to make connections to the chapters — the placement of each of the testimonials is not haphazard. I think the testimonials widen my otherwise narrow focus on the convergence of marketing and militarism and allow the book to be about much more at the same time. Including them also relieved some of my sense of guilt about not being able to include many other stories that I wanted to include. So many former guerrillas shared their life experiences with me and I wish I could have included their stories too. My editor, Priya Nelson, did a wonderful job gently influencing the manuscript. The one piece of advice I just couldn’t take was to cut the testimonials down further. For me, I wanted to make sure the arc of often-difficult childhoods, joining the guerrilla, life inside the FARC’s ranks, the decision to leave, and the challenges of reintegration came through; and it was hard to abbreviate that arc, especially with so many compelling stories.

Winifred Tate: Similarly, your film Limbo, centers on the recounting of one such story. What is the film about?

Alex Fattal: The book could have easily been twice as long, but I left some large pieces out, such as a chapter on the psychological world of ex-combatants and their dreamscapes. I decided to spin that off into a short film called Limbo, which was shot entirely in the back of a truck that I transformed into a camera obscura. The article I am writing now is about former guerrillas’ dreams and the film project as a form of ethnographic surrealism, which strives for a dialectic between the ethnographic impulse to render the familiar strange and the surrealist impulse to render the strange familiar. The film, unlike much of what has been featured from the Sensory Ethnography Lab, takes narrative seriously, while also creating a sensorial space in the back of the truck. The truck becomes a confessional, psychoanalytic space that, unlike the couch, is in constant motion. The idea is to take the viewer on an oneiric journey through one former guerrilla’s life. Like the testimonials in the book, the film shows how the aftermath of being in the war lingers, it is an aftermath that is accentuated by a form of demobilization that, as I argue, is often complicit in the remobilization of former combatants, fueling cycles of conflict and peace policy that Colombia has been in the throes of for the last thirty-five years. It’s a trend, that sadly, is continuing through the post-peace accord present.






Anthropology and Advertising

by Susan Lepselter

Image result for whopper virgins

I remember once going to a mall with a fellow graduate student in anthropology. It was early on, perhaps our second semester. My friend moved slowly through the department store, her eyes wide, her head turning slowly at the display of commodities. Everything had been denaturalized by our studies. The goods were an uncanny materialization of all the theory we were newly steeped in.  She picked up a lipstick and stared at it.  Use value dissolved in the air around us. Another friend made a bumper sticker for her beat up car: Reification is capitalism’s master trope. We all loved how the bumper sticker reified that sentence.

How does a thing come to life and become “transcendent,” as Marx put it, through exchange? For anthropologists, studying the social, affective and imaginative life of commodities can involve examining how people feel about the things they buy, how we value them, use them in unexpected ways, represent them, and identify with them.  Advertisers study similar public practices, feelings and ideas about the things they market. For Marx, of course, the “mystical” aspect of the commodity fetish came from how it reified the social relations of labor.  Today, it is difficult to think about a commodity without considering the life with which advertisers imbue it.

Many advertising agencies think of ethnography as an improvement over less nuanced approaches to market research.  The goals, politics, ethical concerns and commitments of the two endeavors differ. But the agencies still track a common thread: the comparative interpretation of places, people, markets, often with a colonizing echo.

Because I am interested in the affective and imaginative life of objects, I became curious about the connections between anthropology and advertising. It’s a connection that is consciously developed in the advertising industry. The industry uses tropes of ethnography, culture, difference and social context as it creates venues for commodities to enter public consciousness. You could look at the relationship between anthropology and advertising from multiple perspectives, from cultural critique to the pragmatic need to help anthropology majors envision jobs in that business. For this post, I first critically read an ad that performs an idea of cross-cultural exchange; and then I interview Jenny, an anthropologist in advertising, to understand how her industry thinks about the commodity in relation to culture.

“Cultures” and “markets” are everywhere conflated in the neoliberal world; advertising can bring that conflation to the surface of things.  Of course, anthropologists have been talking about the entangled histories of colonialism and ethnographic representation since Writing Culture rattled things up in 1986.  But we don’t always notice how discourses about culture and representation have shifted and taken up other forms in other contexts.

Take the “Whopper Virgins” campaign for Burger King, which featured a long advertising project involving cross-cultural travel to an exotic place and a subsequent story about it. Representatives from the agency (Crispin Porter and Bogusky) traveled to three geographically remote areas around the world – rural areas of Romania, Thailand and Greenland – to meet people they narrate as pre-contact, and to film the encounter.  But “pre- contact” here referred specifically to the local unfamiliarity with fast food hamburgers, The Whopper and the Big Mac.

In these three places framed as outside the modern global grid, potential consumers were considered to be pure: “virgins” who were still innocent to the taste of McDonalds and Burger King, (and therefore ultimately able to pronounce the inherent superiority of the client’s product, the Whopper. )The story of this ad expressed a dream that far transcended sales. Here taste could just be returned to the original biological sense, the natural sensing palate, stripped of habitus. The tasters were still “virgins.”

The trope of virgin land waiting to be penetrated by civilizers has circulated since at least the 1600s; of course, the idea of virgin land ignores the presence of indigenous populations and denies the land as an already-realized place. In centuries of European imagery, virginal female land is depicted as ripe for planting, fertilizing, becoming fruitful.  In the Whopper Virgins project, the older colonization narrative of conquering land merged into the story of discovering and conquering a new market.  In the ad, these locals are depicted as friendly, reciprocal, and wearing traditional clothing; they don’t know how to hold the burger, they sniff at it suspiciously, laugh, and then hesitantly take a bite. Here, an exotic innocence renews the malaise of civilization.  And so within the conceit of this story, all of these different specific places become a single place, the place of virgins, the place where one can still find authenticity, a fountain of taste. The desire for consumable difference flows through the commercial, the longing for a cultural purity that can be both apprehended in its otherness and incorporated into sameness, desired as a virgin and then deflowered.

Image result for whopper virgins

The Whopper Virgins campaign is unusual, for an ad, in this mission to a faraway place. Most campaigns play on deepening, expanding and elaborating the commodity-laden familiar—the thoughts, practices and desires of people at home. When ad agencies adapt anthropological methods to the goals of their research, they think about and theorize what culture might be.  Their references to anthropology are explicit. One agency website quotes an anthropology major who is now an ad executive: We all have to study people and know who they are, what they want and why they want it. The key is research. And when we research, that’s anthropology at its finest.

What is the structure of this connection in practical terms? I begin to approach this question by speaking with another anthropologist who has made a career in the industry. (She has asked not to use her real name; I will call her Jenny.)

After earning her PhD in anthropology and teaching for a few years a visiting professor, Jenny applied for a position that an ad agency had posted on the American Anthropological Association careers site. She sketched a brief trajectory of how the industry has changed its structure over the years to incorporate a more nuanced, interpretive understanding of culture and consumption based in part on anthropology. Once, she says, ad agencies divided their work between “account people” and “creatives.”  The account people, she explained, are oriented towards the client:

“They are Roger on Mad Men; they go golfing and drink martinis with the client – traditionally,  [like on Mad Men] that’s their image. Now it’s mountain biking and Burning Man.

“The creatives write the script and make the work. They work in teams: an art director and a copywriter. They are allowed to be unwashed, up all night, eating granola bars in the agency—making stuff. “

In the past, Jenny says, these two divisions, the “account people” and the “creatives,” comprised the agency.

“The account people would find out the assignment from the client and tell the creatives, who had to write the ad. But then –the world changed.”

Now there is a third division, people who do a specific kind of research to orient the agency’s creative work towards culture. Depending on the agency they are called planners or strategists.  The planners (as I will call them here) are not simply market researchers.  Market researchers did not interpret the latent cultural meanings of their findings; they relied on the literal, the face-value data gathered in brief focus groups and surveys. But planners don’t rely on what Jenny calls the “verbatim” messages of market data. Rather the planners research social forces and meanings that contradict or transcend the explicit answers people might supply on a form. When there’s a difference between what people say they want and what they actually buy, the planners step into that gap.  They call this dissonance “tension,” and use the contradiction to make unlikely, surprising, attention-getting and artful ads – for example, this one that does not deny, but rather intensifies, people’s anxieties about the corrosive effects of cell phones on attention and human relationships.

Jenny said, “The creatives used to hate the market researchers, who would represent the consumers. The creatives just wanted to make cool stuff. But the market researchers added this other element:” [They went beyond “let’s make a cool ad”] to ‘What do moms want?’ “

Sometimes, they found, what “moms want” contradicted not just the consumers’ explicit answers but also the creatives’ ideas, the artful conceit they wanted to execute.  And often, too, the market researchers’ data revealed other contradictions internal to the data itself: “when things test terribly but people actually love it,” Jenny said. It wasn’t enough to just create an ad strategy based on people’s explicit answers. There were what she calls “latent meanings,” positioned by broader cultural trends, which demanded that survey answers read and interpreted in its social context, on a larger scale. “When you talk to people and take their verbatim answers it leads to stupid work,” Jenny said.

“People  [interviewed after a movie] say things like ‘I wish there was no villain and it could all be princesses.’ But of course they don’t really want to go to a movie like that.” The wish to erase the villain was about something else. Traditional market researchers relied on literal survey answers, which told them more about what consumers thought they should want but not what they would actually consume.

Current planning and strategizing always looks for side angles and perspectives on their material. “A woman on the survey said she would never eat a burger because she’s on a diet. That’s what she says—but then of course she would eat it.” The strategists explore that tension. Tension refers to what she again calls “latent cultural feeling.”

“You look at what people say they do not like about the product. Say, a mini-van. People say they don’t like it; that [not liking it] is not just about the car but the end of your sexy life and beginning of your being a suburban mom. Not just ‘what is the style of the car and does it have heated seats or not.’  (A campaign that tried to exploit this specific tension with irony backfired when Brooke Shields was hired to deadpan that people were having babies in order to make use of the Volkswagen’s German engineering.)

This interest in latent cultural feeling is why Jenny’s first agency tried specifically to hire an anthropologist. “The ad I answered (posted by the AAA) said they did not want anyone from the advertising world or the business world.” Concepts from anthropology get sewn into the fabric of ad strategies. She explains: “So take for example an idea of the gift, or reciprocity, from anthropology. A gift is not a gift only, it is enmeshed in a world of practices. We in anthropology think that’s obvious—but the business world thinks that’s quite a shocker.” She laughed. “You come and tell the agency: you know what, if you give someone a gift card and they can buy themselves what they want it doesn’t work as a thoughtful gift.”

“Business people,” Jenny said, “understand use value, and they understand badging. ‘Badging’ is [the process of] saying something about you. You want to save the environment and wear Tom’s shoes. If you carry an expensive [Hermes] birkin bag you are showing you are really rich – or that some man loves you a lot. Old fashioned luxury. They want us to show what things mean.

“Anthropology has always known that there is a coherent system, a link between, say your religion and what you buy. This was novel for business thinkers, because they thought of things separately, normally.” The business perspective is not necessarily attuned to the meanings of commodities, she says, but on how “they can measure the success [of the campaign]. From a cultural perspective it’s harder to measure the success except how attitudes shift.

“The way you’re taught to think in anthropology is helpful in business, because they don’t see it that [systemic] way, they are inside it, and they don’t realize how the world is changing. For example, take the secret shame people feel in sitting on the couch and watching TV. Now, instead there is a premium on getting lots done at once.

“Thinking that way is the biggest advantage that business people see in having an anthropology background,” Jenny said.

And sometimes, they focus on the global, comparative focus of anthropology. “I would get emails that said “tell me the anthropology of gum” and you can look at practices all over the world like qat in Yemen, or the betel nut. You can look at chewing as a practice comparatively. Those are fun questions.

“If you don’t want a career only looking at one thing, this lets you. And if you write a brief a certain way to go after what, for example, people are ashamed of, you can change things.”

Our conversations have made me more constantly conscious of my own — and everyone’s — part in constructing the symbolic domain of commodities. The meaning of the ad, like the meaning of any utterance, emerges through the dense histories of both the addressor and the addressee. The commodified object, that “very queer thing” concealing human relationships in the labor that made it, comes alive on both sides of the ad.

Shankar on her new book, Advertising Diversity: Ad Agencies and the Creation of Asian-American Consumers

Interview by Ilana Gershon:

I have to say that it is downright inspired to look ethnographically at how advertising agencies create iconic and compelling images of Asian Americans as a racial group.  By choosing this site, you are able to reveal so much of how difficult it is to treat Asian Americans as a unified group, as well as showing in detail how the racial images we are surrounded by are constructed through the effort of convincing co-workers and clients that an ad will persuade.   And now you are looking at spelling bees as a mass-mediated event for telling a melting pot story.   Can you talk a little bit about your process for deciding on a research project and that an ethnographic site will allow you to explore the kinds of questions you want to ask?

Each of these research projects partially emerged from the one that preceded it. The advertising project grew out of my Desi Land research with South Asian American teenagers and their families in Silicon Valley. I spent a lot of time with people in their homes and many watched diasporic channels on satellite TV. I noticed ads specifically aimed at South Asians in the US. Being familiar with Indian advertising from my numerous visits, I knew these ads were different and was quite curious about who was making them. After much online research about agencies and several rounds of emails and phone calls, a few agencies welcomed me to conduct interviews. One agreed to allow me to conduct ethnographic fieldwork provided I sign a nondisclosure agreement. Thanks to the generosity of that agency, I was able to do enough research to write a book. In my survey of agencies, I found one that had developed a public relations campaign for an insurance company and called it the “South Asian Spelling Bee.” Having already observed the streak of South Asian American kids winning the National Spelling Bee, I really wanted to know more. I found it slightly simpler to set up the spelling bee research because these organizations were not creating “proprietary content” like advertisements, but rather, administering a contest. Still, because this activity is seasonal—they call it “bee season”—it took me a while to get to know spellers, families, judges, and others. I just returned from attending my fourth National Spelling Bee and finally feel like I really know people in that world. In both of these projects, there was so much to observe that my questions were either well addressed or replaced by more interesting ones.


African American advertising agencies were the first agencies founded to address diversity.   How do you think the strategies and solutions African American ad agencies developed has shaped what Asian American agencies do?  Or in other words, how have the specific quandaries advertisers face in addressing African Americans or Latinos shaped what it means to advertise to any racialized group, regardless of whether the solutions that originally evolved are appropriate for that particular racialized group?

You’re right that African American advertising agencies were the first agencies to address racial diversity, but what is also interesting is how many “general market” or mainstream agencies also developed in-house units to target this population. They were, and still are, called “Urban markets,” which clearly indexes the perceived socioeconomic status of African Americans with little qualification about the social and political implications of this term. What differs between African American advertising and other minority advertising is primarily representations of language and culture. While African Americans are considered to be an already “assimilated” population that nonetheless has their own specialized TV, print, and radio media through which they can be directly reached, Latinos and Asian Americans are imagined to be recent immigrants who are best reached through far more explicit means of in-language copy and overt cultural representation. What currently transcends any of these racial categories is the ongoing need for multicultural advertising to demonstrate their relevance to corporate clients who question whether ethnically specific advertising is even necessary when so many of these consumers are also reported to consume mainstream media.


I was struck while reading how much this is a book about cultural expertise.   This is particularly vivid when you write about how vulnerable Asian American ad executives are because their clients might dismiss their pitches once they have consulted with their co-workers.  These are co-workers who don’t know anything about advertising but who happen to have the appropriate cultural background and happen to disagree with the Asian American ad team’s starting premises about that Asian culture.  Often the Asian American ad team can’t disagree because they claim cultural authority on the same grounds as the client’s co-workers.  I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how people in this profession understand expertise in general, and how this connects to the cultural expertise that some people have in this system.

To address this question I have to reference the AMC series Mad Men. Fans of the series may recall that ad man Don Draper was a fur coat salesman before he stumbled into advertising. I think this character point remains relevant, in that many ad executives seem to have found their way into advertising despite a lack of academic training in it. While ad executives are highly skilled and their years of experience make them experts, advertising is the less scientific arm of marketing, in which ad makers rely on existing market research to develop creative concepts. Sometimes these conceits miss their mark, and this trial and error is tied to advertising’s aim of not simply selling products to people, but creating aspirational imagery to drive consumer spending. Asian American advertising additionally involves a complex set of cultural and linguistic considerations that makes arbitrating cultural expertise quite difficult. While ad executives do all they can to maintain authority over the content of their creative work, as workers for hire, they often have to bend to the will of their clients. I think this sometimes takes a toll on ad executives, especially when their clients are insensitive and in some moments, just plain racist. For the most part they seem to see this as part of the job and don’t let it define their creative aspirations.


You mention that advertising executives use the terms iconicity and indexicality all the time (p. 35).  What was it like to do research in a context where you and your informants seem to share similar analytical categories for understanding communicative practices (including the importance of cultural difference), and yet in practice these categories are deployed in very different ways?

I’m fairly certain they were not directly citing Peirce, but rather, using terms common in texts about advertising and visual culture more broadly. These terms appear in analytical registers used in the critical readings of art, film, television, and other visual genres. Ad executives were using these terms to create and construct meaning, rather than analyze and deconstruct it. The very deliberate process of what they thought could be iconic, or what a particular image or phrase might index to an imagined viewer, was anthropologically quite fascinating. Their use of these terms was ethnographically revealing of the intended meaning of their choices. This semiotic gap between their deployment of these concepts in their creative work and my use of them to analyze their work is something I aimed to address in my use of “assemblage.” I wanted to consider their cultural and linguistic ideologies alongside their creative work, as well as how people actually read and respond to their work. Addressing this range of semiotic possibilities allowed me to productively consider their understanding of these analytical categories alongside mine, as well as those of clients and audiences.


You began this research in 2008, and mention that there have been noticeable changes over the course of your four years of research.   Did you see any patterns in these changes?

When I began in 2008, Asian American ad executives were actively championing diversity but were often stymied by the lack of market research about Asian American consumers. The 2010 Census was a watershed event, in that it both documented the growing numbers of Asian Americans and Latinos while it also offered further details about the “purchasing power” of Asian Americans. While this latter group is heterogeneous and certainly not uniformly upwardly mobile, this new census data allowed Asian American ad agencies to more powerfully reiterate their rationale for of multicultural advertising and helped justify its value.

Shalini Shankar is a Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University. Advertising Diversity  is available through Duke University Press.