, is a book that I can recommend without hesitation — because after all, I was asked to write a forward for it." /> , is a book that I can recommend without hesitation — because after all, I was asked to write a forward for it." />

Rob Walker | Essays

Ad Nauseam: A Survivor’s Guide To American Consumer Culture

From time to time — or really, almost every week — I get inquiries from friendly people and perfect strangers who want book recommendations. They always claim to have read my book, so I can’t suggest that. I’m going to start compiling a list. I swear. I’m really going to do it. And yes, as a matter of fact, I’m going to link everything through an Amazon Associates account. Profit motive.

Certainly Ad Nauseam: A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture, is a book that I can recommend without hesitation — because after all, I was asked to write a forward for it. And I did so happily. (In fact, I did it for free! Profit motive isn’t everything!)

Here it is:

Active vs. Passive:

A Forward To Ad Nauseam

Active vs. passive: That’s the crucial dichotomy everybody talks about in discussions of media culture in general, and the commercialized subset of that culture in particular. I believe I first encountered Stay Free! in 1997 (that’s the date on the oldest issue I still have, at any rate). An independent publication produced and distributed and finding its audience against astonishing odds, it was certainly the opposite of passive. I loved it, and remained a devoted reader of the print version and its online successor. It was smart and funny and entertaining and original: Well-researched and serious when it needed to be, and sharply satirical and almost reckless when it didn’t. Extremely informed interviews from scholars coexisted with smart-ass pranks. And the writing, by Carrie McLaren, Jason Torchinsky, and their colleagues, always took an approach to commercial and media culture that was active in the very best sense of the word.

Many of the finest examples are collected here, along with new material that lives up to that standard. Everything in Ad Nauseam is about questioning what most people take for granted, laughing at the stuff you’re meant to accept soberly, and taking seriously the things you’re not intended to notice all. This gets done in a variety of ways. The opening overview of ad history is indispensable – and followed promptly by an attempt to train a dog to like iPods that makes some surprisingly effective points about marketing and the human animal; McLaren’s piece about subliminal advertising is the most insightful take on the subject I’ve ever read, and Torchinsky manages to make a visit to a sponsored party at the Playboy mansion provocative in a entirely different manner from what you might expect. Throughout, it’s a book of thinking about the news and entertainment we’re offered, and, in particular, about the commercial expression that underwrites so much of it. It’s a book, that is, of thinking about what we’re really not supposed to think about — and inspiring the reader to do the same.

It’s a sad fact that while the shaping of consumer culture is an incredibly important topic that touches all of our lives on many levels, the vast majority of commentary about it is written by a group of people whose opinions are decidedly skewed. These are the marketing professionals and gurus whose assessments of commercial persuasion in American life invariably boil down to Seven Tips For Selling More Whatever to today’s savvy consumer. Whatever value that sort of thing may have for the trade, it’s not very useful to the other participants in consumer culture: everybody else. We could use more voices on the subject whose end goal isn’t landing new clients or scoring a corporate consulting gig.

So as refreshing as it was to encounter such voices when I first did, and with the way the commercial and media landscape has changed in recent years, it’s flat-out energizing to read them now.

To explain why, I have to say something about the cheaper, less useful senses of “active” that have come into vogue in the 21st Century. Frequently, these uses involve squishing that word into the much-ballyhooed idea of the interactive. Thanks to interactive-ness, you can, for instance, respond directly to an online opinion you disagree with: Type “Your an idiot” into the comments field, and you have just participated; you have interacted; you have been not-passive. In the realm of consumer culture it means, say, complaining via Twitter that you have lately received a very poor latte from a famous coffee chain. If that coffee chain has employed someone to monitor brand-specific tweets, then perhaps you’ll be contacted, and score a compensatory coupon. (And maybe you’ll tweet about that, thereby completing the transformation of your interactivity into word-of-mouth marketing.) Or maybe you don’t have a complaint, you have an idea for a whole new style of caffeinated beverage you wish this coffee chain would sell. No problem. Stop by the new Web site the chain has set up where you can log on and share your profitable idea. Big ups: you’ve interacted with a brand.

Fine. (I guess.) But passing this sort of thing off as empowerment, democratization, or progress, presents a few problems. It shamelessly misrepresents the world prior to comment fields and social networking sites and so on as a place where we all stared slack-jawed at Gilligan’s Island; nobody disagreed with whatever the evening news anchors had to say; everybody bought the products that were advertised on television, for the simple reason that this is what the advertisements told us to do. This not only suggests that nobody knew how to think, but that this sorry state of affairs has only been resolved because we are now “allowed” to comment, “given” interactive new techno tools, and “provided” opportunities to express ourselves. In other words, even our newfound unpassiveness has been handed to us from without.

If you find that theory   that an active response to commercial culture is a recent gift from corporate America a little suspect, if you prefer a version of unpassiveness that’s a little more genuine, well, you’ve come to the right place.  One of the attributes of a genuinely active mental life is, of course, actually having something to say. Something new, something original, something that nobody else is saying. It’s true that having the tools to address the world is now commonplace; but having something to say remains just as rare. The writers in Ad Nauseam definitely have something to say. Something they felt so strongly and passionately, about saying that they found a way to do so before it became as easy as hitting a button. Nobody set up a comment field for their critiques; nobody empowered them to speak up. They just did it. They were not passive. For that, we benefit .

Of course I’m not suggesting that we benefit because you’ll simply agree with every opinion or conclusion in the pages ahead. What fun would that be? I’m suggesting you’ll find yourself doing what I did when I first came upon Stay Free! years ago: Learning new things, forming new opinions, having a well-placed laugh or two, and thinking. That’s the whole idea – or that’s what I think, anyway.

This essay was originally published on Murketing, June 17, 2009.  

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