sex drugs and intellectual freedom

From Mad Men to Mad Science

Posted in advertising, intellectual freedom, media by A on 28 October 08

I, like many bloggers and critics (but not nearly enough viewers), am an avid fan of AMC’s Mad Men. The balance between gritty HBO-style series and Sirkian melodrama is delicately struck, and it’s a pleasure to watch.

However, with tawdry office sex and button-down social politics taking up most of the screen time, it’s sometimes easy to lose track of the show’s centerpiece: advertising. It’s clear Weiner and company aren’t as distracted as we are; they are hyper-aware of the ad man’s role in shaping the mass culture of the 1960’s. The casually placed McLuhan references make that obvious enough.

But, that was almost 50 years ago. Where are we now?

I mean, don’t get me wrong—the advertising stuff is fun! Watching the early psychology of mass marketing develop in the fictional offices of Sterling Cooper is often enlightening and always fascinating. But, it seems so heavy handed and obvious to us now. As well it should. Mass culture has turned us into some pretty savvy consumers which, in turn, has turned the “ad men” into even savvier producers.

Just look at Google’s InVideo advertisements on YouTube. Nicolas Carr writes:

Google believes that the effectiveness of the transparent InVideo advertisements that it has begun running on YouTube clips cannot be measured by traditional criteria like click-through rates. Instead, you have to get inside viewers’ brains, literally, and monitor things like “emotional engagement” and “memory retention” and “subconscious brand resonance.” Teaming up with the neuromarketing firm NeuroFocus and the branding consultancy MediaVest, Google conducted a study in which it measured people’s nervous-system responses – through brain-scanning skull sensors, eye tracking, pupil dilation, and galvanic skin response – as they watched YouTube ads.

This is a far cry from simply manufacturing want, as hippie-dippy Roy accuses Don Draper of doing in Mad Men‘s first season. This, I’d say, could more accurately be described as genetically engineering want.

I remember the first time I heard about stealth marketing. I was appalled and more than a little scared. Strangers paid by marketing firms to act like tourists, asking me to take their picture by some monument just so I get a chance to hold that hot new camera for a second? Family members secretly given free sneakers as long as they slyly extoll the virtues of that particular sneaker brand to everyone they know?

This is no longer Mad Men. It’s mad science.

The fast-forward doomsday end to this story is the end of autonomy and intellectual freedom. With everyone under contract to lie to everyone else you can forget about any legitimate “marketplace of ideas.” This goes for life off and online.

Joris van Hoboken notes:

As online media’s sophistication reaches new heights, maybe we should start taking freedom of Internet users more seriously again? I am not at all convinced this should be seen as ‘innovation’. Real innovation would be a technological tool that measures to what extent media are trying to influence their audiences subconsciously.

This may be perceived as just another paranoid rant, but just take a look at how far we’ve come since the Mad Men era. What was once a bunch of slogan-hocking and lifestyle-pitching has now been replaced with real attempts at physically engineering emotional ties to brands and products…and to what end?


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