October 15, 2006
Review: The Ad and the Ego

I know that the documentary has been out for a while--almost a decade old by now--but I recently watched Harold Boihem's The Ad and the Ego, an academic piece looking to deconstruct the advertising industry and the impact of advertising on American culture and thought. The moment I saw Sut Jhally, I had to battle the urge to dismiss the piece altogether.

As I wrote about last November with Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers and No Logo, I don't these anti-advertising projects are without merit but rather that they overstep their boundaries in any case. I think it is important to remember the way that advertisements are constructed, the intent of advertisers, the pervasiveness of advertising in our lives, etc. But I think many of these attacks on ads become as simple-minded and as misleading as many of the ads and brands they are attacking.

At the time, I wrote:

Although such approaches may be in many ways antithetical to many of the tenets of our labs and our projects, it is important to remember the concerns of the other side, those worried about the effects of branding on culture.

However, what this study ignores, in many parts, is the active ways in which people interact with brands.

In this case, I felt as if I was watching two different documentaries with The Ad and the Ego, the first half of which was of the worst kind of scare tactics and intellectual posturing against corporate media, the second of which was much more nuanced, for the most part, in looking particularly at the automotive industry and particular ways in which their ads lead to a culture of fuel consumption that would be extremely dangerous if multiplied globally--and is already quite dangerous, not for short-term profits but for long-term sustainability of natural resources. Also, their complaint about personal presentation and P.R. sometimes becoming much more important than actual skill is a point worth noting. I'm sure we've all met a few people who seemed to have gotten where they are by image alone.

Among the things I noticed in this documentary is that so much of its rhetoric was against the 30-second spot, but I wonder how people feel now that the power of that particular form of advertising diminishes? Are forms of organic product placement as dangerous, according to these cultural critics? I can see how they might bring up its pervasiveness, an invisibility that extends far beyond the reach of the 30-second spot, but it is also much less of a direct emotional appeal when compared to 30-second commercials designed to scare someone into thinking they need a product, which tended to be their major critique.

These claims that were a little too dubious for me:

1.) "You'll never hear, 'You're okay. Just be you.'" I don't know if that's true. While fear and insecurity is a major driving force for advertising and I've seen some pretty shameful appeals in the past, I don't think these broad generalizations are quite as easy. For instance, as marketers think about maintaining brand loyalty and brand communities, there are a lot of ads that instead of saying that you currently have a need and they will fill it, encourage you in your continued affiliation with a product. These are the opposite of fear campaigns, it seems, other than that they both require a relationship with the product (which is, after all, the point of the ad).

2.) The same face and the same body that defines what is beautiful. I think there is a much too narrow depiction of beauty in many mass media, I don't quite buy into the idea that ads produce one idea of what is beautiful. Again, the problem with these types of arguments is that they are TOO simplified. Instead of picking out particular offenders, they attack the system as a whole. That's an argument much harder to buy than attacking automobile ads in particular or concentrating on other specific case studies. And, as far as the argument that advertisements that objectify certain people causes society to value those people less, I find that a little too backward. You can't leave out the fact that those people are objectified in ads in the first place perhaps BECAUSE society values them less. Ads are trying to be pragmatic in using shared languages to reach people. I don't think they are that powerful in creating those stereotypes but perhaps more so in reinforcing them.

3.) Nazi images behind discussions of advertisers. These types of videos often try to use those tricks, it seems. The problem here is that they are criticizing ads for using all sorts of scare tactics and trying to make everyone feel insecure, and then you realize that the point of this documentary is to do the same thing. You see thousands of ads every day, they are like the air we breathe, and we don't know we are taking in these harmful toxins. To me, their approach in these types of fear-mongering are as bad as the worst of the ads they are criticizing.

4.) Corporations are always viewed as single-minded. As anyone who has dealt with a major conglomerate knows, there is a wide array of thoughts and personalities in organizations like this, and it very seldom comes down to the discretion of one person at the top.

I think the problem with this approached is summed up in Sut Jhally's quote within the piece: "I don't think people are TOTALLY stupid." The underlying point, however, is that he must think people are pretty stupid.

Just as corporations are mixes of a diversity of opinions toward a common goal, so it is with The Ad and the Ego. While I am turned off by the simple-minded analysis of some of the people involved and the opening of the piece, I think that others also make some important and persuasive arguments. For instance, I'm most impressed by Jean Kilbourne's takeaway--the answer isn't more censorship. It's creating more outlets that encourage more responsible representations of people and media content that strives to do more than just scare people into buying products.

You can see much more supportive reviews of the documentary across the blogosphere by people who have been "awakened" by the documentary by Leah at Afrique mon Afrique, Yiruo at Faye at Mass, Sue G at Sue Media Lit Blog, and Kim at BadAKids.


On October 19, 2006 at 11:49 PM, Jason Mittell said:

I regularly use The Ad & the Ego in my teaching - I think it's one of the more effective & thought-provoking of the many anti-media documentaries out there. My favorite aspect of it is its style - the sound design (by Negativland) and editing techniques work against the talking-head norm of such documentaries, and as such work against any logic that advertising & TV is aesthetically inferior to "serious" media involving static images and language. And ultimately I find students watch it and engage critically with ads, realizing the limits of such blanket condemnations.

On October 20, 2006 at 12:21 AM, Sam Ford said:

Jason, very good points, I thought. Any time you write a review of a piece, it seems like it will inherently either seem as glowing praise or overly critical. While I do dislike the "blanket condemnations," as you put it, and I'm not a great fan of some of the commetnators in the piece, like Sut Jhally, I do simultaneously agree that it evokes a lot of fascianting debates and provokes classes or individuals to thinking about issues. We watched it in my Harvard new media and democracy class, and I'm so glad we did. Again, I don't think the key in the classroom setting is to only show content that you whole-heartedly agree with but which will provoked interesting and nuanced comments. Glad to know that I wasn't that off-base regarding The Ad and the Ego being a continued point of interest for those interested in understanding the media.