shu and joe

Jelly Theory

Published on December 5, 2008

Since I’m mentioning Wieden-related activities, Jelly Helm presented a lecture at Rontoms a couple of nights ago. I appreciated his humble approach to his role as MC, but had a few issues with the general argument. The talk was titled Conversation/Advertising, which sounds relevant to much current discussion about networks of communication, interaction, audience participation, etc. So I was a bit surprised to hear that Jelly’s notion of conversation (which was demonstrated via an exercise that required 5 minutes of passive intense listening to one’s neighbor) is awfully close to the classical TV model: A speaks to B who receives – but does not respond to – A’s message.

Jelly went on to present a diagram of what he calls post-consumer brands. These include Apple, Toyota Prius, Wii, Facebook, Nascar, Google and Barack Obama. I’m a bit perplexed by the use of the term “post-consumer” to describe these brands. What is it about buying an iPhone or a hybrid car or a gaming system that disrupts the model of production and consumption? Maybe I’m dickering about semantics, but economies are by definition about the production and consumption of goods, services and resources. All engagement equals consumption – an attempt to interiorize something outside oneself. That process in part shapes and defines the various identities associated with a person.

Jelly stated that what he means by a post-consumer brand is one “where experience trumps advertising.” But are the two really divisible? Jelly’s use of the Toyota Prius – and not the Honda Civic Hybrid – as an example is significant. Both are solid cars with roughly the same real-world miles-per-gallon performance/carbon-footprint-reduction effect. So why is the Prius an emblem of post-consumption, but not the Civic? Why is there a months-long waiting list to purchase a Prius, while the Civic hybrid hasn’t experienced that kind of demand? I have a feeling that the explanation has much to do with the same desires for goods of distinction that were diagnosed by Thorstein Veblen in the late 19th century, the same desires that have guided human consumption for, well, probably for as long as there has been human competition. People buy more Priuses not because the experience of driving this car trumps advertising, but because the experience allows for an invidious distinction to be bestowed upon its possessor. The terms of that distinction (its “cool” quotient) are shaped and enhanced by the advertising and marketing invested in the product.

What’s interesting to me is how transparent it has become that much brand marketing is performed today not by paid agencies, but by individuals who use technologies old and new to enhance their own self-concept through brand advocacy. Advertising isn’t something that we passively receive; it’s something that all of us are constantly engaged with through the process of telling others who we are. So, pace Jelly’s theory, I would venture that advertising isn’t dead; rather, we’re just starting to realize that it’s advertising all the way down.

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2 Comments

  1. Jelly says:

    Hey Shu, thanks for the time and thought put into the response. I posted a bare-bones summary of my presentation at http://studiojelly.blogspot.com/2008/12/conversationadvertising.html

    The reason I think buying a Wii or an iPhone or a Prius is different is that they are products that give us the experience of connection and expansion versus the successful consumer brands of the ‘80s which were more about being badges of distinction, separating us from the masses. Wii is social. iPhone connects us. You know why Prius is different. Unlike goods of distinction, we are happy when we see other people with these brands. They are all about big ideas, the more participation the better.

    We’re evolving, and our brands are evolving with us.

    For sure, branding/storytelling is performed outside of ad agencies these days. We believe the stories that we experience or read on blogs or in emails or texts from friends way more than stories broadcast to us.

    Prius and not Civic because we experienced it to be a better story. I don’t think it was about the advertising. Honda blew it with that ugly car early on and next thing you know Leonardo DiCaprio was driving a Prius and it was over. Not ads, experience: seeing it, the cool weird shape, reading about it, seeing which friends bought them first, hearing about the outrageous mileage, seeing them on Entertainment Tonight, and best of all, riding in one. It’s like driving a computer.

    Yes, still stuff, but an example of the emerging post-consumer economy. I’m sure next they will be made out of corn plastic and renewables and otherwise fully recyclable. Then we will give up private ownership of cars entirely, and GM will build an amazing rail system that runs on abundant, cheap, clean electrons, as Thomas Friedman calls them. Maybe way out there in the future we will travel nowhere and consume nothing, totally caught up in the joy of living our lives in full awareness. Stranger things have happened.

    I’m not what post-consumer means for our economy. I’m not sure what it means for corporations. We’ll see. I’m most interested in the connection with the shift in our cultural narrative, which I think leads. I’m excited and optimistic, full of hope even, to fully reveal my lack of objectivity!

    And I also agree that passive listening is no good. Active listening is what I advocate, intense listening, listening uninterrupted by judgments and filters and planned responses. It is interesting to try this sort of listening in conversations.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts. I like your blog.

    Jelly

  2. Administrator says:

    Hi Jelly – Thanks for the response! I really want to be excited by the idea of a joyous, utopian existence where people are plugged into the datastream, but I’m perhaps too much of a curmudgeon. Still feeling resistant to this idea that a Wii, iPhone or Prius is somehow different as a brand from any other branded product. I’m unconvinced that a Prius, for example, lives up to the post-consumer model you’re talking about. You said it yourself: Leo was driving a Prius and it was over. More celebrities picked up their Toyotas and the cache of owning a Prius, as opposed to a hybrid in general, was cemented (after all, you can’t tell who’s driving a Civic hybrid). Brand consumption, I believe, is still seriously influenced by the ad, PR and media profile that a brand projects, which ultimately leads to the question: Is that me? Still a question of identity formation, standing out, a process of distinction.

    Maybe in time I’ll be proven wrong! Thanks for bringing up some challenging issues.

    Joe

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