Monday, February 07, 2011

Bread and circuses.


Allow me to quote the Roman satirical poet Juvenal, and thus leave you awed with the mistaken impression that I read poetry in Latin when I’m not flying jets and playing polo:

… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

In other words, if you want to keep the rabble from becoming troublesome, it might be as simple as amusing them.

As I write this, it’s Super Bowl Sunday, and the chatter online feels almost equally anticipatory of the interstitial advertising festival as of the contest itself. For most of the time I spent in the ad game, I had mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it was wonderful to see what creative people could do with the handcuffs of money and cultural convention removed. The Super Bowl provided some epic moments for McLuhan’s “greatest art form of the twentieth century.” On the other, though, the whole ritual took on a sort of pagan quality, where for one day the marketing world cast off accountability and common sense and danced naked around the bonfire to see what they could get away with. In the grand scheme of things, though, I thought it was all fine. Everybody seemed happy, no harm done.

Writing Consumer Republic changed this a little for me. I’ve come to see advertising whose sole purpose is amusement as a bit of a waste at best, and subversive at worst. The idea that a brand can win us over by putting on a little puppet show rather than having a conversation with consumers somehow trivializes the democratic purpose of marketplaces. I still think this is fine when it’s confined to the circus; it would worry me a little, though, if it ended up somehow becoming a model for all dialogue between brands and the People. Liking this kind of thing too much could make us slaves by making us passive.

I really do hope everybody enjoyed the ads. We just have to remember what we were watching. This wasn’t marketing (even ad folk evade the ROI question when it comes to the Super Bowl). This was entertainment. Marketing’s job is to give us a right to vote and a reason to do it. Now that it’s Monday morning, that’s the game we have to go back to, all of us.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some verbs to conjugate. And a yacht race.