Advertising Cultures

By Timothy Dewaal Malefyt; Brian Moeran | Go to book overview

1
How Advertising Makes its Object
Steven Kemper

Ask anyone to reflect on his or her own society, and they will produce a folk ethnography. To this extent, everyone is an ethnographer, not because human beings routinely stand back and reflect on the nature of their society but because every person has tacit knowledge and the ready-to-hand skills that allow him, let's say, to rise on certain occasions and remain seated on others. It is this knowledge or skill that the ethnographer seeks to understand and, when he does, what he produces is simply a worked-up version of what the actor entertained more naturally. While there is more to ethnographic analysis than gaining access to the mental states of one's informants, the equivalence of actors’ understandings and ethnographic ones is a defining mark of anthropology as a discipline.

If every human being is a folk ethnographer by default, anthropologists and advertising executives are ethnographers in the strict sense of the word. In different ways both are trained as such, and both get paid for making claims about how the natives think. 1 In the case of advertising, agencies compete with one another by claiming better knowledge of how that thinking will affect a particular product or service. Addressing a prospective client, an executive musters the equivalent of ethnographic authority, that hard-to-define sense that the person speaking knows. Logical similarities aside, the two professions are becoming interdependent in everyday practice. As Mazzarella points out (this volume), where agencies once hired psychologists, they now advertise for anthropologists and insert them into agencies as ‘future planners.’ 2

Anthropologists have encountered a crisis of confidence over the last two decades or so, questioning whether the idea of meaning, much less the concept of culture, can allow anthropologists to make claims about other kinds of people. At roughly the same time, the culture idea has drifted into popular discourse, and advertising executives nowadays speak of culture as a way to talk about consumption as a social phenomenon (as opposed to a purely psychological one). Business constraints steer advertising executives away from the worst excesses implied by the idea. To make a plausible pitch, executives need to stay current in a way most ethnographers, who eventually have to leave their fieldwork sites, cannot. Concentrating on demographic complexities provides a second advantage. Having to attend to markets within markets militates against the temptation to

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