I don't watch adverts.

That isn't exactly an uncommon thing to say. I've done a bit of work into how many people say it - specifically, how many people will say that they don't watch adverts, or live TV at all, and how everything they watch is recorded on Sky + and the ads are always skipped - and then you track what they are watching and discover that actually, at least three quarters of their viewing is live and even when they watch recorded TV they still watch the adverts a significant amount of time.

But this isn't about that.

This is about the adverts that you choose to watch - the ones that you actively seek out. The Christmas advert that you search for on YouTube when you hear that it came out today.

I don't watch those adverts.

Partly its because, well, I don't really want to watch them. But for a slightly deeper reason - I work in the advertising industry (at what used to call itself a "media agency", when we judged ourselves in terms of how well we bought media - but thats another topic…), where there is a kind of expectation that you care about advertising.

Maybe its the decade (and a bit) that I've been working in the industry that has brainwashed or indoctrinated me, but I find that I do like advertising. Kind of... I mean, I like the way that it makes "free" things possible. I like the fact that it has enabled "news" as an industry to develop and exist, which in turn makes the ideal of an informed democracy at the very least, a possibility. (Although, whether that is still true is up for debate.)

I find "advertising" as a part of a wider world of "marketing" much more interesting though. And I have a theory that if you take something that is supposed to be an "advert" - that is, a thing that is supposed to communicate something from a business to its (potential) customers - and take it out of the context of the media space that it was designed to sit in, then you fundamentally change the nature of what it is.

Figure and Ground

I've written before about Marshall McLuhan, but there's an idea that he wrote and talked about that I only recently got my head around, and its about "Figure and Ground". Think of a painting - lets say, the Mona Lisa. Everyone has seen it, everyone can recognise it, everyone knows what it looks like.

Think for a moment about how you would describe it. (You don't need to look at it first — in fact, this exercise probably works better if you don't.)

All of that stuff that you're thinking about describing is the "figure". Probably the woman, her face, her smile, her hair, her clothes — the object of attention. In fact, for a painting, that is the way it is designed - something in the frame is supposed to get your attention.

But that isn't the whole painting. The rest of it - the lake, the rocks, the winding road, the bridge, the clouds, the arm of the chair, the balcony - is the "ground".

In painting, or perception, it is about the thing that jumps out at you and you pay attention to. But in McLuhan's media analysis, its about the context. And one of his central theses was that the ground is the bit that really matters.

"The medium is the message"

(or "massage" - apparently typo in an early version of a manuscript which actually illustrated the point; a twist of the original meaning that could only happen in a typeset medium.)

“For the “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”
Marshall McLuhan in "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man"1

My view is that watching an advert out of context is like taking the label off a tin and sticking it in an art gallery. First, you fundamentally change the thing you are looking at - by removing it from its context and putting it somewhere else. But also, you fundamentally change the thing itself - can anyone look at a can of Campbell's soup and not think about Andy Warhol?

I should note that I don't really avoid adverts. I mean, I tend to skip through the adverts when I'mn watching recorded TV programmes - mainly because my wife has the remote control - but I'm not installing ad blockers and all of that. (Because I don't think most people do, and I do think it matters that I tend to see what most people see in their online experience.) And I tend not to watch much TV - just because I would prefer to do other things, like play computer games or paint or code or read or surf Reddit or... you get the idea.

So, my theory is that by avoiding looking at advertising out of context, I get a better idea of what the advertising is actually doing - how it is changing the "ground" - than someone who is taking the TV spot that millions of distracted people are going to barely notice in the background of their Facebook sessions, and watching it on the biggest and best screen that the agency can buy with a bunch of other highly paid people in expensive clothes, sitting quietly around a boardroom table, drinking coffee and taking notes.

Which is a very long winded way of saying that I don't watch adverts because I care about advertising.

  1. London, England: MIT Press,1964; p.18], reference found here, in what I think is his grandson's blog.

Comment