Advertising, Attention, And Society Of The Spectacle
French situationist Guy Debord began his enduring work Society of the Spectacle (1967) with, "The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images" (p. 12). While this thesis is true of the spectacle in general, it is perhaps most readily intelligible from a study of advertising. Theorists from Marshall McLuhan to Robin Andersen and Sut Jhally chart the extension and penetration of advertising into both the format of media productions—particularly television, but also with product placement, the cinema—and simultaneously into the psychology and fantasy of consumers. Up until the 1920s, advertisements in print venues were principally informational (e.g., if your dentures are falling out, we make this denture cream). By the 1950s, advertisers were not selling products but a whole way of life in which consumption itself would begin to solve life's ailments. The purpose of advertising became to produce consumers. Advertising's messages overall are designed to produce feelings of lack and inadequacy that might then be treated by the consumption of a product, or more particularly, the image of that product. In the twenty-first century, these campaigns are mounted by specialized agencies that employ PhDs in psychology and use statistical techniques and brainstorming sessions (called "the theater of the mind") to elicit unconscious associations from consumers. Advertising operates through what this author calls a "calculus of affect" in order to continuously refine the efficiency by which spectators are manipulated not by rational arguments but by emotional and visceral appeals to their unconscious and sometimes conscious fantasy. Without a doubt, many of these fantasies are shot through with variants of the racism and sexism discussed above. Since corporate media exist principally for profit and their profits come from paid advertisements, it is easy to see how, structurally at least, these very media serve first and foremost as vehicles for advertisers.
The American critic Jonathan Beller's work on visual culture and media extends the idea that mass media sell eyeballs to advertisers and elaborates "the attention theory of value." In brief, this theory is a development of Marx's labor theory of value in which the production of all value for capital has its basis in human labor. It argues that attention is the superset of labor (and thus labor is a subset of attention). Just as workers labor in the factory, spectators labor in the social mechanisms known as media, building value for capital and oftentimes disenfranchising themselves. Television functions like a deterritorialized factory for the production and reproduction of consumer-citizen-subjects. The theory proposes a cybernetic model of production in which the image is the paradigmatic interface between bodies and the social armature. The logistics of media society, its modalities of operation, its affects, and its production of history, space, time, and fantasy are fully integrated into spectatorial consciousness. Imagination itself is engaged as an engine of production: attending bodies validate media pathways and simultaneously transform themselves. Indeed, as spectators are posited as nodes on media circuits that are fundamental to the production and reproduction of the global, it becomes increasingly difficult to say where mediation ends and personhood begins. As noted above, humanity itself is increasingly cybernetic.
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