40% Ethanol, 60% Water, 100% Irony

“Advertising is an environmental striptease for a world of abundance.”

-Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan’s earliest book publication was The Mechanical Bride, which was the culmination of years of collection and note-taking on print ads. He’d torn out or clipped ads from whatever he was reading and applied his form of analysis to them on scraps of paper or in the margins of the clipping itself. Later, he cobbled together the massive collection with the aid of some very patient and committed people and published his book. It’s said that he was disappointed that the book had only come to fruition as it was becoming obsolete, as print-based ads were becoming artifacts of an era already dissolving into the past. Television was the new frontier and there were far more interesting and important ideas to be said about that medium.

This brings me to a bit of current thinking on the subject, involving social media, the Internet, and the striptease we’re all a part of in our world of abundance. As I waited to view a Daily Show clip via Comedy Central’s website, I was held semi-captive by an ad that runs prior to the desired content. We’re all quite used to this now, as the price to pay for our own amusement. Generally, I pay very little attention to these ads (I even feel a sort of disdain for them, as Im sure many of you do as well) but as part of the digital environment, they have an effect on us whatever we think of them.

In this particular case, I thought the ad was absurd enough that I wanted to comment on it here, but in doing so I realize that I’m actually playing into their game and subjecting you to their brand-massage even in my critique. It’s the genius of advertising in the era of social media and the Internet. Having prefaced the little game here with my disclaimer, here’s the spot from vodka company Stolichnaya:

The ad relies on a particular image of the Twitter-user to cast the central character. It’s the white male, professional with a slight hipster sensibility, but the “with it” appeal to still hang out in a “beautiful people bar” in an urban setting. He’s smart enough to be up on the latest technology (nerd cool) but hip enough to style his hair into some kind of top-heavy crest. His clothing can pass for business casual, but the glasses say, I’m not a square. In the background we find a mod bar scene with male and female models in their well-to-do, out on the town get ups, having conversations that will simultaneously be interesting and sexually attractive. Cocktails are the avenue to smooth relations between the intellectual and the animal, the technological and the flesh.

The main character is actually sitting, talking to himself, which is probably the most apt metaphor for Twitter. The ad makers know it, and are simultaneously mocking the tragically hip, technophile on behalf of the pretty people who populate the bar. There’s a dog whistle there on behalf of “those who get it” and who are above “trendiness.” It runs in circles as self-parody depending on what your sensibilities are, in the end. Maybe you relate to the Twitter-loving nerd hipster and the ad then works on a basic level. It puts you in the center of a desirable environment and reinforces the myth about yourself that works towards your self-esteem. The product is then attached to your self-image and self-esteem and *bingo* the ad does its job.

On the other hand, if you look down on Twitterphiles and the nerd hipster image, you get to laugh at him and feel superior in your knowledge that you’re in on the joke. Twitter is a trend and it allows people like the main character to think they’re important. Dumb Twitter people. I bet they think Stolichnaya will make them look cool to the rest of us while they hack away at their little keyboards. I’m going over there to talk to that model about something really interesting. (Stoli, maybe?)

Then, there’s the lot of us who think we’re so smart and above all of it. The whole exercise of advertising is getting your eyes on a brand and that does the trick whatever you think of the content. Let me embed the video and write about how stupid it all is. It actually works in a more insidious way on all of us because in thinking that we’re above the whole myth-making process we’re actually thinking more deeply about the ad than the casual observer and embedding the brand even more deeply into our subconscious. The creators of this ad, in particular, know that viral media work this way and don’t particularly care what’s said about the ad, just that it gets passed around. I’ve done my part already, even if you don’t read what I’m saying or if you care deeply and have read carefully.

A few lines from the ad stand out to me as the basis for some remarks:

“The technology to reach millions and this is the best it can do?”

It’s referring to Twitter, but ironically it applies to the entire notion of mass media at a meta level. The technology to reach millions, by its very nature, is a myth maker and a homogenizer. It’s nature is propaganda and so advertising is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost of technology of mass media. Niche marketing still has an effect on the total audience because it works as a broad tapestry of consumerism. You might target some small market, but the very practice is the gospel of the church of consumerism.

“Has it ever occurred to you that it’s just a constant stream of meaningless babble?”

Advertising? Yes, it has occurred to me. Oh, you mean Twitter. Any communication that can turn a chemical composition of 40% ethanol and 60% water into a social icon of mythical proportion has as much power as the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran combined. It’s tempting to call it meaningless because it makes us feel good to reject the values associated with most ads, but in fact it does a disservice to the actual power that lies in the environment. Turn potatoes into alcohol and you have an intoxicant that could poison and kill you or make you giddy and liberated from social constraints. The social uses of 40% ethanol/60% water determine its meaning in whatever context we might examine, but mix one part technology of mass media and a cultural narrative appears on behalf of the beverage. It actually doesn’t matter whether it’s vodka, deodorant, political candidates, or morality. It all works the same.

“Would you have a drink with you?”

I do. All the time. That little voice in your head that produces thoughts before you say them out loud is called an inner dialogue. Training it to craft pronouncements in a more sane and effective way (and to receive and analyze the pronouncements of others in the same way) is a worthwhile pursuit that probably runs counter to the goals of advertising.

“The most original people deserve the most original vodka.”

Being original isn’t something subject to levels of degree. You’re either original or you’re not. In fact, none of us are original in the sense that our communications, in order to be coherent and understood, rely on commonalities including the technical grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of language and the collective meaning making that goes on to construct culture. Without common understandings we wouldn’t be able to communicate, so the degree to which we’re “original” is actually the degree to which we can think critically about the common ideas we share. If we do that, we would immediately reject the idea that there’s a “most original vodka” and that the little teleplay we’ve witnessed to tell us what we deserve is in any way offering that vodka to us. It’s offering the image of exclusivity to make us feel special by holding up a veil to hide the fact that despite the minute differences in chemical composition that exists between major vodka brands, the whole enterprise is just the mass bottling and distribution of a liquid mix of 40% ethanol and 60% water. Set a price, drive some mythology, and buy a mansion and a yacht. God bless America!

So, in conclusion let me say that most of what I wrote here is simply a pedantic exercise in media criticism motivated by the simple desire to write something on my blog. I need to keep you coming here in order to feel relevant and to promote my climb up the Google search results matrix. I could have written anything today, and the act itself would have provided more meaning to you than the entirety of the content. Keep coming back for more and drink Stoli. All the cool people who read my blog do!

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About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
This entry was posted in advertising, media, technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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