Cultural anthropologists occasionally employ an acronym that helps them to remember some of the large-scale influences in any society: FREEPA (which stands for Family, Religion, Education, Economics, Politics, and Art). Although the labels represent separate sectors of civilization, one can easily imagine that the various aspects continually influence (and, in turn, are influenced by) each other. This paper will focus on the impact that Economics—specifically the concept of advertising—has had on other regions of American culture. In particular, the following discussion will concern potentially unfavorable effects that economies have on societies in America: issues that escape the notice of most or invade sanctified space.
Establishing Adcult as a Social Force
Adcult, a term coined by University of Florida professor James Twitchell (1996), depicts the current state of American society as an arena saturated with the lingering influences of commercialism. Although the phrase results from a combination of “advertising” and “culture,” one can easily imagine Twitchell describing a group whose ideology revolves around concepts of marketing through a play on the word “cult.” Indeed, the structure defined by Twitchell in his book seems to represent an organizational system—a way of looking at the world—that mirrors other institutions present in FREEPA.
Advertising, largely a product of consumer culture, has a rather obvious economic impact; while one can certainly debate exactly how this occurs, one need only compare products with and without marketing schemes to ascertain that advertising can have a positive (or negative) impact on manufactured goods. Moreover, the development and presence of advertising is closely linked to surpluses in products—excess space in media, radio parts, and merchandise have all forwarded the need for, or existence of, advertising—and thusly can be seen to have close ties to economic factors. As a pertinent example, one can compare the presence and impact of advertising before and after the Industrial Revolution, when machinery allowed for the development of excess amounts of merchandise.
Staying solely within the framework of Economics, consider that advertising can help individuals to organize knowledge and to make informed choices about the world. In some ways, advertising tells consumers how their money can be best spent or utilized, given that it is a limited resource. Yet, at the same time, anyone who has experienced a good piece of advertisement knows that the reach of marketing exceeds the limits of economics—exemplary ads have the power to make us feel something.
Although informal research can support the idea that memorable advertisements often influence our affect, a study by Stayman and Batra suggests that affective states resulting from advertising exposure can be stored and retrieved for later recall (1991). While the authors freely admit that they did not ascertain the exact mechanism for this process, one might posit that emotional responses to ads could result from the way that advertisements interact with our established value systems and identity structures.
Adcult as an Embodiment of Culture
The first clue in understanding Adcult’s pervasive influence stems from the name of the phenomenon itself—Adcult has served to develop an entirely new type of culture (based on advertising) for Americans. While Twitchell mentions a number of advertising’s characteristics (e.g., ubiquitous, anonymous, profane, etc.), it is the qualities of syncretism and symbiosis that best demonstrate the embedded nature of Adcult in America society (1996).
Initially, the traits seem to embody opposing forces as syncretism represents the assimilation of existing ideas or culture while symbiosis suggests a mutually beneficial model. Interestingly, however, a closer examination of advertising reveals that while marketing techniques can consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge, the mere presence of ads simultaneously contributes to the cultural milieu. Consequentially, although the appearance of advertising inevitably forms a new type of culture in societies, ads also serve to broaden exposure to, or strengthen the connections of, existing aspects of culture. Together, these two forces demonstrate how Adcult can spread its influence over a wide swath of American consciousness while concurrently burrowing deep into our collective psyche.
The concurrent horizontal and vertical spread of Adcult is reminiscent of memes, a concept created by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to Dawkins, memes represent discrete units of cultural knowledge that propagate in a particular society (analogous to genes) through a number of transmission methods (1976). While the concept of memetics certainly spans idea larger than advertising, Dawkins notably included, as examples of memes, catch phrases (i.e., slogans), melodies (i.e., jingles), and fads. This new framework for perceiving Adcult only serves to further the understanding of how advertising can integrate itself into American culture.
Adcult as Narrative
Despite the intricacies and multi-faceted nature of Adcult’s impact, investigators can use the narrative characteristics of advertising as framework for understanding its influence. Twitchell notes that advertising engages us in a sort of dialogue, “fighting for our attention” (1996, p. 9) and “telling us that what we already know is important” (1996, p. 6). The format of advertising also typically takes the form of a loose narrative, complete with implied back-story—television spots, in particular, provide a salient example of this.
Viewing advertising through the lens of narrative structure, we can see that it gains a measure of allure for humans as stories help to convey complex ideas in a relatable format, making sense out of apparent chaos. The first iterations of narrative—myths and legends— informed the populace about the rules of the world (e.g., why the sun rose or how humans had come to be); although many have now come to accept scientific explanations in lieu of (or possibly in conjunction with) these tales, the fact remains that we crave an explanation for things that we do not readily understand. Moreover, narrative structure provides a guide for people to follow as they absorb additional information, easing the progression of learning. In this process, it is important to realize that narrative, in choosing which facts to highlight, also chooses which facts to exclude from a story, which might be just as significant.
For some, the process of inclusion and exclusion might seem oddly similar to the creation (or recording) of history; certain facts become relevant and serve to shape our perception of an event while others fade into obscurity. If we were to take a second, however, and think about this notion, we would realize that narratives often served as the first oral histories for a given population. Individuals entrusted with this position in these societies were the “keepers of information” (Williams, 2001)—their ability to recount narrative shaped their community’s collective memory, and thus a key part of the community’s collective identity (Eyerman, 2004). Even our personal identities can result from narrative (e.g., Twitchell’s mention of gender and advertising) or actually be narrative; sentences containing “to be” verbs can be unpacked to reveal a larger narrative structure that can help us to “cope with new situations in terms of our past experience and gives us tools to plan for the future” (Sfard & Prusak, 2005). Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of Adcult is felt where we least expect it: in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, p. 124). Narrative and advertising, it seems, not only allow us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually inform us about who we are (or who we should be).
Adcult as a Belief System
The presence of Adcult not only creates culture but also acts to shape it. As previously mentioned, and concurrent with advertising as a form of narrative, advertising can be considered as a prevalent organizational schema in modern American culture, analogous in many ways to scaffolding that supports our beliefs in religion and art. Twitchell contends that, “like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996). While some might object to the mixing of influences in Advertising/Religion/Education/Art (interestingly some overlap is acceptable but the issue remains murky when, on one end of the spectrum we have Jesuit institutions and debates over the Pledge of Allegiance in the public schools on the other) a certain amount of comingling is inevitable if we classify each entity as a belief system—a certain way of seeing the world complete with its own set of values—and understand that individuals might incorporate multiple elements into their particular worldview. Each aspect tells its believers, in its own way, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchel refers to as “magic” in his text on Adcult (1996). Moreover, the quality of “magic” posits that in order to become imbued with value, believers must incorporate particular items into their lives, often through consumption. James Frazer continues this idea by drawing a distinction between “theoretical magic” with its concern of the distant world, which forms a basis for religion, and “practical magic” that contemplates the immediate world (1900). This distinction in importance allows for the stratification of culture, with Education, Art, and Religion all aspiring toward “high culture” and its rarified air. Ultimately, however, all belief systems confer a sense of arbitrary value based on the definitions of that particular group’s elite.
Each aspect also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, the forces of Advertising, Religion, Education, and Art play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, with a common thread being that followers can classify themselves in terms of the external: God, works of art, name brands, etc. Cynics might note that this phenomenon is not unlike the practice of carnival sideshows mentioned in Twitchell’s Adcult—it does not matter what is behind the curtain as long as there is a line out front (1996). In light of this, one can see that the same reason that Adcult works is the same reason that we believe in higher powers, higher education, and high art.
Case Study: Adcult and LACMA
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which encompasses an entire city block within the aptly named “Museum Row,” proudly advertises the exhibitions present within its walls. If there were traces of unease about Adcult’s influence (or questions of its presence), they quickly dissipated in the face of “Target Free Holiday Mondays”—complete with logo balloons for children!—and a “Pompeii and the Roman Villa” exhibit sponsored by Bank of America. The corporatization of museum culture can be viewed as negative by purists, but there is also something to be said for the ability of the influx of money to increase both the availability and quality of exhibitions available to the public. Similar to the spectacle of the Olympics, people seem to be unperturbed as long as the event appears to largely resist support from unwanted sources (Twitchell, 1996), regardless of whether this is actually the case. Conversely, however, one can make the argument that sponsorship exerts a strong influence on the content that is being shown; this theme resonates throughout the arts with independent/mainstream films being another pertinent example of this same discussion.
In some ways, LACMA also seems to embrace the idea of Celebrity in Adcult, simultaneously engaging in self-promotion and using the generated fame to add value to its exhibits. While certainly not a celebrity in the traditional sense, the museum is undoubtedly recognizable in Los Angeles and the high-profile nature of the institution affords it a measure of power. Museums in general, and LACMA in particular, have also come to embody a certain set of ideals (as do flesh-and-blood celebrities), which confers a sense of supremacy and authority. Moreover, in order to remain visible, the museum surely employs a marketing team—yet another example of advertising’s influence on this seemingly innocuous space.
Another component of LACMA’s success is that it whole-heartedly believes in the myth that it is selling. The museum itself exudes an aura of sanctity and reverence that commands inhabitants to adhere to a particular decorum. For better or for worse, American society currently views many traditional museums as the repositories of culture and taste; intuitively, we understand that wealthy educated people appreciate the contents of these spaces and we must agree if we aspire to be like them. Compared to the Museum of Jurassic Technology (further discussion to follow), the pieces within LACMA are available for admiration but not interaction. The sterile lighting of the facility combined with the ever-present security guard and disembodied voice of the audio tour help to signify that the space inside of the museum is otherworldly and operates under different rules. Even the layout of LACMA suggests a particular thought progression (no doubt meticulously planned by a head curator) while the Museum of Jurassic Technology—or a Children’s Museum for that matter—seems to advocate for meandering and serendipitous discovery. It should be noted, however, that the qualities ascribed to the objects in LACMA are not intrinsic to the items themselves, but rather reflective of the values of the host culture. Twitchell addresses this idea on page 159 of his book by stating that “what commercial language does here…is exactly what all organizing systems do: it externalizes deep culture-specific, occasionally even biologic, concerns and ties them to specific physical goods” (1996). As a result, one can see that LACMA, like Adcult, imposes a highly structured way of looking at the world.
The pieces by Eleanor Antin, found in the last room of the exhibit (works inspired by Pompeii), represent a sharp departure in tone from the rest of the pieces as a whole and, to some extent, the other items presented in the same category. In particular, Antin’s works seem to possess a satirical streak, commenting on (as art is wont to do) the lifestyle of Pompeii’s citizens and the continued existence of Adcult. With hindsight we can judge these historical figures as wasteful, hedonistic, or exemplary consumers—how were they to know that their worlds would come crashing down in an instant?—a sentiment that presented a sharp contrast to the reverence of Pompeii found in the paintings of Romanticism.
However, the ultimate display of advertising makes it home at the end of the tour with a (virtually mandatory) visit to the museum gift shop, which happens to stock items that relate to the exhibit. Although the intent seems to be to capitalize on museumgoers’ excitement about Pompeii, with the catalog being a particularly apt manifestation, some of the connections between merchandise and the place/time in question are tenuous at best. In this particular instance, the museum has shed all of its inhibitions regarding mixing money and art in order to earn revenue—a different approach (one less influenced by Adcult and arguably less effective) might have been to ask for donations in order to allow for the museum’s continued operation.
Case Study: Adcult and the Museum of Jurassic Technology
In contrast to the self-evident nature of LACMA, the Museum of Jurassic Technology finds itself sandwiched between two equally non-descript buildings in Culver City, CA. Despite a lack of overt advertising, save for a colored sandwich board propped up on the sidewalk, the museum contained a number of visitors on a Sunday afternoon. In some ways, the museum itself represented a sort of hidden gem for locals; this space was for those who were “in the know” and would likely not be happened upon by tourists (the exception being the exceptionally curious and/or adventurous).
Although many might not be able to articulate the influence of Adcult on their lives if asked directly, the movement’s impact is apparent after contact with the first exhibit present within the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Mainstream exhibits like Pompeii typically do not challenge their audiences in the way that many of items within the Museum of Jurassic Technology do—conventional works do not typically leave viewers searching for a purpose. When presented with ambiguity, the inclination of a person subsumed by Adcult might be to write off a piece as unimportant or absurd. Adcult has taught us that museums are for “serious art” and have, in some ways, caused the development of the guilty pleasure: we sheepishly admit our fascination with “bad” television shows, movies, romance novels, or art, not realizing that Adcult has caused us to feel ashamed of our interests for no good reason.
The museum itself also evokes a theme present in the Antin paintings, causing observers to feel a sense of unease that is initially unquantifiable. Further rumination, however, might lead individuals to the realization that their sense of discomfort stems from the distortion of reality in such a way that they begin to lose sense of what is truth and what is fiction. Antin’s pieces, along with the museum itself, create a sort of hyper-reality or superfiction that blurs the lines between realities in a way that most people have not experienced. In the case of Antin’s work, first glance suggests, perhaps, an oil painting but closer examination reveals photography as the chosen medium of the artist. Antin’s work challenges viewers to reconcile their notions of photography with the presentation before them in a way that ultimately leaves individuals with a deeper understanding of art or feelings of frustration and confusion.
Similarly, the exhibits within the Museum of Jurassic Technology ask people to confront the way that the institution of a museum enshrines knowledge in a culture. Exhibits within the walls of the Museum of Jurassic Technology contain some of the cues found in LACMA (e.g., glass cases, blurbs inscribed on walls, etc.), which serve to indicate the importance of the items on display. Referring to a more subtle (and perhaps subversive) methodology, Lawrence Weschler makes frequent mention of the museum’s ties to antiquated objects (1996) highlighting a way in which traditional museums attempt to establish authority and credibility. Moreover, the language employed by the informational asides mimics the esoteric and erudite nature of typical museum prose—one might imagine visitors nodding their heads solemnly in order to convey understanding, afraid that their lack of comprehension might be discovered.
The facetious nature of the exhibits presents a rather unique quandary to observers as the artifacts in the museum are undoubtedly real, but their context is an utter fabrication. This epiphany (aided by the researching power of the Internet) allows one to examine the ways that museums create value for the items in their exhibits, albeit an arbitrary one. Ironically, although traditional museum culture would have the items in the Museum of Jurassic Technology stripped of their importance, the aforementioned realization creates another level of worth as the exhibits within the Museum of Jurassic Technology help to point out the inequalities present in the larger museum culture. Interestingly, however, the influence of Adcult may have the last laugh as the items in the Museum of Jurassic Technology obtain their importance as a result of their relationship to the contents of places like LACMA—just as those pieces in LACMA gain a sense of repute by declaring themselves better than the artifacts housed within the Museum of Jurassic Technology.