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Jul. 29 2010 - 9:51 am | 567 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Corporate Takeover: The Inherent Distrust of Subsidized Creativity

"Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives," Blake says.

In the film Glengarry Glenn Ross, the character of Blake, played by Alec Baldwin, utters an oft-quoted line following the famous ’steak knives’ scene: “A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing, always be closing.” In the context of the film, Blake repeats this mantra so as to burn it into the minds of his underperforming sales force, reminding them that their failure to sell condos and time shares will only result in termination. It’s not so much a morale booster as it is a warning to those lacking the killer instinct required in sales. But on a grander scale, Blake is talking about selling — no matter the product, no matter the price.

I was reminded of this scene while watching a new ad campaign for Coke’s energy drink, called Burn (see video below). It’s a dilemma I think about often, the fact that so much of today’s creative output is subsidized by corporate dollars, and the blurry ethical line this infusion of cash can create among those tasked to produce the work — art directors, graphic designers, illustrators, photographers, animators, etc.

Look at the visual aesthetic of the Burn campaign, for example. Imagine it was, in essence, a stand alone short film — not a commercial disguised as a short film. What does it mean? There are stark colors, skateboarders, an emotive musical score. But we’ve seen all that before — highly emotionalized ad spots. In fact, its become increasingly commonplace in the way products are marketed to us. The young men in the film weave through the city, their movements captured in crisp high-definition as they each burst into flames and continue to skate.

Aesthetically, it’s a beautiful piece of work. But when you take into account that you are being sold an energy drink, it’s hard not to feel cheated. In fact, it’s hard not to view this as anything less than bait and switch. Campaigns like this promise a film but provide no narrative substance, no evolutionary character development. That’s because there are no true characters, just models urging you to immerse yourself in a contrived coolness engineered by marketers, to desire a drink (a detail you learn only after being led down the Burn.com rabbit hole) that promises nothing but to temporarily jack your heart rate. It’s an elaborately convoluted sales pitch wrapped in artistry — a practice that has become the norm these days (and, obviously, the basis of all advertising). Coke, and so many companies like it, are no longer just hawking a single product, but instead selling you the life you want to have, the circle of friends you want to be a part of, a holistic physical manifestation of a target demographic.

In fact, this approach has taken the once subtle art of product placement down a nefarious path. It’s nothing new that corporations are desperate to enter the bloodstream of global youth culture. But it used to be that the creative minds borne of these cultures and subcultures (i.e. skateboarding, graffiti, hip-hop, metal, punk/hardcore, etc.) had a healthy distrust of those looking to cash in (read: desperate corporate overlord types) on their interests. But in truth, the pitch men (and women) are no longer plucked from a corner office in a company’s marketing department. Today’s culture brokers are the very people who forged the movements they now co-opt for cash. It’s a new cultural landscape of self-made entrepreneurs, those specializing in analyzing/monetizing trends, lending their cultural insight to the highest bidder. And while right now there is an unprecedented boom in creativity, the poacher’s market is also increasingly ripe.

As an example, back in May I was contacted by a woman from a viral marketing firm who sent me a press release regarding The Creators Project, a collaborative promotional campaign between Intel and Vice magazine. I receive hundreds of press releases each week. But this particular message stood out to me:

The Creators Project is a new network dedicated to the celebration of creativity and culture across media, and around the world. This video features James Lavelle discussing inspiration and collaboration and letting us in to the world of Unkle and his fantastic label Mowax. If you post this on your site in your MPU player or as part of an editorial, we can pay you for every UK based click to play.

Sure, pay-per-click returns are nothing new, but this was the first time I’d ever been so shamelessly solicited by a marketing firm. And this is not uncommon. The campaign to inject advertising into original content in television, film, and print media has been ongoing for decades. But today, the practice is pervasive. And as future generations come of age, it becomes harder for them to discern the difference between editorial and advertorial, engineered content and genuine artistry. In essence, there is no difference between reality and nonreality. When creativity — and the notion of creativity — is so widely subsidized, how can the purity of its vision be trusted?


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  1. collapse expand

    Great article Matthew.

    I’m 23; I don’t know if this is a common sentiment in my generation, but I’m absolutely sick of people trying to sell me shit that I don’t need (or want for that matter) every time I blink my eyes.

    Web marketing is the worst; thankfully T/S doesn’t do this, but I have sites that I frequent where ads literally encroach on the entire page so you can’t view the content you ventured to the site for in the first place. I understand that sites must generate revenue, but does anyone really want to look at corporate propaganda all the time, especially at the expense of content? Personally, I’m fed up with getting deodorant or car insurance flashed in my face every time I click my mouse. I can’t even recall ever buying a product because I saw it on TV, web or print. Perhaps I’m giving myself too much credit, but I usually already know what I want when I go to buy soap or liquor or any other type of necessity.

    What really trips me out is that people spend four years of college + grad school to try to learn how to sell me shit I don’t want or need. Advertising is the devil’s work in the capitalist system; I don’t care how cool you think Madmen is. It is worse when they try to disguise it in cleverly contrived artsy, viral ad campaigns. If art has simply become selling people on a product, a style or a lifestyle, I think we should start avoiding companies that treat it as such.

    • collapse expand

      Thanks for your comments Jay. And I agree, it’s the cleverly contrived viral campaigns that seem the most offensive. I’d rather advertising just proudly announce what it is, not wrap it in an art project.

      PS: “Perhaps I’m giving myself too much credit, but I usually already know what I want when I go to buy soap or liquor or any other type of necessity.” I like that you categorize liquor as a necessity – a man after my own heart.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Hey Matthew,

    I liked reading your article. It is something that I, as a creative in advertising, think about a lot.

    I want to make nice things. I’ve always been very passionate about what I do. Websites, movies, … The works. The hard reality is that you need money to realize these projects.

    So for me the advertising world has given me the opportunity to work with budgets over 200.000 eur. Something my other creative friends can only dream of. Working with professionals and professional equipment is such a liberation.

    So, if it comes down to getting the freedom to realizing my creative dreams… I don’t really care who’s paying the bill.

    Maybe if people wouldn’t be stealing movies, cd’s and basically anything that artists produce, artists wouldn’t be forced to work in advertising to earn money.

    It’s easy to crawl into the role of the “poor brainwashed consumer”. Maybe people should spend some more time showing respect for the energy that goes into creating beautiful things for them. Because that’s what it is. You think the guys who did this Burn campaign cared one minute that is was for Burn?

    Hell, they wanted to create something nice for the world to enjoy.

    But if you step up to people; “Hey, you want to give me some money? I’m going to make a video you’ll really like” Not gonna work…
    On the other hand; “Hey! Buy Burn!” does work. And gives you funding too…

    The creatives who make this aren’t the same people who come up with the sales strategies you know…

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    I am a writer, editor, and blogger who lives and works in the once-decaying heart of America's Rust Belt (i.e. Pittsburgh, PA). My work focuses on subculture, crime, mental health, race, class, and creativity.

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