I was watching Stephanopoulos yesterday morning and I saw this IBM ad.
And I thought, "hey, I've seen that guy somewhere before."
And sure enough, he's in a Castrol Motor Oil ad.
I think it's the same guy, right down to the wrinkles in his forehead.
Does this matter? Maybe what happens in an ad for Castrol Oil stays in an ad for Castrol Oil. Or do actors have "transmedia" properties? Do they carry anything with them between ads?
Here's what the "meaning transfer" theory says. This actor helped create meanings for Castrol Oil. And in the process, some of that meaning took up residence in him. And it's still there when he does the IBM ad. And this means it plays havoc with the IBM ad…and perhaps the IBM brand.
Once you've played a crazy, dip stick wielding elf, you are less credible as a pious MD in a lab coat. We are unmoved when you say, "we would see the patterns in your medical history." (It's probably just rank prejudice but most of us believe elves are not all that good at finding patterns in medical history.) The ad ends with "Let's build a smarter planet." Again, we are disinclined to believe that elves care about a smarter planet. It's just not an important life goal for them.
To make matters worse, this "smarter world" series of ads from IBM has presented people in the ads as IBMers. Indeed, the penultimate lines of this ad are, "That's what I'm working on. I'm an IBMer." I am pretty sure no one wants to go there. Thinking with your dip stick? Not an IBM specialty, I shouldn't think.
Casting an ad has its own challenges, I'm sure. And no one wants to say that no actor should ever do more than a single ad or that this actor should be jammed into the same role in every ad they do. On the other hand, perhaps its makes sense to suppose that actors come trailing meanings and observe what these meanings might be. This after all the very process by which celebrity works in our culture. (Russell Crowe comes to each new role trailing not merely his fame, but the very particular roles that have made him famous.)
I know what some of you are thinking. "What does this matter? This casted ad is dead or dying. In 36 months, old media ads like this IBM example will be completely obscured by new media approaches. Surely the new model is one in which consumers are drawn into an experience, engagement, conversation, interaction, cocreation with the brand as a result of a stream of alerts and invitations that come to them through blogging (blogging?!?), twitter, apps, games, websites, short messages and tiny bursts of data."
This argument is a powerful one, and much of its will come to pass. But the new marketing that rises on the back of this new media will fail unless it learns the old rhetorical arts of persuasion, unless it masters the manufacture and management of cultural content through the strategic selection and combination of cultural meaning. This remains the most powerful way brands take on certain kinds of foundational meaning. Conversation and cocreation supply something essential, but it is a "sufficient" essence not a "necessary" essence.
We have been at the old media approach to marketing since the end of World War II (at least). When I was in Arizona last week I had the inestimable honor of having a meal with Sidney Levy, the man who wrote Symbols for Sale in 1959. This is perhaps the first formal recognition of the cultural outcome of all that Mad Men activity we now know so well from Matthew Weiner's AMC series. All that furious creative activity in Manhattan, wreathed in smoke, soaked in Scotch, was something more than a hard sell. It had a purpose: to endow goods with meanings. Those philandering, back-stabbing executives had a goal: to "build" brands. The fact that they were also selling snake oil does not mean that they were not using the rhetorical devices of the visual artist and the poet…often in ways more imaginative and constructive than contemporary artists and poets could imagine. (This was a magnificently shared creative process, perhaps not so much crowdsourced as groupsourced, and in any case quite distributed and superbly emergent. See particularly the way 1950s ad men and women across many agencies helped create the cultural significance of the cars of the period.)
Here we are some 50 years after the publication of Symbols for Sale, and it is still possible for this now venerable world of advertising to make errors of the order of an actor allowed to "smuggle" meanings from one ad into another. Just when the ad biz is having to learn to defend itself from the young turks and new media, it continues to demonstrate that it rises to self knowledge and discipline only with the utmost reluctance. Perhaps all that Scotch and nicotine did more damage than we knew.
Levy, Sidney J. 1959. Symbols for Sale. Harvard Business Review. Volume 37, Issue 4, pp. 117-124.
Levy, Sidney J., and Dennis Rook. 1999. Brands, Consumers, Symbols and Research: Sidney J. Levy on Marketing. Sage Publications. (contains Symbols for Sale)
McCracken, Grant. 2005. Meaning Manufacture. An anthropological approach to the creation of value. Culture and Consumption II. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 175-191.
McCracken, Grant. 2005. When Cars Could Fly: Raymond Loewy, John Kenneth Galbraith, and the 1954 Buick. Culture and Consumption II. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 53-90.
Thanks to Melanie Wallendorf for the opportunity to visit the Eller College of Management. It was really fun.