For more information about Royal Holloway, please see this promotional video. To see a promotional video for the MA Consumption, Markets & Culture see here. To see a promotional video for the Royal Holloway School of Management, click here.

For more information about the Royal Holloway MA Marketing and MA Consumption, Culture & Marketing and the application process see here.

To get an understanding of the unique values that underly the MA Marketing and MA Consumption, Culture & Marketing programme please read these blog posts: Value of Scholarly Values, Importance of Reading and Morris Holbrook and Business Interest in Education.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Should Advertising Be Banned for What it Doesn't Say?

This press ad, for Allinson's bread, has been the subject of a complaint from a food pressure group called the Real Bread Campaign (RBC). The RBC asked the advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), to ban it on the grounds that it misleadingly implied that Allinson's bread is still made using Victorian production methods. They asked me to comment to support their case, in this press release

The ASA rejected the complaint, and their reasons are here:

Today (September the 19th) the topic has begun to garner some coverage in the marketing trade press, and a quote from me is included in this Campaign magazine feature

The ASA runs a highly effective system of advertising regulation but in general they try to avoid opening the can of semiotic worms that is implicit meaning in advertising, preferring instead to focus on the literal and verbalised meanings of ads. In this case, the ASA rightly point out that Allinson, or rather their agency,  M&C Saatchi, do not explicitly claim to use Victorian production methods. However, my point is that the ad obviously seeks to arrange images and text in a highly suggestive juxtaposition, most clearly in the picture of hands kneading dough next to the words 'Allinson Today'. The ad tells no lies, but it betrays the brand's positioning strategy, which is to invoke the history and tradition of the brand. The RBC argues that Allinson in fact uses modern scientific production methods, and therefore lacks the connection it implicitly claims to have with the healthy integrity of Thomas Allinson's hand made bread.        

The ASA argue that consumers ought to know very well that this suggestive juxtapostion is mere puffery, and not to be taken seriously. And they have a point, because if we start to look critically at the symbolic or implicit meaning of advertising, where will we end up? Advertising relies on polysemy, that interpretive space between literal truth and imaginative fantasy. Marketing in general, to a great extent, exists in that space. Without the scope to invoke the consumer imagination, marketing and advertising would be dreary and prosaic things, and consumption a grey, functional business.

Yet there have been times when issues of public health were judged so pressing that the ASA has indeed ruled on implicit meaning, in cigarette and alcohol ads. Cigarette ads never explicitly claimed to make smokers indpendent, masculine, powerful and sexually attractive. they just implied it, yet they were banned. Alcohol ads in the UK were subject to a new code of practice (in 2007) because they allegedly, implicitly linked drinking with social and sexual success. Many lobby groups don't think the limits on alcohol advertising have gone far enough.

The thing is, obesity and related health issues have reached a crisis in the UK and elsewhere, and implicit (and sometimes explicit) claims made by the processed food industry about the healthiness of its food are at the centre of this problem. So is it time for processed food brands to be held accountable for the ways their positioning strategies are articulated in advertising creative strategies?

This is a shorter version of this story     

Friday, 7 September 2012

Consumption Culture Theory & the Return of History

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of Fukayaman post-politics, all that was left was for the Soviet era to return in the form of benign consumer nostalgia. In 2003 the German movie Goodbye Lenin! sparked a flood of nostalgia for the days of the DDR and jars of Spreewald Gherkins that typified a resurgence across various post-Communist states. Trabants, Spreewald Gherkins, Druzhba cheese and Sovetskoye champagne are just some of the old products and brands that seem to have been injected with nostalgic value (see Kravets and Orge 2010). Meanwhile we see the rise of Cultural Revolution restaurants that serve food, display artefacts and clothes from the communist era in China whilst equivalent establishments can be found from Budapest to St Petersburg. Within such consumer culture and marketing phenomena, communism re-appears as a benign, soft memory of bittersweet days and hence the continued presence of such brands have been interpreted by Davis & Kravets as acting as bridges to displaced meaning.

Yet the spectre of a renewed communism that haunts Europe also takes another form and the sites to see these resurgences are not limited to Berlin’s DDR museum or the Yugonostalgia theme park in Serbia but rather within the public spaces in which critical debate take place. Many of the leading critical theorists– from Badiou to Hardt to Nancy to Negri to Ranncierre to Žižek convene in conferences in Berlin and London to discuss the rehabilitation of communism. Meanwhile Alain Badiou, arguably the most prominent critical theorist of our age, leads discussion with his insistence of communism’s eternality:

The communist hypothesis remains the right hypothesis, as I have said, and I do not see any other. If this hypothesis should have to be abandoned, then it is not worth doing anything in the order of collective action. Without the perspective of communism, without this Idea, nothing in the historical and political future is of such a kind as to interest the philosopher. Each individual can pursue their private business, and we won’t mention it again.

Concurrently there is a resurgence of interest in Marxism. For example, the geographer David Harvey has been recording a series of highly popular YouTube short lectures designed to guide the exponentially burgeoning number of Capital reading groups that are to be found across the world, especially in Europe. Not surprisingly there has been a series of new Marx readers brought to the market by David Harvey, and Frederic Jameson whilst Terry Eagleton’s  popular press Why Marx Was Right even somehow became a temporary best seller on the Amazon business literature charts! 

The background to such resurgence must surely be understood with reference to contemporary events that challenge the liberal-capitalo-parliamentarian hegemony while a series of catastrophic economic eventualities tear across Europe, imposing austerity and producing obvious cases of injustice. Meanwhile across the Arab Spring revolutionary politics re-appear in a form that poses questions of commensurability with European movements, from mass occupations in Athens to the rise of the Indignados in Madrid. The Occupy Wall Street movement quickly spread and delivers us to a period in which, as Costas Douzinas puts it, the Real of History has returned and Fukayama inspired dreams of an end of ideological struggle expire

The return of the Real of History calls into question previous postmodern assumptions regarding the fragmentation of time. Within such perspectives, models that assume an arrow-like linearity of time dissipate until a fluidity becomes manifest between time and space. In such a context, nostalgia becomes a postmodern phenomenon of consumer culture whereby past and present co-exist and mutate in each other’s company. Here the benign rehabilitation of communist artefacts can be understood in a fragmented sense: as artefacts divested of their political meaning and existing alongside a series of freely floating signifiers. However the contemporary return of history disrupts this fragmentation and returns us, violently, to the Real of time and with the apparent recognition of a finitude and historical contingency of capital. As Badiou notes, the process of subjectivation that takes place in events where people recognise themselves as subjects of history reasserts connectivities of time. Such circumstances pressurise marketing’s theoretical coordinates of consumer nostalgia and may require an alteration of the form of analysis.

For the field of consumer research in general and consumer culture theory in particular this resurgence of active history is disorientating. The relationship between the field and canonical critical theory is well established with leading leftist theorists like Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno, Pierre Bourdieu and Roland Barthes regularly cited yet these citations, in an age of where history seemed to have achieved itself, arguably shares the same theoretical coordinates of benign communist consumer nostalgia as engaging with radical theory is assumed to be a form of mixing freely floating signifiers, divested of their politics and hence not necessarily implying any form of political engagement. Now that critical theory has been re-energised and History returns, does the politicality of citation become contentious again? What are the implications of citing theory from the revolutionary left, or at least of scholars who were clearly working through issues related to revolt, during a time of potential revolt? Can scholars still insist upon a reflexive distance between their research and the politics of their conceptual tools as though the encounter is entirely neutral? And what of the return of questions of social justice and revolution to theory, seriously intended? Must consumer culture theory advocate a political position? Or even more pointedly, can consumer culture theory continue to legitimately evade the politics of its own theoretical canon?