Stay Free! magazine



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Stuart Ewen talks about his history of hype, the public relations industry, saving the planet, etc.

p r i n t e r - f r i e n d l y v e r s i o n

Captains of Consciousness, by Stuart Ewen, was one of the texts that first sparked my interest in advertising. It's a clear, concise history of the subject; journalism teachers who know what they're doing often put it on required reading lists.

Stuart Ewen Around 1991, when I had graduated from college and started studying media issues, one of the things that bugged me about the ubiquity of commercial messages was that they had so little to do with the products they sold. While I had zero problems with, for example, a local business advertising their wares/hours/location, etc., ads that projected some extraneous message just seemed, well, dishonest. And annoying.

Most advertising has little to do with providing information; it's about creating brand identities/images. (Not to mention researching, testing, and focus-grouping, those images) One of the key themes in Ewen's new book PR!: A Social History of Spin is that those whose job it is to persuade the public (PR professionals, advertisers, politicians, and other types of leaders) have over the course of the century increasingly abandoned appeals to rationale in favor of appeals to emotion. Instead of trying to persuade with text and reason, they use imagery and symbols to appeal to instinct and emotion.

PR was originally a tool for damage control or crisis management. If a company committed a wrongdoing or had some other disaster on its hands, it would employ PR defensively to save face. Managing image perception (or "manufacturing consent," to use the words of PR pioneer/pollster Walter Lippmann) soon became a much more active process. Now crisis management is but a small subset of the ever-expanding field of public relations.

I guess you could say public relations, broadly defined, includes advertising. The difference being that, while advertising appears as an explicit commercial message, good PR is invisible. If PR is done right, you can't tell it's PR, it just looks like good business. The more advertising relies on imagery, or the more blurred it becomes with editorial content--the softer the sell--the less significant that distinction becomes.

PR! is a 400-plus page social history of the major developments in public relations. It's a great book, but I'd sorta feel like a fraud in recommending it without mentioning one of the main reasons I find this stuff so compelling: I now make image advertising (a promotional website and a newsletter) for a living.

Since Mr. Ewen lives in New York--where he teaches at Hunter College and CUNY--I was fortunate enough to not only read his book but meet and talk with him in person. An artist, an activist, a professor, a student, a dad--there's a lot to learn from this guy. --CM (The following interview took place in December 1996.)

SF!: A few years back, Mark Dery wrote that you were involved in culture jamming. Now I hear the Village Voice is doing a story on culture jamming. Do you think of yourself as a culture jammer?
Ewen: I've been involved with alternative media for a long time. I edited an underground paper, worked on billboards. But I'd hesitate when using culture jamming. I think of the media as a battleground, as a place where commercial values totally dominate sometimes and fall behind other times. Culture jamming strikes me as this term that's like "there is this thing called culture" and it's all-inclusive, and jamming is like causing static in the culture. I guess my politics is less into just causing static in this immovable culture and trying to imagine a different culture and a different way of life. But that having been said, somewhere along the line I realized that the alternative media I'd been involved in was connected to culture jamming. I first heard the term from Mark Dery. He called me up when he was writing a story for The New York Times so all of a sudden I became a culture jammer.

SF!: I think a lot of people being associated with culture jamming had never heard the term before.
Ewen: It's a tag line, and one of the realities of our world is that everything gets turned into a product. The thing that I get nervous about in locking in certain kinds of language is that language becomes this natural resource for the culture industry and then it gets played out and disposed of. When we think about what we do, I think it's important not to lock into "breakdancing" or "hip hop" but to understand the process more than the category.

Some of my best friends are PR people! One of the things that has defined a lot of my work has been recognizing the way in which truth is packaged in our society. There are recognizable forms, whether it's flags that attract our patriotism, encyclopedia articles that attract our sense of objectivity, or entertainment which seems to be about nothing but entertainment. And I've always tried to make that issue of packaging part of the way I deal with stuff. For example, since the early eighties I've been producing a fictional encyclopedia as part of Billboards of the Future. Awhile ago I got asked to write an encyclopedia article about the history of advertising. First I felt funny about it--even though I love encyclopedias--because my work tends to be very opinionated and encyclopedias have an apparent neutrality. The guy editing it said, "you can't turn this down. I'm giving you the opportunity to define what people will be looking up for the next twenty years." And he was right, so I did it. But before doing it I started looking at encyclopedias and studying the encyclopedias as a literary form, trying to figure out how you write in such a way that it sounds like God wrote it. So then I thought, now that I've got the hang of writing encyclopedia-style I could create encyclopedia articles about all kinds of things. Although, the articles tend to be less about things and more about concepts like time, history, and progress.

SF!: So were you writing these for a particular book? You used them in All Consuming Images and PR!.
Ewen: The Billboards of the Future were initially Xeroxed things that I'd hand out and send to people. Some of them got published in Pacifica newsletters and things like that.

SF!: Were you ever concerned about the form being misread? Ewen: On some level you want it to be misread. At first glance, you want them to think it's real, then, as they get into it, realize that it's not, that it's been turned upside down or inside out. I'd say this is true both in terms of my situationist/prankster activities and of my serious writings (which I've been trying to bring more together, there's not a clear division point). It's about looking at the familiar in unfamiliar ways. So whether you're writing a history of public relations or whether you're using the encyclopedia format, you want to create a context which people find familiar but where the arguments you're making sort of encourage them to see the familiar as if they're visiting from Mars. To see things about it that they might not normally see.

SF!: What else have you done like that?
Ewen: When John Lennon was killed I created a petition, a billboard using the petition format, to turn "Imagine" into the national anthem. I handed them out at the Central Park memorial and got millions of people responding. Some wrote and said, "How can you have a national anthem that calls for no countries?" No sense of irony, I guess.

SF!: Have you seen the [John Lennon] "Imagine" American Express commercial? I screamed...
Ewen: That's unusual for someone your age. My kids and I discussed that ad and I was sort of saying what you were saying and they were like "where are you coming from? Everything is up for grabs. What about the Nike ads with women, "if you let her play . . ." I was having a discussion in my seminar about that and some of the women loved that ad; somehow they got serious about advertising.

John Lennon w/AmEX, from Adbusters SF!: Did you see the exhibit they had here about women and advertising? God, I forget what it was called, but the whole downstairs was contemporary "progressive" stuff and a bunch of them were Nike ads. I didn't realize until later that the museum exhibit itself was cosponsored by Nike.
Ewen: A lot of what advertising is about is drawing illogical associations between things so even though those ads are interesting in the information they give out, they have absolutely nothing to do with the product, in this case Nike sneakers. But that's a whole 'nother story!

SF!: Yeah, you were talking about the ways you've played with forms.
Ewen: Two years ago we did this thing called Gravestones for Democracy where we took the whole street and turned it into a graveyard for democratic values. And then last year I sent out a call to artists to do Billboards for Democracy. The university where I teach is on the street so I managed to take over Hunter public space for what turned out to be over three weeks (much talk of the messy politics of getting it to happen). At the heart of the issue these projects raised is that who has a say in the public realm is dominated by commercial interests. It's the same issue that surrounds graffiti. When scotch companies put up posters in the subways, that's legitimate. But when kids from the Bronx decorate subways, that's vandalism. Unfortunately, we live in a moment when commercial messages are what's considered legitimate while noncommercial messages have less and less right to be seen and heard. The whole free speech issue in our society now surrounds the rights of corporations to advertise. Issues of ordinary folks having public expression is off to the side.

I've been writing books about the history of elite culture in the twentieth century: advertising, public relations, architecture, fashion, design, commercial image industries. And in my artistic practice I've been trying to do what a lot of people like yourself are doing, work on creative expression that isn't of that nature.

SF!: In PR!, when you talk about early practitioners of PR and how they viewed the public as strictly reactive, as easily manipulated by the powers at be, was there any mutual influence with mass culture critics at the time? It seems like some of the Marxist critics who spoke out against mass culture viewed the public in a similar way.
Ewen: Well, PR goes back a lot farther than that. But when you talk about the 30s and 40s, I don't think there are particularly direct connections between the two, but a lot of what, say, Frankfurt School critics were doing was drawing connections between American consciousness industries and German fascism. Most of them, certainly Adorno, didn't understand American culture very much. Adorno wrote some really stupid stuff about jazz and popular music. But they were aware that there were links between the goals of the American commercial persuasion industry and the propaganda apparatus that had become thoroughly toxic within Europe. And so they had begun to see within the buoyant culture of entertainment the possibility of what one writer later called friendly fascism. Those guys tend to be dismissed as being overly one-dimensional and that was a real insight. I think people have tipped over the other way. That's one of the issues that surrounding the writing of PR. I realized I was writing a book that is in a lot of ways out of synch with the way in which people like to talk about mass culture and popular culture these days. There's more of a tendency to talk about the diversity of voices, you know, postmodernism. I don't reject that. I certainly am aware of and participate in a multiplicity of viewpoints. But I didn't want to write about that. I think everyone's writing about resistance and no one's writing about power anymore. We do live in a world where public opinion is continually being managed and packaged. We do live in a world where the ownership of media apparatus is falling in the hands of fewer and fewer people, so to continually come out with this populist verbiage about how there are so many voices. Yeah, there are so many voices, but not all of them are being heard the same way.

Union Carbide Mascot SF!: Of course, if you say anything about that, you get accused of being conspiratorial. Like the NAM (National Association of Manufacturers) objectives you write about in PR!: the goal they had in the 30s, for example, to link free enterprise with free speech. Whenever you say business plans stuff like that, people say "oh, you're so conspiratorial," but I mean, it's all here. Look at their objectives!
Ewen: Any student of history knows there are times when people get together. After all, there was a constitutional convention to overthrow the Articles of Confederation; a group of people getting together to get rid of one governmental structure and replace it with another. By abandoning the idea of conspiracy or viewing it as some kind of paranoid idea, people are throwing away a fundamental tool without which it's virtually impossible to understand human history. I mean, people don't just act like chemicals fomenting in a petri dish. There is volition, there is action, there is decision, there are decisions that are made by people in power. Now, if conspiratorial means that there's a master manipulator above the world pulling strings and we're all puppets, obviously that's not true.

We do live in a society where every ad you see on TV has behind it a group of people sitting around a table thinking "how are we going to get them to buy these adult diapers?" How are we going to sell this perfume? There are meetings, discussions, behind every ad there are touch-ups, producers. I actually find it astounding that the notion of conspiracy has become equated with paranoia.

SF!: It's all JFK's fault.
Ewen: Well, everybody knows they're continually targeted by persuasion managers and therefore there is a kind of folk culture of conspiracy which may have nothing to do with actual conspiracy, which just has to do with the sort of folk tales that people create living in a world where they know they're always being subjected to instrumental messages. Like take subliminal advertising. Whether there's sex written in the salt on a cracker, I don't know. All advertising is subliminal to some extent. Whether there is or isn't a skull in the liquor bottles, there's something about that story that's very appealing to people. The myths that people have speak something about the realities in which they live. There is a public relations industry, there's an advertising industry, marketing and merchandising and political consulting industries, the pentagon information office, there's also the financial industry where value is created out of thin air. The things that send stocks up and down have very little to do with economic elements; they often have to do with rumor and often with calculated rumor. What I've found doing the history of this culture is wherever you look, you find it.

SF!: It's interesting how everyone talks about focus groups now. It's become a common reference point.
Ewen: People involved in advertising used to view human beings as reactive blobs of protoplasm; if you understood which stimuli to provide, they were expected to respond instantly. It was a very one-dimensional idea of the public. One of the things the sixties upheaval did to the marketing and PR industries was it told them that the relatively singular vision of who people are and what they could become was flawed, that it wasn't sophisticated enough. So in the late sixties, seventies and onward you have a much more anthropological approach to studying the public.

SF!: And that fits more in with the image stuff. Ads becoming less about the product and more about what's in people heads. Ewen: Yeah, but that goes far back. That really begins in the twenties. And as soon as people engaged in the persuasion business saw that appeals to emotion were more efficient than appeals to reason, you had a dramatic shift from a persuasion that was predicated on words to one based on images. Images work differently than words do. There's this guy, a neurologist Oliver Sacks and there's this story he writes about this guy named Virgil who's blind...

SF!: You wrote about this in the book.
Ewen: Yeah. Basically, the word is something that unfolds over time. It's not that propaganda can't be created through words--as it has and will be--but that the processing of written text is a deliberative process. People know that they're decoding letters. Images tend to speak very instantaneously. From the 20s onward, people involved in engineered persuasion view images as things that work very quickly and bypass reason. It's not like Walter Lippman thought that people were incapable of reason, he just felt that if you let people discuss everything, it's going to get in the way of leaders being able to make decisions. He felt you needed to develop techniques for assembling public support which avoid the problem of people talking about anything. And he, essentially, latched on to the use of symbols as tools of persuasion. And that's where we are now, with symbols as the basic finger knowledge of politics in our society today. But it was really discovered and articulated in the twenties. I think what happens later--in the period of the late 60s and a more sophisticated anthropological approach--is that people are understood not just as identical blobs but as certain kinds of cultural predispositions. Ethnic predispositions, ages, sexual orientation, and so forth all come into the formula in what euphemistically gets called lifestyle marketing, where the population gets broken down into subgroups and where the actual cultural realities of people are getting used as tools against them.

SF!: There was a story in American Demographics a couple months ago about how marketers are turning away from quantitative research [hard statistics and demographic data like age, geographic location, gender, etc.] and using more and more qualitative research [in-depth, psychological information gleaned from focus groups, surveys, and interviews]. Where do you see that fitting in?
Ewen: Whether you're talking about a politician or a war or a bar of soap, you want to be attuned to the intimate realities that people bring to decision making. Traditionally, there was this thing called the economy of scale, the idea that the more you produce of the same thing, the cheaper each item gets. Part of what lifestyle marketing did was take the market and break it down into particular product lines which are aimed at particular groups. Now with computers and databases, you're able to produce mass-customized products. So, although the economy of scale is still operating, it's making goods that appear to be aimed at the individual. There was actually a good editorial cartoon in yesterday's New York Times about the newspaper of the future which will be all about the people who are reading it.

SF!: I was joking about that with a friend of mine. Like in the future, you'll see a TV commercial for some product, then go over to your grandmother's and see the same product advertised but it'll be a totally different commercial. Do you think consumers will adapt to all the target marketing?
Ewen: Actually, I think one of the most disturbing things about American society in the twentieth century is the way people have adopted the word consumer to identity themselves. I'm more comfortable with citizen or person, because consumer means your identity is tied to consuming. Consuming, beyond being passive or receptive rather than creative, is also very interconnected with environmental breakdowns. Part of what's being consumed are the earth's resources, the biosphere, ecosphere...

SF!: So how do you feel about mass customization? I find myself taking stands against them just cos... well, it scares me that people would want to read a newspaper that was engineered just for them.
Ewen: But people are caring less and less about each other and more and more about themselves. Our culture encourages that. All you need is to look at the welfare bill to see the extent to which society is willing to dispose of a few sectors of the population and not only feel guilt-free but actually self-righteous... You're a weirdo, you're not just someone who wants a newspaper customized for you, you've customized the newspaper for yourself. The real issue is not that the media shouldn't be connected to you, it's that it shouldn't be connected to you as a consumer relationship. The very fact that you started taking pieces of the culture . . . Stay Free! is from a Newport ad, right?

SF!: The cover of the last issue parodied a Newport ad, but it isn't always like that. The name is taken from the maxipads. Ewen: Well, you're someone who takes these things and makes it your own as opposed to this planned spontaneity, mass-produced individuality.

old AT&T ad SF!: PR pitches itself as two-way--listening, responding, and working with people--when actually it's much more one-way. You write about how new technologies are pitched the same way, as being two-way when they're really one-way. Do you see this happening with the internet?
Ewen: The internet right now is a still fairly chaotic place; there are a lot of different voices out there. It's a little like radio in the early days. In the early days, radio was a two-way tool. The idea that radio was just something that you listen to was an invention. The original radios were two-way and people used them that way; the first generation of radio listeners were also radio operators.

SF!: Did you see the article in The New York Times last week about Pointcast? They're among the first companies to be making real money on the internet and it's because they've adopting broadcasting from radio/tv. So, in other words, it's one-way: them feeding ads to you.