Stay Free! magazine


Sut Jhally v. James Twitchell

Sut JhallyJames Twitchell

Sut Jhally and James Twitchell consider advertising to be the central meaning-maker in our culture, the key storyteller; both concern themselves not with what advertising is supposed to do--sell stuff--but what it does while doing it; for them, whether advertising sells goods or not is largely beside the point. Both argue that advertising works as a form of religion, that it has even supplanted religion as the key institution of our time. And yet Jhally and Twitchell come to opposite conclusions about what all this means. Jhally says advertising is destroying society; Twitchell says it's holding it together.

I asked Sut and James (he goes by Jim, actually) to participate in a sort of laissez-faire debate, mailed them a list of questions, and, arranged a three-way conference call.

Sut Jhally is a professor at the University of Massachusettes-Amherst where he founded the Media Education Foundation. Author of Codes of Advertising, Dreamworlds I & II, and Advertising and the End of the World (the latter two are videos), Marxist, Critic, Straight Man, he's a passionate and incredibly articulate speaker. One gets the idea from talking to him that Jhally studies advertising not because it's hip but important.

James Twitchell teaches at the University of Florida and is author of Adcult, Carnival Culture, and this summer's Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism (Columbia). Prolific as all get out, a new book, Twenty Ads That Shook The World, is already in the pipeline for next year, and he's currently working on another about the concept of luxury. Unlike Jhally, Twitchell writes for the lay reader. He's witty, sharp, and prone to pithy aphorisms--not unlike an ad man. As a vocal defender of advertising, he's far too likable. One gets the idea from talking to him that Twitchell studies advertising not only because it's important but also because it's fun.

As far as I'm concerned, the greatest thing Sut Jhally and James Twitchell have in common is that they both scare me (or, rather, the thought of having to debate them does).

Carrie McLaren | Issue #16

Stay Free!: What's your agenda? What are you trying to accomplish?

JHALLY: As a social scientist, I am interested in the question of determination--what structures the world and how we live in it. To understand the modern world requires some perspective on advertising. For me, the function of knowledge is to provide people with tools to see the world in different ways and to be able to act and change the world. I work with Marx's aphorism: philosophers help us understand the world, but the point is to change it. If that's not the function of universities, I don't know why we exist. If it's simply to reproduce knowledge about the world or train people for jobs, why bother?

Einstin, rolling over in grave, courtesy of Apple's Think Different campaign TWITCHELL: I agree with most of that. Advertising is the lingua franca by which we communicate our needs and desires and wants. Not to take it seriously is not to do our job. I was intrigued by advertising first as a scholar of language and literature. I was amazed by how little my students knew about literature compared to advertising. Almost in a flash, I realized I was neglecting this great body of material while the material I was teaching seemed, to them, unimportant. I jumped tracks then and moved from high culture to commercial culture. These are tracks, incidentally, not just in American culture but in world culture as well. We are now living in a world informed by language about things. It's not the world that I knew and studied--the world about thoughts and feelings in terms of literature--or the world that preceded that one, which was a world about language and religion.

JHALLY: So do you use advertising as a way of doing literary analysis?

TWITCHELL: I look at it like this: We've turned our noses up at the material world and pretended it was not really important. Clearly, for most people, most of the time, the material is the world. They live in terms of mass-produced objects. How we understand those objects is, to a great degree, what commercial interests decide to say about them. So I'm not just looking at linguistic aspects. I'm interested in why the material world has been so overlooked. Why has it been so denigrated? Why are we convinced that happiness can't come from it? Why do those of us in our fifties warn the generation behind us to stay away from this stuff?

JHALLY: The material world was for many years ignored, but not by Marxists. In fact, Marx starts off Capital with an analysis of the material world. He says capitalism has transformed the material world, and, in that sense, it's a revolutionary society. Marx thought that capitalism has a lot of very literary and progressive things because it blew away the repression of feudalism. The left has often been criticized for not looking at the material world, but they focus almost entirely on production. What they've really left out is culture. They've regarded it as secondary and so Western Marxism has tried to re-address that imbalance. The reason I am interested in advertising, coming out of that tradition, is that advertising links those two things together. It allows us to speak about both the material world and the world of symbolism and culture.

Jim, you were saying that we are always preaching that happiness doesn't come from things and we should be less moralistic. My view is driven by political factors, not moral ones. I think we should ask empirical questions. Does happiness come from things? Has more happiness given us more things? If it has, what are the costs of that? The evidence is that material things do not deliver the type of happiness that the system says they should deliver.

"Advertising doesn't say happiness comes only from things. It says you can get friendship through things. You can get family life through things. Things are used as a medium."

TWITCHELL: Is there a system that does deliver more happiness? If so, why hasn't it elbowed its way through and pushed this system aside?

JHALLY: The other systems don't exist. I certainly couldn't point to anything based on what is called the Marxian tradition. The Soviet Union was a dungeon. China is not quite the same dungeon but . . . a better system lies in the future. The whole point of doing this type of analysis is to imagine what a system would look like that catered to human needs. That's why I look at advertising. What does advertising stress as a system? What are the values? Advertising doesn't say happiness comes only from things. It says you can get friendship through things. You can get family life through things. Things are used as a medium. Advertisers are really smart. They've realized since the 1920s that things don't make people happy, that what drives people is a social life.

TWITCHELL: In that case, maybe they are doing what most people want, loading value into things. You may not like the amount of money they make or you may think the process is environmentally wicked, but aren't they delivering what people want and need?

JHALLY: No! Advertisers are delivering images of what people say they want connected to the things advertisers sell. If you want to create a world focused on family, focused on community, focused on friendship, focused on independence, focused on autonomy in work, then capitalism would not be it. In fact, what you have in advertising, I believe, is a vision of socialism. And that vision is used to sell these things called commodities. If you wanted to create the world according to the values advertising focuses on, it would look very different. That's where a progressive movement should start. It should take the promises of advertising seriously and say, "Look, if you want this world, what do we have to do to ensure that these values are stressed instead of the values of individualism and greed and materialism?"

TWITCHELL: But advertising doesn't stress greed and materialism.

JHALLY: Well, it's about individual desires.

TWITCHELL: Maybe advertising excludes communal desires because they are not as high on most people's agendas as they are for those of us in our fifties. Maybe most people are not as interested in the things we say we are interested in such as family and community. Maybe they are more interested in individual happiness.

JHALLY: That's a fair question. We can't answer it yet, though, because advertising dominates so much that it leaves little room for alternative visions. My major problem with advertising is not the vision that it gives out. There are many positive things within that and that's what attracts people. Part of my problem with advertising is its monopolization of the cultural field. The questions you are asking can only be answered when you have a space in the culture where alternative values can be articulated. Then perhaps we can see what people's real values and preferences are because, at that point, they've had some choice. They have the alternative values expressed in as powerful and creative a form as the values that advertisers express.

TWITCHELL: Why aren't there enough people like you in positions of cultural power? Why haven't these people, these silent but passionate people, been able to make their concerns known? Is it because the advertising culture is so powerful that it squeezes them into silence?

JHALLY: It's the way power operates. Some of us have more power and visibility than others. It depends on what degree your values link up with the people who control the cultural system.

TWITCHELL: Don't we control part of that system, the schools? Why have we done such a poor job?

JHALLY: I don't think we've done a poor job. The academy is the one place where there is independent thinking. That's why the Right and business have targeted it. The universities are the only place where these discussions take place. The Right complains about how the universities have been taken over by Leftists. To some extent, that's nonsense because most academics are fairly innocuous conservatives.

TWITCHELL: They are? Not at the schools I've been at.

JHALLY: There's a visible minority, but most of my colleagues are quite ordinary people. And the tendency is to focus on liberal academics and leave out the larger academic community: the scientists and business schools. . . . But when there is a choice, students will choose those ideas. Our ideas are popular on campuses because it is one place where they can be expressed. It is one of the few places where there is competition between ideas.

TWITCHELL: Then why do these ideas lose their steam when students leave the campus?

televized living JHALLY: When people leave school, they have to figure out what they're going to do. They're $30,000 in debt. That's one of the great tricks of American capitalism; to get loyalty is to get people into debt early.

TWITCHELL: So this is the indenture system simply made more modern? You and I have completely different views of the same nest. My view is that these ideas don't really hold sway with our students, only our colleagues.

JHALLY: That's not my experience at all. When people are exposed to this, they have a couple of responses. The main one is, "Wow, this is overwhelming. I don't know what to do." So when people ask me what to do, I say that's not my job. Education provides the tools to think and understand the world. It is up to them to figure out what to do with that. Of course, once outside the university, you've got to have some community working in the same ways, otherwise you are indirectly isolated. This is not strictly evil capitalism; this is also the Left not building the kinds of institutions that provide people support. They don't exist, and you can either be an active or passive participant in building them.

TWITCHELL: So you are part of the solution or you're the problem.

JHALLY: Well, I don't think there is any such thing as being innocent in a world that is being constantly constructed.

TWITCHELL: Do you feel marginalized?

JHALLY: Sure. To some degree.

TWITCHELL: You have books that have been published.
JHALLY: Do I have as much power as Peter Jennings?

TWITCHELL: No. Should you? Do you have a pretty face? Can you read well?

JHALLY: Should that matter?

TWITCHELL: In television, absolutely.

JHALLY: Well, it matters in a system that's built on television ratings and keeping advertisers happy. But why must debate and media always be along those lines?

TWITCHELL: All these media are driven by the same machinery, the audience that can be delivered to advertisers. So it's skewed away from certain kinds of people who do not consume and it's pushed toward people who are massive consumers. It's pushed away from Sut and myself. We feel, Sut especially, feels marginalized.

JHALLY: Actually, in that sense, I feel targeted.

TWITCHELL: You're not targeted the way an eighteen- year-old is.

JHALLY: I have a lot of disposable income.

TWITCHELL: I'm not concerned about money. The point is you've already made your brand choices. You probably use the same toothpaste. You probably have a highly routinized consumptive life. You're not as interesting to an advertiser as an eighteen-year-old who has not made these choices. We see this when we look around. We see this great dreck of vulgarity that is being pumped out of Hollywood and the television networks and even in books. It's clear that this is not making me feel important, but I sometimes think, well, maybe that's the price you pay in a world where getting Nielsen ratings or getting on the best-seller list is crucial. Now, we're back to Peter Jennings. Peter Jennings' ideas--if those can be called ideas--are more alluring to more people than what Sut and I have to say. We may think our ideas are great, but the prime audience is saying no.

JHALLY: I totally disagree. It doesn't have anything to do with ideas. It's got to do with access. Americans gave away the broadcast system to advertisers in 1934, which meant that everything was going to be dependent on advertising revenues rather than public service.

TWITCHELL: What about PBS?

JHALLY: Public broadcasting is a great idea. I wish we could have it. PBS was always envisioned as entertainment for the elite rather than an alternative to commercial TV. It's possible to do public interest programming and be popular. Look at England. The BBC is driven by a different set of economic logics and produces different types of programs. That's why Masterpiece Theatre looks so different than the dreck that comes out from the networks. It's not because the Brits are more artistic. The BBC operates within a system of public service.

TWITCHELL: Is the BBC the most popular of the networks?

JHALLY: I don't have the latest figures, but I would imagine yes.

TWITCHELL: Is American dreck popular on English television?

JHALLY: Some. But if you're saying public service stuff is not popular, you're wrong.

TWITCHELL: What do you think should be on PBS?

JHALLY: There is a whole slew of independent filmmakers who don't get their work onto television or into Hollywood. The products of the Media Education Foundation, which are distributed mostly in classrooms . . . there is no shortage of stuff.

TWITCHELL: And there's an audience for this?

JHALLY: Sure. The question is whether you want to encourage diversity. Let's say it's not popular: So what! Why must popularity drive everything? Why shouldn't minority views be heard? Why is that so radical?

TWITCHELL: It's a great idea. But when I hear this argument, I always think: Why are the people saying it so powerless? Why do they always seem to be saying, "We should have this delivered to us?" Why don't they essentially force it through the system? I think it's because if you observe what they consume, you'll see that it's not what they say they want but is really the popular stuff that other people like.

JHALLY: Well, there are two issues here. One is diversity. Do you think diversity is a good thing to have in American media? The other issue is why hasn't this happened? That is an issue of power. Those are two separate questions. One is a question of value, the other is how you make it come about. There are more and more people who are starting to participate in collective movements and trying to bring about a different kind of culture. And I think education is the first step of that.

TWITCHELL: Well, I say more power to them. That is exactly what should be happening.

JHALLY: And that is what is happening. But do you recognize such a thing as power operating in the public sphere? Do you see that some people have more power than others and that not everyone can have their voice heard?

De Beers diamond commercial TWITCHELL: Here's where we differ. You see it as power coming from outside in. As if these corporate interests are over there doing things to us. I see it in a contrary way. I see a great deal of advertising and commercialism as being the articulated will of consumers rather than the air pumped out by commercial interests. Let's take an example where you seem to hold all the cards. Take De Beers' diamonds campaign. What is more ridiculous than the browbeating of men into buying utterly worthless hunks of stone to make Harry Oppenheimer and his descendants wealthy? Here's this company saying that if you want to be successful in courting women, it requires two months of your salary. Isn't this an example, from your point of view, of power from the outside compressing human freedom and desire? Yet as hideous as it is--and I think it the most hideous of advertising campaigns--there is something in it that speaks deeply to human beings in moments of high anxiety--namely, how to stabilize a frantic period of time. You stabilize it by buying something that all logic tells you is ridiculous and stupid, at a time in your life when you are the least able to afford it, when it is the most wasteful expenditure, and the cruelest exploitation in terms of how these stones are mined. And they're completely worthless. I mean, at least Nike makes good shoes! You would say, "Boy, I rest my case," but I say, "Is there any other explanation?" The explanation, I think, is the need to make ceremony, to fetishize moments of great anxiety. You can actually see them colonizing these moments later in life; now they're saying the ten-year anniversary or the twenty-year anniversary demands a whole new panoply of these otherwise worthless stones.

"As hideous as [De Beers' diamond campaign] is, there is something in it that speaks deeply to human beings in moments of high anxiety--namely, how to stabilize a frantic period of time."
JHALLY: Sure, I agree with all of that. Advertising caters to deep human needs. People's relationship with objects is what defines us as human beings. The diamond example illustrates the power of advertising, but it's ultimately about how many goods are sold, which I don't think is a good way of measuring. Advertising can be powerful even if it never sells a product. The De Beers campaign means something to people who may never buy a diamond because it gives a particular vision of what love and courtship are about. I use this example in my class and people become outraged. In fact I've had students say "God, that's it, I'm never going to buy a diamond. They've tricked me into thinking that I've gotta have this." The De Beers example points to a number of things. One is how advertising works, by reaching deep-seated human needs. I don't call this manipulation. Capitalism works because in one sense it talks about real needs that drive people.

TWITCHELL: It's doing the work of religion.

JHALLY: Partly, yes. But it takes real needs and desires and says they are only satisfied by purchasing products. So what's real about advertising is its appeals. What's false about advertising is the answers it provides to those appeals.

TWITCHELL: But why not through objects?

Continued here