Sut Jhally v. James 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,
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
"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
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
TWITCHELL: Then why do these ideas lose their steam when students
leave the campus?
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
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
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
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
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?