by Weston Cutter
Adland by James P Othmer
I’m like congenitively drawn to books on advertisements and products and the navigatory dance each of us does each day as we try to get through our public hours without feeling at every second like we’re gigantic targets, aimed at squarely and increasingly brilliantly by those who want our dollars (if that sounds anti-capitalist, I don’t intend it to; there’s something literally dehumanizing about spending some megachunk of each day feeling like nothing more than, essentially, meat with money, cattle with a coin purse). And so of course Othmer’s Adland was almost like torture-porn or something for me: dude’s a former ad executive. I came to the book chin totally forward, looking for secrets, apologies, occult whisperings…I didn’t even know.
And what’s stranger: I’m not totally sure what I ended up getting from the book. Adland reads like a half-organized book written by someone who has been in the enviable position of being able to bullshit his way out of things before; the book’s got an unshakeable off-the-cuff vibe. We bounce roughly chronologically through Othmer’s time as a career adman, and, maybe halfway through the book, we’re treated to this sort of academic-ized take on one man’s day and the tonnage of ads he lives through. It’s a decent take on things, though the half-academic-ization of the enterprise does nothing but make the thing feel pseudo-stuffy.
The final bit of the book—the last 100 pages (so, really, the last third, though the middle section is only 60 pages, so the math’s dicey)—is about the future of advertising. I suppose personality tests could be crafted around how a reader reacts to these pages. Because here’s the thing: Othmer’s got withering irony and self-awareness and cynicism in spades, as the reader’s picked up thoroughly by page 200. And so the reader likely comes to this prognostication section with, at very least, a slightly raised eyebrow: fortune-telling’s predicated hugely on attitude, and Othmer’s almost schizy rapture/shudder response to advertising makes it hard to read his views on what may come next.
Hard to read, doubly, not just because Othmer’s got certain attitudinal stuff that prohibits anything approaching objectivity, but also because of—well, let’s just say it—because of Black Swans (bone up on N. Taleb if you’re unfamiliar, though the term got used in last week’s episode of “Flash Forward,” too, so). The black swan in Adland? The subservient chicken. I won’t got into it—it’s worth reading Othmer’s take on it—but Othmer puts himself in a dicey position by the book’s end, even trying to pretend to approach charting what might come next in advertising. As we’ve all likely experienced: good fucking luck guessing what comes next. Advertising, like good art, succeeds in exact proportion to its ability to surprise, zig when we expect zag, etc.
Still, for all that: I’d argue for reading Adland. I’d argue for reading that and, also, Branding Only Works on Cattle (I liked Adland a hell of a lot more than Branding, but the former’s for everybody and the latter’s real specifically for those in the biz). I’d argue for reading this stuff not just because the golden arches are supposedly a more recognized global symbol than the cross, and not just because the Fox-News-ization (or, I suppose in fairness, the NPR-ization as well—if one side’s doing it, so is the other, to some extent) of daily life makes brand-awareness and a certain marketing savvy necessary just to navigate the simplest social interaction (meaning: you might literally, fundamentally disagree with someone about something as factually beyond-debate as the president’s birthplace, simply because you get your news from different outlets. I’d love to hear someone argue that that development is not drastically and terrifyingly new and different). I think we all need to read these books just because everything is run by ads. That episode of “Flash Forward” I saw recently? It was on Hulu, which is free, and which is only free because of ads.
I don’t need to vent, and there’ve certainly been plenty of diatribes which’d cover exactly what I’d here say re: ads. And maybe it’s just because I’m in education, but still: the best way to disempower something is to understand it better. Read what you can about advertising, starting with Adland.