Ad and art reunited

Like a steroid that reduces unsightly inflammation by driving a pathological process deeper into the system, the on-demand world of content delivery appears to have spared us from a constant bombardment of advertising, meanwhile driving the agendas and operations of marketing deeper into the content we consume.

The print and broadcast models of advertising were based on captivity. There was, in my youth, no way around a TV commercial. That naked now-we-pay-the-bills separation of ad and art led to a lot of absurdity and incongruity, pointed out by media theorist Neil Postman and many others:–“Thousands die in landslide; radiation leak at plant; mayor convicted of embezzlement; and now a word form lemony fresh Zest.”

But, compared to today’s insidious occupation of the art by the interests, it was good to know the difference, to know the deal, to know the enemy.


Product placement and other deep entanglements of creator and sponsor and have been around a long time. But as the common canvas of prime time and shared cultural experience generally was eroded by choice-driven delivery platforms, marketing scrambled to get a foothold in the new model and to keep up with its spirit of real-time personalization.

Maybe the tobacco industry, which lost its prime-time canvas some 30 years before anyone else, plays the unwitting visionary. Every time I start a new streaming series, I make a note of whether smoking is prominent. If so, I assume the producers accepted a standard big-tobacco dispensation, one that’s always on the table, a flat offer with perks for making sympathetic younger characters smokers. If not, I applaud them for resisting the easy money. I don’t know this to be a thing, but, really, I do. Of course it is a thing.

Generations of 20th-century American artists, novelists and composers went into advertising when the arts they were groomed for lost their popular audiences and their economies. “Ad men” like their super bowl minutes and their big stages.

I imagine at first it hurt to have to go underground — to spread brand awareness via fleets of bots rather than bold, open air campaigns with innovative designs. I’d venture that they’re much happier now, however, and much more at home, working at the granular level of content, the atomic level of influence.

As for me, I have no confidence in the integrity of anything any more. I feel cornered in into such savvy, jaded platitudes as “everybody’s selling something and always has been.” As if that makes it okay. As if that is the way it has to be.


Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.