Today’s chapter of Understanding Media is titled “Ads” with a mischievous subtitle, “Keeping Upset with the Joneses.” Oh Marshall, you devil. But as usual, McLuhan delivers the goods. My top take-away is his insight that “The protestors are the best acclaimers and accelerators.” ( p. 231) He has in mind high-brow critics of “false and misleading ad copy.” I raise my hand in sheepish recognition. Not so much because I judge the advertising world–that battle is over, and Madison Avenue won. I wring my hands over false and misleading political claims. I tend to see them more on one side of the ideological divide than the other, but it’s clear no party has a monopoly on using such claims effectively. How does it work? McLuhan reveals the formula as follows:
“Ads seem to work on a very advanced principle that a small pellet or pattern in a noisy, redundant barrage of repetition will gradually assert itself. Ads push the principle of noise all the way to the plateau of persuasion. They are quite in accord with the procedures of brain-washing. This depth principle of onslaught on the unconscious may be the reason why.” (p. 227)
Isn’t that a good thing to protest? Well, sure. But it’s difficult to disagree with McLuhan’s observation that ad critics “are godsends to advertisers, as teetotalers are to brewers, and moral censors to books and films.” To wit:
“Highly literate people cannot cope with the nonverbal art of the pictorial, so they dance impatiently up and down to express a pointless disapproval that renders them futile and gives new power and authority to the ads. The unconscious depth-messages of ads are never attacked by the literate, because of their incapacity to notice or discuss nonverbal forms of arrangement and meaning. They have not the art to argue with pictures.” ( p. 231)
Jon Stewart this week made a similar point about cerebral critics of the governor of Texas. “You are up against something you are too smart to understand,” Stewart opined in the second episode of his “Oh My God, Rick Perry is Going to Be Our Next President” segment. He showed clips of TV pundits asserting that Mitt Romney had beaten Perry in the GOP debate and scolded them with this: “You are thinking about this with the wrong part of your brain–the brain part.” As usual, Stewart makes his point with profanity and over-the-top satire, so click here at your own risk, to see the segment.
What McLuhan would see here is that Perry bashers will do as much damage to the governor’s prospects as teetotalers did to brewers. This makes Romney’s challenge one that PowerPoint presentations won’t solve.