Advertising 2.0

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One of the most fruitful subjects for popular cultural semiotics is advertising.  After all, existing to substitute signs of desire for substantial things, advertising is semiotic through and through.  Indeed, much of the time, ads do not even show the products they are pitching, only complex narratives and/or images designed to promote a psychological connection between the product and its target market's fantasies.  But while advertising as we have known it throughout the mass media era is hardly on its last legs (every year the Super Bowl breaks another record in its thirty-second spot prices), it is now being rather seriously challenged by the mobile market, which works quite differently from traditional commercial messages.  Let's call it "Advertising 2.0." Advertising 2.0 works differently than video and print promotions in three particular ways.  The first, of course, lies in its scale.  The distinction here rests not in digitality as such (a desk top, lap top, or even tablet computer has plenty of space for the presentation of traditional video-style ads) but in mobility.  There is only so much you can do on a tiny smart phone screen, which is why Advertising 2.0 often makes use of simple banner and text-based ads that are largely informational rather than psychological.  And they don't have to play around with fancy psycho-semiotic techniques because unlike traditional advertising, which disseminates its commercials to a largely anonymous mass market/audience, mobile ads can be customized just for you because your personal behavior has been monitored, recorded, and sold to whoever has something to sell that is related to anything you have shopped for, looked at, or simply even mentioned online.  In other words, there is a lot less guesswork involved. Advertising 2.0 is thus simpler and more direct than traditional mass marketing schemes, but there is yet a third way in which it differs from the past.  This lies in the way that Ad 2.0 relies on the virality enabled by mobile media.  Like chain letters writ large (WRIT VERY LARGE, that is), mobile ads are intended to be sent around.  This makes the consumer a promoter as well, massively reducing the load for those who have products and services to sell. The result is a burgeoning revolution in the advertising industry.  While the era of "mad men" is hardly over (mobile advertising still commands only a very small share of the commercial market), Advertising 2.0 is likely to grow very quickly.  One absolutely trivial outcome of this will be a lot of advertising that is not semiotically very interesting.  Less trivial will be the emergence of a form of what I'll call "market messaging" that will be much more efficient and cost effective than the advertising of the past.  Also less trivial will be the likely decimation of the advertising industry as a career destination because market messaging does not require the sort of sophisticated thinking and strategizing that conventional ad agencies provide.  As in so many other cases, IT specialists will largely take the place of a profession that has been rendered obsolete. Finally—and in a cultural sense this may the most significant outcome of all—Advertising 2.0 will continue to undermine our rights to personal privacy, mining our data for marketing purposes in the creation of a vast Panopticon that is quite different from the one that Foucault envisioned.  Indeed, once this blog is posted, I may receive an email promoting a new edition of Discipline and Punish.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.