Fleshing out the invisible invasion

Advertising Cultures

January 2, 2004

Advertising Cultures is a puzzling book. It emanates from the annual conference of the 2000 American Anthropological Association and comprises just under a dozen academic papers on the interaction of anthropology with advertising. The puzzle is that all the book's contributors imply that anthropologists and anthropological methodologies are now commonplace in advertising. This is news to me. Fearing that a revolution in advertising practices, of which I was ignorant might be in progress, I contacted several other senior advertising executives. They too knew nothing about any anthropological invasion. But Advertising Cultures is very convincing on the subject.

Like all compilations it is patchy, and for the first third of the book I thought this review would be based on that well-known advertising slogan "Where's the beef?" The early contributions led me to believe that my ignorance of anthropology's infiltration of advertising arose because the infiltration is more theoretical than practical. But after (and including) Daniel Miller's paper "Advertising, production and consumption as cultural economy", beefy case studies come thick and fast.

Miller, a professor at University College London, analyses three campaigns in Trinidad, highlighting in one of them how the messages the advertisers thought they were transmitting were quite different from the messages the recipients picked up. And in another - for Coca-Cola - how advertisements for even the most global of brands are reinterpreted within a local society's traditions and culture.

Advertising Cultures is co-edited by Timothy deWaal Malefyt, who works in a New York advertising agency, and Brian Moeran of Copenhagen Business School. Moeran's paper provides a first-class anthropological analysis of a new-business pitch in Japan. As Moeran demonstrates, new-business pitches simultaneously bring out advertising agencies' best and worst behavioural patterns. And Malefyt contributes a fine paper on the workings of advertising "think-tanks".

Then there is an excellent contribution from Barbara Olsen of New York State University. Olsen quotes an advertising agency director ordering her, 30 years ago, to keep her anthropology to herself, especially when talking to clients. But today, she goes on, "anthropological methods are at last appreciated by advertisers".

If so much anthropological work is going on in advertising, how come neither I nor my contacts know about it? The book's final two chapters perhaps provide the answer. The first of these is written by Patricia Sunderland and Rita Denny who together founded an "anthropological consulting firm". Sunderland and Denny admit to being often disappointed when clients employ them to do anthropological investigations and it later proves that what the clients really want is psychological data. I suspect advertising practitioners often do not realise they are dealing with trained anthropologists.

And in her brief afterword, Marietta Baba of Michigan State University reports that as recently as the 1980s only a few score anthropologists were involved in commerce. She claims the figure is now much higher, but, from the advertising business' point of view, they represent a handful of new pebbles on the beach. Some of their work is sufficiently insightful to ensure there will be many more in future.

Winston Fletcher is founder chairman, World Advertising Research Center, and chairman, the Royal Institution.

Advertising Cultures

Editor - Timothy deWaal Malefyt and Brian Moeran
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 220
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 1 85973 673 4and 678 5

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