We are children of the ideas that preceded us, and of their evolution.
We all share a collective unconscious that, unknowingly or not, provides us with our way of being collectively in the world, of what we accept and what we do not accept, our shared moral code, our perspective on others. Thus, in our case, we are children of postmodernity and we inhabit hypermodernity, as Lipovetsky has called it, or the altermodernity that Bourriaud would say.
This circumstance, apparently irrelevant to our day to day, explains why we live in an environment, both individually and in the development of our profession, marked by short-termism, uncertainty, and what has come to be called “epistemic relativism ”. The mindset of our time gives us the compass with which to orient ourselves and, in ours, it seems that we basically have no compass.
WHO WE TRUST
Recently, in the midday newscast – which by the way noted the terrible state in which journalism is, at least television – the presenter mentioned that had been a great commotion in Italy there as a result of the eventual arrival of the vaccine against the Covid-19. An Italian minister had assured the future obligatory nature of it, which caused a large part of the Italian population to put their hands to their heads and that, immediately, the Italian prime minister had to come out to deny this, declaring that, for of course, the vaccine would be optional. The journalist of our newscast, in order to know the best option for the case of our country, if the imposition of vaccination or that it was optional, mentioned that they had decided to ask their opinion of those who were the most suitable for it and that apparently they were ordinary people! In no case did they resort to the statement of someone trained in this field. I don’t know if someone else will be suspicious of this. How have we come to make the opinion as valid as the well-founded opinion of an expert?
Or talking about advertising and marketing, why a certain number of negative comments regarding a campaign on a social network are capable of taking away a campaign that has cost millions of euros and time of dedication of a team of professionals? Why do we base the approval of a keyvisual or a claim on the result of a focus group? What is happening? We are clearly dwelling in the absurd.
EVERYTHING IS RELATIVE ERGO EVERYTHING IS TRUE
That Social Media have given voice and power of expression to the consumer and end-user is something that has long been mentioned. And although public opinion has always existed and has been a thermometer of the perception that the population or the consumer had, it is the first time in the history of humanity that, not only is the voice of public opinion equated with that of experts but it is even imposed on it.
As I was saying at the beginning of this text, we are children of the ideas that preceded us. In the case of postmodernity, this implies the breakdown of totalizing stories, of stable paradigms, that allowed us to build a scaffolding of knowledge agreed by all that, in turn, allows us to know what remains inside and what stays outside.
“The term “postmodernism” was proposed by Jean-François Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition, which he defined as “disbelief in meta-stories” […] In Lyotard we see two things: an explicit epistemic relativism (a belief in personal or culturally specific truths or facts), and the privilege of “lived experience” over empirical evidence. We also see the promotion of a version of pluralism that privileges the opinions of minority groups over the general consensus of scientists or liberal democratic ethics, who are characterized as authoritarian and dogmatic. All of this is consistent with postmodern thinking”.
Lyotard’s reflections are the reflection of a metamorphosis that had been occurring in what had always been the epicenter of knowledge: the western, white and bourgeois world. And that had been suffering a breakdown of its solidity since the 60s; Arthur C. Danto, regarding the end of art (which was precisely one of those consequences of this breakdown), summarizes this series of phenomena that occurred en masse and that had a domino effect until reaching our time:
“Some years ago I gave a lecture in Munich entitled “Thirty years after the end of art.” A student asked a question of interest. For her, she said, 1964 [the year Warhol’s Brillo Box appeared on the scene] was not really a relevant year, and she was surprised that I attached such importance to it. What most interested him were the 1968 exalted [referring to the French May 68] and the emergence of the counterculture. She hadn’t found 1964 fabulous as an American. It was the year of our “Summer of Freedom,” during which blacks, with the support of thousands of whites, many of whom moved south to register black voters, worked to make civil liberties a reality. race entirely deprived of its citizenship rights. Racism did not end in the United States in 1964, but a form of apartheid that had hardened political life in our country ended that year. In 1964, a congressional committee for women’s rights submitted its ruling, supporting the vigorous feminist movement sparked by the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Mystique of Femininity in 1963. Both libertarian movements were radicalized by 1968, no doubt. but 1964 was the year of beginning. And it cannot be forgotten that the Beatles made their first appearance in America on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, and they were emblems and catalysts of the spirit of liberation that swept the country and then the world. Pop [art] fits this perfectly. It was a truly singular liberation movement.”
This is a small sample of how little by little more narratives were incorporated, this is more points of view, to the conglomerate of references that we could choose as a compass of our truth, of what we take to be true or not, what we decide to guide us. In the 60s and 70s of the 20th century, an atomization of points of view and stories began, a mosaic of options that inevitably expands and multiplies to this day. This rupture of the bloc of white and bourgeois Western thought, necessary and legitimate in some aspects such as those mentioned in the extract from Danto and others that would come in the future, brings as a collateral consequence the appearance of a multiplicity of “truths” that, not only they coexist among them, but at the same time in some cases deny the others, even if they are philosophical or scientific points of view, for the simple fact that any perspective is accepted as legitimate and therefore true. This explains, to give a very simple example, why in the middle of 2020 there are denialist groups, extreme right-wing groups, or anti-feminist positions.
“Postmodernity minimizes rationalism as the axis from which to structure civilization and progress, and allows setting the horizon based on parameters such as experience, emotions and otherness (Bauman, 2004)”.
“By accepting that knowledge is no longer universal but relative (neither philosophy nor any other field can speak categorically of the truth), a situation is established in which proposals can be formulated based on truths that do not need to be legitimized by entities superiors (Foucault, 1984; Ibáñez, 2005)”.
Arrived the XXI century – already immersed in hypermodernity – with the development and massive use of digital communications, that multiplicity of truths and legitimate points of view not only multiply exponentially but also have more diffusion, reach and generate credibility than ever.
For the first time in history we are all transmitters and there is no epicenter of knowledge but rather, in the same environment, be it this Twitter, Instagram or the “internet” environment in general, all messages coexist. Whether the issuer is a public entity, an opinion head, a newsletter, an anonymous consumer, a celebrity, all messages are in the same environment: a smartphone, a computer, the internet. Hierarchies are therefore broken, or equated. The expert’s message remains in the same bag as the rest of the messages. Thus, as in an all-you-can-eat buffet, it is much easier for the “reader” to choose the opinion that suits him best, since the figure of the expert no longer exists, or it allows us to disregard it, because there is an equalization between the points of view .
We are at the highest expression of the epistemic relativism that I mentioned above. We forget that behind each message there is an individual issuing it. We have stopped being issuers to become accessible information and, this is where the confusion lies that leads us to ask people on the street or withdraw campaigns because a hashtag is a trending topic. A false feeling appears that specialized voices are not necessary, that everything is information in a broad and indeterminate sense.
“… with the spread of the internet on a global scale, there arises «a new form of interactive communication characterized by the ability to send messages from many to many, in real time or at a specific moment […] to this new historical form communication was called mass self-communication »(Castells, 2009: 88).”
Finding ourselves in this scenario, where we are unable to discern what is valid or true information and what is not. Where we receive information in a massive and constant way, knowledge, like so many other things, becomes provisional. And this turns knowledge into a mode of superficiality.
“Communication is our first-hand knowledge, even if it comes from light-postmodern media and cultural filters. The direct perception of reality is minimal […] Therefore, it can be affirmed that communication, mainly through the media, is the basic source of knowledge.”
“The present becomes the protagonist and cannibal with the past and the future. Everything becomes fast and there is no time to wait for the near future and the distant future is not desirable because it has no form. When a future becomes desirable it becomes the present.”
As the information is not verifiable since all of it is valid, there are no hierarchies, it is for the same mutable reason. Again, we find that lack of universal narratives that set the tone in the pre-postmodern era. If there are no solid stories, we cannot plan, there is no route to follow and, therefore, the future does not exist, there is only the present, causing a feeling of uncertainty that prevents us from planning in the medium or long term. Everything can change at any time, information can change, the trend can vary, therefore the medium or long term are utopias.
Since we receive this information in real time, marketing departments and agencies become hesitant in making decisions and impatient in obtaining results. And they panic when the immediate reaction is unfavourable.
We are then faced with a dilemma, how to build marketing or communication plans, brand-building campaigns in an environment that seems constantly mutable and uncertain to us? where we cannot have the certainty of knowledge to make the right decision?
HOW WE MAKE DECISIONS THEN
The reference figures eliminated and finding ourselves facing a totally relative knowledge, where constant change is the norm and all the information is equatable, we have come to a solution to make decisions that, although useful as a tool, is clearly not only insufficient but can lead us to error, because we are privileging the quantity of information to the detriment of quality: today there is no marketing department, specialist in digital communication or R&D, or even within agencies, that do not bet everything on data collection, focus groups or consumer opinions, social networks, funnels, constant reports and other barometers.
To filter all this information and draw the map to be followed, and given the fall of the expert as a reference or the neutralization of this figure, due to the laxity of knowledge that was exposed above, we have conveyed the decisions through a figure that we could call the “McNamara” archetype, and that we find, without distinction, in all economic sectors and areas of production.
Robert McNamara was the United States Secretary of Defense in the early 1960s; He was in command of the management of the Vietnam conflict during the time he held that position and had previously been in charge of large corporations such as Ford. A man who “insisted on obtaining data on everything possible. Only through the application of statistical rigor, according to him, could decision makers understand a complex situation and decide correctly. The world, in his opinion, was a rebellious mass of information that, if delineated, denoted, demarcated and quantified, could be tamed by the human hand and respond to the will of man […] McNamara believed he understood what was happening on the ground just by looking at a spreadsheet, and looking at all those rows and columns, calculations and ordered graphs, whose domain it seemed to place him only one standard deviation from God. ” McNamara’s mistake was to believe that even something as complex as war could be won by collecting data (in his case, counting the number of victims). We already know the end result of the Vietnam War – and although it was not solely due to this fact – history has shown that their assumption was wrong.
The McNamaras of this world are those engineers dwelling in the marketing environment, tireless readers of data, converts to the creed of technology and data who believe that knowing each purchase decision, each movement and trace that the consumer leaves behind in the digital environment will achieve the perfect business, communication or marketing solution. The profitability and profit formula.
In this age of relativism in knowledge and its constant expiration, we have forgotten that in everything that involves human will we cannot let it be subordinated to the reading of data.
If we put together the McNamaras with tweets, likes, comments, discussion forums and initiatives such as change.org, we have a decision-making profile obsessed with data as a way to achieve the objectives with a mass of empowered consumers who have found them put above trained and experienced voices. Thus, we have the perfect combination to squander creativity and differentiation, not only in the creative environment of advertising and communication, but in the business environment in general.
“… with the intense focus on targeting, data has become all about maximising deliverability for the right audience. And this myopic obsession with the right channel and the perfect targeting has led to complacency. […] Complacency that has led to the ever decreasing click-through rates and sales. As a result, fear has gripped this industry. Fear that taking creative risks is going to lead to that all-important ROI slipping.”
THE DICTATORSHIP OF THE MASSES
In a Kafkaesque twist of our times, despite the role of decision-makers they may play, the McNamaras are not really the ones running the show. Their profile is that of a bureaucrat. An administrative that applies the resolution based on the immediate response of the consumer, the indicator in front of them or the report received. Who is really in charge is that mass that expresses itself freely and massively, without filters, and that provides raw data and opinions.
In this way of proceeding we forget two important factors: first, that the consumer is not always right, because he cannot want what he does not know; In other words, they will always give their opinion on what already exists, because in most cases human beings tend to reject what they do not know. So, if we only serve them what responds to their wishes, we enter a spiral of repetition and lack of creativity that leads us to invisibility. Secondly, we forget that the digital environment is not reality, there is certainly a large number of the population that uses and expresses themselves through social networks and other digital platforms, but we must bear in mind that we express ourselves with the same lightness with the that we receive information, that is to say in a superfluous and little thoughtful way.
The momentum of big-data definitions tends to reinforce the impression that big data is devoid of subjectivity, or of any human point of view at all. A set of social-science scholars working in the field of technology studies recently urged researchers to turn from ‘data-centred’ to ‘people-centred’ methods, arguing that too much focus on a data-driven approach neglects the human being who is at the core of sociological studies […] Likewise, a feeling that big data is inhuman reinforces the sense that it cannot be modified or regulated; it is too often regarded as a raw force of nature that simply must be harnessed.”.
By putting the mass or the public at the epicenter of our decision-making, we have subverted not only the process itself, but we have made it reactive. Faced with the uncertainty in the result and fear in their reaction, we adapt our movements to the pulse set by the consumer.
In Arthur C. Danto’s book mentioned earlier in this text After the End of Art, the author provides us with an example that illustrates exceptionally well what we are discussing here. Trying to explain that postmodern art (which is also post-narrative) must meet its own standards, Danto talks about artists Komar and Melanid project. These artists were originally from the former USSR and they developed part of their speech initially ironizing about the “art of the communist people ”and, once the Soviet Union fell, they did the same with the the United States market law – that of the art market in their case -. To ironize about the processes and laws of the market both artists decided to initiate an inquiry as a “market study” to discover what type of art was considered an “art of the people” in the 90s, that is, what was what the people demanded as art.
“What was used as social science was the state of art. Specific groups were analyzed and the surveys were carefully studied. Randomly selected American households were asked to answer a set of questions about their artistic preferences. The results are rated as statistically accurate “within a 3.2% margin of error with a 95% level of reliability.” Proportionality by gender was observed. And the answers themselves make for a singularly interesting piece of aesthetic sociology. Blue, for example, is by far America’s favorite color (44%)”
“My opinion, then, which may have some merit, is that the most wanted painting is incompatible with what most people look for in a painting. Although it may be different from what most people want in a painting”.
Komar and Melamid did not only carry out the work resulting from the United States survey, but also carried out the same process in various countries such as Russia, Scandinavian countries, France, Kenya and China, resulting in very similar responses except for certain nuances such as the percentage of blue or the size of the painting, but in general the resulting paintings were very similar and, therefore, indeferenced. What the Komar and Melamid experiment revealed is that “it’s not about what people prefer, it’s about what they find most familiar”.
Returning to our sector, the processes of creating campaigns based on consumer responses are strongly rooted in advertising and, gradually, the creative advertising landscape has been changing, leading to creative mimesis and undifferentiation between brands.
During the recent lockdown, we saw how many brands that wanted to remind consumers that they were still there ended up performing exactly the same execution. Big brands with big advertising budgets delivered messages so similar that the result was that we can’t remember any of them. This fact even caused a parody about it. The same happens, for example, in automotive advertising, billboards with a car in perspective and a price offer next to it. What if when SCPF raised the ad “you like driving?” they had subjected it to a purchase intention funnel? An ad with no price, no featured technology, no car… we’ll never know, but it could probably never have been broadcasted. A TV spot that was not short-term, that built up the brand and that, despite this, not only made BMW sales rise but that is still remembered today and for which BMW continues to legitimately occupy the territory of driving pleasure.
It is true that we do not make art and, let’s mention the obvious, ultimately our goal is to try to help brands sell. But we are in that gray territory where we put creativity and differentiation to the services of marketing objectives and, as the example provided by Danto shows, if we pay attention only to what is expressed by the consumer, we already know what the result is.
- Pluckrose H. (19 de julio de 2019) Cómo los “intelectuales” franceses arruinaron Occidente: la explicación del posmodernismo y sus consecuencias. Letras Libres. Recovered from https://www.letraslibres.com/mexico/cultura/como-los-intelectuales-franceses-arruinaron-occidente-la-explicacion-del-posmodernismo-y-sus-consecuencias
- C. Danto, A. Después del fin del arte. Paidós Esenciales. 1999. Pp. 178 – 179.
- Pallarès Piquer, M. y Chiva Bartoll, O. El lugar del individuo en la era post-postmoderna. Sociedad, educación y ciudadanía tras la postmodernidad. Revista Comillas. PENSAMIENTO, vol. 74 (2018), núm. 282. Pp. 835-852.
- Joaquín R. García-Lavernia G. El predominio de la levedad en la comunicación posmoderna.
- Cukier K. y Mayer-schönberger V. (5 de junio de 2013) La dictadura de los datos. MIT Technology Review. Recovered from https://www.technologyreview.es/s/3564/la-dictadura-de-los-datos
- Callebaut J. (2 de marzo de 2020) Creativity back on top: why creative data will dominate this decade. The Drum. Recovered from https://www.thedrum.com/industryinsights/2020/03/02/creativity-back-top-why-creative-data-will-dominate-decade
- Lemov, R. ‘Big data is people!’, Aeon. Recovered from https://aeon.co/essays/why-big-data-is-actually-small-personal-and-very-human
On the author:
Sara Lucas is Publicist and Client Services Director. She has over ten years in advertising agencies managing integrated communication projects for both national and international campaigns. She also has a degree in Humanities and a postgraduate degree in Contemporary Art Theory and Aesthetics.