Integral Marketing, Part II – Antinomian Marketing

Russell Davies recently posted the results of his “what will marketing become” poll. This reminded me that it’s been awhile since I posted the introduction to my little exegesis on the future of marketing, so I figured I’d best finish off this second piece. The top two winners of his poll were especially inspiring in this pursuit. Here goes:

I’ve long had the sense that marketers—especially the “stars” of the field—constitute something like a “prelacy of cool.” I think I extracted this idea from some Emigre essay I read like eight years ago. The essay in question isn’t available on their site, and I can’t recall the issue of the magazine in which it appeared, but it was of a piece with other of their essays in one respect; it decried the ostensible “co-opting of cool” which commercial interests visit upon the otherwise vital, dynamic art of the social vanguard. In a move that surely evoked both the adoration and egoic ire of the Emigre coterie, this essayist denominated the marketers whom execute this diabolism as, “Antinomian (Wikipedia, Catholic Encyclopedia).” I admit, I thought it was pretty clever. Which is why I’m stealing it.

Basically, antinomianism is something of a theological epitaph. Roughly, antinomians are those who would claim that their relationship with God supersedes their obligation to the law. The aforementioned Emigre scribe’s use of antinomian seemed to suggest that these marketers, in using the semantic and aesthetic currency of nascent socio-political art, are placing themselves above some ghostly, unspoken social rule. This rule would appear to be something like, “Thou shalt not corrupt the evolution of social dialogue with a commercial interest (especially when that dialogue is rich with sophisticated anti-commercialist narratives)” or, “Hey marketers! WE’RE the arbiters of cool, not you!” For my part, I cast my lot with commercialism. In short, I like stuff; especially shiny stuff, but I digress.

Why should I wish to throw in with the suggestion that marketers are antinomian? Obviously, I’m not going the anti-commercial route, ‘cause as I said, y’know, I like stuff. It is because I think marketers have placed themselves beyond the purview of another law. Specifically, marketers have largely defiled the small group ethic. I submit (and as a cursory citation of precedent for this, see F.A. Hayek’s “The Fatal Conceit”,) that there is a rich, dynamic, and diverse tapestry of ethical systems that dictate the intercourse of “social circles.” One’s modern social group or clique is approximately analogous to early human tribes in terms of size and other properties. The elaborate counterpoint of social, aesthetic, communicative, expiatory, and other tools that facilitate the interaction of modern social groups has evolved, tediously over many millennia, around roots set in tribal antiquity.

That marketing is largely antinomian is a foundational point for me in the pursuit of some greater understanding of the changes happening with marketing. It’s the first part of the pretentious “big idea” I’ve constructed to describe what I think the result of the shakeup will be. I know I’ve described this first point somewhat wonkishly, so I don’t know if it seems solid enough to you, fair reader, so that you might easily find something at which to throw stones. For this reason, I want to explain how this notion of “antinomian marketing” crystallized for me, in the hope that it might in turn help to describe just what the hell it is.

One thread of the story begins with Jack Kerouac. There are other people who seem to me a good way into this story, but Jack was how I first entered. I read The Dharma Bums at about age nineteen or twenty. It was a Cool Thing To Do among my peers and as it turns out, Kerouac’s theses and aesthetic are really the foundation of “Cool” as we know it. Mashing up apostate Buddhism with Jazz and existentialism, Kerouac presaged the disaffected, hip-hop/goth/green/alt culture by way of the beatniks, hippies, and x-ers. Nearly everything that pop-culture has produced since Kerouac employs some degree of the Buddhistic detachment and malcontented social criticism he helped to make popular. From James Dean right on up through Death Cab For Cutie, disaffection is packaged and sold as rebellion. Cool equals “not caring.”
Of course, this operational definition of cool is facile and sophomoric. It appears to be predicated on the idea that youth/counterculture is the primary source of novelty and must necessarily be somewhere on the scale between indifferent and hostile toward society as it stands. You know the trope; by detaching from the social norms of their parents, youth culture brings new and better ideas onto the scene. While this is certainly true in some sense, it is not an unalloyed truth.

Youth doesn’t maintain its recalcitrant antagonism indefinitely; to do so is to become intransigent. What’s more, youth culture is internally reinforcing. There can’t be complete detachment within the counterculture, because it would prevent the counterculture from existing. Ironically, this pseudo-Buddhistic detachment Kerouac lionizes is his response to a larger culture that is, in his estimation, detached from him.

The eureka moment on this came for me at a seminar a couple years ago where Hal Riney (whom I consider to be an exemplar of what is best in traditional advertising) spoke. He showed spots he’s created over the years, from the 1984 “Morning Again in America” image campaign for Ronald Reagan to the “Frank & Ed” campaign for Bartles & Jaymes (YouTube,) to the brilliant, “Different kind of company, a different kind of car” campaign for Saturn (can’t find any of the original TV spots online; boo, hiss.) It struck me that Hal’s stuff isn’t dripping with irony or malaise or alienation. It’s anything but.

I asked him about it in the Q & A session. I said something like, “It seems to me that advertisers fancy themselves a sort of clergy of cool. Your stuff, if you don’t mind my characterization, is anything but cool. It strikes me as unrepentantly passionate, idealistic, and visionary. What’s the difference? Why isn’t more advertising like yours?” Hal responded by saying he thought that marketers are too youth-obsessed, and what’s worse, they assume that the youth demographic is some kind of alien species with little connection to the stuff that human beings find viscerally compelling. “I mean, come on, we’re all human,” he said.

Which brings me back to the Hayekian small group ethos I mentioned earlier. A big part of “being human” is some degree of mastery in the use of the tools available to facilitate the interactions of a small group; your social group. If a friend is seeking to convince you of something, they must make use of their attachment to you. Said friend will not move you by being distant from you. The small group ethos is the toolset for this attachment. You misuse or ignore these tools at your social peril.

Yet misuse these tools is precisely what marketers have done. In an effort to insinuate the brands they champion into an intimacy with the hearts of the disaffected youth culture, they have adopted the disaffection to their own injury. Inasmuch as these marketers seem to see at least the Boomers as wannabe disaffected youth, there are few audience segments that don’t now receive a goodly dose of this cooler-than-thou treatment.

It’s like marketers have become the guy with the mullet and the Camaro who is constantly burning his tires at every intersection in your neighborhood. I can imagine my wife saying sarcastically, “ooooh, I bet he thinks he’s cool.” Unfortunately, he IS cool, because that “I don’t give a fuck” attitude is precisely what cool is.

Marketers know the formula so well now that they don’t even have to bother trying to attach their marketing to some latent cultural phenomena anymore. Now, they can just tell you what to be disaffected about. “Obey your thirst.” They appear to consider themselves above and maybe even the custodians of the diverse set of unspoken law that informs the interaction of our social groups. They are the antinomian high-priests of cool, and like mullet-boy, they consider us helpless to respond as they lay tire scratches at every intersection in our communications culture.