Last Saturday – October 14, 2018 – I was fortunate to participate in a roundtable on the power of advertising (“Puissances de la publicité: des images et des données”) at the annual four-day conference “Les Rendez-Vous de l’Histoire » in Blois, France.
The chair of the panel Sabine Effosse – who recently wrote a related article in Le Monde – first introduced the four panelists and the key issues of debate. Known as the “soul of commerce”, advertising has been the driving force of modern consumer societies. Yet advertisements are not just images but also material artifacts intertwined with specific spaces, medias, national and global contexts. Is advertising an adjuvant (S. Effosse) or a lubricant (lubrifiant) of market economies (Christophe Benavent)? What has advertising become in the digital age and the era of “big data”?
19th-century historian Manuel Charpy revisited the mainstream narrative of French advertising and provided a more nuanced view of the opposition between « réclame » (announcement) and « publicité » (advertising) through his detailed study of “discreet advertising” (publicité discrète) in its manifold aspects – department stores, catalogues, exhibitions, artists’ studios, etc. Stressing its changing materiality and spatiality, he showed how advertising gradually invested the female body and elites’ intimate spaces, and eventually blurred the boundary between public/private or commercial/non commercial spaces.
China historian Cécile Armand traced the birth of modern advertising in early 20th-century Shanghai. She offered a “de-centered” perspective on advertising through three key issues – the social making of advertising, the problem of historical sources (scarcity of archival materials), and the transnational circulations of commercial images and techniques.
offered a long-term view on the development of marketing. Rejecting the idea of a digital « revolution », he emphasized the long-term transformation of advertising over the 20th century. He particularly stressed its subtle and pervasive use of time and showed how digital advertising manages to penetrate our daily lives. Advertising today is not so much a matter of image or message but rather an issue of channels
and infrastructures. Hence his call for a history of techniques as a preliminary step toward a more systemic history of advertising. To the provocative question: “Is advertising useful? Is it powerful and efficient? What is it for?” – he reminded us that advertising remains vital to inform consumers, to create and maintain brands reputation and loyalty, and still plays a strategic role in raising barriers against competitors (see the case of Levi’s).
Last, Yan Claeyssen
(CEO, Publicis) embodied the practitioner’s viewpoint. He observed deep changes in his professional practice over the last decades due to the process of digitalization. He particularly recorded the recent turn to data planning
– replacing previous forms market research – and refined targeting
(ciblage). Not only has advertising become more immediate and individualized, but consumers today have more power than ever. The case of Renault epitomizes the new paradigm. Advertising today does not sell a product (automobile), not even a concept, but consumer experiences. Advertisers do not buy media space but audience
(i.e. cookies). He concluded that advertising as we have known for over two centuries may be about to disappear – if it has not already disappeared.
The debate raised much interest and criticism from the audience. Do we really need advertising? Is it dangerous? (How) can we avoid it in our daily lives? Both Y. Claeyssen and C. Benavent warned against avoidance tactics. They both defended the social and economic value of advertising as a vital part of an entire ecosystem – just think of the free services, communication media and social networks (Facebook, Google) that we all benefit from and for which we would have to pay if advertising was to disappear… unless we completely reconceptualize our economic model and imagine a entirely new society – which means no less than to reinvent the world.