PLEASE CONSIDER

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'Please consider `Please Consider'' Broadsheet Dec, 20 (4): 6-8 (1991)

Advertising tricks viewers into purchasing something that they don’t need. You know this, I know this, and certainly the advertisers know we know this. To write an article that exposes these ‘tricks’ would not be to say anything new. It is advertising which is now taking the responsible voice in public life, aligning its products with serious ideological issues such as ecology and economics. Advertising now doesn’t just tell us what we should buy, but how we should live our lives. In this article, if it’s alright with you, I’d like to follow the line of argument presented in a couple of prominent advertising campaigns, to see what kind of life it makes for me and you.

In April this year Australians were presented with a radically different notion of themselves as consumers. We were not the targets of the usual attempts at persuasion, cajoling or shame. We were asked simply to think.

In the first week of April, television featured a number of fifteen second ‘teaser commercials’. A formally‑dressed Japanese man emerged from shimmering veils with sounds of wind chimes. He spoke: ‘Before a thing of beauty can be made in the material world, first it must be conceived in the heart and in the mind. Please consider.’ No product was mentioned. What were we asked to consider? The man seemed to come from another culture to speak for its notion that there was a link between production of objects and some internal psychological or spiritual state. The advertisement itself was a demonstration of the kind of meditative mood required for material production: before you think too quickly about getting your hands on something, open some space for thought.

On Wednesday 10 April the final teaser advertisement announced that a new car was to be launched the following evening. Please consider. The following day, the same Japanese man arrived on the television screen, this time announcing: ‘I am honoured to introduce you to a new motor vehicle...’ This ‘motor vehicle’ was called Mitsubishi Magna. It was revealed to us through several large white veils, rolling in the wind and glowing in light refracted through water. As the car was finally uncovered, the strains of a woman’s voice began the wordless theme for Mussorsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. ‘It’s true beauty is experienced on the road’. The car glided around an Australian country road, gracefully taking the bends to strains of classical music.

So this is what we were so gently asked to consider: a car. Is it worth such an effort? There was more to come.

Japanese Craftsmanship

On 13 April, the Saturday newspapers contained a large glossy full‑colour 12-page brochure. The front page featured the message of the previous week: ‘Before a thing of beauty can be made in the material world, first it must be conceived in the heart and in the mind. Please Consider.’ These words were written over a wooden tray filled with parchment paper. Around the tray were what seemed like implements of Japanese calligraphy. The image was centuries removed from the slick mechanical engineering of a modern car.

Why was it necessary to reach back so far in time to herald the arrival of a product of contemporary technology? The pages contained within this cover stressed the quality of ‘craftsmanship’ involved in the production of the Mitsubishi Magna:

An old Japanese craftsman was once asked how he carved such beautiful waterbirds from simple blocks of wood. He answered, ‘I just cut away the wood that does not look like a waterbird.’ This single-minded view was embraced in the design of the Magna exterior. For the new Magna is a stylish tribute to its craftsmanship. A finely tuned instrument is a tribute to its craftsmanship.

When I received this brochure with millions of other Australians, I was in the early stages of a writer‑in‑residence with the Crafts Council of Victoria. The brief I had set myself was to find a voice for the crafts in contemporary society which matched the political role it had in the early 1970s when it was a focus for a rejuvenated call to individual action. It seemed important not to doom the crafts to a sentimentalised backwater of those 70s values, but to find ways in which it could actively engage in the issues of the 1990s. Maybe that’s an overweening ambition, but the loneliness of a writer in the crafts encourages grand pictures. The advertising for Mitsubishi Magna worked on an image of the crafts that had nothing to do with nostalgia for a world of handicraft, and its message reached out to millions. So let’s consider, ‘Please Consider’.

The Blade Of Grass

To understand the beauty of nature as a whole, one must study a single blade of grass. Then the one next to it. And then the one next to that...

The supporting television advertisement for Mitsubishi Magna deals with the design principles involved in its production. The philosophy states that the beauty of nature is revealed in small elements, contained in the hand, each considered individually. As a form of reductionism, we might imagine that it is employed in the construction of the engine, say working from the individual cylinders up to more complex elements. Instead, the visuals point to a literal relationship between the shape of the pointer on the speedometer and the form of an actual blade of grass. The next scenario shows a white male in the driver’s seat who reaches with a pair of callipers to measure the breadth of an attachment to the rear view mirror. What we see is not a revelation of how the car is constructed, but the ‘image’ of design.

The complement to this advertisement promises the substance absent in the blade of grass. It deals with the engineering of the Magna. However, in the television advertisement the Japanese presenter adopts a Parisian insouciance to announce that technical details ‘can be a little boring’. An orchestra plays ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ and the engine movements are juxtaposed with trumpets and glockenspiels. Again, the actual mechanics are disguised by a stylish set of allusions. So what are we being presented with?

Traditional Values

Malcolm Burns, national advertising manager for Mitsubishi Adelaide, associates the campaign with a change in the work ethic of Australians: an increased pride in their work. The multi-skilling approach in the Mitsubishi factory involves the worker in the car as a whole, as opposed to the ‘silent movie’ image of the human robot on the production line. The ‘Please Consider’ campaign gives expression to this notion of worker identification with his or her labour.

In the video distributed to Mitsubishi Magna dealers, they are told by Gerard Stone that consumers in the 1990s are now concerned with ‘traditional values of inbuilt quality and durability’. Whereas before a Japanese association might have been a hindrance, now it is recognised as a sign of quality. ‘We’re seen to be very Japanese, the most Japanese of all other car companies.’ Being Japanese is seen to connote that desirable value of ‘durability’: ‘We’re seen to reflect the traditional values of old Japan: integrity, loyalty, honesty and respect.’ Such values are now reflected in changed consumer attitudes. The slogan ‘Please Consider’ is a respectful replacement for the previous ‘Who else but Mitsubishi?’ ‘It is a genuine thoughtful call to action, asking them to take the time to consider the new Magna. It’s not a loud “buy now while stocks last” statement, but we’re confident in today’s market environment, it’s right for Mitsubishi.’

The consumer is not being distracted by flashy promises of factory bonuses. The consumer is being encouraged to think quietly about the car itself. Such an approach defies a recession‑related anxiety to win what’s left of a dwindling market. It is perhaps now the mark of Japanese presence in the Australian economy that it is seen to hold steady amid local panic. Yet it is a very peculiar notion in the context of the advertising for Mitsubishi Magna. As you will no doubt have noticed, its presentation strategy avoids any concrete details of the car’s mechanics or features. What we are being given instead is a ‘show’ of design integrity. Such an approach would seem to run contrary to an Anglo suspicion of appearances, a caution never to judge books by their covers.

The Mitsubishi advertisements were created by the Adelaide firm, Young & Rubicam. Their ‘strategy planner’, Philip Nelson, claims this approach meets ‘a change of attitudes in Australians’. For Nelson, ‘the key word is authenticity’. Australians realise that their short history requires the assistance of a culture such as Japan’s with a deep tradition of ‘craftsmanship’. The Australian is typified as the ‘bush mechanic’, suited to ‘conceptual thinking’ and ‘cross‑fertilisation’. In Nelson’s story of the Japanese partnership with Australia, the Mitsubishi Magna is seen as the product that combines ancient traditions and local flexibility.

It is the resulting durability of the vehicle which is reflected in the way the advertising reflects on itself. The aim of the advertising campaign is to ‘predispose’ Australians to the car, rather than achieve immediate sales. The brochure is designed for people not interested in buying a motor car—it’s designed to simply be read. Sales are expected five or more years down the line. Despite this promise of substance, however, the audience receives virtually no information about the actual engine of the car.

Here is the curious paradox of Japanese metaphysics: the depth is revealed in the surface. I ask you to look not deeply, to the inner core, the guts of the matter, but to the accidental play of light, an evanescent meeting that contains within itself the essence of spirit. This is the kind of place Ezra Pound takes his readers in his Haiku inspired poetry:

All the while they were talking the new morality
Her eyes explored me.
And when I arose to go her fingers were like the tissue
Of a Japanese paper napkin.

Things Japanese have a special language in English‑speaking cultures. The potter Bernard Leach who largely inspired the studio pottery movement in English‑speaking cultures drew greatly from the leader of the Japanese crafts movement, Soetso Yanagi. Japan provides us with ‘a kingdom of quiet beauty’:

To me the greatest thing is to live beauty ill our daily, life and to crowd every moment with things of beauty. It is then, and then only that the art of the people as a whole is endowed with its richest significance. For its products are those made by a great many craftsmen for the mass of the people, and the moment this art declines the life of the nation is removed far away from beauty. So long as beauty abides in only a few articles created by a few geniuses, the Kingdom of Beauty is nowhere near realisation.

Such an attitude paves a noble path for car manufacturers—they may be seen in this manner to be moving closer to the realisation of the Kingdom of Beauty by mass producing the mobile shells of tens of thousands of Australians. But will Australians feel comfortable riding in car associated with such impractical values? ‘Please Consider’ must have special significance in an Australian setting where such formality grates against the easy‑going social manners that characterise public life.

Being Japanese may grant a space for formality which is absent from Australian life. Imagine the scene of a lower middle class Australian couple arriving for the first time at a Japanese table: a bowing woman dressed in kimono comes to greet them and ushers in the couple to a table where they are treated to the ritual tea—most of the actions are gratuitous with little to do with the practical demands of service. However the couple feel in this restaurant—whether uncomfortable with the ‘fuss’ or charmed at the care being expended—they are faced with the problem of monitoring the boundary between their own informal social intercourse and this new highly disciplined way of life. Do they open the gate and forgo their own egalitarian style? Well, perhaps just for the evening, in this island of high ceremony.

You

The call ‘Please Consider’ operates as a display of respect for the consumer. These two words can be unpacked to say: You are an adult who doesn’t deserve some cheap advertising trick to make you buy a product; instead, we’ll leave the decision up to you. The responsibility to market the product has been transferred from the seller to the buyer. This is not an isolated phenomenon in recent advertising. Let’s call this approach ‘client‑centred advertising.

The Japanese presenter of ‘Please Consider’ is absent in later versions—the words ‘Please Consider’ are revealed silently at the end of the commercial, magically appearing to a tinkle of bells. The advertisers here are adopting a similar move to that of the National Mutual ads for life insurance where the word ‘You’ silently appears as an answer to the statement about the ‘most important person in the world’. There is something particularly catching about these kinds of endings. After a series of messages voiced publicly, one special message is reserved for the individual consumer, claiming that this is for you, the most important one. The television winks at the viewer, interpellating him or her directly into the utterance.

It is a curious feature of current times that advertisers feel that they can sell their client’s products more effectively by sending out a message to millions that each one individually is the most important person in the world. Well, I suppose to ourselves we are the person we depend on the most, but that seems a strange basis on which to make a public message. If we were to have a theorist like Tom Wolfe in our midst, we might be reading now about this kind of advertising as a response to the ‘me decade’ of the 1970s. The American sociologist David Reisman characterises this point of view:

… the truly dramatic change has been, in my judgment, in the growth of many different forms of public approval for egocentric behaviour. While my conclusions in this particular are not infallible I have lived a long life which has kept me in touch with many older and younger members of our upper‑middle classes. In this era people boast about ‘doing their own thing’, where once they might have been ashamed of such self-serving conduct and hidden it from others.

What advertising does in response to this egocentrism is to pander: it realises that little else is able to get through that does not show appropriate humility so it simply presents whatever it has to offer as fitting for the most important person in the world. One day we are likely to read in an American magazine someone like Tom Wolfe announcing the ‘You decade’. Wolfe might write that the ‘me’ decade had left in its wake a generation who still believe in egocentrism but only as it applies to others. The ‘you’ decade here is essentially filled with a generation who have learned to service the egocentrism of its predecessors, even into their retirement.

But between ‘you’ and ’me’, dear reader, where are ‘we’? This is the question which this article attempts to pose. So please consider three alternative evaluations of ‘client‑centred advertising’. In the first account, such advertising is true to the ethical condition of surrender to the Other. The experience of extreme alterity—of loss of self in the face of the other—is a state championed in the psychoanalysis of Lacan and lately the ethics of LÚvinas. This position is too complex to explicate in this essay, but it is rendered clearly in the words of the American poet John Ashbery, who kneads this experience of alterity throughout this work:

In you I fall apart, and outwardly am a single fragment, a puzzle to itself. But we must learn to live in others, no matter how abortive or unfriendly their cold, piecemeal renderings of us: they create us.

The ‘You Decade’ might thus be heralded as a getting of wisdom, acknowledgment that you’ comes first.

That’s the best scenario. The second has it that ‘you’ represents a regression to the pre-Oedipal state of primary narcissism where there is no third party to stand between mother and child. Julia Kristeva describes how the ‘loving mother’ places her maternal relationship to the child within the eyes of the other:

The loving mother, different from the caring and the clinging mother, is someone who has an object of desire; beyond that, she has an Other with relation to whom the child will serve as go‑between. She will love her child with respect to that Other, and it is through a discourse aimed at that Third Party that the child will be set up as ‘loved’ for the mother. ‘Isn’t he beautiful’, or ‘I am proud of you’, and so forth, are statements of maternal love because they involve a Third Party; it is in the eye of a Third Party that the baby the mother speaks to becomes a he, it is with respect to others that ‘I am proud of you’, and so forth.

A vestige of this Third Party remains in the Mitsubishi Magna advertising: the music, dress and style acts as a homage to classical’ values. This is largely absent in the National Mutual ads. There viewers are presented with stories of individual Australians whose modest achievements grant them a unique place of importance. Despite this exception, it is possible to argue that the trend in advertising is towards a kind of primary narcissism in which the sense of the self is constituted purely within the bounds of its own singularity.

The third account questions the reality of the ‘client’ in ‘client‑centred advertising’. The ‘you’ in such advertising is seen as a mythical device that is not to be identified with the actual addressee. Is there really someone listening who might be narcissistic enough to think that an advertisement has been expressly designed for just them? That would be madness, yes? So, what is the function of ‘you’ if it does not denote a real person? One answer is that this ‘You’ is actually the third person: ‘You’ turns ‘They’ into an addressee. The ambiguity about the number of the second person in English allows this to happen. To gain a fuller picture of what might be going on in this utterance, it is worth conjugating it into the various pronouns. The deictic structure of each utterance speaks for a dialogical scene which I’ll briefly flesh out:

1. The most important person in the world. Me. The first conjugation presents an agent with supreme self‑confidence. Prince dresses himself up in finery. Madonna creates a world of adoring slaves around herself. Their self‑adoration is a staged spectacle for the vicarious pleasure of others. One is relieved of the lie that they have one’s needs at heart. He only represents himself. She only represents herself

2. The most important person m the world. You. This statement grants self a recognition of its own centrality. Since you are the most important person in the world, you don’t need to worry about duties to others, you should attend to your own interests. You deserve a break today. You be the judge.

3a. The most important person in the world. Her. She is someone one depends on—someone for whom one can risk everything and even die for, like Sir Walter Raleigh. She provides a reason to waste oneself heroically, whose merest glance fills one’s life with meaning.

3b. The most important person in the world. Him. He is at the centre of the action. The President of the United States of America sits beside his 41‑line telephone calling the shots. If he wants to, he can change history.

5. The most important person in the world. Us. We, the people, recognise that democracy begins with a collective demonstration of power. We need to band together against those that seek to oppress us.

6. The most important person in the world. You. The audience is listening. The performer acknowledges that without the support of the audience, fans and those that purchase his or her cultural products in the market, the performer would be nothing. It’s time for the audience to applaud itself.

7. The most important person in the world. Them. What will they come up with next? The clever people, the scientists inventing new ways of protecting oneself from nature. Those that set the trends of fashion and ideas. The avant‑garde.

To varying degrees, one might find evidence of all seven voices in the contemporary world. Their difference is largely contextual: there’s a time and a place for each of them. Structurally what they share in common is a centred consciousness: the one who knows.

A Russian linguist would call the pronoun used in each utterance a ‘super‑receiver’: a horizon of perfect understanding imagined by the author. The super‑receiver is a consciousness implied in the text that stands apart from both author and reader. Mikhail Bakhtin claims that such super‑receivers have been given ‘concrete ideological expression’ in different historical periods. His examples are: God, the absolute truth, the people, the judgment of history, science, etc. The super‑receiver is always absent, receding into the future. It is a paradox of modern time that this super‑receiver might now be the actual addressee. As Timothy Leary says nowadays: ‘the god is you’.

In this perspective ‘Please consider’ rests on the ultimate understanding with a freely given meditation by the individual. It is something one does to oneself. Along the way, it commits one to the symbolic value of what in our culture constitutes as the ‘classical’: handcrafted implements, orchestra, dinner suit, etc. One simply opens oneself to their appreciation and no doubt the prestige that this form of consumption offers.

‘The most important person in the world. You’ is different. It reflects persons quietly going about their business admiring how others do things—persons who one day realise that they themselves, have a position of power. The advertisement asks nothing of the consumer apart from an implied counsel of self‑care. It asks one to live up to a financial responsibility to the needs of self. Its ideological context fits with moves towards user pays government services: you are the one who knows what’s best for you. The third account thus presents ‘client‑centred advertising’ as an ideological construction of a super‑receiver that allows the powers that be to wriggle out the moral responsibilities of office. The ‘Please Consider’ campaign uses our understanding the formal traditions of Japanese politeness to provide a conservative context for this radical reversal in State control. Whereas privatisation might be seen as a tragic break with the past, ‘Please Consider’ links this ‘client‑centredness’ to more ancient traditions contained in our imaginary picture of Japan.

 

NOTES

Information and images for this article was supplied by Philip Nelson of Young & Rubicarn and Malcolm Burns of Mitsubishi. Part of the research was conducted during a period as writer‑in‑residence, Crafts Council of Victoria. This article is dedicated to the person of your choice.