De-pattern language

by Yule Heibel on August 22, 2003

See this AlterNet article by Kim Eisele, Poverty-Chic: Diesel’s New Line, on fashion and advertising strategies — two of your friendly host’s favourite betes-noir. Writing from Tucson, Arizona and within spitting distance of Mexico, Eisele asks: As the number of undocumented, would-be migrant workers found dead in the deserts of the Southwest since last October climbs into the hundreds, why does a multi-million dollar European clothing company want me to dress like a Spanish-speaking laborer?
Diesel’s new “hook” to catch consumer interest consists of calling a recent fashion line Trabajadores, Spanish for “workers.” It seems that while Diesel makes its jeans in Italy, it subsidizes that production by having everything else manufactured in offshore production zones. From the UHC Collective site in the UK (pointed to by Eisele), which mounted an anti-Diesel protest campaign, I found this 1998 Adbusters Magazine article by Bruce Grierson, Shock’s Next Wave, which addresses so much of what consists of advertising’s keenest bag of tricks:

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, dozens of psychiatric patients at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal, fell under the care of Dr. Ewen Cameron, a man with some radical ideas about how the human mind is wired, and how it might be therapeutically rewired by a skilled psychiatrist such as himself. Cameron believed the roots of mental illness lay in faulty thought patterns patients developed over time. He reckoned patients could be “depatterned” through the ceaseless repetition of a key word or phrase — a technique he called “psychic driving.” Confining the patients to “sleep rooms” in the Institute, Cameron “implanted” a carefully chosen “driving message” (usually a negative message, followed much later by an affirming message) into their heads via speakers or earphones. Each message — for example, “You have no confidence in yourself. You are weak and inadequate” — was broadcast continuously for 15 hours a day, seven days a week, for up to two months.
Not surprisingly, “psychic driving” quickly became a torturous ordeal for the subjects. Indeed, Cameron’s depatterning work suggested the mind-control experiments being carried out in North Korea, where Communist soldiers were allegedly turning captured POWs into robotically programmed acolytes. (The CIA, eager to know more about brainwashing, and to develop countervailing techniques of its own, funded Cameron’s work for three years under a project code-named MKULTRA). To “break down their resistance” to the incoming messages, Cameron tranquilized his subjects with electroshocks, LSD, hypnosis, or sleeping pills that kept them in unconscious suspension for up to 22 hours a day as the driving messages played on.

While brain-washing experiments have stopped, driving messages still exist and have become more sophisticated: we call them ads: “You have no confidence in yourself. You are weak and inadequate. Try these jeans.” Today, however, traditional advertising agencies are left behind in the dust as newer advertising strategies go ever further:

Traditional agencies like Leo Burnett and J. Walter Thompson are hemorrhaging business to smaller, balls-out agencies like Fallon McElligott and Wieden & Kennedy, who understand that you can’t play chess with an attention-deficit-disordered kid: he’ll walk away from the board. It’s got to be strip chess now, or chess for money. Or you’ve got to pelt the kid with the pieces.
All of which explains the rise, in recent years, of so-called “shock” advertising. For ads to work, the industry is conceding, they have to be rare and juicy and in your face. They have to offer back-of-the-cabinet images few of us have ever seen — like a black horse humping a white one, or a supermodel taking a dump, or a woman aiming a jet of breast milk into another woman’s cup of coffee.

While art has relied on shocking the bourgeoisie since the early 19th century to the point that every sophisticated bourgeois worth his salt can no longer be shocked, advertising still needs The Shock, the value of shock, to sell products. Advertisers need to sniff out, as Grierson puts it, “the ripest cultural taboo.” The problem is that while Conservatives can still be shocked, the rest of us can’t:

The rest of us, not wanting to be mistaken for anyone liable to revoke arts grants or suppress free expression, adopt an open position of blanket permissiveness. Two horses fucking shocks you? Hey, you don’t get out much, do you, friend? I’ll bet you found A Clockwork Orange troubling, too.
And so we’ve learned not to be fazed by anything. Even as advertisers mine the most sacred parts of ourselves for distribution and resale, we sit passively by, pretending not to care and ultimately not caring. Baby, we are teflon-coated, like those skillets from France. The media can’t touch us because we are cynics.
But could it be that we are cynics because the media has already touched us? Touched us
The almost banal truth is, it’s very hard to shock us now. So advertisers are giving up trying to shock in the conventional way, and are working on a kind of silent electromagnetic pulse aimed to inflict grave, undefinable damage on any circuitry it hits.
I’m going to argue that there are now three levels of shock in advertising: visceral shock, intellectual shock and, for lack of a better term, “soul” shock.

Since we’re all cynics now — overstimulated ones, to boot — advertisers find themselves in a strange fix, like 70s punk stars imploding in their own popularity. Hence, new strategies have to be worked out, resulting in what Grierson calls “faux-naif ads” that apparently declare their duplicity and make knowing fun of it. But the result leads us back to Montreal and those early brain-washing experiments:

Why do faux-naif ads work? One reason is that the advertiser is trafficking in paradox. The consumer gets two conflicting messages. One is, Since advertising itself is bogus, you should be deeply suspicious of the worth of any product you see advertised these days. The other is, We’ve been so honest with you about everything; would we lie to you about the worth of this product?
In effect: Don’t trust us. Trust us.
Something very strange happens when people receive a mixed message. They are temporarily paralyzed.(…)
Intellectually shocking ads, then, are not high-voltage electrodes applied at the scalp and the ankle, but a dilute concentration of nerve gas sent through the air ducts. Over time they can break down your confidence in your opinions, judgments, values. It becomes very confusing to consumers when antagonists (advertisers and subvertisers) start using the same language. When identical words are used to, as situationist Guy Debord might have put it, create the spectacle and to attack it, the consumer does not know whom to trust, if anyone.
For advertisers, this is a delicate game. It’s as if, by parodying themselves, stealing the subvertisers’ thunder, they are challenging subvertisers to make a counter-move–to jam the negative with a positive.

Grierson closes with a discussion of what he calls “soul shock,” which goes deeper and becomes unsettling. Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield called them “advertrocities” and Grierson includes examples such as Benetton’s dying AIDS patients and dead Bosnian soldiers, and Diesel: Recently the Italian jeansmaker Diesel launched an extremely disturbing print campaign. The company’s cryptic ads-within-ads, set in North Korea, feature images of, for example, skinny models on the side of a bus packed with (presumably) starving, suffering locals. “There’s no limit to how thin you can get,” says the ad on the bus.
Take a look at Diesel’s savvy ads and decide for yourself if Grierson’s conclusion is over the top or on the mark:

More than we care to admit, maybe we have already been depatterned, like Ewen Cameron’s psychiatric patients. Maybe we are the Manchurian Candidates of the consumer village, wandering through malls with our heads full of messages driving our behavior (“You have no confidence in yourself. You are weak and inadequate.”), messages we cannot repeat back even once.

These particular ads aren’t “advertrocities,” but ask yourself how they mess with your cynicism, and how they contribute to what decades ago Peter Sloterdijk called enlightened false consciousness, (modern cynicism) signalling with that phrase our final exit from the ideals premissed on the late 18th century.


Betsy Burke August 23, 2003 at 5:35 am

I don’t know if they show Diesel ads in North America, but the ones they show here in Italy are incredibly racist, funny, but racist.

Yule Heibel August 23, 2003 at 8:45 pm

I don’t know whether Diesel has ads here since I live, as you know, in a tv-free bubble and rarely pay attention to print publications (except when I’m bored in the supermarket checkout line…). But I could imagine that the ads you have in mind are Diesel’s “Luxury Living in Today’s Africa” series. If you go to their site,, and then click on “Luxury Living etc.”, you’ll get there. All sorts of “wink-wink, nod-nod” nonesense about concerts in Africa to raise money for starving Europeans and Americans, excessively wealthy Africans (looking exactly like the colonial rulers of yore) partying while the headline says, “Africa agrees on financial aid to America,” and other stuff like that. Makes you wish John Cleese would come along and kill the ad execs with a banana.

Joel August 24, 2003 at 3:04 am

I’d use papayas myself. One black seed at a time.

Joel August 25, 2003 at 4:18 am

The strange thing about the “brainwashing” methodology used by the North Koreans was that it wasn’t so much brainwashing but an exhibition of compassion. When a soldier arrived, it was explained to him that his diet wouldn’t be great but it was no worse than that of the average Korean peasant. Snitches were paid off in cigarettes for information about escapes and when the ringleaders were brought in, they were given lectures instead of being beat. Because the price that the soldiers who were betrayed was low and cigarettes so precious, many turned informer. In the end, these soldiers just stayed on in Korea and China after the war. The Koreans won them with compassion.

This was what was done for the enlisted men. Officers were treated quite differently.

What maddened the CIA and the army was that our boys didn’t try to escape the prison camps. Hell, they were better off there than in the front lines and the jailers didn’t seem so bad. (Times change.)

Joel August 25, 2003 at 4:19 am

The remark about the horses reminds me of a story John Kenneth Galbraith used to tell. He was sitting on a fence with his girlfriend watching a bull mate with one of his father’s cows. “I’d like to do that,” he said to her. “Well,” she said, “it’s your cow.”

Yule Heibel August 25, 2003 at 12:45 pm

Ha, funny. It’s all perspective, eh?

Anonymous August 27, 2003 at 5:20 pm

thanks for posting this, Yule.

Yule Heibel August 27, 2003 at 10:02 pm

Bruce, I’m just glad I found the article and could post about it. But tell me, Riverman, are you that Bruce? Your blog doesn’t give much away and some of my psychic parts are in the shop…

Anonymous August 28, 2003 at 9:33 am

no, nor am I the rocker Bruce. Nor am I actually any Bruce, for that matter. Well, yes I am, I am Bruce of The River. But Bruce is not my given name. Unless you consider that I gave it to myself. Identity, such a tricky subject.

the article looks interesting (been a reader of that mag for years). You are full of good info, including the home schooling stuff at top. Will have to deal with the school issue soon myself, what with two brilliant daughters, ages 2 and 4.

Yule Heibel August 28, 2003 at 7:07 pm

Oh, too bad re. not being that Bruce, otherwise I could have asked you if my post’s play on Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language struck a note, and whether William Gibson had anything like Ewen Cameron’s research in mind when he titled his last book, which features a market-research consultant, Pattern Recognition. You’re a mystery man, not to be patterned: you may or may not be Bruce. You are a philosopher, perhaps?

Two gifted kids, eh? Lucky you, get ready for a wild ride. It’s not just mental intelligence, of course. It’s emotional intensity, too. Have you looked at Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child? Average people will tell you, “oh, but don’t you want your kids to be able to fit in?” (i.e., be like everybody else), when it’s obvious to anyone with any insight that your kids are already different. And as if we needed more people who fit in with the status quo.

Anonymous August 29, 2003 at 3:00 pm

you rule, Yule.

thanks for the further linkage!

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