11 November 2011

A Meditation on Medieval Marketing

Over at the Harvard Business Review blog (!) Grant McCracken muses on the marketing secrets of the middle ages (via Boing Boing):
The medieval world took for granted that the universe was filled with secret messages, placed there by God and the correspondences on which the world was built. What did not come from God or nature was made by man in the form of emblems, icons, and insignia insinuated into public life. The home of Sir Francis Bacon was covered with arcana. Only people with a keen eye and a university education could make sense of it.
By the 20th century, all of this was stripped out by the modernist impulse that said form should be about manifest function, not secret meaning. This world was rendered perfectly clear, rational, and transparent. No decoding necessary. Consider Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building. Or Charles and Ray Eames' lounge chair. What you saw was what you got.
Marketing was created in this moment. And the idea was complete transparency. Marketing came to stand for big, bold, simple messages, fired repeatedly at a mass target. "Keep it simple, stupid" was the order of the day. This was a world of absolute clarity and shameless repetition. How things change. The 21st century loves a puzzle. We have the skill and the patience. We have quicker eyes. No couch potatoes, we. Perhaps it's that we now live with so much noise that we are better at decoding signals. We are ready for secret messages. To judge from the rest of popular culture, we are hungry for them.
This is a take on Weber's notion of the disenchantment of the world. After a while, complete simplicity starts to look like idiocy. For some reason this makes me think: were the semiotics of the hipster moment - the emphasis on exclusivity, in-jokes, and irony, symbolized by the elevation of banal products like Pabst Blue Ribbon beer - an attempt to re-enchant this world of spare, obvious, distinctly un-magical consumer products?

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