Anthropology, Automobiles and Advertising
American Anthropological Association was founded in 1909, the same year as the other AAA. There's no coincidence here: automobiles, like humans, are thought of as being self-steering. Consumers (female, too) tend to identify with cars because they are ones.
The other day I came back from the annual AAA meetings. I didn't drive to Philly, I flew there but the analogy between humans and cars still holds, I hope. Anthropology has lately been earning quite a bit of publicity in advertising circles. Olson out in Minneapolis claims to heavily use anthropological approaches to consumers. Crispin Porter + Bogusky approach advertising from the key anthropological notion of "culture." They claim to change culture, to be students of culture and, naturally, they used to call their planners "cognitive anthropologists." In fact, they used to have as many as 4 Ph.D.-blazing ones at some point. They domesticated them into "cogs" to make sure academic intelligence is put to good use, I suppose. And, apparently, Alex Bogusky loves cogs. BBDO has a department parallel to planning called "Cultural Discoveries" head up by an anthropologist. This department sources consumer insights from a posse of consumer ethnographers. The same for Ogilvy&Mather: OgilvyDiscovery employs anthropologists to study what consumers eat, drink and buy. The word "anthropology" has such a powerful mystique that some people even consult agencies as "anthropologists" without being such. (And I don't mean Grant McCracken, he's the real deal.) I guess it's like claiming noble Native American blood because, according to your family lore, your great-great-great-grandmother was once kidnapped by Indians. The brand is so strong that top creatives often brag about having anthropologists on board but if asked to explain what it is that anthropologists "do," they start fumbling for words and eventually say "they dig."
I was very curious to know what lies at the root of advertising's growing romance with anthropology. That's why I went to Philly. Up until the late 1960s, anthropology was of no use to advertising. Not only because agencies didn't know they needed planners, but because anthropology was steeped in curiosity over distant, exotic, soon-would-be moribund cultures. An anthropologist would spend a year or two in Papua New Guinea on a slim National Science Foundation grant and a rich tropical diet, then come back to the U.S, write a long thesis and get a tenure-track job at Harvard. Anthropologists were expected to unearth an objective foundation of human society and culture using, on the one hand, the intellectual infrastructure nurtured in them by good schools and smart books, and, on the other hand, raw human resources hidden in the deciduous forests. Buy low, sell high, so to speak. Well, that was until the late 1960s.
Then, a different trend came of age. A new generation of anthropologists realized that those objective foundations are most likely a myth and a fiction, alongside other myths and fictions. Every society constructs its own culture, and anthropologists can study those symbolic representations anywhere, including Wall Street. They could study themselves, what the heck! The whole world suddenly became full of self-steering entities revving up their creative engines in search of meaning, dreams and profits. At the time when economy was shifting to a consumer-centered mode and advertising agencies created the planning discipline to bring the voice of the consumer to the creative tables, anthropologists embraced "the native's point of view." A cornerstone for future cooperation between corporations, advertising agencies and anthropology was thereby laid.
Empowered by this new awareness, anthropologists started to slowly migrate back into the Western world and to focus on corporations, the marketplace, the government, politics, NGOs, philanthropy, oil-drilling, human rights, race and gender relations, post-Soviet economic transition, cell-phone use, general consumption patterns, advertising, media, pharmaceuticals, etc. By the end of 2009, the whole national congress of anthropological professionals with its 5-day 8am-9pm marathon comprised of 75 sessions, 500 presenters and 3000 attendees was mostly talking about what's going on here and now, not there and then. Observations, insights and ideas powered by grant-sponsored long-term ethnographies were madly circulating in and out of the conference rooms. Shaken by recession, consumers blend thrift and treats and they make their shopping decisions at home; airtime is a new currency and money is a subset of time; philanthropy is a form of violence but sometimes it does create new upward opportunities for the recipients of charitable gifts, etc.
I realized the sheer magnitude of what those "meetings" could bring into the world in which creativity and media serve the purpose of driving change in business and consumption. Economy moves forward every time when deep similarities between seemingly disparate spheres of culture come to the surface and silos separating marketing and product innovation, military technologies and commercial applications, or advertising and anthropology break down.