Landscapes of Global Capital
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We submit that even the most banal advertising of today's leading corporations can teach us something about the relationship between the 'new global' capitalism and its cultural formations. Ads offer cultural 'maps' of the 'real world' and changes that is undergoing?

Still, what can be said of these maps? And maps of what? Individuality. Technology. Cities. Nature. Globalization. Once upon a time, our most significant cultural maps were the product of religious institutions. Later, it became the nation state. Today, we submit that the vehicle for the most significant moral tales and cultural maps of our time is advertising - the vision and voice of a commodity culture.

Landscapes and Portraits

Is it appropriate to label these as landscapes? We think so, even though they are starkly minimalist, and on the surface of it seem to signify nothing but backgrounds for individual expression. A desert landscape from a Diet Coke ad has been turned into a canvas on which to depict a stage of exultant individualism. This individual seems to defy gravity's governance upon our actions. Like the desert sands, the Levi's ad treats the sky as a canvas for the expression of youthful individualism where there seems to be no ground with which to define our place at all. These are brand maps of individual freedom.

Levi's 1993
Diet Coke 1993

Free-Floating Culture?

In the early 1990s, ad campaigns by AT&T, Diet Coke and Levi's pictured culture as if it was untied to material conditions. Each of these campaigns utilized photographic metaphors to represent Culture as autonomous and free-floating - unlinked to either material production or the social relations that surround it. This fits what we think of as a postmodern definition of culture. In ads such as those by Diet Coke and Levi's, Culture was represented as simultaneously universal and individuated; this is a Culture that pivots on the feelings of consumers and not the actions of producers.  

The effort to go global in marketing has led to an eclectic mix of globalism and individualism. Look at AT&T's "i" campaign of 1993 where "i stands for individual." Beginning with the featured typographic emphasis on the small "i" this campaign situated the isolated, but moving individual, as the fundamental unit in today's world. Though the AT&T ads colorfully portrayed a new age of multiculturalism and globalism, the wider relations of civil society and community seemed to be in benign eclipse, at the very least consigned to invisibility. While the campaign rhetorically stressed individualism, it visually represented an ethnically heterogeneous world, that found unity in the universal presence of AT&T.

The primary unit seen on this stage is the Individual Subject, visually morphing from Asian to European to female to male. Ironically, there seem to be no relationships among the isolated "i's" seen moving through the AT&T ad's space. In the social spaces contrived by the ad, individuals do not appear to communicate directly.

That AT&T campaign spoke to the uniqueness of the private consumer being hailed, but also addressed totem group issues of cultural difference. "What makes us all the same is that we're all different." The selling point of this campaign was that AT&T would tailor a package of phone service to your needs, "because it's based on your life." AT&T offers this as a cultural corollary to flexible accumulation -- or, in this case flexible distribution goes hand in hand with flexible consumption packaging.

"What is this? It's your life made easier." AT&T offers vibrant flowing images of its vision of how AT&T's telecommunication technology makes life easier for you.  The aura of telecommunications casts a happy glow over this. This is soft-Hobbes, preserving the self-calculating and self-moving appetitive being who seeks to maximize her or his value and utility, but jettisoning all that human-nature stuff about men being nasty and brutish. Telecommunications technology appears to have exercised a magic spell so that all political and economic friction disappears. AT&T's ad envisions these frictionless staging spaces through which individuals effortlessly move without getting in one anothers' way. In this campaign, the new global order connotes a space that constitutes the stage as nowhere but everywhere - it reveal no time and space coordinates that correspond to the social, political, economic world.

AT&T 1993 over Nortel02-99
Biking the world with the Global Priest & the Global Nun

A bridge and a pier figure among the devices used to establish this common space of being socially everywhere but geographically nowhere. Each locale serves as a theatrical device that enables a focus on the individual subjects who pass by. Included in these passerbys is the image of a priest riding a bicycle. What explains the significance of this priest image, followed shortly thereafter in American corporate ads by Buddhist monks robed in the now familiar bright-orange signifier? We see the choice of priests and monks as a nod to tradition and the motives of religion and ethnicity. But these are thoroughly secularized and depoliticized, and of course, removed from their institutional settings -- look again at our "global priest" caught in the moment of biking. Similar images of freestanding priests engaged in leisure activities crop up in other consumer-goods ads.

AT&T defines globalization through heavy decontextualization and visual abstraction. And while this robs their representations of specificity and depth of meaning, as a device for identifying the relations amongst privatized monads who pass to and fro across a global consumption landscape, this abstract "avenue" may capture an important historical 'truth' surrounding an emergent historical formation. Part of this truth lies in what is absent -- politicization and conflict. The only shared expression of the figures who make their way across this metaphoric landscape is their common access to the services of AT&T.

Abstraction & Deterritorialization
Cultural Geography
The Architecture of Capital

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© Copyright 1998-2003
Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey