[OPE-L:1295] Re: Re: Advertising and productive labour

From: Michael J Williams (michael@williamsmj.screaming.net)
Date: Mon Sep 20 1999 - 05:15:33 EDT

The new semester is charging up on many of us, including me. So I apologise
for the length of this post.

----- Original Message -----
From: <zarembka@ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU>
To: <ope-l@galaxy.csuchico.edu>
Sent: Sunday, September 19, 1999 2:42 PM
Subject: [OPE-L:1289] Re: Advertising and productive labour

> >You have yet to explain to me why you assert this.
> I have tried by negative example--e.g., TV viewers showing their contempt
> by simply walking out on commercials. I cannot identify a use-value for
> those so exposed. I am at a loss for words. Do we or do we not agree
> that there is no use-value for a viewer?

And I have explained why the use-value of the advertising service is a
use-value for the *agents who buy that service* - the marketting department
of Coke/Pepsi (whether they hire advertisng labour directly, in-house, or
buy the finished product from a separate capitalist advertising agency).

Thus the use-value, or not, of the advertising *to the consumer* either of
Coke or of the advertising, is not directly germane to the issue of the
(un)productive nature of the advertising labour. As I have asked
rhetorically before: I assume you do not want to exclude from the set of
productive labour all that produces intermediate commodities? In the
out-sourced case, the advertising is indeed an intermediate product.

Since I can think of no case in which consumers buy advertising directly,
the use-value they place upon it is irrelevant to whether advertising labour
is productive. However, this is clearly an issue for you, so I will say a
few, non-expert, words on the matter. They are in brackets because they are
not relevant to the current debate about the (un)productive nature of
advertising labour (though they may help to spice up my up-coming business
economics lectures ...).

[1. What the consumer of Coke buys is a package decided upon by capital, and
marketted to her. That package includes a can (say) of brown, slightly
caffeinated, carbonated sugar water, together with a subliminal 'life-style'
self-image created by advertising and marketting more generally. (When
smokers draw on a Malborough cigarette they fleetingly imagine themselves as
the hunk on a horse in 'Marlborough Country'.) In case anyone is tempted to
feel superior about this, there is psychological evidence that people of all
socio-economic groups, levels of education etc. tend to be influenced by
these kinds of subliminal persuasion (except Marxists, of course ...).
2. Anyway, what the consumer of the advert itself (say on TV) thinks *about
the advert* is largely beside the point, because she doesn't make any
choice, nor does she purchase the ad directly or voluntarily.
3. But we do have here a, well canvassed, issue, that seems to underlie your
concerns. How come the bottom-line-driven, sophisticated and knowledgeable
marketting managers in Coke feel impelled to spend millions of dollars on
advertising their product, over and over again, if the potential customers
for Coke are overtly indifferent or even hostile to that advertising? I am
not up to date with the recent empirical investigation of the question of
the perceived (use)-value of advertising to capital, so all I can really do
is indicate some of the plausible hypotheses that have been tested over the

a) Despite overt indifference or hostility to the advertising, many
consumers do indeed subliminally absorb the self-image propagated by it, and
this affects their buying decisions. (see above.)
b) Consumers feel safer buying well-known brands - that seem to offer some
quality guarantee.
c) There may be a brute (i.e. as yet not satisfactorily explained) empirical
correllation between particular advertising campaigns and sales.
d) The Coke firm (e.g.) may gain dynamic strategic advantages from the
advertising expenditure: in terms of entry deterrence, enhancement of the
credibility of its 'promises' to the consumer and so on.
e) Some advertising is not aimed at potential customers (only) but at public
opinion in general, or government. The corporation may seek to consolidate
its economic power with social and political clout, by presenting itself as
a good 'corporate citizen'. (They will still expect this, at least in the
medium term, to enhance the bottom-line - their valorisation process.)
f) There seems to be some evidence that some advertising is indeed liked for
itself by consumers (even people of 'wealth and taste'): because it is
witty, or shocking, or dramatic, or contains stunning images, etc, etc.,
etc.. Now, of course, we shouldn't be surprised at this. It is of the nature
of the capitalist system to prostitute the best creative talents for its own

As I say, all of this is interesting, and some of it germane to a critique
of capitalism. But it has almost nothing to do with establishing the logical
basis for the Marxist (un)productive labour distinction in general, nor for
deciding whether Coke/Pepsi advertising labour in particular is productive
of surplus value. Hence I close the].

> You have agreed with me that it doesn't make any difference whether the ad
> is produced in-house or out-sourced. I could therefore take the easy way
> out and note that production processes inside a firm are not commodities.
> To which you may reply, "its use-value is demonstrated by it being able to
> become a commodity when in the hands of an ad agency".

This is indeed a useful indicator. But I have argued directly for the
usefulness of advertising labour as demonstrated by the decision of the
marketting department of Coke to employ that labour in-house. The Coke
corporation needs such labour to produce the whole commodity package,
'Coke', as much as it needs the product engineers who run the production
process of the brown liquid upon which that package hangs.

> Is a mortgage loan a commodity, even though we have only interest (M-M',
> the collapsed form of M-C-M')? If so, what is its use value, given that
> there is no "C"? (Note: I am abstracting from the banking system as an
> intermediary in posing this question. Also, if this question takes us on
> a new road, perhaps I should withdraw it.)

It is relevant to the general (un)productive labour distinction. As I have
stated previously, imo, a mortgage is a commodity, notwithstanding that it
is a (package of) service(s) rather than a physical product.
> "Systematically sells" is again a criterion of "success".

I have not been concerned to negate your suggestion that such a criterion
plays a part in my argument - only to deny that it implies any vicious
circularity in that argument

> "Help...to sell" and "sell them at a higher price" are again criteria of
> "success".

See above. If Coke cannot systematically succeed in selling its products
(for an adequate price) *they* will cease to be (successful) commodities.

> I am open to an argument you have not made--consumers enjoy
> commercials because "it stimulates our sensory preceptions", "the
> increased decibels wakes us up", "guys and gals are sexy and substitutes
> for Playgirl or Playboy", "ad as a counterpose to the rest of the program
> stimulate my interest in the program", "ads provide desparately needed
> viewer breaks", etc.

I have not made this argument because it is not germane to the subject at
issue: is the advertising labour hired in house, or the advertising service
purchased from outside, by the Coke corporation (un)productive? However, I
have caved in to your relentless insistence that I address this issue, in
the [square brackets] above. Please feel free to add these hypotheses of
yours to the arguments there.
> Again the criterion applied for use-value is a result ("succeeded").
> (Recall my comment: death does not gangrene imply.)

I have argued that it is to generate success in their sales efforts that
capital causes to be produced products with a use value for someone.

> But what
> happens to the structure of your argument if advertising has a zero effect
> on sales (no success)? you have always presumed success

It is always possible that a particular advertising campaign fails in this
regard (I undersatnd the Pepsi 'blue' relaunch is now adjudged to have been
such a failure). But it is also always possible that the launch of a
particular product (or change to an existing product) fails; that that
product (uncontroversially produced by in principle productive labour) fails
to generate consumer interest; to become a *sucessful* commodity. Such
contingent disasters and their causes may be of interest in the analysis of
capitalist macrodynamics. But they have nothing whatsoever to do with the
conceptual (un)productive labour distinction.

Now, where are my lecture notes on 'the economics of advertising for wannabe
capitalists', ... . (What was that about 'prostituting creative talents'

Comradely greetings,


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