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‘What exactly is he trying to sell?': J.G. Ballard’s Adventures in Advertising, part 1Author: Rick McGrath • May 4th, 2009 •
by Rick McGrath
J.G. Ballard in front of his abandoned billboard novel, 1960. Photo: Mary Ballard.
J.G. Ballard’s first professional job as a writer came when he was just 22 years old — as a copywriter for the London-based advertising agency Digby Wills Ltd. He remembers writing ads for a company called Pure Lemon Juice in the three or four months he was employed there, but no doubt the restricted creativity of copywriting didn’t appeal to the young and restless Ballard, and his career next veered into the eat-what-you-kill occupation of door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. From fruit to nuts. But one must assume something about print advertising’s combination of truncated text and stylized design must have had some underlying influence on the young Ballard. His fascination with the structure of advertising — an idea neatly contained in a stylized box, exuding promises of fulfilled desires — and the advertising man himself (both Crash and Kingdom Come feature admen as protagonists) crops up regularly in Ballard’s work from 1958 onwards. One can even trace this interest back to Ballard’s Shanghai youth, where, sharing his interest with the cinema, radio, and comic books, he has repeatedly told the story of his fascination with glossy American magazines and their otherworldly pitches for big cars, washing machines and sexy fashions. The aesthetic of the advertisement appears again and again in Ballard’s work, and it may be informative to examine these ersatz works in detail.
Ballard’s earliest experimental work to include elements of advertising, ‘Project For A New Novel’ (1958), was influenced by the groundbreaking ‘This Is Tomorrow’ Pop art exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. And while Ballard claims Pop art and artists had no influence on the commercial fiction he wrote in the late 1950s, the work he did on ‘Project’ reveals he was strongly affected by that exhibition’s interest in collage and the artistic use of everyday or found objects — in this case, the words, text, charts and page layouts of the scientific magazines he edited.
It’s still unclear why so many elements of ‘Project For A New Novel’ resurfaced years later in his breakthrough inner space short story, ‘The Terminal Beach’, and the condensed novel, The Atrocity Exhibition. If Ballard actually knew — and he maybe he didn’t — he wasn’t telling. After all, this is a writer who is fascinated by the mediascape and who thrives on ambiguity and what he calls ‘open-ended’ stories. ‘I wasn’t satisfied just by writing SF stories’, Ballard told David Pringle in 1982. ‘My imagination was eager to expand in all directions.’ 
ABOVE: Detail from J.G. Ballard’s ‘Project for a New Novel’ (1958).
And expand it did. ‘Project For A New Novel’ — ostensibly an entire novel reduced to resemble two-page magazine spreads — was designed as an ad to be posted on billboards. As Ballard himself describes the ‘Project':
“(These are) a series of four facing-page spreads that were specimen pages I put together in the late 50s… sample pages of a new kind of novel, entirely consisting of magazine-style headlines and layouts, with a deliberately meaningless text, the idea being that the imaginative content could be carried by the headlines and overall design, so making obsolete the need for a traditional text except for virtually decorative purposes… The pages from the ‘Project For A New Novel’ were made at a time when I was working on a chemical society journal in London, and the lettering was taken from the US magazine Chemical and Engineering News — I liked the stylish typography. I also like the scientific content, and used stories from Chem. Eng. News to provide the text of my novel. Curiously enough, far from being meaningless, the science news stories somehow become fictionalized by the headings around them.” 
Rarely, if ever discussed by Ballard scholars, ‘Project For A New Novel’ remains a kind of curiosity today, a collection of names and themes of interest to those who seek out connections between it and the later works, and those who attempt to fill in its blanks and construct the semblance of a plot from its various components. ‘Project for a New Novel’ was designed to be published on a billboard, however, and as such, had it ever been produced, might have been the first instance of art being published on outdoor media. There was an instance in the late 1960s when Canada’s N.E. Thing Company, founded by Iain Baxter, attempted to publish a line of poetry by placing a word on a billboard in each of Canada’s major cities, thereby constructing a poem 3,000 miles wide, but in both instances, however, Ballard and Baxter’s message surely would have confused or bored almost all of those who observed it. Why? For Baxter, a lack of information; for Ballard, ironically, a lack of time. Our inability to understand the ‘message’ of Project as an ad is not simply a function of the abstract quality of the piece, but because of the severe technical restrictions of billboard media.
LEFT: Image by Rick McGrath.
Designed to be viewed from moving cars (Ballardian in itself), billboards offer the advertiser the benefits of a very large message, but the disadvantage of greatly reduced viewing time. Three to five seconds is the average length of time an individual has to scan a billboard, and this feat has to be accomplished in moving traffic. In order to compensate, successful billboard ads rely on strong, simple visuals and to-the-point messages. No one is going to drive around the block for a second view. It immediately becomes apparent that ‘Project For A New Novel’ breaks these rules by its sheer volume of words and complex, unbalanced layout — as well as the fact it seems to make no sense, offers no brand, no benefits, and no indication of how to respond. But that may be the point, as ‘Project’ is a quasi-surreal piece vaguely reminiscent of the ‘cut-up’ technique used by W.S. Burroughs. This same technical problem was identified by Ballard’s friend and Ambit editor, Dr. Martin Bax, ‘Most of the text you can’t read because when you see things on billboards you don’t read the small print, so the text is deliberately blurred — you can only read the headlines and some remarks.’ 
In a September 2008 letter discussing the work, Ballard said, ‘I gave some pages [of Project] away… and then, sadly lost interest — the “fictional” elements were pure stream of consciousness, the first thing to come into my head. I clipped and scissored away.’  Looked at this way, the only real correlation between ‘Project’ and actual billboards is its shape — a correlation that, as we shall see, is developed and expanded to include content in Ballard’s later advertisements.
Ballard’s next foray into the world of advertising came in January 1963 with the publication of the short story, ‘The Subliminal Man’. This story is influenced by Vance Packard’s 1957 tell-all, The Hidden Persuaders, a highly popular book which attempted to reveal advertising’s use of psychological techniques — from motivational to subliminal — to induce an irrational desire for products. ‘The Subliminal Man’, however, is not about advertising. It is concerned with the effects on society of an ‘over-capitalized industrial system’ which requires ever-increasing levels of production and consumption, and is willing to use simple, direct subliminal commands to herd the unsuspecting population.
LEFT: Image by Simon Sellars.
Advertising itself is not overtly critiqued as the society Ballard portrays has no choice of product — there’s only one ‘brand’ of everything — and the subliminal message is not ‘hidden’ within an existing ad. It is interesting to note, however, that the medium chosen by Ballard to deliver this barrage of subliminal commands is again the billboard — appropriate for this culture, which is dominated by cars and the fact that fully one-third of the land space is occupied by roads. ‘The Subliminal Man’ is a warning about what might happen in a state with a fascistic need for increased consumer activity — a theme Ballard would revisit many years later in Kingdom Come — and the point of the subliminal message in this story is not to sell specific products, but to ‘spur’ the populace into increasing productivity and production through ever greater consumption.
‘Back in the late 60s I produced a series of advertisements which I placed in various publications (Ambit, New Worlds, Ark and various continental alternative magazines), doing the art work myself and arranging for the blockmaking, and then delivering the block to the particular journal just as would a commercial advertiser. Of course I was advertising my own conceptual ideas, but I wanted to do so within the formal circumstances of classic commercial advertising — I wanted ads that would look in place in Vogue, Paris Match, Newsweek, etc. To maintain the integrity of the project I paid the commercial rate for the page, even in the case of Ambit, of which I was and still am Prose Editor. I would have liked to have branched out into Vogue and Newsweek, but cost alone stopped me…’ 
While it’s interesting to note that Ballard emphasizes the fun he had in repeating all the steps in the actual production and dissemination of the ads — the craftsman aspect of designing, blockmaking and delivery — Ballard’s five ‘Advertiser’s Announcements’ are not far from the more ‘creative’ ads produced by agencies in the late 1960s, when the emphasis on target groups shifted from war-shocked parents to the leading edge of war babies, from traditional middle class concerns to the newly affluent and psychedelic youth culture. In appearance they most resemble a collage poster — a billboard on end — that may have been created out of Ballard’s original idea to have The Atrocity Exhibition done as a book of montage illustrations: ‘I originally wanted a large-format book, printed by photo-offset, in which I would produce the artwork — a lot of collages, material taken from medical documents and medical photographs, crashing cars and all that sort of iconography.’ 
ABOVE: ‘You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe’. One of Mike Foreman’s illustrations for the abandoned illustrated version of The Atrocity Exhibition.
However, they are print ads, although not in the same sense that ‘Project For A New Novel’ is a billboard. They are designed in the usual picture-headline-text layout used by ad agency art directors in the late 1960s, and close inspection reveals an intellectual concept behind the set, although it is not apparently obvious and, in fact, requires the consumer to view all five ads to receive the ultimate message. In July 1968, after he had already begun the series of ads, he told Jannick Storm:
‘It occurred to me about a year ago that advertising was an unknown continent as far as the writer was concerned… I had a number of ideas which I could fit into my short stories, my fiction in general, but they would be better presented directly. Instead of advertising a product I would advertise an idea… I’m advertising extremely abstract ideas in these advertisements, and this is a very effective way of putting them over. If these ideas were in the middle of a short story people could ignore them… But if they’re presented in the form of an advertisement, like one in Vogue magazine, or Life magazine, people have to look at them, they have to think about them.’ 
In actuality, these ‘ideas’ were already in his Atrocity Exhibition stories, as we shall see, and one could argue about their overall effectiveness, given the fact most people don’t think of an ad as an artistic puzzle they have to ponder to grasp. And when Ballard says advertising is an ‘unknown continent’, his own ads reveal the extent of his explorations, as well the heads of exotic animals he’s caught along the way.
ABOVE: ‘Homage to Claire Churchill’ (1967): JGB’s first ‘advertiser’s announcement’.
‘Homage to Claire Churchill’ is a coded message written in the Euclidian symbols of atrocity exhibitionese and comes complete with a promise of four future ‘announcements’, revealing, perhaps, that Ballard has already planned the project to conclusion. In this first ad, Ballard eschews a headline in favour of a real head and reduces all to a tightly cropped closeup of Ms Churchill’s smiling face. All that intrudes on the art is a downplayed copy block which links her to Abraham Zapruder and Ralph Nader — icons of high conceptual value to Ballard. ‘Homage to Claire Churchill’ was published in Ambit in July, 1967, and it borrows copy from ‘The Death Module’, simultaneously published in New Worlds and later re-named ‘Notes Towards A Mental Breakdown’ in The Atrocity Exhibition. In the short story the copy obviously doesn’t include any references to Ms Churchill, but the section in which it is found — ‘Pentax Zoom’ — expresses Trabert’s attempt to understand the deaths of the three American astronauts in the ‘equations, gestures and postures’ of Karen Novotny who, in the preceding chapter, appears to be a modulus of domestic bliss: ‘Their period in the apartment together had been one of almost narcotic domesticity. In the planes of her body, in the contours of her breasts and thighs, he seemed to mimetise all his dreams and obsessions.’
This ad also seems to have roots in the chapter entitled ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, first published as a short story in the September 1966 edition of New Worlds, with Ballard’s advertisement almost an extension of that story’s section, ‘The Enormous Face’, with Ms Churchill replacing Elizabeth Taylor as the object of Ballard’s ‘private and public fantasy’ — this ad supplying the ‘public’ part. One can barely miss the concept at work here: ‘In some way Travis would attempt to relate his wife’s body, with its familiar geometry, to that of the film actress, quantifying their identities to the point where they became fused with the elements of time and landscape.’ Substitute Ballard for Travis, and Ms Churchill for the actress, and it appears this is a poster disguised as an advertisement that is really a love letter. The emphasis on the eyes, and the rhetorical question that follows (‘At what point does the plane of intersection of these eyes generate a valid image of the simulated auto-disaster, the alternate deaths of Dealey Plaza and the Mekong Delta’) admits Ms Churchill to the conceptual world where she provides ‘a set of operating formulae’ for Ballard’s ‘passage through consciousness’. But just what might these operating formulae be? And is there anything to be made from the fact ‘The Death Module’ was renamed ‘Notes Towards A Mental Breakdown’ based on a suggestion by Ms Churchill?
ABOVE: ‘The Angle Between two Walls’ (1967): JGB’s second ‘advertiser’s announcement’.
As Ballard explains: ”The Angle Between Two Walls’ is a still from Alone, the American filmmaker Steve Dwoskin’s movie about a masturbating woman.’  First published in Ambit, September 1967, ‘Angle’ is a link to another Atrocity Exhibition story, ‘You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe’, first published in New Worlds in June, 1966. This ad is another visual-dominant piece, featuring the header, in full reverse, right above a transported female face. Reproduced in high contrast black and white, the woman’s abstracted hand reveals the source of her pleasure, but her thrown-back head reveals the conceptual basis of onanismic sex. Question headlines are usually avoided in real ads (nobody bothers to consider an answer), but in this example Ballard uses the rhetorical question to control our eye and has us read in a backward Z from the headline to the head to hand to text. This announcement is skillfully designed, and actually appears to be an ‘ad’, although one doubts very much that Vogue would consent to run it. The most explicitly ‘sexy’ of the series, Angle introduces the ‘little death’ of a ‘happy ending’, emphasizing in geometric terms the relationship between the two walls of reality and fiction and how they can be conceptualized by the imagination into memory and desire.
And, as we shall see, it also forms part of a larger concept.
ABOVE: ‘A Neural Interval’ (1968): JGB’s third ‘advertiser’s announcement’.
Ballard again: ‘Neural Interval was a picture from a bondage magazine.’ 
‘A Neural Interval’ is much the same in design and conception to ‘Angle’, and again the theme is associated with a story from The Atrocity Exhibition — in this case, ‘The Great American Nude’, first published in Ambit in July, 1968 — the same issue as this announcement. ‘A Neural Interval’ is also picture-dominant, showing a bound and gagged woman, dressed in sadomasochistic gear, who appears to be in a boat or beside the ocean. Her picture dominates the ad, and the text is reversed, with the copy left and the headline to the right, probably representing the reversal of affection in a sadistic relationship.
The header, ‘A Neural Interval’, suggests a stoppage in time, or at least a stoppage of stimuli to the senses. The text refers to a chapter in ‘The Great American Nude’ entitled A Diagram of Bones in which women have been reduced to pieces of ‘coloured plastic tubing, the geometry of a Disney.’ In his later annotations to The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard explains: ‘The past… is reassimilated and homogenized into its most digestible form. Desperate for new, but disappointed with anything but the familiar, we recolonize past and future.’ That is a very good definition of how most advertising works on the conceptual level. Ballard continues: ‘The same trend can be seen in personal relationships, in the way people are expected to package themselves, their emotions and sexuality in attractive and instantly appealing forms.’
This concept of ‘packaging’ is one of the main themes of ‘The Great American Nude’, which features a huge, plastic amorphous Elizabeth Taylor and a Karen Novotny ‘sex kit’, which ‘may be more stimulating than the real thing.’ Or, as Dr Nathan explains: ‘Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions.’
Such a perversion, in this case shown by the sadomasochistic illustration, reveals Ballard’s attempt at showing how the ‘outer world of reality’ — packaging — ‘must be quantified and eroticized': in other words, accepted as a part of the aggressive aspect of the male sexual instinct, and not ‘reassimilated and homogenized into its most digestible form’, an invitation to the boredom and jaded excitements of socially-approved sexuality.
ABOVE: ‘A Placental Insufficiency’ (1970): JGB’s fourth ‘advertiser’s announcement’.
Ballard: ‘I’ve no idea of the source for the strange gun photo, though Les Krims was a very well known US photographer.’ 
‘Placental Insufficiency’ was published in Ambit in September, 1970, and uses as part of its text a snippet from ‘You and Me and The Continuum’, first published in the March 1966 issue of Impulse Magazine. This announcement is again almost entirely picture-dominated, showing a naked, middle-aged woman holding a rifle and looking away to the left as she stands in from of a car and trailer in a field. The text is small and difficult to read, as Ballard has chosen white type over a dark, mottled background, obscuring the text from a chapter of ‘You and Me and The Continuum’ entitled Placenta, which reads: ‘The X-ray plates of the growing foetus showed the absence of both placenta and umbilical cord. Was his then, Dr Nathan pondered, the true meaning of the immaculate conception — that not the mother but the child was virgin, innocent of any Jocasta’s clutching blood…’ To this Ballard adds some new copy: ‘Each afternoon she would take me into the garden of the trailer park. Undressing herself, she made me memorize the trajectories of her body.’
The meanings here are dense. In his first ad, ‘Homage’, Ballard identifies this ad as ‘the left axillary fossa of Princess Margaret’ — which actually means her royal armpit. Certainly an insufficient placenta, but in this case, given the ‘insufficiency’ of the headline, one assume this announcement deals with the unconceptualized or real woman, the woman who is not virginal, who does not escape the fate of Oedipus’ mother — and who is not embarrassed or concerned about the ‘packaging’ of her body, given it’s obvious distance from any cultural ideal of a sexual icon. The juxtaposition of the woman and her phallic, but non-aggressive gun adds meaning to the line, ‘the trajectories of her body’, but Ballard reduces her sexuality to the point of the ‘outer world of reality’ and appears to challenge us to ‘quantify and eroticize’ her. The irony, of course, is that the bound and gagged woman of ‘A Neural Interval’ and the naked trailer trash of ‘Placental Insufficiency’ both represent mythologized sexuality, albeit in an extreme form.
ABOVE: ‘Venus Smiles’ (1970): JGB’s fifth ‘advertiser’s announcement’.
As Ballard explains: ‘Claire Churchill… is also the subject of the fifth ad, which shows her, after swimming in the sea off Brighton, sitting naked in the front seat of my car covered with thousands of specks of seaweed — so outraged was she by my sneak photography that she stole my only copy of the ad, but she has agreed in the interests of Art and Literature to have it published.’ 
Suffice to say ‘Venus Smiles’ is an ad about voyeurism, about obsession, about the conceptualization of the elements of the body. Suppressed by Claire Churchill for years after Ballard made the photo, she finally relented and allowed her seaweed-strewn naked torso to be published in this ad in the winter, 1971 edition of Ambit. The copy is from two chapters in the short story, ‘Tolerance of the Human Face’, first published in Encounter in 1969. The first sentence is from Marriage of Freud and Euclid, and the second from Fake Newsreels. This ad is also dominated by a photo of a naked female body, and his decision to snap it unawares suggests an obsession with form studied at leisure. Given the ambivalence between title and subject — there is no head to supply a facial smile, although we are shown two sets of ‘lips’ — one is initially tempted to interpret this as a kind of thank-you to the goddess of femininity that the ad’s creator is in such close proximity to a loved one who loves back.
Again, Ballard’s design is asymmetrical in this ad, with the head, art and text forming a forward slash across the page, which is further accentuated by the dominant white legs. The normal manner of reading is once again reversed with the headline on the right and copy to the left. It is also a bookend to the first ad in the series — revealing Ballard’s progression through the psychopathologies of sexuality, from the conceptual to the physical. It is also worth noting that the first ad only shows Ms Churchill’s head, and the last just her body. Full circle, and now complete. But what does the text tell us? The first sentence is more revealing in what it leaves out — the idea in Marriage of Freud and Euclid of ‘turning everything into its inherent pornographic possibilities’ and how this marriage can become deformed through ‘displaced affections’ and an obsession with ‘targeting areas’ of sex and violence. The second sentence, from Fake Newsreels, is preceded by a scene in which Travers searches through ‘montage photographs’ of ‘pain and mutilation’ and Catherine Austin wonders why he is so obsessed with these nightmare images when their actual relationship is the opposite — associated with light, ardor and purity. Perhaps a clue can be found in the preceding chapter, called Hidden Faces, in which Ballard links colliding cars, the ‘geometry of aggression and desire’, with ‘celebrations of his wife’s death, the slow-motion newsreels recapitulating all his memories of childhood…’
When all five ads are considered together a pattern does seem to want to emerge. Mike Holliday, in his article on the three levels of reality in ‘J. G. Ballard’s Court Circular’, notes that: ‘Something else that was evidently important for Ballard at that time is the notion that we live on three different levels simultaneously, and that meaning is created where those different levels intersect.’ Ballard has discussed these three levels at length in various interviews, but perhaps one of the best explanations is given by Dr Nathan in the ‘Planes Intersect’ chapter of ‘Notes Toward A Mental Breakdown':
‘Planes intersect: on one level, the tragedies of Cape Kennedy and Vietnam serialized on billboards, random deaths mimetized in the experimental auto-disasters of Nader and his co-workers. Their precise role in the unconscious merits closer scrutiny, by the way; they may in fact play very different parts from the one we assign them. On another level, the immediate personal environment, the volumes of space enclosed by your opposed hands, the geometry of your postures, the time-values contained in this office, the angles between these walls. On a third level, the inner world of the psyche. Where these planes intersect, images are born, some kind of valid reality begins to assert itself.’
Can this have any meaning or correlate to these Advertiser’s Announcements? In Part 2, we shall find out.
 Pringle, David. (1984) ‘From Shanghai to Shepperton’. RE/Search: JG Ballard 8/9, (San Francisco, CA: RE/Search, 1984) p. 122.
 V. Vale. (1984) RE/Search: JG Ballard 8/9, (San Francisco, CA: RE/Search, 1984) p. 147.
 Bax, Martin. (1984) ‘An Interview with Martin Bax’. RE/Search: JG Ballard 8/9, (San Francisco, CA: RE/Search, 1984) p. 39.
 McGrath, R. (2008)
 V. Vale. (1984) RE/Search: JG Ballard 8/9, (San Francisco, CA: RE/Search, 1984) p. 38.
 Pringle, David. (1984) ‘From Shanghai to Shepperton’. RE/Search: JG Ballard 8/9, (San Francisco, CA: RE/Search, 1984) p. 124.
 Storm, Jannick. (1968) ‘Interview with Jannick Storm’. Speculation #21, 1969.
 V. Vale. (1984) RE/Search: JG Ballard 8/9, (San Francisco, CA: RE/Search, 1984) p. 147.
Newer: ‘What exactly is he trying to sell?': J.G. Ballard’s Adventures in Advertising, part 2 »