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‘What exactly is he trying to sell?’: J.G. Ballard’s Adventures in Advertising, part 2

Author: • May 8th, 2009 •

Category: advertising, Ambit magazine, consumerism, crime, Freud, Lead Story, media landscape, psychogeography, psychology

by Rick McGrath


J.G. Ballard, photographed at his home in Shepperton for Liberation Newspaper, Paris. Photo courtesy burningrolls.

In Part 1, I asked whether Ballard’s three levels of perception could apply to Ballard’s five advertiser announcements. Look more closely. The first and fifth ads of this series are specifically about and feature Ms Churchill – first just her face, and then just her naked, natural, seaweed-covered body. This bifurcation suggests a natural split between head and body, between mental and physical, between latent and manifest. It also suggests that the three middle ads form some kind of bridge between the eye-dominated conceptual purity of the first ad, and the genital-dominated natural purity of the last. How can this fit within Ballard’s three levels? Here’s a possible answer: ‘Homage’, with its glamorous pose and languid look could represent the world of public events, with its sexuality mimetized on giant billboards across the land.


ABOVE: Detail: ‘Homage to Claire Churchill’ (left) and ‘Venus Smiles’ (right).

On another level, ‘Venus Smiles’ could represent the world of the immediate personal environment, the geometry of postures, the angles of desire, that which has been captured within the immediate and present. This leaves the three middle ads – those without Ms Churchill— as a sort of Coma, Kline and Xero of the inner world; three versions of woman as an imaginary construct, each representing a specific psychopathology of desire. Seen this way the set becomes a kind of psychological study of a love, a public declaration of how, on each level, Ballard can dissect the elements of love into their specific components and conceptualize them as eroticized images, born from his idiosyncratic perception and expressing the validity of his feelings.

This appears to be the manifest… what of the latent? Obviously, given their textual basis in The Atrocity Exhibition, they are also ads for ideas apparently buried within the story/chapters. This additional layer of meaning gives us a new kind of condensation in already compressed text.

If we look at these ads this way, then ‘Homage’ becomes an ad for ‘Notes Towards A Mental Breakdown’, and in this story Catherine Austin and Dr Nathan actually discuss Ballard’s series of ads. In a chapter called ‘Operating Formulae’, Nathan shows Austin the ‘elegant and mysterious advertisements which had appeared that afternoon in copies of Vogue and Paris Match’. Her response will be discussed when ‘Venus Smiles’ is analyzed.


ABOVE: Detail: ‘The Angle Between Two Walls’ (left), ‘A Neural Interval’ (middle) and ‘Placental Insufficiency’ (right).

The three other ads segue neatly into the stories and ideas they promote: ‘Angle’ is from ‘You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe’ a chapter in which Tallis attempts to solve the riddle of Marilyn’s suicide. In the story, the angle between two walls results in the death of Karen Novotny, and a happy ending is problematic as we’re not told if Tallis was able to “solve her suicide” in Novotny’s alternate death.

‘Neural Interval’ promotes ‘The Great American Nude’, and again features the death of Karen Novotny, who dies while trying to “break the code” of an immense plastic representation of Elizabeth Taylor’s body. Pleading for the “positive effects of sexual perversions”, ‘Neural’ supplies a variation on the Novotny “sex kit” with art of a woman encased in sado-masochistic fetish gear. As Ballard says in his later Atrocity Exhibition annotations: “the mass media publicly offer a range of options which previously have been available only in private.” This ad, apparently, reveals yet another of those “options”.

‘Placental Insufficiency’ is associated with ‘You and Me and the Continuum’, a story about a “botched second coming” and a time-man pilot who inhabits the story like an alien in Minkowski space-time, a virgin child outside of an oedipal world. This ad inverts the story, however, as the “insufficiency” of the model’s placenta guarantees no savior, and the freezing of time and space in a daily afternoon ritual. Whatever – the incredible choice of art, a sort of female William Burroughs, is guaranteed to attract your attention – as does all the art in this set.

Like ‘Homage’, ‘Venus’ advertises ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’, a recapitulation of the Apollo disaster by a staging of the Dealey Plaza death of John Kennedy and the car crashes of Ralph Nader. The story includes one telling chapter which Ballard may using as the basis of this ad. Entitled “What exactly is he trying to sell?”, the copy block features an exchange between Dr Nathan and Catherine Austin, who asks the question in response to these selfsame ads found in popular European publications. Dr Nathan: “’You, Dr Austin. These advertisements constitute an explicit portrait of yourself, a contour map of your own body, an obscene newsreel of yourself during intercourse’”.

Need Ballard be any clearer? Which is why the argument can be made that in this set of ads, Claire Churchill is not only Claire Churchill, but Ballard’s stand-in for Catherine Austin. And further, that each ad represents a conceptualization of not only Claire Churchill, but of the varied, perverse and geometric sexuality of The Atrocity Exhibition.

While Ballard was working on his five ‘Advertiser’s Announcements’, he also found time to create another advertisement for Ambit, entitled ‘J.G. Ballard’s Court Circular’ which appeared in October, 1968.

From an advertising point of view, ‘Court Circular’ appears to have no specific layout at all. Whereas ‘Project for a New Novel’ crammed copy into the rough shape of a billboard, and the ‘Advertiser’s Announcements’ are based on the techniques of real ads, ‘Court Circular’ fills a full-page of a tabloid newspaper and doesn’t resemble an advertisement at all. In fact, given its layout, it appears to be the reverse of an ad, with the headline on the bottom, followed by art, and then the text at the top.

Does this have meaning? One could argue that Ballard knows well how ads should look, so why this inversion? Mike Holliday makes the point that each element of the ad corresponds to Ballard’s three levels of reality, with the photograph of the models representing mediatized reality, Bruce McLean’s stylized drawings the imaginative reality, and Ballard’s concrete poem – a printout – the “everyday” reality.

However, according to a comment Tim Chapman made on ballardian.com, we can also take clues from the ad’s name: “The Court Circular is the daily diary of official engagements of members of the Royal Family, which was carried in ‘newspapers of record’ such as The Times and Daily Telegraph. So the ‘Court Circular’ would have been an expected feature of the newspapers that this special issue of Ambit seems to have been pastiching. ‘JG Ballard’s Court Circular’ could suggest that it’s intended as the record of Ballard’s own official engagements… or, given Ballard’s oft-stated anti-monarchic principles, it may just be satirical.”

The idea of satire makes sense, given the upside-down nature of the ad, which appears to want to be read from the bottom up. In this configuration, the components might be seen to represent Ballard’s conceptual relationship with Ms Churchill, revealing her as the combination of three disparate works of “art” – the photographic, the illustrated, and the described, with the last example ironically given place of honour by being put at the top.

In any case, upside down or not, ‘Court Circular’ is not a triumph of form over content, and as an ad barely lives up to its name. Perhaps that’s the point, as circles have no top or bottom, and you can read this “ad” in a circular manner.

My last example of Ballard’s experiments with advertising is the extended campaigns detailed in Kingdom Come, a novel ostensibly about consumerism, but also about the “message” of advertising and its effects upon an unsuspecting community.

In some ways a variation of the themes in Ballard’s short story ‘The Subliminal Man’, Kingdom Come envisages a society coerced to consume not for economic reasons, but to slake an unconscious thirst for violence hiding under widespread boredom, ennui and ignorance. In actuality, Kingdom Come presents us with two campaigns, both originating in the mind of the protagonist, Richard Pearson – the first for a car designed for driving in London, and the second for the Metro shopping centre in the suburb of Brooklands.


ABOVE: Fictional billboard campaign for HarperCollins’ Kingdom Come promotion.

Pearson’s campaign for a new micro-car is based on the slogan, “Mad is bad. Bad is good.” This upside-down approach, called “strange” by Pearson, is designed to free the consumer from their usual relationships with cars – that is, giving them iconic status – and instead treat these objects as a vehicle for psychopathology – in this case, drive like maniacs and transform yourself into a liberating vehicle of violence and destruction. It’s not boring. And the fact people died as a result of this strange campaign? “Another of the great advertising breakthroughs that got nowhere”, Pearson complains. You can almost hear Ballard chuckling in the background. And while it may be liberating for the populace to buy very small cars with the idea of using them as weapons of psychic liberation, we are, unfortunately, not told anything more about this campaign – except for the fact it got Pearson fired from his job at the ad agency, a situation which then precipitated his divorce.

Once in the suburbs, Pearson irrationally decides to reprise his radical ad campaign: “Brooklands and the motorway towns were the ultimate consumer test panel, and here I could put into practice the subversive ideas that had cost me my career”.

What Ballard is talking about here when he says “subversive” is instinctive advertising – a direct message to the irrational, the purely emotional, the self-serving pleasure principle. The benefits are not product-oriented (new model, spend money, impress your colleagues and neighbours) as they are in ‘The Subliminal Man’, but rather this campaign is social and attempts to appeal to a new kind of consumer who responds not to rational messages about brand personality or product benefits, but to messages designed to appeal to the id, that unorganized, unconscious part of the personality structure that contains the basic drives. In Freud’s formulation: “It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality… we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations… It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.” (12)

The id is also amoral and egocentric, it is without a sense of time, completely illogical, primarily sexual, and infantile in its emotional development. The id can further be divided into two categories – each ruled by the life or death instincts, and in Kingdom Come Ballard focuses his attention on the death instinct, and how it is present in Pearson’s attempts to escape reality through fiction, media, and aggression.

Pearson’s advertising strategies for Brooklands reflect this unorganized outlook: “Message? There is no message. Messages belong to the old politics. No slogans, no messages. New politics. No manifestos, no commitments. No easy answers. They decide what they want”. OK, no message. But what is a non-message? For Pearson, that’s easy: “Madness is the key to everything. Small doses, applied when no-one is really looking.” Overlooking the nitpick that even a non-message is still a message (as we shall see), one could give Pearson the benefit of the doubt and suggest we’ll be seeing something rather different from the usual “50% Off Sale” campaign at the Metro Centre.


ABOVE: Fictional billboard campaign for HarperCollins’ Kingdom Come promotion.

In Kingdom Come we don’t see any actual advertisements, but Ballard does describe the campaign in some detail and outline the media to be used: giant billboards, relentless TV commercials and personal appearances of the campaign’s pitchman, one David Cruise. Pearson’s idea is to reveal him as a “fugitive and haunted hero of a noir film… as a trapped creature of strange and wayward moods – grimacing, frowning, angry, morose, hallucinating and obsessed.” In other words, similar to a four-year-old child… or the pleasure-seeking, pain-averse id.

The novel describes three billboards and six television commercials. As any sophisticated marketer would, Ballard has Pearson design a campaign that builds on itself through evocative scenes, each slightly more fantastic (fictional) than the last. They are indeed mad, although Pearson later calls them “ironic soft-sells”, which is a masterpiece of understatement or self-delusion.

• Billboard #1 shows Cruise, as a “fugitive and haunted hero”, sitting at the wheel of his car, staring ahead at the open road, “and whatever nemesis lay in wait for him.”
• Billboard #2 reveals Cruise in a “nightmare replay of a Strindberg play”, threatening and confused as he stares across a showroom of kitchens.
• TV Spot #1 has Cruise staring “almost ecstatically” at a beat-up garbage can.
• In TV Spot #2 Cruise rings doorbells at random, and when the housewife answers the door, he scowls at her as if to hit her, or beg a place to stay.
• TV Spot #3 shows Cruise “haunting” the Brooklands racing circuit and his mind being “tortured” by squealing tires.
• TV Spot #4 shows Cruise following a group of schoolgirls across a Heathrow concourse “like a would-be child abductor.”
• In TV Spot #5 Cruise is shown howling from the roof of a multi-storey car park.
• TV Spot #6 is just hinted at, but apparently the action takes place in a slaughterhouse. Pearson asks: “The abattoir? Not too gloomy?” And is answered: “Never. Existential choice.” So fraught with death one hardly needs to know the plot.

Pearson himself calls these ads “tense but meaningless psychodramas”, but of course the “meaning” is in the imagery itself – aggressive and violent. It’s what Ballard calls “elective insanity” dressed up in the iconography of the cinema. No longer trapped in their civilized cage of guilty repression and empty minds, the populace of Brooklands quickly responds to Pearson’s siren call of irrational freedom. But then, this is what they’ve been dreaming of: “…people are looking for their own psychopathology. They‘re looking for madness as a way out”. As Pearson notes, his advertisements build on each other in such a way that, “Together they made sense at the deepest levels, scenes from the collective dream forever playing in the back alleys of their mind.”


LEFT: Fictional billboard campaign for HarperCollins’ Kingdom Come promotion.

Pearson’s reconnection with the reality principle comes as he’s driving the streets. Reflecting on the violence his campaign has created, he finally understands the consequences of his actions: “I saw myself as taking part in a merchandising scheme in a suburban shopping mall, using a ‘bad is good’ come-on that was meant to be the ultimate in ironic soft sells. I had recruited a third-rate cable presenter and some-time actor to play the licensed jester, the dwarf at the court of the Spanish kings. But the irony had evaporated, and the slogan had become a political movement… The ad man was faced with the final humiliation of being taken literally.”

There’s the rub, and that’s the danger of advertising Ballard wishes to express in this cautionary tale. Why? Like the unaware populace of ‘The Subliminal Man’, the people of Brooklands also succumb en masse to the message they receive, but not as individuals, as in ‘The Subliminal Man’, but as Philip Tew states in JG Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, Kingdom Come is “centered upon an underlying malaise not individual or private, but communal”.(13) However, instead of forcing people to do a crazy thing – endlessly buy slightly newer versions of the same product – in Kingdom Come Ballard cuts to the chase and simply encourages people to simply go crazy – with predictable results.

From an advertising point of view, just what is going on in Pearson’s campaign? In structure they appear to be correct: the two billboards offer large, easily-identified images and apparently no copy at all, save perhaps an unmentioned Metro Center logo. Even that may not be necessary, as the pitchman is already a well-known public persona in the community. The six TV commercials are the first of their kind in Ballard’s fiction, and they must be among the oddest commercials ever found in fiction – but then, how many TV spots educate and persuade with glimpses of madness? What is interesting about them is their child-like quality, with their mass of instinctive drives and impulses, their bold representation of fears and aggressions. Technically, the ads are institutional in nature, as they essentially promote a brand – the shopping centre – by equating it with a series of images, usually of an aspirational nature appealing to the mores of the general target group. In that sense, Ballard’s Metro-Centre ads are well-conceived, revealing Pearson’s psychic understanding of the Brooklands population.


ABOVE: Fictional billboard campaign for HarperCollins’ Kingdom Come promotion.

Would such a campaign work in reality? Perhaps in a tightly-controlled dictatorship, where such messages are shown to the exclusion of all others to a population already mad with revenge – Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Bush’s America – but in reality such a conceptual set of ads would have little or no impact upon a lazy, uncaring populace, no matter how much pent-up psychopathology they have buried in their unconscious. They might become a hit on You tube, however. The public consumes ads on a “what’s in it for me” basis, with adults well-trained with experience to gloss over or ignore messages not within their sphere of interest. And Ballard’s noir campaign may be simply too complicated for an average viewer to first comprehend, much less put into action, as there are no direct “commands to action”, an integral part of all advertising messages. No command, no action. This is not to say there are no instances of “crazy ads” on television – it’s an old ploy — especially in the retail sector. The pitch usually involves madness — “we’re crazy to lower our prices this much” – and in rare cases, violence and aggression, such as the American car dealer who took a sledgehammer to new cars and after bashing them in his commercial, reduced the price accordingly. During the late 1960s, when these spots ran, the dealership did Crash-like business. In these instances, however, the psychopathology is directed and focused to a specific sales goal – the point is not to make viewers go out and smash their own cars. In Kingdom Come it’s focused on itself – there’s no “message” to link it to reality. If anything will save us from the horror of Ballard’s marketing nightmare, it’s the simple fact people are too lazy or stupid to do the work of unraveling the madness message and mindlessly adopting it to their own lifestyle. The concept is beautifully executed in Ballard’s psychodrama ads, but it’s a concept that is flawed by its own reliance on the reality principle, which ultimately trumps the pleasure principle upon which the id is based. Well, that and the superego – the state.

So, where does this all leave us? If Ballard did work in a real ad agency, he’d be out on the streets. Real ads cannot withstand the newness and dense conceptualizations of Ballard’s output. Real ads are not as challenging as Ballard’s, in fact, most advertising is nothing more than clichés given a new paint job – old women dressed as tarts. Consumers tend to be frightened by the new, so admen tend to recolonize the familiar by adding a slight twist to it. A perfect example is Saachi & Saachi’s famous punning billboard for Margaret Thatcher’s first UK political campaign – an all-white billboard with a simple, centered headline: “Labour isn’t working.”

Ballard’s ads are artistic, not commercial, although one could imagine them as institutional ads for Ballard’s quiver of concepts. They appear to be dense messages from the subconscious, but are probably highly manipulated concepts of a philosophic nature. Like most of Ballard’s experimental work, they are fascinating more for what they don’t say than what they do. Once again the consumer is expected to complete the process (itself a marketing concept), but even Ballard’s most ad-like ads – the five ‘Advertiser’s Announcements’ – offer up multiple meanings given one’s approach to the set. However, outside the world of harsh reality, and within the world of the unbridled imagination they work hard to reveal those psychological concepts and ideas that Ballard finds interesting enough to separate from his fiction and re-express in a specialized, technical form.

Whether or not it’s Pure Lemon Juice is up to you.

The author wishes to thank Mike Bonsall for his time-saving JG Ballard Concordance, Mike Holliday for his work on ‘Court Circular’, Tim Chapman for his royal insights, and Umberto Rossi for his suggestions and encouragement.

(12) Freud, S. (1933) New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (W.W. Norton & Co, 1965)
(13) Tew, Philip (2008) ‘Situating the Violence of J. G. Ballard’s Postmillennial Fiction: The Possibilities of Sacrifice, the Certainties of Trauma’. JG Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (Continuum, London 2008) p. 116.

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5 Responses »

  1. I’ve been referenced! I feel honoured.

    The reference to the Saatchi & Saatchi (SP) advert for the Tories isn’t accurate, though – the famous version wasn’t all-white or centred, though there may have been other versions that were. See, for example, the repro at the Daily Mail (an entirely appropriate source for any discussion of fascist/consumerist media) –
    The campaign has recently been revived as ‘Labour still isn’t working’.

  2. Interesting article, Rick!

    I particularly like your mock-up of how “Project for a New Novel” would have looked on billboards.

    And I’m glad you considered “Kingdom Come”. Some people regard it as representing a drop in Ballard’s standards, but I think there’s lots of fascinating ideas in there.

  3. Thanks for that Rick, lots of interesting ideas there.

    I particularly like: ” Claire Churchill is not only Claire Churchill, but Ballard’s stand-in for Catherine Austin. And further, that each ad represents a conceptualization of not only Claire Churchill, but of the varied, perverse and geometric sexuality of The Atrocity Exhibition.”

    There are many Catherines in Ballard’s work, the Catherine Austin who survives the Drought to appear in the Atrocity Exhibition, Catherine York of Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer, and the missing wife in Concrete Island. I was interested to read in Claire’s memoir of Ballard in the Observer:

    “As Ballard admitted once, Catherine, the fantasy emerging from the car wrecks of Crash, was entirely based on an idea of Walsh. “She was even originally called Claire in the book,” Walsh recalls. “And had I really been a cross between Mother Teresa and Marilyn Monroe, as the portrait suggested, I might have been keen for that to go ahead. But I persuaded him to change the name in the end.”


    Are all these Catherines really Claire in disguise?

  4. Thanks for the comments…

    Tim: I’m sure my memories of that campaign’s details are vague, but at least I got the line right and it’s still a great example of advertising’s hold on politics and the technique of dressing up a cliché in new clothes.

    Mike H: Thanks. I should admit right now I didn’t do the billboard mock-up and I think Simon assumed I did. I found it on the web some time over the last 10 years, and had it stored in my JGB pix files… it is cool, tho — you can immediately see how unsuited “Project for a New Novel” is for the medium. The advertising in Kingdom Come is probably worth an entire article on its own, as I didn’t “pay off” the campaign by correlating Pearson’s creative output to the overall plot and a psychosocial look at the madding crowds. I agree — it’s a lot more complex a story than was given credit.

    Mike B: Thanks. I think the mind-blower for me was actually having the realization that the Advertiser’s Announcements were, in fact, “real” Atrocity Exhibition ads. The overlay of Claire and Catherine seemed much too contrived to be otherwise. As for all the Catherines in JG — the ones before he met Claire must simply be coincidence… altho I’ll defer to the name master, David Pringle, on that score.

  5. Hello.
    I have a first edition copy of Atrocity Exhibition (Jonathan Cape Ltd, 30 Bedford Square, London WC1, 1970). In it, the character is Claire Austin, not Catherine Austin. When did this get revised?

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