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It's An Ad, Ad, Ad WorldAuthor: Rick McGrath • Jul 25th, 2007 •
Review by Rick McGrath
To mark this month’s release of Kingdom Come in paperback, former ad man Rick McGrath takes another look at KC from ‘the perspective of marketing, advertising and psychopathology’. He also takes a look at the Metro-Centre website, a viral-marketing tool used to promote the book, and asks, ‘The abattoir? Not too gloomy?’
If you haven’t read the book yet and need a taster, HarperCollins have helpfully onlined a PDF of the first chapter.
HAS the kingdom come to this? The marketing mavens at HarperCollins Publishers have gone “bad is good” and invented a fake Metro-Centre website in order to help promote sales of J.G. Ballard’s latest novel, Kingdom Come.
Inspired by the novel and the adcap antics of its protagonist, Richard Pearson, “2006 UK Adman Of The Year”, this ersatz shopping centre has attempted to represent itself as revealed in the novel, with David Cruise interviews, St George’s shirts, maps, hours of operation, local news, sports — anything to enhance the illusion. Then, in June 2007, just before the release of the softcover HarperPerennial PS edition of Kingdom Come, they upped the ante. They kept the site’s flowery Metro-Centre sunflower background (which had already changed from 4C to B&W), but brutalized the bland logo into a reversed Helvetica motorcycle gang armpatch, and started running their own versions of Pearson’s psychopathic campaign, ironically attempting to foster consumer interest using irrational ads.
LEFT: David Cruise stands forlornly in an empty parking lot. Apparently we don’t have to wait much longer… one assumes the cars will soon arrive (photo copyright Metro-Centre 2007).
Ahh… the joys of marketing: use an imaginary ad campaign to sell a real book about an imaginary ad campaign. You have to give them credit, for it’s a sad fact that Kingdom Come, in hardcover, was met with mixed notices from UK reviewers when it was published in September 2006. City critics know nothing of the suburbs. But now the publication of Kingdom Come, the softcover, offers an opportunity to re-examine the novel from the perspective of marketing, advertising and psychopathology … and the hidden message behind Pearson’s “ironic” ad campaign.
Pearson, remember, is a recently-fired and divorced advertising executive who leaves his London flat to venture out and into the suburbs to a town called Brooklands, off the M25 motorway, to finalize the estate of his recently-murdered father. Who killed dad? Turns out nobody really cares, and Pearson, dazed and confused in this unlandscape of the uncreative, stands out like a slogan without a brand, writhing in newly-felt emotions as he slowly learns the truth about his now ultimately estranged pater.
No matter. All this is just psychological background for Pearson’s main activity in the novel: unleashing his radical ad campaign for a stupendous shopping complex they call the Metro-Centre.
It takes awhile to get there, but Pearson’s psychotic proclivity to link product and buyer finally crashes into consciousness when he meets the very Ballardian Dr Maxted, a professor-like psychiatrist who loves to make summatory pronouncements and who introduces Pearson to the concept of “elective insanity” — psychopathologies which are “waiting inside us, ready to come out when we need it”. Maxted is always right and never wrong. Pearson falls instantly for this intellectual father figure.
So it’s no surprise that Maxted makes the telling prediction, lecturing Pearson that “the future is going to be a struggle between vast systems of competing psychopathologies, all of them willed and deliberate, part of a desperate attempt to escape from a rational world and the boredom of consumerism”. Hmm… hey, that’s a marketing concept: if rationality is prison-like and our only amusement is more of the boredom of going out to buy something useless, then maybe irrationality will free us and add some excitement to our lives… and perhaps make shopping a pleasure again! Helluva notion. For Pearson, this certainly is the basis of an advertising campaign. But which “competing” psychopathology to use?
Pearson knows the answer. His own self-doubts guide him. He’s already tapped into the power of “elective insanity”. In London, Pearson experimented with what he called a “strange” ad — unfortunately, the first campaign he tried it on worked so well he was fired. Full kudos for being brave, but the campaign for a new micro-car — “Mad is bad. Bad is good.” — dives into a pool of irony so deep as to confuse the public into buying the car and killing themselves by completing the slogan’s logic and concluding “mad is good”. And that is sophisticated London. This is not. Again happily undeterred by any thoughts of consequences, Pearson decides to reprise his radical concept: “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’s truly subversive about this campaign, however, is its deeper, latent meaning: this is not a campaign for the Metro-Centre, this is a campaign designed to tap the darkness of Pearson’s own unrealized psychopathologies. Oedipal guilt springs to mind. Too Freudian? How about emasculated male ego? No matter. The sublimation begins. In essence, Pearson unconsciously uses his campaign to advertise his own neuroses upon an already-restive society only too happy to consume the deviance of his “elective insanity”. Sounds bad, but once again the Ballardian character obsessively seeks to touch his inner self by dominating the external environment.
Charged with purpose, Pearson immediately gets to work. Not surprisingly, his deepest insight is right out of Freud: true capital is emotional — once you have their hearts, their wallets will soon follow. Once you have their Ids, their Egos will soon follow. Pearson explains to his newly-recruited pitchman, David Cruise, how this situation can be exploited: “People accumulate emotional capital, as well as cash in the bank, and they need to invest those emotions in a leader figure”.
If this is psychopathologic, David Cruise’s first emotions are anger and hate, possibly against an unidentified victim. The booze angle will become part of the campaign’s theme (photo copyright Metro-Centre 2007).
But what kind of “leader figure” will the population invest in? Do they want a dictator whose specific message demands racial fears and violence? No, says Pearson. “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”. Hah, hah. Hardly. People consume what they’re given. Pearson’s anxieties require him to fictionalize his own psychopathogies. But how? For Pearson, that’s easy: use the irrational. “Madness is the key to everything. Small doses, applied when no-one is really looking.” Sneaky boy has been peeking at Mum again.
Once he’s concocted his concept, Pearson goes on to coach Cruise on how to pull off this acting job: “Be nice most of the time, but now and then be nasty, when they least expect it. Now and then slip in a hint of madness, a little raw psychopathology. Remember, sensation and psychopathy are the only way people contact with each other today.” Get the feeling Pearson is describing his childhood? That Cruise might be another kind of father-substitute … as well as Pearson’s projection?
For the media mix, Pearson chooses giant billboards and relentless TV commercials, along with a regular consumer affairs show on the Metro-Centre’s TV station. With this visual approach, and utilizing the appropriate “raw psychopathology”, Pearson re-creates Cruise 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.” Pearson unwittingly describes himself.
Let’s see how Ballard captures these “wayward moods” in Pearson’s ads. The novel describes two billboards and six television commercials. A sophisticated marketer, Pearson has designed a campaign which builds on itself through evocative scenes, each slightly more deviant than the last. They are indeed as zany and irrational as Pearson, although he later calls them “ironic soft-sells”, which is in itself a masterpiece of self-delusion.
Billboard #1: 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: Cruise in a “nightmare replay of a Strindberg play”, threatening and confused as he stares across a showroom of kitchens.
TV Spot #1: 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: Cruise “haunting” the Brooklands racing circuit and his mind being “tortured” by squealing tires.
TV Spot #4: Cruise following a group of schoolgirls across a Heathrow concourse “like a would-be child abductor.”
TV Spot #5: Cruise howling from the roof of a multi-storey car park.
TV Spot #6: 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.
As with all great campaigns, these 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.” Unfortunately, that collective dream turns out to be the physical reality of senseless violence, complete with fascist tendencies.
Our man Cruise doing the Strindberg play thing in a showroom with washers and TVs. Today we’re just a little suicidal… (photo copyright Metro-Centre 2007).
Pearson himself calls these ads “tense but meaningless psychodramas”, but of course the “meaning” is in the tension itself — with Cruise a kind of subhero of Pearson’s subconscious. It’s Dr Maxted’s “elective insanity” dressed up in noir. No longer trapped in their civilized cage of guilty repression, the populace of Brooklands quickly responds to Pearson’s siren call of the instincts and gleefully embraces the Metro-Centre’s call to consumerism … and darker action.
Does the campaign work? Of course, and only too well. Unfortunately, the results are similar to Pearson’s car campaign — increased sales and increased violence. The population of Brooklands, already primed by a spectacle diet of aggressive sports and nationalist mobbing, rush to spend their emotional capital: Cruise achieves celebrity status, Metro-Centre becomes a self-contained church of consumerism, the cash registers ring, and all is outwardly well in Happy Valley. By day. By night Brooklands reflects the dark side of Pearson’s psychopathic campaign. His deep guilt and sexual anxieties are reflected in the street crowds around him. These basic instincts rule the streets and sports stadiums; the individual becomes a mob, and the situation becomes dangerous.
The ad man’s moment of self-realization comes as he’s driving the streets. Reflecting on the violence around him, Pearson muses: “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.”
A humiliation, indeed -– and the turning point in the novel. But, just in case we still don’t get it, Ballard neatly sums it up. In a meeting between Pearson and Dr Maxted, we finally reach analytic ground zero.
Dr Maxted: “You saw fascism as just another sales opportunity. Psychopathology was a handy marketing tool. David Cruise was your tailor’s dummy … a psychopath with genuine moral integrity.”
Pearson: “Still, everyone admired him.”
Dr Maxted: “Why not? We’re totally degenerate. We lack spine, and any faith in ourselves. We have a tabloid world-view, but no dreams or ideals. We have to be teased with the promise of deviant sex. Our gurus tell us that coveting our neighbour’s wives is good for us, and even conceivably our neighbour’s asses. Don’t honour your father and mother, and break free from the whole Oedipal trap. We’re worth nothing, but we worship our barcodes. We’re the most advanced society our planet has ever seen, but real decadence is far out of our reach. We’re so desperate we have to rely on people like you to spin a new set of fairy tales, cosy little fantasies of alienation and guilt.”
Whoa. So much for English culture. But this pessimistic view is, of course, the reason for the novel in the first place. In an ad, ad, ad world, you get what you psychopathologically deserve.
Cruise’s moment of ecstasy with a beat-up garbage can. The overturned shopping trolley is a nice touch; the billboard was posted in Shepperton (photo copyright Metro-Centre 2007).
Without a doubt Richard Pearson is an interesting addition to the stable of unstable Ballardian characters. He enters the novel a typically damaged professional, emasculated by his wife, fired from his job, and looking for the killer of his alienated father. Lost in this unfamiliar landscape, Pearson transforms it by transforming himself, rewriting his nightmares into an ad campaign of irrationality, which he survives and emerges from as a physically damaged but mentally healthier and wiser individual. Whew. And he gets the girl. And yes, she’s a mother figure.
Ultimately, Pearson’s cathartic campaign comes across as Ballard’s real advertisement for his version of a well-balanced life. Pearson’s failure becomes his salvation. If the Metro-Centre campaign is an externalized, artistic version of Pearson’s inner psychological state, then his recovery comes with its ultimate self-destruction. Once again Ballard confirms his longstanding theme of personal affirmation by following one’s obsessions. Through Pearson, Ballard creates his own extreme advertisement for personal and social redemption: Turn your back on the tabloids. Grow a spine. Have some faith in yourself. Go after your dreams. Have some ideals. In other words, get a life.
In a real way, Kingdom Come the novel is an advertisement itself: read it as a very long print ad warning about the real dangers of subversive dreams when they’re carpet bombed on empty lives. Oh yeah, and admen are crazy. You’ve been warned…
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