Tuesday, August 24, 2021

A song (atonal).

As usual, I have my nose buried deep in yet another e-book. Some years ago, my therapist of 30 years mentioned to me that for me reading is my restorative niche--it's a moment where I try to erase the world that is too much with me.

It works.
Right now, I am about halfway through the second book I've read by James Rebanks. Rebanks' first book, "A Shepherd's Life" was recommended as one of the "New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year." His new book, "Pastoral Song," got a glowing review in "The Wall Street Journal." I  ordered the book in a trice, and quickly found--though it's about farming--a metaphor for life in the modern holding company world.

Rebanks and his family is, to my mind, stuck between the ancient farming world of his grandfather and the changed world of modern factory-farming. 

The grandfather's world in farming is akin to the old style of advertising. The factory-farming world is the world of the holding company. Where size and efficiency matter more than craft, people and even, flavor and nutrition.

The transition from craft farms, of small groups of people growing by hand to large, corporate-led industrial factory-farming is so similar to what's happened in advertising.

The product is devalued. (A chicken today is in real dollars about half the price of 50 years ago. Just as in real dollars advertising costs, I'd bet, about half of what it cost 50 years ago.) 

According to Rebanks, "the share of the average American citizen's income spent on food has declined from about 22 percent in 1950 to about 6.4 percent today." And the proportion of every dollar spent on food that goes to the person actually growing the food has shrunk to just 15 percent.

I suspect the proportion of client marketing dollars spent in agencies has similarly plummeted.

About a month ago in this space, I wrote: "Marketing budgets have fallen to 6.4% of companies’ revenue this year from 11% last year, according to the annual CMO Spend Survey by research firm Gartner Inc.

The new level is the lowest since the survey began in 2012 and the first time it has dipped below 10%, Gartner said."

I find those parallels frightening.
The producer is devalued. (The farmer now produces millions not dozens of chickens. The farmer is unimportant. Each unit he produces is a tiny portion of his overall production. He gets pennies per piece. Like an Instagram ad.) 

The customer gets shit (though at a lower price.) Modern chicken--modern advertising--is dull and tasteless and with little nutritional value, or actually, it might actually be physically harmful.

To quote the review in the WSJ, "'Productive' and 'efficient' become watchwords. Father and son spray pesticides to eradicate thistles and nettles and become more reliant on machines. They stop growing barley and turnips, clear trees and hedgerows, lose farm workers, and replace horses, pigs and hens with more cattle and sheep.

"Both men harbor doubts about the radical changes they are implementing. Gradually those doubts prove to be well-founded. The first wake-up call is the discovery that the artificial fertilizers they’ve been using have made the soil worse, reducing it to 'a junkie requiring more and more hits of shop-bought chemicals.' Then Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” opens Mr. Rebanks’s eyes to the dangers of pesticides. He comes to realize that industrial farming may well be productive but in ecological terms is “the most destructive farming on earth.”

Yes, I'll admit, I'm cynical. I think the advertising industry's so-called modernization has destroyed the advertising industry. Every adjective in the review above, I believe, could be applied to the holding company construct:

The emphasis on productivity. On efficiency. On driving cost out of the system. On servicing the business with low-cost, unskilled, disconnected labor. Reliance on machines. And more.

The harm--the disconnect from craft, the loss of generations of knowledge--is incalculable.

We've made a choice as a society.

A choice I will battle until I die.

That the old ways have no value and the new ways are a triumph. But maybe, like farming, we are employing the advertising equivalent of powerful pesticides. And we have sown the seeds of our own destruction.

Worse, we tell ourselves we're making smart decisions.

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