Brand machines, sensory media and calculative culture published by Palgrave MacMIllan in 2016.

Brand machines, sensory media and calculative culture published by Palgrave MacMIllan in 2016.


Brand machines examines advertising in the age of media engineering.

If the ‘rivers of gold’ that once flowed through print and broadcast media organisations funded quality content for much of the twentieth century, they now flow through media platforms where they fund research and development projects in machine learning, robotics, and augmented reality. This is a unique event in media history, where investment is made not in the production of content but in the sensory and calculative capacities of the medium.

Platforms like Google and Facebook first formed productive relationships with advertisers by offering tools to target customised audiences at scale. They are now historically distinctive as advertising-funded engineering projects.

In Brand Machines we argue that media platforms are engineering projects in the sense that they create technologies for experimenting with reality.

Media platforms do not enable brands to make somehow more sophisticated ideological appeals. They create devices that stimulate bodies and orchestrate social action. This mode of advertising depends less on exerting control at the symbolic level, and more on governing the infrastructure that opens and closes possibilities to specific users at certain times and places.

Advertising must be understood as part of the engineering efforts of platforms that aim to resolve points of friction or dysmorphia between the lived experience and living bodies of users and the calculative and sensory capacities of media technologies.

No longer are advertisers just seeking to purchase units of attention or exposure from media; rather, they treat media as platforms for orchestrating ongoing loops of stimulus, adaptation and response with consumers.

Advertisers are also active experimenters within platform ecosystems. In this book we examine a broad range of these experiments with the participatory, data-driven and material qualities of media.

We focus in particular on the development of I/O devices that act as switches or transfer points between the living capacities of consumers and the calculative capacities of platforms. If the smartphone and related devices like the wearable are the generic or backbone transfer point between living body and media platforms, then advertisers are one part of a larger effort to diffuse these transfer points into urban, natural and intimate locations. In this logic everyday objects like underwear, bath tubs, t-shirts, bottles and islands become devices that are connected to, or address, the calculative logic of media platforms.

The imperative is for us to see brands as not only the producers of symbolic mediascapes within which we make sense of our lives, but also as critical actors in the creation of the material infrastructure we use to do our everyday lives.

Brand machines are infrastructure, sensory apparatus and calculator.

Since the creative revolution of the 1960s brands have been a ‘primary cultural form’ (Banet-Weiser 2012), woven into our everyday practices, imaginations and politics.

Brands came to shape not only the symbolic environment of our experience, but more fundamentally the infrastructure through which we act in the world and affect one another.

We document the turn of advertisers toward the infrastructural, architectural, sensory and calculative dimensions of branding. We argue that to account for how brands are embedded in the world scholars, critics, activists, policy-makers and consumers need to ask: what does it mean to address the infrastructural, sensory and calculative components of brand machines?

Calculation is the critical element of products like custom audiences, context-aware advertising and programmatic buying.

Calculative media establishes the imperative that bodies and relationships be rendered visible and available as digital information. Recursive loops form between the sensory-calculative elements of media infrastructure and the bodies and locations they are entangled with. Users begin to shape their practices, bodies and material spaces in response to the calculations that media platforms make.

The complicated interplay between human judgment and machinic calculation that is unfolding goes beyond the targeting of advertisements. The sensory and calculative devices of media infrastructure not only serve advertisers’ interests, they also reshape our social practices, spaces and even bodies.

Critical responses to brands – from policy-makers, consumers or scholars – need to train their attention on the capacity of brand machines and media infrastructure to sense, calculate and stimulate. Advertising is morphing into the process of programming the interface between living bodies and calculative machines.

A contemporary theory of branding and advertising must offer a critical account of the interplay between the body in all its sensory capacities, the cultural practices of everyday life, and the calculative and technical elements of media infrastructure.

The sensory and calculative infrastructure of brand machines deserve our full attention.

Brand machines is available from Palgrave and as an e-book through university libraries with a subscription to SpringerLink.

For more information contact Nicholas or Sven.