Brand atmospheres

This post sketches out some ideas that I presented in this talk 'Branding, Digital Media and Urban Atmospherics' at Monash University's Smart City - Creative City symposium in 2017.

Celia Lury describes brands as ‘programming devices’, technologies for organising markets. A brand is a device for coding lived experience and living bodies into market processes. A couple of important coordinates to lay out about how to think about brands. The first is to say that the relationship between brands and media platforms is a critical one for any understanding of our public culture. Facebook and Google now account for ~70% of all online advertising revenue, and ~90% of growth in online ad revenue. In these two media giants, advertisers finally have a form of media engineered entirely on their terms.

Much critical attention to advertising on social media goes in one of two directions. Either focussing on the emergence of forms of influencer or native brand culture. That is, branding is now woven into the performance and narration of everyday life. Or, focusing on the data-driven targeting of advertisements. What matters though is how these two elements have become interdependent.

Brands have always been cultural processes. The data-driven architecture of social media enable sbrands to operate in much more flexible and open-ended ways. In basic terms, if brands can comprehensively monitor all the meanings that consumers and influencers create, then they need to exercise less control over specific meanings. On social media platforms brands control and open-ended and creative engagement with consumers.

Brands that are built within branded spaces or communicative enclosures rely less on telling their audience or market what to think or believe, and more on facilitating social spaces where brands are constantly ‘under construction’ as part of the ‘modulation’ of a way of life. In the era of digital media, branding is productively understood as an engineering project. Brands engineer the interplay between the open-ended creativity of humans and the data processing power of media.

In 2014, Smirnoff created the ‘double black house’ in Sydney to launch a new range of vodka. The house operated as a platform through which the brand engineered the interplay between creatives and the marketing model of social media platforms. The house was an atmospheric enclosure. All black. Aesthetically rich. Full of domestic objects, made strange in the club. A clawfoot bathtub full of balls, a fridge to sit in, a kitchen, ironing boards and toasters. Creatives were invited. Bands and DJs played. Fashionistas, photographers, models, hipsters of all kinds.

It was ‘hothouse’ for creating brand value. And, it was a device that captured this creative capacity to affect and be affected and transformed it into brand value by using the calculative media infrastructure of the smart city. As people partied in the house they posted images to Instagram, Snapchat, and so on. In an environment like the Smirnoff Double Black house we see a highly contained and concentrated version of the Snapchat story I began with. The enjoyment of nightlife doubles as promotion and reconnaissance on the platforms of social media. The house has all the components of promotion in the nightlife economy: stylised environments, cultural performance, amplified music, screens, photographers, intoxicating substances, the translation of experience into media content and data. Branding not just as immersion in symbolic atmosphere, but branding as the creation of techno-cultural infrastructure that embeds the living body and lived experience in processes of optimisation and calculation. The history of branding is not just one of symbolic ideological production, but rather as one of the production of urban and cultural space. Branding has always been an atmospheric project – the creation of a techno-cultural surround that engineers experience, and in the age of digital media we can see the atmospheric techniques of branding come to the fore.

So, let me trace a little this idea of ‘atmosphere’.  In his Spheres trilogy Peter Sloterdijk details how atmospheres emerge as domains of intervention, modulation and control in the 20th century. Atmospheres are techno-cultural habitats that sustain life. And, particularly in the twentieth century, atmospheres engineer the interplay between living bodies and media technologies that organise consumer culture.

The Crystal Palace, a purpose-built steel and glass ‘hothouse’ for the 1851 World’s Fair, is a critical moment in histories of atmospherics as a technique of the consumer society. Susan Buck-Morss, in her work on Benjamin, argues The Crystal Palace is a kind of infrastructure that ‘prepares the masses for adapting to advertisements’. In this we can read Benjamin’s account of The Crystal Palace as not just a dream house that spectacularises the alienation of industrial labour, but perhaps more importantly an infrastructure for coordinating the interplay betweren human experience and the calculative logics of branding. Sloterdijk suggests that what we today call ‘Psychadelic capitalism’ – I think he means experiential, affective, cultural capitalism – emerges in the ‘immaterialised and temperature controlled’ Crystal Palace.

Sloterdijk suggests The Crystal Palace was an ‘integral, experience-oriented, popular capitalism, in which nothing less was at stake than the complete absorption of the outer world into an inner space that was calculated through and through. The arcades constituted a canopied intermezzo between streets and squares; the Crystal Palace, in contrast, already conjured up the idea of a building that would be spacious enough in order, perhaps, never to have to leave it again’. Sloterdijk makes clear, the Crystal Palace doesn’t so much anticipate malls or arcades but rather the ‘era of pop concerts in stadiums’. It is a template for media as technologies that would work as enclosures or laboratories for experimenting with reality. The Crystal Palace, to me, is the first modern brand. As in, the first techno-cultural infrastructure for producing and modulating human experience. Encoded in it was the basic principle of using media to engineer, experiment with and simulate reality.

Sloterdijk suggests that ‘what we call consumer and experience society today was invented in the greenhouse – in those glass-roofed arcades of the early nineteenth century in which a first generation of experience customers learned to inhale the intoxicating fragrance of a closed inner world of commodities.’ He proposes that we need a study of the 20th century, an air-conditioning project, that does what Benjamin’s arcades project did for the 19th.

I think the contours of one such study of 20th century atmospherics already exists in Preciado’s Pornotopia. Pornotopia is a critical history of Playboy as an architectural or atmospheric project. Preciado argues Playboy is historically remarkable for the techno-cultural, bio-multimedia habitat it produced. The magazine and its soft pornographic imagery, are much less interesting than the Playboy Mansion, clubs, beds and notes on the design of the ideal domestic interior. Put Sloterdijk and Preciado together and you can begin to imagine the longer history of branding as an atmospheric project: a strategic effort to organise the spaces in which lived experience and market processes intersect. And, then, to see the mode of branding emerging on social media as a logical extension of this atmospheric history.

Here is Preciado on the Playboy Mansion, 'The swimming pool in the Playboy Mansion, represented photographically as a cave full of naked women, could be understood as a multimedia womb, an architectural incubator for male inhabitants that were germinated by the female-media body of the house’. The Playboy Mansion was a bio-multimedia factory where female bodies were strategically deployed and exploited to arouse male bodies. A relation Preciado describes as pharmacopornographic capitalism, ‘…an organised flow of bodies, labour, resources, information, drugs, and capital. The spatial virtue of the house was its capacity to distribute economic agents that participated in the production, exchange, and distribution of information and pleasure. The mansion was a post-Fordist factory where highly specialised workers (the Bunnies, photographers, cameramen, technical assistants, magazine writers, and so forth)…’ used media technologies to arouse and stimulate. Playboy had eroticised what McLuhan had described as a new form of modern proximity created by ‘our electric involvement in one another’s lives’.

The Playboy mansion was a bio-multimedia factory in the sense that a ‘virtual pleasure produced through the connection of the body to a set of information techniques’. Like Sloterdijk’s claim that The Crystal Palace prefigured the experience economy, so Preciado makes a similar claim about the Playboy Mansion. It is important to note that in the period in which Hefner is creating the Playboy Mansion marketers are theorising similar strategies.

Marketing management guru Philip Kotler gives us a similar formulation for the strategic production of atmospheres. He writes, the tone here is great, a commandment, as if he is actually a God of Marketing, ‘We shall use the term atmospherics to describe the conscious designing of space to create certain effects in buyers. More specifically, atmospherics is the effort to design buying environments to produce specific emotional effects in the buyer that enhance his purchase probability’. In the gendered formulation, Kottler unwittingly gives credence to Preciado’s notion of pharmocopornographic capitalism where male bodies are strategically aroused. He signals marketing’s strategic move into designing spaces and technologies for managing affect. Atmospheres are ‘attention creating’, ‘message creating’ and ‘affect creating’ media.

They are technologies of control. Kotler explains that ‘just as the sound of a bell caused Pavlov’s dog to think of food, various components of the atmosphere may trigger sensations in the buyers that create or heighten an appetite for certain goods, services or experience’. So, across these cultural histories and marketing histories, we can see how branding has always been atmospheric – invested in the production of techno-cultural spaces that program experience. In Preciado’s Playboy Mansion media and information technologies are critical to the production and maintenance of the experience enclosure.

The Playboy Mansion is an historical template for the configuration of nightlife precincts, bars, clubs, music festivals, sporting stadiums, and so on. Here emerges a critical point I derive from both Sloterdijk and Preciado, the interesting techno-cultural air-conditioners of the twentieth century are not malls. The 20th century malls, like Benjamin’s 19th century arcades, are relics. Preciado alerts us to the fact that an Arcades project for the early 21st century needs to be a history of clubs, nightlife, and the other interiors of the experience economy – beds, hotel rooms, restaurants, pop concerts and music festivals: ‘Playboy modified the aim of the consumer activity from ‘buying’ into ‘living’ or even ‘feeling’, displacing the merchandise and making the consumer’s subjectivity the very aim of the economic exchange’. Preciado sees the Playboy Mansion and clubs as ‘media platforms where ‘experiences’ are being administered’.

I take this provocation seriously. Playboy is a critically important brand not because of its iconography, but because it creates an atmosphere that uses media as programmatic devices to arouse bodies and modulate experience. Value is produced from the continuous exchange of states of mind, feelings and affects.

The pre-history of the advertising model of platforms like Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook is to be found in the media-architecture of the Playboy Mansion and the clubs, music festivals and nightlife precincts like it. Preciado punts Gruen as the key architect of postwar consumption for Hugh Hefner. Hefner’s ‘Pornotopia… anticipated the post-electronic community-commercial environments to come’. The ‘social-entertainment-retail complex’ – be it malls, clubs, nightlife precincts and music festivals – are combined with smartphones and social media. Public life is converted into a new kind of private property: brand value and data.

Think of the techno-pleasure interiors Hefner imagined in the 1960s in relation to the predictions engineers like Paul Baran were making at the same time. Baran, of course, the RAND Corp engineer who conceptualises the distributed network. From their apparently extremely different viewpoints on consumer culture, neither imagined digital media as technologies of participatory expression. They were always logistical. Baran told the American Marketing Association in 1966 that a likely application of the distributed network he had conceptualised was that people would shop via television devices in their own homes, be immersed in images of products, be subject to data-driven targeting. In 1966!

Set in this historical frame, two kinds of ‘common wisdom’ about digital media are defunct. The first, via Preciado, thinking digital media via Playboy’s Pornotopia ‘corrects the common wisdom of just a few years ago, to wit, social activity will now take place in real environments enhanced and administered through virtual ones, and not the other way around’. The second, social media are logistical before they are participatory.

Branding has always been the strategic effort to use media to organise the open-ended nature of lived experience. Over the past several decades brands have been the primary investors in the engineering of new media technologies. Media technologies are engineered with capital provided by brands and marketers. And yet, think about how much of the contemporary critical work on the promotional culture of social media focusses on its participatory dimensions. Even claiming that this participation resists or circumvents brands. What I see in Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and the modes of promotional culture emerging around them is the effort to engineer the relationship between the open-ended creativity of users and the data-driven calculations of marketers. We must then address the historical process of atmospheric enclosure that sustains this relation. For purposes of public debate and policy. Media platforms are not just data-processors and participatory architecture: they are the platform of public life. Marketers are not just producers of symbolic persuasion: they are engineers of lived experience.