In the laboratories of desire. Advertising as an intermediary between products and consumers - article ; n°2 ; vol.1, pg 169-192
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In the laboratories of desire. Advertising as an intermediary between products and consumers - article ; n°2 ; vol.1, pg 169-192


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Learn all about the services we offer
24 Pages


Réseaux. The French journal of communication - Année 1993 - Volume 1 - Numéro 2 - Pages 169-192
Summary: What makes us desire objects? In the attempt to find a practical answer to this fundamental question on the subject and object of desire, the authors consider the organization of work in advertising agencies. They identify three procedures which together constitute advertisers' solution to the problem of communication between the product and the market. The to and fro movement which makes one attribute desire to either the object or the subject, is replaced by a series of intermediary screens on which the two components of the supply /demand equation are constantly refashioned.
24 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Published 01 January 1993
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Antoine Hennion
Cécile Méadel
Liz Libbrecht
In the laboratories of desire. Advertising as an intermediary
between products and consumers
In: Réseaux, 1993, volume 1 n°2. pp. 169-192.
Summary: What makes us desire objects? In the attempt to find a practical answer to this fundamental question on the subject
and object of desire, the authors consider the organization of work in advertising agencies. They identify three procedures which
together constitute advertisers' solution to the problem of communication between the product and the market. The to and fro
movement which makes one attribute desire to either the object or the subject, is replaced by a series of intermediary screens on
which the two components of the supply /demand equation are constantly refashioned.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Hennion Antoine, Méadel Cécile, Libbrecht Liz. In the laboratories of desire. Advertising as an intermediary between products
and consumers. In: Réseaux, 1993, volume 1 n°2. pp. 169-192. THE LABORATORIES OF
Advertising as an intermediary between
products and consumers
Antoine HENNION and Cécile MÉADEL
Translated by Liz Libbrecht
Summary: What makes us desire objects? In the attempt to find a
practical answer to this fundamental question on the subject and
object of desire, the authors consider the organization of work in
advertising agencies. They identify three procedures which
together constitute advertisers' solution to the problem of
communication between the product and the market. The to and
fro movement which makes one attribute desire to either the object
or the subject, is replaced by a series of intermediary screens on
which the two components of the supply /demand equation are
constantly refashioned. 169 IN THE LABORATORIES OF DESIRE
sively organized around an uncompromis
1 INTHE ing defence of the laws of objects, like
epistemology for science or aesthetics for
art, other ideas, like those of Freud or
LABORATORIES Girard, have been used to rewrite a comp
lete model of humanity from a new de
finition of the subject desire.
OF DESIRE Since the beginning of the twentieth cen
tury, this twofold question on the subject
and object of desire has attracted interest.
Introduced by the first advertisements
Advertising as an into the world of business, then into that
intermediary between of industry by modern advertising, and
products and consumers finally into all sectors of public life by
communication, it is no longer of interest
only to the clergy, academics and lovers
alone. It has found in the economy a field
in which it can be converted into cash.
What answers are given by those who are
paid, budget after budget, to ensure that
the products offered in the marketplace
become the objects of consumer demand?
Antoine HENNION and
Advertising as an
experimental answer
The aim of this article is not to demons
trate the theoretical model on which ad
vertising is deemed to function, but rather
Desire? to explore it. Psychoanalysts well know
that clients more readily tell the truth What is the source of the
when they are paying to do so, and errors power of objects? What
of desire are certainly more expensive for makes us desire them?
advertisers than for philosophers. A maThere could hardly be a
chine with an interest in producing intermore fundamental question. It embraces
est in every sense of the word, advertising the most persistent metaphysical and re
depends on the practical knowledge ligious questions and the most superficial
which it accumulates on the thousand discourse about the consumer society. In
ways of being interesting: in other words, the name of true values, it provokes de
on the very nature of Man and his relarisive laughter about the American Way
tionship with the world. What then can of Life and the society of appearances, or
we learn from its numerous attempts at feeds a modern critique of all objects r
seduction, from its experience as a proeduced to the arbitrariness of a distinctive
fessional, paid for bit by bit to create that sign. It unites in the same spirit of mis
relationship between subject and object trust, former ascetic morals of renunci
which philosophers have made the ation and Marxist condemnation of
comer-stone of their most complex thecapitalism and proliferation. Whereas en
oretical constructs? tire disciplines have been almost
171 HENNION and Cécile MÉADEL Antoine
ism. Above all, it quite naturally finds all Taking seriously the levity with which
advertising treats our desires is in fact the identified places of uncertainty in the
descending a little from the lofty rigour of subject-object relationship.
books to the more chancy tinkering of
Our knowledge also has its certitude - laboratories. The subject-object model no
longer seems like a central given, en even, particularly, about desire. But,
graved on a philosopher's tabula rasa to based on this certitude, how can it be
sensitive to uncertainty, to the undeci- help him to rebuild the world; it becomes
a laboured product that on the laboratory dable, to the disappearance of borders
bench reacts to the way in which adver which this always involves? To produce
tising deals with it. It is in our capacity as knowledge of the intermediary, to respect
a laboratory worker that the latter inter its vacillation instead of reducing it to its
ests us, since the analysis of advertising causes, one must have a subject of r
provides us with an experiential under esearch which commands this attention.
standing of the mechanisms of desire. It is thus by a different type of attention
that advertising will permit us to under
stand where the mere theoretician
A sensitive spot - in between hastens either towards the arbitrariness
of objects and the vanity of subjects, beThe mediating position which advertising cause he finds there the critical denuncioccupies is the best possible point for ation which makes him a prosecutor of observing the role of desire, that myst modernity, or towards the laws of objects erious interest which both defines and which permit him to escape from the unlinks subject and object. Economics has certainty of the creative artist. The advertits certainties; those of the market, which iser on the other hand stops to find the require a price to determine demand, or particular detail which makes him sucthose of technology, which expect a good ceed in this campaign amongst dozens of product to be recognized - but these have
others. Faced with objects which are a always been obviously incapable of com priori all similar and with interchangeable
prehending the relationship between pro subjects, the one is (badly) paid to reduce ducts and markets. Advertising, on the differences, the other (well) paid to pro
other hand, deals with the uncertainty of duce them; one to smooth the roughness this relationship. In so doing, it wrenches of contingent appearances under the it from its inherent links - on the one hand truth of a general model, the other to take with technology, and on the other with the the best possible advantage of the tactical economy - and brings it closer to other moment, the coincidental opportunity, uncertain relationships. Behind account the peculiarities of each isolated case. managers' ants' columns of figures,
and marketing's ranges of strategic plans What happens before a product 'exists',
before it has found 'its' market? Instead products, advertising echoes games of
identity and difference; it reasons in of inspecting finished products, judging
terms of rites, talks of a strange desire to the overall effect of publicity, we shall visit
be labelled, and aims at characterizing a the mobile scaffolding, observe pro
type of consumption which insists on a gressive, opportunistic construction work
want rather than satisfying a need. De which keeps scrapping its plans and uses
pending on fashion, it becomes saturated intuition and tricks of the trade to ad
vance. The natural tendency of studies of with semiotico-analytical vocabulary or
returns to made-in-USA marketing, talks advertising, insofar as their results have
of passion or of rituals, quotes Lacan and caused them to give up coldly measuring
Barthes, or appeals to dreams or its 'effects', has been to collaborate with it
in its seduction. Allowing themselves to which prepare subjects to recognize ob
be attracted by the images it proffers, they jects, technological research and innovat
are raised from economics to semiotics. ion produce objects to be recognized by
subjects, and the entire economy always We refuse this vacillation. One must
operates between goods and markets. In know, at least at first, how to resist the short, all production activities, successful Sirens' song, how not to drop the econ
or otherwise, are in a similar position. omic expert's scalpel and sit down behind
the couch to listen to publicity expatiate But in relation to these activities which
on itself. Once again this is simply an are more oriented towards production of
objects or the formation of subjects, adother way of reducing the instability of
that which is in an intermediary position, vertising is exemplary. Given its perfectly
to the self-containment of a world - be this mediaf ingposition it is exactly in the place
as pleasant and sophisticated as a collec where it may favour neither the product
tion of messages, posters and publicity nor the consumer. It cannot rely on tech
spots. nology alone, nor on social psychology. It
is sure to fail if, over-modest, it simply It is for this reason that we shall observe expects the properties of an object to enadvertising in itself rather than contem
sure its promotion. It is just as likely to plating its results, and consider the et fail if, over-pretentious and imagining it hnography of trades and everyday knows the mechanics of seduction, it relationships of production instead of thinks it can sell anything whatsoever. A analysing rationalistically the contents of strict mediator between supply and decampaigns. The ethnographic method mand, it does not allow the observer to that we have chosen does not correspond
make easy transactions between them. It (or does not only correspond) to a fashion, works in a world in which there is neither to the rediscovered fragrance of the Goff-
technological necessity nor determining mans or Garfinkels after French intellec
needs, yet in which it cannot rely comforttuals have cast aside structuralism. Nor ably on the equivalence of all objects or is it one method amongst many, a partial on the arbitrariness of all desire! point of view which leaves room for any
other complementary approach which
may appear - contents analysis, motiva Respecting the uncertainty of
tion studies, advertising economics, etc.
this position It is an approach which takes us from the
analysis of meanings back to that of their It is this irreducible tension which we creation*, which is a pre-condition of the
shall try to analyse by observing profesunderlying reasoning held, if it indeed is sional advertising agents at work. It dicto include the indecision of the interme tates to us the only rule of method to diary. Not reducing the moment of medi which we must adhere; a simple rule, but ation to the results which hide it, means a significant one, i.e. to accept no explaforcing oneself to reread any effect of nation which resolves for them the local meaning through the series of screens and uncertain balance on which advertwhich convey it; this reading makes them isers or innovators operate. Studies on invisible. innovation were rapidly confronted with
In fact advertising has no privileged the same need to reconsider the status of
status in this regard. Education and their own theoretical functioning and the
learning are other well-researched fields a priori divisions which it made; whether
• In Foucaulťs footsteps, we are thinking of Michel de Certeau's work on believing or on the
'arts of doing' [L'invention du quotidien, t.l, Paris: 10-18 UGE 1980).
173 HENNION and Cécile MÉADEL Antoine
or not they wanted to achieve more than ultimate guarantor, of a moral regulation
ex post rationalizations for endorsing ac of that omnipotence by people's common CSI's* tors' reasons, in particular the work sense - if a product is no good, no advert
will be able to save it (For example, the on technology.
following advert: 'But let's be modest - This uncertainty must never be intr success always comes from the product. oduced into the equation. It defines their The advertiser makes do with what he
tactics, i.e. exactly what they selectively has. As Lincoln said, you can fool sometake into account, at a given moment and one once, but you can't fool everyone all in a specific configuration - the heteroge
the time. Coke's success compared to neous parameters through which they Pepsi is in its taste, and that's why they measure the properties of the product, the did a bloody stupid thing in changing the resistance of the market, the resources of taste. The new Coke tastes really bad'.) the media and the network of sales, the
disposition of consumers - and which,
depending on the case, make them grant Not separating the technique
more or less importance to the ones or to
and the image the others.
The two parts of this dual belief are con
tradictory only in appearance. In fact they Manipulation or democracy?
represent the two aspects of the same
This rule does not have only methodologic proposition - on the one hand the real, on
al implications; it is at the heart of ad the other the image. It is possible to dis
vertising as a controversial issue. criminate between objective causes of
Advertisers are accused of manipulation, need and the enticement of desire, be
tween the reality of a product and the delusion, one-upmanship in the specta
cular, spiralling desire. Advertising is ac effectiveness of its 'communication', even
cused of leading us to exchange if this means attributing sales success to
substance for sensation so as to make us either the one or the other, depending on
buy the object because of its image. In this the case. Advertising agents are prisoners
of games of accusation and defence which accusing form, the question remains very
clear - what is it that engenders desire? impose the rule that the causes be heard,
and therefore that it be known whether it The advertising milieu itself hovers be is communication which makes the protween two extreme and contradictory bel duct or the properties of the product iefs, both of which can be heard during which allow for communication. They vathe same conversations. On the one hand cillate between the two terms of a conthere is the Mephistophelean fantasy of trast, while their whole task consists of the omnipotence of advertising, which
reconciling them. willingly adopts the terms of accusation
of manipulation made against it - if I am It is not surprising that they are confused,
skilful there is nothing I cannot render as they embrace two conflicting causes at
desirable (a VIP in advertising: 'I gave a the same time. They say that the image
lecture to a group of old professors, and makes the object and that there is no
at the end a bearded prof challenged me: image without an object, when nothing
'But sir, what you are talking of there is more effectively militates against their
brain- washing! ... '); and on the other daily task than that opposition between
hand there is a sort of democratic con an object and image, between the product
fidence in the reassuring existence of an on the one hand and its communication
* (CSI = Centre de Sociologie de l'Innovation, Ecole des Mines, Paris)
on the other, between a technology mas ent a very poor image of consumers,
tered by the manufacturers and the empty of any reality, docile receivers of
'added desire' which advertising agents what is produced for them. If, better ac
are charged with assigning to their pro quainted with fashion, they study the
ducts. subjects, and ascribe to them the diaboli
cal and negative folly of always desiring
whatever is skilfully offered, it is the ob
Nor do we ... jects which are disqualified, becoming ar
bitrary agents to ignite desire. Another way of formulating the methodol
ogical hypothesis which we have chosen, In both cases a realistic balance is upset
is to say that like advertisers, we shall also by the explanation, the cause is heard a
refuse to make this division a priori. Be priori, and on one side there is what
fore a campaign has had its undisputed counts, and on the other what does not.
impact it is not easy to claim that the Either products are everything, or else
cause was heard, in other words to affirm they are nothing. Either men are slaves,
before success the factor or factors to or they are mad.
which this success can be attributed. 'Of
course, with this type of product ... ', or
The history of advertising is 'the idea of this slogan was great, it
couldn't not work', are judgements that nothing else
can be safely made only in retrospect.
We shall now turn to the history of advertWhen the advertising strategy has to be ising. How can we better summarize its thought out, the idea found, the messages struggle, from its infancy to today's generand the visuals created, the client con alized communication, than by saying vinced, and a media plan made, it is that it has passed from a model in which impossible to distinguish in principle be there was on the one hand a product and tween that which counts and that which on the other its propaganda, to a model does not, between real reasons for a pur in which it is no longer possible to draw chase and mere pretext. Everything that the line between the technical charactis not taken into account takes its revenge eristics of the product and its relevant in the same way - it ignores the one who
features, because everything, from marignored it. The consumer neglected in
keting to conditioning to product tests, favour of the product will boycott the competition ratings or firms' internal mobcampaign that has targeted him. The ilization, functions on the double regis'teaser' campaign which only thinks of the ter of the object - a thing, but destined for buyer, the beauty of the spot or the repu somebody, both a technical product and tation of the agency, will be noticed, but a communicating product, a rsales will not increase. esponding to demand which it must itself
In spite of its efforts to adopt a detached create? It does not function in two suc
attitude, theory is in the same position. cessive phases, but increasingly as a
The uncertainty of advertisers in the heat single collective procedure. Advertising
of creativity cannot simply be trans becomes communication when there is
formed into certitude by anyone who the progressive formation of a complete
wants to explain their work. If they choose object, when its material composition and
to study the object, to believe in the reas its significance on the market are pro
suring fable of the natural selection of duced together, by trial and error, and not
products by the market, which advertis first by engineers and technicians who
ing has only to accentuate, they will know nothing about the consumer, then
175 Antoine HENNION and Cécile MÉADEL
by advertisers familiar with housewives puzzle of which the pieces need only be
but refusing to soil their hands in indust moved for them to fit together, it is less
ry and technology. easy to represent schematically what
exactly it is that advertising does. Every
thing can be questioned. Models do not
From the first advertis suffice; one must try to combine heteroge
neous reasons, and unite them, condenements ...
sing them in a word or an image, as in
The model which we reject, that of early Freud's dreams.
advertisements, can easily be represented
... to communication - the
work of agencies
Our task in this study of the organization
of work in advertising agencies is not to be
diverted from the earlier excessive cert
itude to a useless apology for artistic
fluidity, adroitness, flair and the irra
tional. The mediator's uncertainty is
neither ignorance nor the suspension of
intelligence; on the contrary, it is wari
Fig. 1. The early model. ness and judgement. A rejection of ready-
made causes must not leave us incapable
of producing anything more than an adAccording to this schema, the manufact miring stamp of approval of the unfaure of a product depends on technology, thomable know-how of the actors. From
and its commercialization on the smooth interviews with representatives of the functioning of the economy. The advert numerous trades involved in a campaign iser need only circulate information be and from the direct observation of various
tween the two. In fact, although a little visible phases of its creation - in particul
more cautious, this is not far from the ar the numerous meetings - we have tried
opinion held by most French industriali to make the organization and division of
sts until quite recently, i.e. quality would their work intelligible. This we have done assert itself and the consumer's interests without presupposing a mechanical divifind their own way - if they could over sion of staff tasks with a set objective and come the obstacles. Reticent about both separable into partial sequences, and
products and users, the model soon without falling back on a division of work began to accuse the intermediaries - unf which would gradually have become orair and deceptive competition, slow di ganic as our difficulty in analysing it in
stribution, incompetent journalists. creased, and insofar as we simply stated Advertisements therefore became necess that the more a firm has to innovate, the ary to restore the natural transparency, greater is the dissolution of formal hierar
veiled by the intermediaries, between pro chical organization of tasks (We are refer
ducts and consumers, unless manufact ring in particular to American literature
urers simply refused to use them, seeing which blossomed following Burns and in a recourse to advertising nothing other Stalker's book The Management of Innovat
than an acknowledgement of the weak ion, Tavistock 1961; and the work of ness of a product. Lawrence & Lorsch, Organization and En
But if one no longer believes in the virtual vironment)
Advertising has in no way discarded line then to think about advertising it. This
work in favour of communal workshops, hypothesis is based on what is called the
brief. The product does not enter the an informal sharing of roles, or a horizont
al organization chart. On the contrary, it agency in the form given it by its manuf
has maintained and multiplied spe acturer, but in that it by his inter
cialized tasks and it is in their articulation locutors in the agency, the people who in
that it innovates. A small number of key advertising are called the 'account mana
gers' because they are in contact with procedures permitted a description of re
the 'clients'. fThere is a slight problem of lationships, sometimes occuring at mo
ments well outside the realization of definition here. An exercise in translation
is necessary to familiarize oneself with the campaigns, by professionals with very dif
ferent tasks. These are the ones which we use of words in advertising. They seem
have tried to reveal, for they correspond inverted compared to the usual series of
on an experimental level to our first quest functions where the client is the buyer of
ion: how does one create a product and a product and the marketing manager the
its consumer simultaneously? one promoting the product in selling
points. In contrast, in the product camAlthough the information model of adver paign the payer is the manufacturer, he tising is no longer valid, agencies thems is the client (or the advertiser, although elves have expanded very fast. In so the word is no clearer for the uninitiated, doing they have invented and set up new who confuse it with the advertising working procedures, more refined, better agency itself!). This client is approached adapted to functions which are also by an 'account manager', from an agency, defined. These procedures provide a solid who transmits the request to the 'creative base for observation and do not disappear people'. They in turn pilot the production without trace in face of the sacrosanct and the 'media planners' organize the
irreducible individualism of the creative circulation of messages in the media, or 'mediums'.)* people; on the contrary, they broadly Drawn up by the account define the sense and the very possibility managers, the brief presents the client's of existence of such positions. The estab firm and its product to the agency and is lishment of these few procedures will thus used by other professionals as a diagnosic define our strategy for penetrating into tool: the world of advertising. Their analysis
will provide us with the object to recon 'At best, we receive very detailed doc
struct, the form which we can trace and uments from the account managers,
which will allow us a glimpse of what has what we call briefs; the product is like
replaced the mechanical production- this or like that, the competition like
information-consumption chain. that, the strategy is the following, the
objectives are as such, the client ex
pects such or such profits. The entire
Processing a product : the course has been laid out' (a copyw
riter). 'brief
The advantages of a brief lie simultaOne is never better represented than neously in its contents, a multiformed
by others definition of the product transformed into
a sort of equation with numerous unAdvertisers do not separate the product
from its image; they do not give thems known factors, and in the process by
which it is drawn up. In taking the ac- elves a definition of the object in order
Translator's note: We have used the word *advertiser(s)' when referring to advertising agents.
177 Antoine HENNION and Cécile MÉADEL
count-manager out of the agency for him 'We've made some truly good involv
to inform himself of all the variables of the ement scales here. The basic principle
is quite simple - you can't put all problem, expressed or not in the more
formal documents and meetings of the products in the same basket; the
signing of the contract, the brief intr brand of a perfume involves the ident
oduces us directly to advertisers' function ity of the user far more than that of a
of mediating, i.e. rather than simply real toothpaste, that of a car far more than
that of a soap powder ... It rates proizing what is asked of them they must
permit a demand to find its words. In it ducts according to the degree of invo
the unformulated knowledge that experi lvement. We show this to the client to
ence gives to advertisers is transformed help him to define his communicati
on.' into specific wording - objectives, ana
lyses of the competition, and finally the
discriminating features of a product. But the most essential element is the
work of the mediator whose mere
The brief is 70-100 pages long, based presence makes the manufacturer talk.
on the principle of a funnel; we enter Hence the importance given by account
the problem, the competition, the managers to this relationship, which
consumer, the resources, and out defines their skills a little like free associ
come recommendations. We commit ation used by psychoanalysts.
ourselves. It's so logical and analytic
'We start with the problem given by al, advertising, it's not at all unclear.
The question is: what do we com the client. Our first task is to listen to
municate? What is only transmitted him. We listen and ask to hear more.
orally is also important, but that's not We have to advise; this counselling
all; we write a lot' (an account mana function is always essential when it's
ger). from outside people, removed from
the firm. We've also got to do marketi
The brief is a first active transformation ng, as much and as well as he does,
of the object. It is a translation into words, if not better. First we must take a
which is valuable for us since it provides passive stance, study him closely,
understand what he wants. We can something readable. It is also particularly
valuable for the creative people, for whom even go and see his dealers, but that's
it replaces an ungraspable original ver an ideal situation. In general, I go and
sion with one in which everything has see the client in his plant, I see the
product. That's also experience - how been marked out.
is it that although he might only have
told me a few words I have under
stood far more? It's exactly like a
doctor: fortunately he doesn't make Account managers - being receptive his diagnosis by relying on the two or
The course is marked out only insofar as three things he's told! What makes
him hear ten times more? It's not the account managers have already
cleared the ground and worked it out. The what he learned during his seven
years of training, it's the fact of having brief breaks down what the client com
posed to attain the unity of a finished seen hundreds of others ... Afte
rwards we look at the competition - product. For that there are a few tricks,
such as the famous 'involvement scales', we've got internal services for check
which give the advertiser another system ing out the competition - we do re
of defining the product: search, we try the product, if it's