A Reassessment of Marshall McLuhan by a Public Relations Professional


Marshall McLuhan was fascinated by advertising in all its forms, though his opinion of it was ambiguous at best; likewise, advertisers and marketers were fascinated by McLuhan from the start of his prominence. San Francisco’s “Mad Man” advertising guru Howard Gossage had a strong influence in making McLuhan’s ideas known during the 60s (see earlier posting on this blog http://tinyurl.com/pdsh8jc ). The following article is a reappraisal of McLuhan’s work and influence by a public relations professional. 

Marshall McLuhan: A media guru reconsidered

 by Paul Seaman   –   19 July 2012

Marshall McLuhan at the CBC - Photo by Henri Dauman, Life Magazine

Photo by Henri Dauman / The Estate of Marshall McLuhan/Life Magazine

Marshall McLuhan was born 101 years ago on 21 July 1911 and he’s been greatly missed since 1980. This piece dedicated to his memory was first published last year [in 2011]. It was the opener here in a series of profiles probing the legacy of important figures in the PR realm: Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud, Walter Lippmann and Daniel Boorstin and more. So to first-timers and old-timers reading this sketch, enjoy the ride.

There’s a lot to be admired about the “prophet of the electronic age” who said “if it works it’s obsolete.” Marshall McLuhan coined the term the “Global Village.” He also produced classic phrases such as “the medium is the message,” “the medium is the massage”, and the “Age of Anxiety.” And he’s credited with conjuring “turn on, tune in, drop out,” over lunch with the 1960s advocate of LSD trips, Timothy Leary [which is dismissed by those who knew him best.]

McLuhan was the archetypal-media studies guru. Not only was he an icon of the 1960s counterculture, he also went on to become the “patron saint” of the newly launched Wired Magazine in 1996. They identified with McLuhan’s vision of decentralized, personal, and liberating electronic technological development that transcends time and space. They warmed to his vision of how electronic media would wipe away contemporary society’s traditional values, attitudes and institutions.

There is after all, as Andrew Keen has pointed out, much in common between the wired generation’s utopianism and the communal ideals of the hippies. As McLuhan told Playboy Magazine in 1968:

“The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace.”

That language, in the form of “one world, people and planet,” is endorsed by much (too much because it’s complete nonsense) of the mainstream corporate and PR world today: see here and here.

McLuhan: still Wired

Still, for some good reasons, McLuhan remains an inspirational thinker to a new generation of youth. He appeals to those who want to break free from looking at the present in the rear-view mirror. He appeals to those who wish to create something completely different to what’s gone before and to those, including corporations and politicians, who wish to appear “in touch” and “cool.” In McLuhan’s words:

“These kids are fed up with jobs and goals [traditional ones, anyway], and are determined to forget their own roles and involvement in society. They want nothing to do with our fragmented and specialist consumer society. Living in the transitional identity vacuum between two great antithetical cultures, they are desperately trying to discover themselves and fashion a mode of existence attuned to their new values; thus the stress on developing an “alternate life style.”

In Wired‘s launch issue interview with a virtual McLuhan, whose consciousness they said had been preserved in a programmed bot, he says that the real message of media today is ubiquity. It is not something that we do. Rather it is something we are part of from the outside that excites all our senses. It is, he said through Wired‘s medium, as if we have amputated not our ears or our eyes, but ourselves, and then established a total prosthesis – an automaton – in our place. He (ok, his cyber-ghost) adds:

“Postindustrial man has a network identity, or a net-ID. The role is now a temporary shift of state produced by a combination of environmental factors, like in a neural network. This possibility has always been latent in the concept of role, but in the machine age this was perceived as a danger, while today it is simply a game – we no longer see shifting roles as dangerous and taboo and therefore theatrically compelling. Rather, we follow these shifts as if we were doing a puzzle or kibitzing a chess game. Yes, the medium is the message, but this does not mean and never meant that the content of the medium is a conscious reflection on itself. The medium is the message because it creates the audience most suited to it. Electronic media create an audience whose shifting moods are as impersonal as the weather.”

So, regardless that McLuhan’s name is no longer household fare (unlike, say, Warhol’s), his influence remains as significant among cyber-nerds as it was among beatniks. In fact his thinking is arguably more significant today, given the amount of hype that surrounds the cyberspace, Web 2.0 world.

So what was he really about? (Read the rest at http://goo.gl/jqMOS0 )

Marshall McLuhan on Advertising:-

“Advertising is a vast military operation, intended, openly and brashly to conquer the human spirit. The critics of advertising miss the bus entirely by complaining about false claims. Nothing could be less important than the false claims of advertising. It is the total icon-making activity that matters, and in the degree that these men are icon-makers, they, certainly, these agency men, they certainly have the right to call themselves creative artists; whether they perform a good, benign social function is open to question, but as creators of tremendous effects, they are artists. Remember an artist is primarily concerned with getting your attention; whether he is a poet or a musician, his first wish and hope is to trap your attention. This is the first hope and wish of every advertiser. He is an artist certainly to that extent. He wants to shape your attention, to shape your sensibilities, to create an effect upon you. Whether you believe a word he says couldn’t matter less to him; he is interested only in effects, and not in changing your opinions or thoughts about anything. And this is also true of a poet; couldn’t care less about what you thought or felt about him or anything, as long as he gets his effect across.” – Marshall McLuhan, CBC Radio Broadcast “Ideas”, 1960s

“The objective of advertising men is the manipulation, exploitation, and control of the individual” (McLuhan, The Mechanical bride, 1951, p. 21)

Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century.” – Marshall McLuhan

“The modern Little Red Riding Hood, reared on singing commercials, has no objection to being eaten by the wolf.” – Marshall McLuhan

“Historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities.”Marshall McLuhan

“Madison Avenue is a very powerful aggression against private consciousness. A demand that you yield your private consciousness to public manipulation.” – Marshall McLuhan (1964, Understanding Media, p. 232)

“The historians and archeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities.”

2 Responses to “A Reassessment of Marshall McLuhan by a Public Relations Professional”

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