This post was originally written in September 2021 for Hemispheric News; subscribe at the Patreon site One Prime Plus to receive this monthly newsletter and other benefits that are linked to the Hemispheric Views podcast.
Even if you’re not into media studies like I am, you might have heard of someone by the name of Marshall McLuhan. If you haven’t, then at the very least you may be familiar with some of the famous aphorisms and terms that he coined as a media scholar, such as the medium is the message and global village.
During the 1960s and 70s, Marshall McLuhan was an unusual kind of academic, in the sense that he didn’t really follow the academic tradition. He was (in)famous for it. Rather than keeping information within the institution, he made a point of talking directly to the public, sharing myriad ideas that enthralled audiences about media as environments and the effects of technology (or the ‘electric age’, as he called it) on society. He avoided making conclusions or holding convictions. Instead, he emphasised the importance of exploring, probing and being open and willing to change your mind.
Appearing on television and radio around the world, he was, in essence, a kind of academic rock star, the likes of which had never been seen before. It’s hard even to name a contemporary equivalent.
McLuhan died before the advent of the personal computer, and while some of his ideas have become outdated, most of them remain very relevant and some even seem prescient.
Recently, one such prescient idea came up in The Massage podcast by the McLuhan Institute, which is run by his grandson, Andrew McLuhan. The episode, titled ‘Marshall McLuhan on Environments and Advertisements with Barbara Walters (1966)’, featured an excerpt of Marshall McLuhan’s appearance on the Today Show with Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs. Around the beginning of the conversation, McLuhan makes this statement:
Advertising is really part of the information service industries and increasingly, the ad becomes a substitute for the product. … All the satisfactions now come from the ads, not the products.
At the time, this seemed odd to Walters and Downs: how could the ad be the product when it’s attempting to sell you the product? Ask most people today what they think about this and they will probably answer in a similar way to people from the 1960s: ‘Well, I don’t really care about the chocolate ad… I just want to buy and eat the chocolate’. Satisfaction comes from the taste of the chocolate, not the ad!
The thing is, McLuhan was actually right and it has only become a more obvious and powerful idea as we have pushed further and further into the age of digital information.
Perhaps the perfect example is the Apple keynote, along with all similar tech presentations that have copied its format. The keynote, like the many smaller product ads on TV and the Web, is a vehicle for making you enthusiastic about buying into new hardware, software and services, albeit extended. Increasingly, however, it has become an event and product in itself.
Last year, following Apple’s first-ever virtual WWDC, I wrote a piece on Lounge Ruminator that featured McLuhan’s tetrad for understanding media and their effects. The tetrad is a diagrammatic tool that asks you to think about what any given medium or technology enhances, retrieves, obsolesces and reverses into as it enters an already mediated environment. Whether you’re thinking of a table, an audiobook, an iPhone or a fighter jet, you can apply the tetrad to to it. While I appreciated and traced the changes that came with a virtual (rather than live) presentation, what I had not considered until now is that the keynote is an Apple product, much like its hardware devices, apps and services.
The keynote, which is an advertisement, is advertised itself. Look at the website and you’ll see that following an announcement, the next big one is generally there, alongside priced products. People share the same enthusiasm for the keynote that they do for the products that follow the event. Bloggers, podcasters and news journalists pour over and review the experience, scripting and production value of the keynote and compare and contrast it with those of earlier years. These are product features. Furthermore, they are kept for on-demand entertainment in an archive, to be browsed and enjoyed as one would flick through a catalogue.
The second key point that McLuhan raises in the excerpt on the podcast, which brings all of this home, is the following:
The ones who read and pay attention to the ads are the ones who already own the products.
If we are already convinced of the quality of branded devices and therefore have chosen to buy and own them, then why do we anticipate and enjoy keynotes?
The answer: we unknowingly accept and use these advertisements as products and extensions of the branded ecosystem.
I love to watch Apple keynotes and generally, when I finish watching them, I feel positive and excited about what is on the horizon. Still, it’s important to remain critical, whether about product features, implications for user behaviour and privacy or potential effects on the natural environment.
As tech fans who happily watch these extended ads, which are just products that link to yet more to-be-released products, what does that say about us as consumers? Have we decided that we’re going to buy something before we even see or know what it is?
If the keynote is a product, then yes, we have already bought it.