An interview with sociologist Luigi Gentili
Over the last few years, marketing has undergone a deep reaching evolution. The techniques employed – in advertising but also in politics – seem to be shifting towards a progressive dematerialization of the product. Image is taking over everything else. We asked the sociologist and essayist Luigi Gentili, a teacher at the Rome Business School, what new strategies does media communication have in store for us over the next few years.
Prof. Gentili, what new marketing levers are there today, in a society characterized by the supremacy of the image?
Without a doubt, marketing is today refining its persuasion techniques. Consumers have new needs; they seek instances for diversion and find them in new forms of social aggregation. If, once, image was a way to be, a form of individual narcissism, it now takes on the form of what Michel Foucault calls heterotopias. These are places in which the image becomes real. A mirror is heterotopian because, inside it, we see ourselves in an environment in which we are not, an unreal place that opens up virtually beyond the surface but is, at the same time, an absolutely real place, linked to all the space that surrounds it. A heterotopia is an open space that has the characteristic of making individuals feel that they are outside. Anyone can enter it but, in effect, once inside, it becomes obvious that it is an illusion and that one has not really entered anything. Currently, a successful marketing is one that manages to create heterotopias.
It is a true revolution, is it not?
It is a revolution that does not affect so much the goods themselves, but their fruition. Subscription to this new diktat takes on the form of a plurality of spaces: huge theme parks, casinos, cruise ships, sport complexes, hyper-malls. New forms of fascination emerge. Consumerism itself takes on religious traits of a magical nature. Inside the temples of consumerism, as they have been called by the American sociologist George Ritzer, the need is felt to offer an ever increasing variety of artificial landscapes. This is where rites are celebrated in which time and space are removed. Las Vegas casinos are a perfect example of this phenomenon. Inside them, we find round the clock operation, the removal of all possible references to natural time cycles (sunlight, darkness), the absence of doors and windows, the non-existence of clocks, an architecture of constantly reorganised wide spaces, and a uniformity of behaviours.
Besides this spatial revolution, marketing concentrates highly on brand image. Can you tell us something about this new business frontier?
Brands replace goods. More that the products themselves, we buy symbols, representations, implicit reminders of a brand. Consumer choices become brand choices, emblems of a well defined system of values and expectations. Today, companies must aim at strengthening their brand images, sales come second. A new marketing branch is taking shape which makes use of anthropological studies. Brands are linked to archetypes and, through the latter, they insinuate themselves inside the consumers’ psyches and influence their behaviours. There are many social groups which look at brands to find their identifying symbols.
Is this then the birth of tribal marketing?
What is this all about?
Tribal marketing is the capability of creating groups of people who are passionate about a specific brand. If a company succeeds in this, it is a winner. Customer fidelisation reaches its highest levels. The tribe works because it satisfies the “desire for community”, which is a strong compulsion. Tribalism is linked to the search for a collective bond, which has deteriorated in an anonymous and massified society. It thus renews the wild dimension of existence, the birth of micro-groups within which individuals establish strong emotional bonds. This can take the shape of gangs, fan groups, clans, clubs and so on.
The youth universe represents the most glaring example of this phenomenon. The need to belong to a tribe is felt ever increasingly among youngsters. There are many youth tribes on the social scene, and each has its brands. Tribes such as trendies, chavs, rappers, alternatives or popeboys each have their own brands that identify who is part of the group and who is not.
Besides tribal marketing, what other emerging business strategies are there?
There are many, and they fall within the non-conventional marketing category. We could mention, for instance, viral marketing, which is based upon word of mouth and makes extensive use of the internet; then we have advertainment, which is aimed at entertaining consumers through mini-movies, multimedia sites, cartoons or videogames. Worthy of mention are also experiential marketing and guerrilla marketing. The former aims at making consumers live a unique and memorable experience inside well defined, themed and reassuring environments: within this category we have concept stores, theme parks, exhibitions and art galleries. Lastly, guerrilla marketing employs aggressive tactics that strike unexpectedly as in an ambush: it is fast, sudden, powerful and brief. It hits its victims in the most unpredictable moments and locations. It can be effected in many ways. It can make use of public roads and spaces to promote a product or a brand through, for example, the distribution of leaflets at bus stops or the inclusion of company logos in a cultural or sporting event.
In your book “Homo mediaticus. Mass media e culto dell’immagine” (The mass media and the cult of the image), published by Armando editions, you refer to a genetic mutation. What are you referring to?
Homo mediaticus, as I call him, is an evolution of homo sapiens. In the eponymous book, I illustrate his behavioural traits. Homo mediaticus likes to live in artificial environments, removed from day to day commitments. He not only likes to show his image, but lives in environments in which image becomes real. This links to what we were saying earlier. Homo mediaticus is a human being born of marketing, who lives in the present, devoid of memory and projectuality. He is imponderable. He has a Pirandellian nature, being one, none and one hundred thousand. We cannot yet determine whether he is an improvement or a step back, we can only say that he is a variation. A radical one.
One last question. What relationship does this man you define homo mediaticus have with politics?
Homo mediaticus is attracted by aesthetics, he is fascinated by appearances. It is sufficient to take a look at the criteria used today to choose a political candidate. Candidates are increasingly selected through media oriented criteria that are linked to the “sieve effect”: being telegenic, being good at public speaking, having dialectical competency, being appealing, etc. This has caused the rise of new marketing specialists, the so called spin-doctors. These are image consultants who will increasingly be in demand over the next few years. They are useful to politicians but also to VIPs, to famous and well known personages in every field. As the renowned publicist Edward Bernays, the founder of the discipline, used to say, spin doctoring will become an essential tool for the exercise of power. It will represent a way to give shape to chaos, organizing the world to then lead it.