Monday, July 14, 2008


I've been reading a lot poetry and criticism by Louis Dudek lately and one of the inescapables is his ceaseless resistance to Marshall McLuhan's essential concept that the "media is the massage", that how the sign signifies is also what the sign signifies. Dudek rejects the idea of hot and cold media as inhuman at its best and dehumanizing at its worst. Any communicative project that effaces the creative or intellectual effort of the individual person is bad and any such project that celebrates (even poorly) the genius of the individual is good. Thus, Dudek privileges poetry over prose, film over television - especially films that communicate the vision of a single man, such as Chaplin - and conversation over politics.

Here's the kicker: there are two very different modes of thought mobilized by McLuhan here that Dudek rejects together, because Dudek - the eternal pessimist - only seriously considered the negative consequences of McLuhan's cold media. For instance, the TV, that one-way short-circuit to the brain via the optic nerve not only catalyzes the air we breathe into a sodden brain-blanket but it causes tunnel vision, permitting the viewer(s, ad infinitum) a limited, cardboard-tube sight line through its lens. So, by providing an omni - a saturation of the atmosphere - TV creates a uni- the peephole of the screen.

The paradox of the how and the how-perceived came to mind while reading a recent copy of the Mirror. In the classified section towards the back, the various jobs and apartments being advertised are organized in neat columns according to subject matter or city region. With an exception: the telemarketing ads. There are no text-only ads, they all have photo matter and all are larger than column-width, running from 1/16 to 1/4 page in size. The paper makes the effort to treat these ads as regular classifieds by running a line of column-width Telemarketing category-headers across the top of the ads - a confused and rather ridiculous looking endeavor. The bottom of each page is taken by a pair of telemarketing ads at 1/4 and the top of each page contains one ad - a 1/16 on the left page and a 1/6 on the right.

If we scan the ads in reading order then, we get the smallest ad first, the next smallest second and then, moving to our next line of "text" we read the large ads in a line left to right. The first ad features a b/g pic of a young woman's face in closeup with just the mouthpiece of her headset rig in view. The mouthpiece is small, translucent and so unobtrusive that from two feet away could be mistaken for a mole. In ad #2 the picture takes up the top 2/3 of the ad and is a front profile pic of a young black woman with short hair, a smart business collar and a lightweight rig attached to her left ear. On the bottom line, ad #3 has a small picture in the upper left corner of a young woman with a large clunky silver plastic headset of the variety that embraces her entire head. The rest of the ad is black on white text. Ad #4 has a somewhat larger greyscale b/g picture of a similar woman wearing a similar rig with black text overlay. Ad #5, on the right hand page, has a bubble inset of a tough to discern gender neutral person taken from the left perspective (the previous two ads show pics taken from the right) with the head-clamp of the rig omitted from the picture. The final ad#6 contains a large b/g picture, again left-aligned so that the gutter serves as the centre of the ads, of a young woman with short hair, a professional collar and a small ear-mounted rig, though one of lesser quality than the top ads, with an old-fashioned foam baffle on the mic. The only photo perspective that does not treat the page itself as built symmetrically from the gutter outward is the first, smallest ad.

Now let's take a look at the content of the ads, starting with the bottom line: the first ad is for research interviewers for a well-known polling firm. No wage is listed and the only skill required is "proficiency in computer keyboard usage". This ad speaks to the neophyte, the young person who has never done telemarketing but resists trying to sell stuff over the phone. The next ad is a sales ad but has the caption "Sports - Marketing - Sales" for a company that is "revolved around the sports industry [...] currently featured on" and the contact is a yahoo email address. The only skills required are "Sharp learning and listening skills". This ad is also geared to neophytes but clearly targets foolish young people with more interest in sports glamor than insight into what "featured" means (it means they have an ad running there too). Ad #5 is the first ad to carry text in both French and English. Another research company, it is also the first to post concrete skills (type 30-40 wpm, bilingual)and the first to list renumeration ($9.25/hr plus incentives). Ad #6 goes further, seeking sales staff for a b2b sales centre with a guarantee of $14/hr plus commission and minimum 35 hrs per week. This ad, targeting experienced telemarketers, offers no email address, interview by appointment only, and uses insider jargon, mentioning that directory shooters are welcome (b2b centres targe businesses on behalf of other businesses and, while still a tough game, don't have the abysmal refusal rates that retail telemarketing suffers).

I focused on the bottom line of ads first because they are the first ads someone sees who might be looking for this kind of work. They are by far the largest on the page, laid out in a straight horizontal axis, left to right. The searcher's eye gravitates to the big pictures and carries across until an ad that matches his or her skill and interest level is found. Those experienced readers, once they have reached the end of the line will now double back to the start. The next largest ad, on the right page, will catch the returning eye. Ad #2 is directed specifically to experienced telemarketers: the copy notes that previous experience as b2b collectors is required. The numbers are a little shifty, offering up to $17/hr plus commissions for agents and states that a $4000/wk collection rate is attainable. Of course, that isn't actually income for the agents - that's the money they bring in for the company, from which they get a slice. For those pros who deem this a little bit to tough a game for perhaps misleading money, the eye continues to the first, smallest ad. This one simply states: "Hiring. Montreal's top shooters for the most lucrative B2B campaign in town. Minimum 3 years experience", with a phone number. This is the money pot for the veteran telesales agent. Very little fucking around, a direct shot for the career shooter (a directory shooter is one who has the toughness to cold call business listings). Many of the agents who call the company will likely know it already when they get the interview.

So. A couple of layers of reading. The layout of the ads, both internally and on the page according to the dictates of a back-paper classified section, offers a fairly comprehensive read for the discerning eye. The copy of the ads fills in context and collaborative detail. The paradox here is that there really isn't one. Reading text and reading the medium that employs it in this example doesn't actually employ a split in reading the way either Dudek or McLuhan would have you believe. You can read TV the same way. Ditto for the internet - likely the "hottest" medium around according to McLuhan's global village premise. Despite that, it may have the coldest read for no other reason than the overwhelming advantage it offers the individual user who, in Dudek's terms, can celebrate their individuality to an extraordinary degree. That advantage, being cheerfully pursued by what may actually be a majority of users, generates such a thick muting foam of static noise that nearly all of the content is lost.

More people will read those crappy telemarketing ads in the back pages of the Mirror than will read this blog. I fucking guarantee it. So the next time someone tells you that newspapers are dead - hell, the next time someone tells you that print is dead, point them to this blog and explain to them that we're still (really) a gen away from intelligent use of internet filters to remove the static and that the moment we reach that use as a general paradigm, the static will catch up and drown it out. Stay ahead of the crowd. Stay behind the crowd. Either way, as Dudek would heartily encourage you, avoid the crowd. It'll make a poet of you and THAT is the moment Dudek crowns McLuhan, though he generally failed to come right out and say it.

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