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Advertising and its Critics: Interviews with Wilson Bryan Key, Sut Jhally, and Michael Wilke

This issue is devoted to a consideration of the background, personalities, and motivations of three of advertising's most vocal critics. Their public statements about how advertising ought to change are well known and widely available. In this issue, the scholars who interview them probe what lies behind and motivates their criticism. Who are these people? What are their backgrounds? How did they develop their roles as critics? What obstacles lay in their way? And how do they assess their own successes?

Asking questions like these characterizes contemporary scholarship. From anthropology to literature, the personalities and standpoints of authors are now on the line. Readers want to know about the person who lies behind the research, wrote the novel, or laid out the argument, and what each as a person brings into what they have written. We are no longer content to let texts stand on their own but want to know the politics that motivate them and the personalities who articulate them.

Wilson Bryan Key is perhaps advertising's most famous living critic. He has certainly been the most popular. His books on subliminal advertising have sold widely, and his public speeches have drawn crowds that have filled many auditoriums around the US and abroad. But who is this man? What drives him? What does he believe he has accomplished? Stuart Ewen, cultural historian at Hunter College of the City University of New York, explored Key's career with him recently. The transcript of their conversation is published here.

Sut Jhally may well be advertising's best-known academic critic. Not only is he a popular teacher at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a frequent lecturer on other campuses, but Sut Jhally has gone a step further by setting up The Media Educational Foundation that makes and distributes a range of videotape and DVD titles in which he and others take advertising and mass media to task about excesses, false promises, and social responsibility. I interviewed Jhally recently and asked him about how he sees his role as professor and critic, what he hopes to accomplish, and his visions of the future and for change.

Michael Wilke has stepped up to the public podium more recently to comment on how advertising speaks to and about gays and lesbians. His website, entitled The Commercial Closet, is the definitive collection of ads depicting gays and lesbians. William Mazzarella, an anthropologist at The University of Chicago, attended one of Wilke's public presentations and met with him afterwards to explore what lies behind The Commercial Closet and what Wilke hopes to accomplish through it. Although Wilke is often less strident in his criticism of advertising than Key and Jhally, his website would have no reason to exist if gay/lesbian themes were treated without prejudice by advertising.

William M. O'Barr
Editor

 

 

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