Window displays are clearly neither the principal nor the only way to arouse commercial curiosity. Contemplating a window display is always about being located at a precise moment in the trajectory of marketing objects and subjects, between past offers and future novelties; it is also always about having someone (or something) behind you as well as in front of you. Behind you, on the side of the street, and in public space, the window display is caught amongst the infinitely wider discourses of rumour, the press, and advertising; in front of you, on the side of the shop, and its private space, the objects shown in the window display are themselves enveloped in the more local coverings of packaging – covers that we must pass through should we want to consume them. I would now like to turn to these two spaces, which both prepare (in the case of advertising) and prolong (in the case of packaging) the curiosity operative in the window display.
I intend to demonstrate that packaging is a paradoxical driving force of curiosity. Packaging activates the tension inherent in every ‘re-presentation’ (Latour 1995). On the one hand, the text it features tells us what things are contained within. On the other, this text and what it says, cannot convey everything about these things and therefore cannot represent exactly what they are. It follows that packaging inevitably activates this tension, even if unintentionally: it creates a gap, a horizon of expectations, the desire to have things clear in one’s mind and to use one’s own senses to assess the balance between the cover’s promises and the properties of its content. Thanks to the invention of ‘teaser campaigns’, advertising takes advantage of this gap itself by re-enacting the spatial difference between the packaging’s outer message and inner content, in the form of a temporal gap between the promise being hinted at, and the promise being realised. It is these two methods of arousing curiosity that I would thus like to analyse, first by studying in greater detail the way they work, based on two suitable cases, then by considering one of their recent metamorphoses, which invites us to journey through a new ‘wonderland’.
Packaging (Teasing, Scene 1)
With only a few exceptions, packaging is as opaque as the window display is transparent. The box – by hiding its content, while at the same time providing a few indications about its nature and postponing the discovery of what is inside until later – uses Bluebeard’s three old tricks: an appeal to curiosity, the progressive revelation of content, and the preparation of a surprise. Packaging moves us towards making a purchase so that we can rip off the cover, just as the heroine in the story is always made to turn a key in order to be able to see what is on the other side of the door – with the associated pleasure and risk of surprise, which are to a person what the event is to a story.
Nevertheless, it is precisely concerning the surprise and its meaning that the tale and the packaging differ, or rather begin to differ. The tale makes a very clear choice to destroy the heroine’s dream with the occurrence of the ‘nasty surprise’, which we saw is also paradoxically an exquisite surprise for the reader: it is indeed the shiver produced by the unexpected discovery of the corpses that lends the tale its appeal, as if the taste for morbid spectacles at one time condemned by Saint Augustine had suddenly became acceptable, to the extent that it is offered to children. The tale therefore sets up a nasty-but-nice surprise, oscillating between the negative and positive according to whether we adopt the heroine’s or the reader’s point of view (this is a judgement that in turn can vary according to whether the reader himself identifies to a greater or lesser extent with the heroine1). Packaging sets up a far more complex set of operations, both regarding expectations and their satisfaction, given that fearing the worst and hoping for the best can, depending on the case, turn into a nice or a nasty surprise, or simply into a lack of surprise, when upon opening the box the buyer encounters a near-perfect match between the container and its content. Whereas the tale’s heightening of ambiguity only involves varying points of view, and while the nature of the final secret is utterly unambiguous – highlighted, in particular, by the repetition of references to ‘hooks’ – the uncertainties surrounding packaging involve the evaluator as much as that which is being evaluated: a judgement as to whether a surprise is ‘nice’ or ‘nasty’ involves both the multiplication of points of view, as well as the multiplicity of the objects being subject to inspection.
However, and contrary to the version of the tale set in stone by Perrault (which constantly repeats the same scene and is intended to be read identically), packaging confronts us with a far more fluctuating set of situations. The countless experiences of opening packaging have tended to bring about an evolution in the results of the task. Over time, a spectacular inversion between the proportion of nasty and nice surprises has been produced, in favour of the latter. How can we explain such an inversion? Historically, packaging was first perceived as an opportunity for potential fraud. By pushing the assessment of content beyond a commercial setting, the public was right to suspect that it was only being used to conceal a lack of correspondence between the proclaimed and actual content, to the benefit of the shopkeeper (Strasser 1989). Nonetheless, as irony would have it, through an extraordinary reversal that is integral to the functioning of the device itself – this is the first surprise of the surprise device – ever since appearing, packaging has actually presented itself as a tool employed for eradicating the fraud it was believed to supposedly encourage. Here, the word ‘reversal’ must be understood not only in the figurative sense of a turn of events, but also as meaning an actual inversion of the inside and outside, as if turning a coat inside out; as though the package’s content had migrated onto the surrounding surface, to the point that reading the text on the box becomes even more reliable than taking a detour into its content. In fact, packaging has the incredible virtue of being able to teach us more about the content it conceals than the content can do by itself: it enables us to be given information about a product that no sensory experience of the same unadorned product could ever provide us with, such as details about its composition or its origin. At the beginning of the twentieth century, in the context of major national legislation concerning product quality and safety – the French Law of 1905 on the prevention of fraud (Canu and Cochoy 2005; Stanziari 2005), the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act in the United States (Presbey 1929; Frohlich 2007), and others – the law turned these sorts of specificities into statutory obligations, and thus into contractual commitments. Instead of operating as an opportunity for fraud, packaging has become one of the best means of preventing it, given that once the information on the boxes had been signed with the manufacturer’s name, it offered the means of finding and punishing potential fraudsters, to the extent that now (and as was recently underscored by Alexandre Mallard (2009)), the scandals that we still occasionally encounter within markets (Besançon et al. 2004) are an exception to the ordinary situation, namely the most common, which rather demonstrates that extreme trust is the law of the market, and that breaking it is the exception.
From this point of view, social sciences lag behind the path pursued by the history of the market. Economic sociology (and more particularly the sociology of quality) has paid considerable attention to the question of information asymmetries, by focusing either on the economics of quality (Karpik 1989; Stanziari 2005), or the dynamics of product description (Callon et al. 2002; Cochoy 2002). In economics, information asymmetry is represented as a tool available to the seller that inevitably works against the buyer, as a perversion of the market: since we assume the actors are opportunists, the one who conceals something from his partner inevitably takes the opportunity to trick him for his own benefit, in order to achieve a larger profit. There is the canonical example of the used car market: in this market, the seller knows more than the buyer and, if the product is faulty, he will not hesitate to conceal this information and sell it at the normal price, thus making what is a dubious profit, to say the least (Akerlof 1970). In other words, in the economics of quality, the ‘surprise’ is implicitly assumed to be unavoidably ‘nasty’; in a market filled with rational actors, the partial concealment of an aspect of a real situation inevitably lends itself to the deliberate exercise of fraud.
However, with respect to these issues, economics, and even more so sociology, have intervened at the wrong time. When writing his famous article, even Akerlof conceded that actors on the ground did not wait for the formulation of his model before establishing their own diagnosis and developing sets of solutions that he is very honest to list: he mentions guarantees, brands, chains, certification systems – ‘even the Nobel prize, to a certain extent’, explains a mischievous note written by the prize’s future recipient, evidently reluctant to recognise the merits of certain laureates whose own arrogance is mocked in the article! How very unlucky: the one time an economist appeared to be receiving the unanimous praise of sociologists, to the point of becoming excited about the heuristic power of a pure, tough model, perfectly fashioned and indexed according to a series of extremely simplistic hypotheses, of the kind loved in economics and hated in sociology, no one – except the brilliant Akerlof himself! – noticed that this model had been obsolete ever since its creation. One does not need to be a specialist historian of the markets to know that the guarantees, brands, chains, and labels that Akerlof mentions in support of his argument are not his own inventions, but rather antidotes that have long existed as a counter to the emergence of opportunism in situations of informational asymmetry.2 In other words, the economics and sociology of quality are of very little use: their arguments and results are perfectly correct and even enlightening, but they are also completely redundant in relation to what actors (perhaps except for some of Akerlof’s colleagues) already knew, and were doing, long before their formulation.3
On the other hand, it is surprising to observe the extent to which these works have ignored the role played by the resource of surprise (this time in the positive sense of the word), even though the organisation of nice surprises is the only form of information asymmetry with which the professionals are still free to play, ever since the nasty surprise of fraud was seriously hindered by the mechanisms of contractual obligation that govern the management of packaging. The ‘nice surprise’ does however lend another sense to information asymmetry as desirable asymmetry, and in particular as information asymmetry desired on both sides: both on the supply side – proven by the recurrent use of contests, gifts, ‘bonuses’, praising ‘new releases’, and teaser advertising (see above) – and on the demand side, as revealed in the emblematic example of the receipt of gifts.
Box 2. The Gift Package: The Economics of Surprise
Within economic sociology, ever since Mauss, we have gone on endlessly about gift-giving. However, generally we have done so from a rather disembodied perspective, restricting ourselves to questions that are both accounting-related, involving the opposition between what is given freely and what is calculated, or social, oriented around gift-giving as the basis for a collectivity. More innovative works have demonstrated the extent to which gift-giving and market exchange, far from being mutually exclusive, are mutually reinforcing (Callon and Latour 1997). The gifts that circulate in the context of the market economy are an excellent illustration of this intricate relationship between gift and market; on the one hand because in this kind of economy offering gifts develops the underlying market, and on the other because thanks to the gift and counter-gift, presents themselves are a powerful vector of commoditisation and socialisation (Winnepenninckx-Kieser 2008).4 However, no matter what their merits, perhaps none of these approaches take into sufficient account the material nature of gifts.
However, taking their material nature into account allows us to be able to consider the relationships between gift and market differently. As these gifts very often appear in the form of packages, presents take us into an economy of surprise where, even before the delay separating gift and counter-gift occurs, the delicious suspense of discovering the former is in operation. Gift packages employ a form of hyperbolic informational asymmetry, given that they produce even more pleasure by being completely hermetic, opaque, and mysterious. More specifically, they appear simultaneously as a form of ‘anti-packaging’ and sublimated packaging. The gift is anti-packaging because it conceals everything and says nothing, whereas conversely, ordinary packaging shows almost everything and says a lot. However, it is sublimated packaging in that it takes the two fundamental incentives for packages to their limit, consisting in splitting the act of consumption in space by establishing a hermetic boundary between the container and its content, and in time, by separating the moment of purchase from that of consumption. This double characteristic of the gift package shifts the problems of the market and the gift somewhat: whereas the wrapping paper detaches the object from its market origins (Brembeck 2007), the curious excitement of unwrapping cancels out, at least for a while, the horizon of the counter-gift so as to focus the subject’s attention on the pleasurable struggle both with the wrapping and of discovering the object.5
Packaging (or arranging the surprise that goes with it) clearly brings the deliberate (or obligatory) exploitation of information asymmetry into play. However, it shows us that rather than inevitably leading actors towards valuing the lowest price, economic calculation can on the contrary inspire them to be honest and/or generous, to the extent that, in this case, rationally taking advantage of the information asymmetry leads, in a spectacular turn, not to the depreciation but rather to the preservation, or, in the best case, to the enhancement of the quality in question.
The preservation of quality is the most common. This is where the surprise (from the economist’s point of view, who is completely surprised to see calculation not being taken to its limit, despite such a wonderful opportunity to do so!) is the absence of surprise: this is the situation where the opening of a package confirms the accuracy of all the information intended to describe its content – as if the actors had not given into opportunistic temptation. In the second case, the package does not contain exactly what the packaging had promised, but this discrepancy operates in favour of the buyer, in the manner of a ‘nice surprise’. This surprise could take the form of a quantitative surplus – the package contains more product units than indicated on the label – but also a qualitative gain that is rarer and/or harder to assess, when the product is decorated with, or accompanied by, more qualities, objects, or services than the label was able, or wished, to announce. In each of these scenarios, it is as if the logic of the ‘efficiency wage’, dear to labour economists, had migrated towards the market for goods and services, in the form of an ‘efficiency bonus’. In the same way that in the labour market the payment of a salary above the market rate allows an employer to expect greater commitment from his employees (Shapiro and Stiglitz 1984), going beyond the promises of the packaging is to play on the strengthening of customer loyalty. Who has never experienced the satisfaction of discovering that an ordinary product bought at a cheap price was much better than its packaging and/or price might have led us to expect? It must be noted, however, that very often actors find it difficult to resist the temptation to reveal the logic of this bet after its implementation (like a secret we cannot keep), either directly, with comments such as ‘X% extra product free’, or indirectly, and in a way that is perhaps more rhetorical than literal, as exemplified by the hilarious tics of ‘Monsieur Plus’, the hero of the famous adverts for the Bahlsen cookie company.
What the information asymmetries in packaging employ most often, however, are neither errors of judgement, involving mistaking a poor quality product (in Akerlof’s case) or a more abundant or better quality product (in the case I just mentioned) for the standard product, nor the hope of consumer loyalty or a repeat purchase if they are satisfied, but rather the excitement provoked by the promise of the packaging and the obstacle that this nevertheless presents. This gap establishes a differential; a tension, in the physical sense of the word, whose emergence often calls on desire to resolve it. In this case, the surplus value attached to the use of informational asymmetry is quite different from the pattern described by Akerlof, both in terms of supply and demand. On the supply side, this surplus does not lie with the negative or positive variation of the content’s quality but rather in the ‘game’ played by the packaging itself: it offers both the potential for a mismatch and/or fun. On the demand side, this surplus activates an asymmetry which differs from classic forms of information asymmetry. Whereas the latter is not perceived by the customer, the new asymmetry is, on the contrary, sensed as an expectation of ‘something different and desirable’ that nevertheless remains, if not a mystery, then at least an object worthy of discovery. The added-value here does not stem from a particular input but rather from the input of novelty or the hope of novelty. The device is very close to the excitement of a striptease, which draws the spectator into being involved in an enjoyable sequence of expectation and discovery, as we shall see from following a 1955 campaign carried out by Kellogg’s (the cornflakes manufacturer) in order to promote a new form of packaging design.
The choice of cornflakes is all the more significant as this product played an emblematic role in the history of packaging. The Quaker Oats company, to make a profit out of investments in expensive machinery designed to guarantee continuous production, had the idea of packaging its product to distinguish it from other cornflakes, which tended to be lower quality and sold loose. This enabled them to combat fraud by establishing competition oriented around quality, to invent a market for breakfast cereals, to promote their brand name, and to conquer the whole American market via its national advertising campaigns (Chandler 1977). Along the way, the development of breakfast cereal played a decisive role in extending the activities not only of cereal farmers, but also of the railways that assured its national distribution, as well as in both the growth of the paper industry involved in manufacturing the cereal boxes, and the considerable expansion of magazines responsible for advertising (Presbrey 1929: 438).
Packaging transforms a logistical constraint into a playful device. As in a striptease scenario, it manages to convert the fleeting encounter between a consumer’s gaze and a richly coloured scripted surface into a scenario seen as likely to extend over time. This is what is clearly demonstrated by the rhetoric of the Kellogg’s packaging which consists of a representation not only of the product, but also its origins (a fresh bunch of grapes), and its destination (an appetising bowl of cereal with raisins).
By proceeding in this way, this packaging breaks from the product’s lateral position amongst its competitors and enrols the consumer in a longitudinal and longer-term experience of consumption. From this perspective, the device genuinely employs a technique of manipulation. For the psychologists Beauvois and Joule (1987), manipulation refers to any strategy designed to lead people into doing something that they would not have done spontaneously, but without either forcing or duping them. The trick is sequential: manipulating someone consists of involving them in a step-by-step decision-making process. Over the course of the process, people will obtain all the information they need in order to make a rational choice, but they will only receive it progressively. The most appealing information is provided at the beginning, whereas negative information is only revealed at the end, before the final decision. Experiments show that once people have been attracted to and are involved in the decision-making process, they find it difficult to go back and abandon choices that were previously considered, even once they eventually possess those elements in the assessment that, from the perspective of a purely rational choice, should lead them to abandon their initial plan.
The ‘raisin bran’ packaging clearly places the consumer within this type of sequential decision-making process. However, in this case, the manipulation is reinforced from two sides. The first reinforcement involves a subtle temporal trick. What should logically be considered as the first stage in a sequence of manipulation – that is to say, the initial offer made to the consumer – intervenes here as the second stage, in a longer story that links consumer and product even before they have encountered one another in the shop. In fact, in the imagery of the lovely bunch of fresh grapes, the consumer is meant to understand that she or he is already implicated in the product’s lifecycle. Thus, from the moment of the first visual contact with the packet, the subject is already being drawn in. In other words, the consumer is discreetly led into following the logic of a striptease, in a literal sense, in which excitement comes from reading, ordering, and working out the promises associated with the progressive discovery of vignettes within a very real ‘storyboard’. He is at the very centre of a linear story that moves from production (the grapes) to consumption (the cereal, raisins, and milk in a bowl), while being invited to complete this story, and to commit himself to the next stage of buying the packet so that the narrative – running from production to consumption, via the purchase – becomes well-ordered. This is how real life corresponds with the life that is depicted. This is how desires and promises are fulfilled. Everything happens like in a game of strip poker, in which players have to ‘pay to see’ the cards (open the box) so as to discover what the story is all about.
The second reinforcement stems from the customer’s cognitive enrolment. Paradoxically, the packaging’s material striptease is both much ‘hotter’ and more universal than the sexual striptease of specialist clubs. It is much hotter because, with the packaging, the (usually male) spectator is not restricted to passively watching a striptease. On the contrary, he is invited to take part, to get to grips, physically, with the performing entity, as if the spectator were able to touch and undress the striptease artist and even leave the club with her in order to continue the operation at home. It is far more universal as it is neither limited to an adult audience nor in any way towards a single motivation. On the contrary, it is addressed to men and women, adults and children: anyone who finds themselves attracted to a very long list of motivations and pleasures.
Far from being a fragile metaphor arbitrarily chosen to deal with the appeal of packaging, the logic of the striptease is clearly the pragmatic logic which professionals themselves use, as we can see from the entire advertising insert from which my example is taken, shown here:
This Kellogg’s advert is presented as a six-panel ‘storyboard’ published in the magazine The Progressive Grocer. The wording of the advert consists of a spectacularly reflexive and ‘back-to-front’ use of the striptease: each of the new elements and advantages of the new packaging are presented in sequential fashion, in a folded leaflet that ranges from employing ‘nudity’ to the ‘appropriate clothing’. The sequence begins with an intriguing cover that at first conceals everything else, as long as the leaflet remains folded: that of an enigmatic ‘naked box’ with only the Kellogg’s logo visible. This logo is repeated obsessively on the box’s surface, like the texture of a skin, or as if it had been drawn by Andy Warhol, the artist of the moment (particularly in the advertising sector!). An unknown hand deepens the mystery of the packaging by placing a first ‘garment’ onto the box: ‘Fresh from Kellogg’s of Battle Creek: Packaging with a Purpose’. But what purpose? It is only by unfolding the leaflet that in the next three panels we discover (in the real sense of the word) a set of similar boxes, this time modestly covered with product names and graphic illustrations, which gradually reveal themselves bit by bit. The world of clothing is not only suggested by the supportive navy-blue velvet in the background, but also by presenting the products according to the logic of a real fashion show, with all the elements that make up the complete collection of cereal boxes being exhibited from left to right. Finally, the last two panels, covered with text, reveal the deeper meaning of the Kellogg Company’s ‘purpose’: the fifth page announces that ‘The purpose of these new packages is simply to sell; to sell the fastest selling cereal even faster. Faster selling for you, for us – faster buying for your customers. Everyone benefits. These new ‘bank note’ packages on your shelves are as good as money in the bank’. The last panel provides impressive evidence of the scope of its campaign: ‘Biggest ad campaign ever: Selling to 160 million people’, and so on. This advert is aimed at professionals in retail distribution and in making profit; here it is Kellogg’s that is trying to tease the grocers so that they, in turn, can tease the consumers, so that ‘everyone benefits’. By proceeding in this way, the campaign partly reveals a final game of bodies and clothes, in which each market actor and mediator hides behind the other: the grocer behind the consumer; the manufacturer behind the grocer; the trade press behind the consumer; the grocer and the manufacturer; and on and on (Cochoy 2008b).
In the final analysis, product assessment involving the progressive revelation of packaged information does not have to be abstract, cold, and descriptive, distant from the ‘flesh and bones’ of products. On the contrary, thanks to the curiosity that is aroused by this way of getting to know economic objects, the packaging itself becomes as warm and tangible as its content. Through curiosity, packaging tries to build ‘attachments’ (Gomart and Hennion 1999); it tries to warm up the relationships of consumption; it attempts to help us find the sensory glow of the goods that, throughout its history, it has tended to conceal (Cochoy 2004). Packaging does this by showing the products directly through narratives, through appealing arguments, and representations, or, indirectly, by playing with ideas, values, identities, and symbols.
The Kellogg’s advert, however, acts as a hinge between two devices: on the one hand, it features packaging and the ways in which it can be designed so as to magnify the power of seduction; on the other, this scenario is itself presented as an advert, whose discursive trick consists in intensifying the narrative sequence that is inherent to this specific form of packaging, while using the same type of procedure, albeit this time applied to advertising. We thus understand that the methods for arousing curiosity are layered, involving not only a game at the level of each constituent element – window display, shelves, and grocer’s bank account; the brand, product description, and box’s contents; the discourse, the ‘storyboard’, and how the advert unfolds – but also the ordered way in which these themselves are ‘packaged’; the forms of advertising that cover the commercial spaces that enclose the forms of packaging that, in turn, house the product.
Advertising (Teaser, Scene 2)
The advert thus occupies a position that looks over others,7 giving it a particularly unique role in terms of instigating commercial curiosity. The carnal game of unpacking the multiple layers inherent to packaging is in fact often largely prepared further upstream by the advert that appears like a first virtual envelope, a first appeal, and a first piece of bait in the game of arousing curiosity. With the first veil of the advert lifted, people should be led into removing, one by one, the other layers that separate them from the product they desire, or are made to desire. However, this game reaches maximum intensity when the advert itself, even before it has indicated the other coverings that are its very job to point towards, mimics the next game, becoming no longer just a metaphorical striptease, as with the Kellogg’s packaging, but sometimes a literal striptease, as in the case that follows. It is this spectacular manner of arousing curiosity that I would now like to focus on, by examining an extremely famous advert that – at least in France – is considered to be an archetypal masterpiece of ‘teaser’ advertising (Lendrevie and Baynast 2008).8
This advert, known as Myriam and remembered by all those who lived through the beginning of the 1980s, consisted of a series of mysterious posters that appeared at the end of August 1981, on 900 4 x 3 billboards across Paris and six other French cities (Le Monde 1988; Devillers 2001; Mantoux 2010). The first poster shows a pretty woman in a green bikini with a beach in the background, between a blue sea and sky. This anonymous person announces, in an inset that acts as a speech bubble: ‘On 2 September, I’ll take the top off’. No other information is given on the poster: just as we do not know the names of the blue-bearded man and his wife, we do not know the name of the model in the green bikini, or of course the advertiser’s identity and intentions. On 2 September, we find the young woman in the same place and the same position, except that she has indeed removed the top half of her bikini and has thus unveiled her bosom. This new shot announces: ‘On 4 September, I’ll take the bottom off’. The fascination of this slow-motion ‘soap opera’ and the incredulous anticipation of full nudity, as presaged by the initial promise, inevitably leads to major questions in both private and public, echoed in the media, as people excitedly await the day after tomorrow. On 4 September, Myriam does indeed take off the bottom of her bikini. However, this time the photograph is taken from behind, with the comment: ‘Avenir, the billboard company that keeps its promises’.9
The singular notoriety of this campaign is no doubt connected to its extraordinary ability to bring together (in one space and with astonishingly few means at its disposal) an impressive number of resources to support its effectiveness. As we shall see, these resources, which constitute a veritable grammar of curiosity, are at once fun, logical, mathematical, linguistic, semiological, anthropological… and even physiological, mechanical, pragmatic, humorous, and magical!
With Myriam we once again encounter a dimension of the game that we discovered in the window display, although here divination is replaced by the riddle.10 The game draws together charades and logical inference. As we know, charades involve setting two riddles, one concerning the whole, the other concerning each of the elements intended to lead to that whole. Here, the mechanism is similar: the context of city billboards invites passers-by to assume an overall meaning – if it is an advertising campaign, it must be trying to sell us something, but what? – and thus invites them to consider each of the posters as a clue to the whole they have to find.
It is here that logic intervenes. Everyone understands from the outset that the game’s outcome is based neither on chance, nor, as in a competition, on a personal appraisal, but rather on producing endogenous knowledge, whose elaboration the messages suggest bit by bit. This ‘involves’ passers-by in the co-production of meaning over the course of a real experiment, which consists of the posters’ successive proposals and the hypotheses and the verifications made by the reader. The logic at work is very similar to that of a recursive mathematical series; that is, a calculative rule in which each natural number n is associated with a specific real number, whose value is determined by those previous occurrences. Conversely, when we know the successive values in a series, we are quickly led both to work out the underlying calculative rule and to anticipate the elements that will follow according to this rule. Therefore, when I see a series of images, each of which represents a body adorned with a set of items but each time stripped of one once compared to the previous image, I am logically led to anticipate, at least as a mental hypothesis, the third stage, the naked body that is, since it is all that is left after the removal of the solitary remaining element. And I am all the more likely to follow the series given that each image provides me not only with a succession of values, but also a calculative rule, allowing me to predict their succession: ‘every two days the image will be the same as the previous, minus an item of clothing’ or, to put it in mathematical terms, ‘for the series of a number of garments, U, for every U of rank n, the value of Un equals Un-1-1’.
This logical-mathematical device is reinforced by another device, this time linguistic. In a sense, this should not be surprising: all things considered, the traditional opposition we usually establish between the ‘literary’ and ‘mathematical’ worlds does not hold, given that mathematics is purely a language, and that language, on the other hand, only has meaning by virtue of meaning, in other words because of the logic it is responsible for establishing and conveying. Nonetheless, the interweaving of the games of series and language at work in Myriam is rather unusual. This advert is based on a succession of promises that are each either followed or accompanied by the realisation of the precedent. Now, we know that in linguistics, a promise is a pure example of what can be termed a performative utterance, as opposed to a so-called constative one (Austin 1961). Whereas the latter establishes a link between itself and the world that is either correct or incorrect (for example, ‘I am wearing a bikini’), the performative utterance refers to a world that is neither right nor wrong, but which it contributes towards realising (‘I promise that on 2 September, I’ll take off my bikini top’). Utterances of this kind – called ‘speech acts’ because of their ability to have an impact on the world rather than describing it – have two dimensions. The first, termed ‘illocutionary’, is inclined towards the utterance itself, given that it specifies the intention (in this case, a promise; in others an order, a threat, and so on.). The second, termed ‘perloctionary’, is by contrast inclined towards the effect produced by the utterance (for example, the belief in the promise, or its actual delivery). What is particular about the pattern in Myriam is that, after the second poster, each promise is accompanied by the previous one being realised: if, for each promise P, of rank n, in which * marks a promise delivered, the resulting sequence is P1 ; P1* + P2 ; P2* + P3, a sequence which refers to a more general structure that we can write as P(n1)* + Pn. Roland Canu, in the conclusion of a study demonstrating the importance of decisions and prior constraints in the development of an environmental labelling device, noted that ‘certainly, saying is doing, however just as often it is having done’ (Canu 2011a). In our case, on each occasion, saying means having done but also doing, and it is doing with all the more certainty given that we have shown that we have done so before. In other words, with Myriam, what was said plays a role in what is said: for every event that follows, the fulfilment (performation) of the previous promise increases the performativity of the next. The method is all the more effective as the statement involves both the anaphoric repetition of a strictly identical structure – ‘on (date X) I will take off (clothing Y)’, reinforced by the visual anaphora of an unchanged scenario, and the variation of its referent – on each occasion, the date and clothes change.11 Here we find two conditions that are essential for the performativity of certain language acts. The first is their continuous reiteration, allowing the words to ‘take shape’ and the ‘bodies’ to exist through these words, without which they would amount to very little (Butler 1988). The second is the language’s ability to act as the world’s ‘ventriloquist’, making it speak and express its power not only through its words (Cooren 2010), but also through the intervention of ‘wordjects’; that is to say, objects that are articulated like words (Cochoy 2010a).12
Nevertheless, the playing of the game, the use of logic, and the reception of performative language together produce a disturbing result, given that, rather than bringing us closer to the product, they lead us to anticipate the model stripping completely, without being able either to discern the intention or to believe it possible, ‘all moral standards and advertising logics being equal’. In fact, as the campaign progresses, social conventions, the rules applicable to advertising, and, more generally, the laws penalising indecency, render each promise more unlikely than the previous.13 Undoubtedly, showing bare breasts is not without scandal, but, as an act, it does seem to have reached the pinnacle of possible licentiousness, to the extent of making further transgressions simply unthinkable. This was 1981, that is to say a time when the topless trend, while widespread (Kaufmann 1998), was also far from the ‘porno chic’ that was to follow (Heilbrunn 2002), and a period in which feminist criticism seized on advertising and when the law governing it underwent significant development (Parasie 2010).
Furthermore, advertising cannot, by definition, be anonymous and free: the person bearing the cost of the campaign has a brand to promote and a product to sell, so displaying nudity for free hardly seems compatible with the rationality of advertising inherent to urban billboards. That said, the three stages of undress are compensated for by three other layers that act to minimise the scandal: firstly, the era of bare breasts bolstered public tolerance for such displays; secondly, the beach featured in the background places the foreground (the naked breasts) in an everyday accepted context (Kaufmann 1998); lastly, the contextual framework of the billboard isolates the message within a space of expression which, because it appears in the public space of the street, enjoys the licence afforded to advertising professionals. Nevertheless, this licence remains subordinate to forms of legal regulation that remain vague and unstable, largely contingent on complaints and case law (Iacub 2008; Cochoy and Canu 2006). Because of this (given the time, place, and the way the act of viewing is framed), everyone understands that the second poster takes the exhibition of the body to the limit of acceptability;14 beyond which it would almost certainly tip over into scandal and transgression, especially for the person who remains stubbornly and determinedly stood in front of us, and whose legs are also slightly apart,15 according to a staging that was accurate to the millimetre:
It was very easy, but very precise, so he [the photographer] already knew exactly where I should place myself […] there was a picture that had been done beforehand, and we just copied the picture exactly (Author’s interview with Myriam).
In other words, what is logical when inside the frame is not logical when outside it, or when trying to deduce the next phase: the performative virtues of the successive statements, at least from the second poster onwards, come up against the ‘infelicitous conditions’ surrounding them, which cast doubts on the performance that is promised. It is precisely this blurring of mathematical logic, linguistic performativity, and social routine that makes the campaign either so attractive or so disturbing, by taking curiosity to its limit. The cognitive dissonance between performative logic and the social-legal-economic conditions that limit the campaign plunge the passer-by into a whirlwind of calculations: They wouldn’t really dare? Who are they? What are they looking for? What is the meaning of all this? Where are we going? Is it tolerable? There must be a trick, but which one? Gradually curiosity becomes a plot, both in the sense of a story and an enigma. As the plot proceeds, a hypothesis of humour germinates as something of a saving grace. Tinged with both anxiety and pleasure, it is the small act of complicity often associated with advertising (Parasie 2010), consisting of joining in the game of co-producing the message, both in order to understand it and to be reassured (Cochoy 2011b).16
One of the remarkable aspects of the plot lies in its particularly distended and discontinuous nature. We find here a mode we had come across in Bluebeard, in which certain passages stretched time with the help of remote dialogues, delays, anaphora (Anne, sister Anne…’), and others (see above, chapter 1). However, with Myriam, the method becomes exaggerated. With every poster being replaced every two days, it is as if the story had been divided into a corresponding number of sequences and was delivered across a number of episodes as a soap opera. This way of working introduces a radical alternation between statement and reception. The method first requires personal and emotional involvement. As successive posters each ‘press pause’ for two days, it becomes possible for passers-by to come across them in several different places, to pass in front of them several times and thus to experience the message, and be moved and/or made to think about it before the next is discovered. Above all, this ‘pause mechanism’ enables a move beyond the bilateral relationship between transmitter and receiver that is characteristic of advertising. The sequence and the emotional charge, doubled by the suspension of time, provide the opportunity for the activation of a multilateral relationship: each person, confronted by his or her own perplexity and feelings (curiosity but also rejection, incredulity, disapproval, amusement, excitement…) has the possibility of sharing these with their loved ones and thus becoming involved in the creation of collective interpretation and judgement through their shared curiosity.17 To put it in Durkheimian terms, the unfolding proliferation and suspension of the campaign puts to the test a strong and definite state of collective emotion. Rather than being only commercial, the production of advertising is also (above all?) social. Perhaps more than other consumption practices (Gaglio 2008), this type of media in fact has an astonishing ability to test social norms on a large scale; it allows limits to be explored, for their basis to be expressed, and for experimentation with future potential developments. Advertising works on the relationship to/with values; it excites its audience and at the same time triggers conversation, indignation, and a desire for reassurance. By creating the conditions that encourage debate, the Myriam soap opera, both in terms of its content and the time available, is the forerunner of today’s ‘buzz’ and ‘viral marketing’ (Mellet 2009). In fact, the campaign’s scandalous and mysterious nature – each time giving the public and the media two days for emotions to be stirred up – also brought considerable press coverage. This spread the message free of charge and maximised public attention as both a positive externality and an echo chamber, resulting in the transformation of a private, individual curiosity into a curiosity that was public and collective:
The irony of the story is that the campaign only ran for ten days. Everyone felt sure they had seen it… whereas most people only learnt about it when they saw the pictures in the papers! (Mantoux 2010).
Some people discerned that behind Myriam becoming a ‘social event’ lay advertising’s pretension or ability to establish itself as a cultural phenomenon. There are many works that refer to advertising as a matter of ‘culture’, both negatively, when criticising the medium for commercialising artistic codes, for contributing to the political economy of symbols (Baudrillard 1981), and for promoting ‘marketing ideology’ (Marion 2004); and more positively, when highlighting the creative contribution of advertisers (Gaertner 2010), and when bringing to light the important cultural role played by advertisers, on the sides of both supply and demand (Marchand 1986; Sauvageot 1987). This said, the ‘ad culture’ should be understood as they do in the French-speaking life sciences: rather than a cause that produces an effect, the ‘cultural’ dimension of Myriam is rather the result of ‘cultivating’ the public, analogous to the ‘cultivation’ of yeast in a petri dish (Brives 2010); advertising is like a lab bench; agencies are ‘laboratories’ where ‘desires’ are cultivated (Hennion and Méadel 1993). More specifically, in the case that interests us, this cultivation consists in immersing those receiving the message in one of those good old stimulus-response-reinforcement loops so dear to historical behaviourism – loops that Daniel Berlyne, a behaviourist specialising in curiosity (Berlyne 1950; 1960), presented as essential drivers of this motive:
We have therefore arrived at the hypothesis that curiosity is aroused in a subject when a question is put to him, whether by himself or by an external agent. Some component (SmD) of the response-produced stimulation resulting from the meaning of the question (rm) is assumed to act as a drive-stimulus. And we can see that the intensity of this drive-stimulus, which will in turn depend on the amplitude of the response (rmH) that produces it, will be one of the most important variables affecting the drive strength of the curiosity (Berlyne 1954: 184).
What else do Myriam’s successive promises do, other than to activate an alternation between the stimuli of the questions and the responses of the subject, which Berlyne seeks to describe in purest Pavlovian-Skinnerian style?18 From Bluebeard to Berlyne, from Berlyne to Myriam, the process is always the same: being proposed a series of enigmatic stimuli (doors, questions, promises), being enticed into anticipating a response, and the latter’s encouragement through instances of confirmation (riches, the solution, the promised body part), so that after each stimulus and each correct answer, the desire to give into giddy curiosity is heightened. It is no coincidence that the B-A BA of behaviourism remains just as relevant and powerful in the contemporary world of advertising (Menon and Soman 2002; Hung 2001), despite the disciplinary tradition having long fallen into academic disuse (Péninou 2003). It might be noted, in passing, that the same can be said of functionalism. Are there not many of us who have experienced this? The contemporary sociologist, who, through inattention, allows a ‘function’ to slip into a sentence or line of reasoning, will soon be called to order by colleagues who will inform him or her about the costs of being caught in an act of analytical weakness.19 The police charged with hunting down outbursts of functionalism are now an integral part of the institutions many people deem necessary for the exercise of proper sociological professionalism. However, the very functions suppressed by the social sciences continue to obsess those on the ground: the engineers, traders, politicians, and above all, consumers, who want things to ‘work’, who want to fulfil their ‘role’, to serve a ‘purpose’, and who, despite function being considered a dirty word by specialists of the social, achieve this rather well. The same applies to advertising, whose manifest function is to sell and whose latent function is, as we saw, to test social norms. The world is full of behaviours and behaviouralities, and of functions and functionalities; since sociologists buried Pavlov and Parson, the world has never been as functionalist and behaviourist (I will come back to this). We are thus witnessing an astonishing over-performativity within markets of certain social sciences that continue to ‘operate’, even after becoming silent (or having been ‘silenced’).
At this point in my investigation, although I have carefully outlined some of the forces that inform the campaign, I have not yet broached that which is essential, the most important and the most profound. Was it the erotic charge of the posters that struck – seduced? shocked? – everyone from the outset? Yes and no. Certainly, the campaign’s erotic dimension is as significant and powerful as it is evident, given that the series of posters, far from simply representing a woman’s body, multiplies it and sets in it motion through a striptease and by gradually increasing the stimulation of the senses. In this respect at least, no one would judge the campaign as being unremarkable or even disappointing, even while it is somewhat ‘easy’, demagogical, and vulgar – indeed, inappropriate. The tendency to play on the metonymy of desires, to display a body in order to sell a product, and to hook a consumer by leading a detour via the emotions, has for a long time been one of the most basic forms of market seduction. The use of sexist representations, including the commercialisation of ‘pretty girls’ in a sales pitch, is now generally considered to be the most basic form of advertising.
Moreover, it is not that clear-cut whether or not the campaign does succeed in approaching the very limit of acceptability without tipping over into the scandalous. As Aymeric Mantoux reminds us in his fascinating column on the history of this advert, the collective emotion generated by the promises of the Myriam campaign was not limited to incredulous curiosity when confronted with the degree of audacity outlined above; among some people it also caused fierce indignation. In Lille, the association Du côté des femmes (On the Side of Women) filed an injunction for ‘gross indecency’, calling it ‘a violation of the dignity of women’ and ‘an incitement to voyeurism’. On 5 September, the Lille court responded favourably to the complaint. In accordance with Articles 283 to 290 of the former Penal Code relating to ‘gross indecency committed in particular through the press and books’, the court ordered the billboard company to ‘partially or totally’ conceal the visible posterior (despite the injunction, it was clearly too late to deal with the breasts as Tartuffe once had, given both the changes in traditions and date!). In Paris, the association Choisir (Choose), led at the time by the socialist Member of Parliament, Gisèle Halimi (involved in advocating for women’s rights), attempted to bring the matter before the National Assembly in order to have an anti-sexist law passed. Finally, Yvette Roudy, the then socialist Minister for the Rights of Women, intervened in the press against what she believed to be an exploitation of the female body and a violation of women’s dignity (Mantoux 2010).
That said, in hindsight, and despite the censors, it appears that Myriam worked more to legitimise than suppress the unashamed commercial representation of female models; alongside the prominent political campaign featuring Mitterrand’s ‘quiet strength’ that appeared a few months earlier, it might even have contributed to turning the French into ad-lovers (Maillet 2010). As Jean-Claude Kaufmann clearly highlighted, the campaign’s primary characteristic is its indomitable ambiguity:
What is one to make of […] Myriam, who in 1981 appeared throughout France, taking off the top before promising the bottom? Feminist movements rose up, believing they had detected the image of a woman in her traditional role as sex object […]. The people interviewed for a survey focused more on the trivialisation of female nudity. The campaign’s success came specifically from the ambiguity (Kaufmann 1998: 60).
Here we find a Durkheimian schema but also its counterpart. In the same way that, in Durkheim, the deviant’s behaviour both underlines and questions a shared norm in preparation for future developments (Durkheim 1986), Myriam’s audacity tests public morals and their potential shifts. However, one must not forget that addressing a shared norm and testing a collective conscience inevitably means there is an effect on those who differ from it, ranging from criminals to paragons of virtue. By appealing to an ‘average’ public sensibility, Myriam could only either enthuse or shock those on either side of this general sensibility: a sexist public, advert lovers, those with an interest in humour or sensuality on one side, and, on the other, adherents to specific religious views, the very prudish, or defenders of the status of women. The scandal was therefore inevitable, but it is also important to note its limited and clearly defined scope and a resulting disapproval which was thus far from general. Myriam’s immodesty is at once passé and persistent and this makes it possible to say that, despite a specific sentence being passed, confined to a particular local context, this campaign managed to go as far as it could in search of a limit, without reaching a breaking point and the risk of public opinion turning against it. This is underscored by the designer of the poster:
We would not have been able to do this campaign five years earlier. At that time we were both at the apogee of feminist movements and in a period of calm: there had finally been a de-escalation, a reconciliation of women with their bodies, with the idea of seduction (Pierre Berville, quoted in Mantoux 2010).
Moreover, ever since Myriam, the advertising industry has continued to use female models, sometimes in far more outrageous ways than in Myriam (Parasie 2010; Heilbrunn 2002). Recently, the French internet service provider Alice even took to the extreme the tried and tested method of associating a product and a female figure, unafraid of completely identifying its brand with the image of a ravishing blonde. However, Alice’s competitor, Neuf Cegetel, immediately ridiculed this approach in a caustic TV advert in which we see two advertising executives arguing with one another during a telephone call about what strategy to use when selling their product. The camera films one of them in his living room, in front of a bay window, with a beach in the background:
— Martin? I’ve read the draft for the Neuf Box ad… What’s with the horse? – Well, you have to make people dream, a beach, a beautiful chick… add a small, fat logo in the corner and you’ve got it… [A blonde in a bikini on horseback crosses the beach in the background] – Yes, but the subject is unlimited calls in France and in 30 other countries. – If that’s the only problem we’ll give her a phone [The same blonde on horseback passes in the background, this time with a phone glued to her ear] – Yeah… – Then, we add comedy… [The blonde in the frame of the bay window falls off the horse] People like comedy… [The offer’s conditions are overlaid and scroll past] – Hey Martin, this ad has got to say that it’s all in the Neuf Box, as well as unlimited calls, all for less than thirty Euros… – Well, that’s what’s written, we even tell people to go to neuf.fr – And we have to show a blonde for that? – Do you prefer brunettes?20
Connoisseurs will have noticed in passing the highly exaggerated (subconscious?) homage to the skilled scenography of Myriam, with the beach, the bikini, the three appearances – the addition of an accessory (the phone) replacing the subtraction of another (the bikini top) – and the final punchline when the model falls (‘this time, I’m removing Alice!’), not forgetting the reflexive reference to the work of advertising, using teasing (the logo ‘N9UF’, that reveals the identity of the advertiser, is not visible at the start of the clip) and the affectionate wink in the direction of a historical preference for brunettes.21 However, this homage to a golden age of advertising know-how that has perhaps passed, achieved on the back of Alice,22 does not wholly do justice to the genius of Myriam, as the latter goes well beyond using the female body for the purposes of marketing. Myriam – by taking excitement and curiosity to their limit, by playing with the three forms of promise, the desire to know, and the revelation of something intimate – does not simply limit itself to the clever use of commercial sexism. It also establishes a highly particular link to the anthropological foundations of curiosity. What is most important therefore lies beyond the body game. In order to demonstrate this, I would like this time to echo the ‘how far can we go’ approach by attempting a rather scandalous exegesis that I am only risking as it is well suited to an advert which, after all, adopted this approach. As we shall see, Myriam echoes the intellectual and sexual burden of Genesis (whose components it mimics), but of course to show them differently, and for an entirely different purpose.
Firstly, Myriam operates a double reversal of the sacred story (and therefore of its profane version, Bluebeard). In the Bible, as in the tale, keeping one’s promises and being curious are completely contradictory: in the Garden of Eden, as in Bluebeard, breaking one’s promise is harshly punished. Conversely, with Myriam, curiosity is needed for the promises to be fulfilled. Furthermore, it leads to them being kept: contrary to Eve and Bluebeard’s wife, Myriam fulfils her commitments, twice over. On the one hand, she maintains the consumer’s involvement in the game; on the other, she honours the advertiser’s word. Every time, the promise that an item of clothing will disappear is scrupulously fulfilled. The second reversal concerns Genesis more specifically.
The excitement of curiosity is a sin connected to the Fall; striptease and curiosity are inseparable. In Genesis, the ‘strip’ (the sequence) involves dressing: the move is from a state of innocent nudity to an awareness of modesty, as Saint Augustine also noted:
Augustine adds a detail […].23 In summary, he claims that Adam and Eve did not just become aware that they were naked but also noticed that lust, about which they knew nothing before the sin, provoked a certain stirring in their bodies. And it was precisely because of this that, albeit too late, they quickly prepared a cache-sexe (From civ. Dei, XIV, 17). However, when this ‘rebellion of the flesh’ occurred, before the concealment of their modesty, that is, Adam and Eve (continues Augustine imperturbably) began to look at their own respectively shameful parts curiosius (XIII, 24, 7). And in this curiosius is a mixture of heightened attention (let us not forget the comparative dimension) and dawning embarrassment, and even, in the persistence of the gaze, and before modesty comes into play, brazen shamelessness. […] after the fall of Adam and Eve and, more specifically, as soon as they look curiosius at each other’s nudity, the life of man on earth would become one of continuous temptation. In sum, man would always have a natural penchant for curiositas (Conf, XIII, 20–28) (Tasitano 1989: 31–32).
What Maria Tasitano is saying (and in particular what Saint Augustine says through her) warrants attention because this argument reminds us that the vine leaves are there to cover the birth of modesty, the awakening of lust, and the guilt inherent to the loss of original innocence. In the Garden of Eden, the curiosity aroused by the forbidden fruit leads to another curiosity, this time spontaneous, concerning bodies. We are therefore better able to understand the reversal operative in Myriam as well as its formidable, yet troubling, ambiguity. On the one hand, her striptease is scandalous because it moves in the opposite direction to Genesis. By activating a curiosity regarding the hidden body, the undressing of Myriam ruins the effort made by Adam and Eve to minimise the consequences of their Fall; it once again exposes the now shameful parts they were trying to conceal. From this perspective, the campaign lies on the side of sin and it is possible to understand how it would have generated criticism. However, from another point of view, it is equally possible to interpret Myriam’s striptease as a backwards movement. It is as if, by lasciviously removing one by one the fig leaves used by our ancestors, after a fashion, to counteract their guilty sexual curiosity, we were – rather than exacerbating the Fall and its disastrous consequences – rewinding the film of Genesis step by step so as to return to the state of original innocent nudity, to a time before the Fall when Adam and Eve were naked,24 when they kept their promises, just like the (still to come) Avenir poster, and when they were not aware of their sensuality,25 as suggested by its creators:
[The controversy] was a heresy. Myriam was a pure product of 1968, she had a perfectly healthy relationship with her body, with nature, a completely guilt-free relationship with nudity (Comments made by Pierre Berville, poster designer, quoted in Mantoux 2010; my italics).
According to this point of view, there was a lucky, innocent coincidence: because two scheduled professional models failed to show up a few days before a photography session that had been organised in the Bahamas, the photographer Jean-François Jonvelle (who specialised, admittedly, in glamour photography!26) suggested one of his friends to the agency, whose real name was actually Myriam. Myriam was therefore not a professional model but an ordinary person, without a tiny waist or overly pronounced features; ‘natural’, in other words, far removed from the oneiric-artificial creatures that tend to populate the world of advertising:
I had quite a natural look and I also had a very natural relationship with my body, and he didn’t want to get too into the female vamp, the enticing woman, that wasn’t really the idea and I think they wanted someone fresh […] Funnily enough, I was 19 at the time and I refused Playboy and that kind of thing but being naked didn’t bother me, in the context a nudity that was natural I was completely at ease. But I had never wanted to associate myself with an image that could be considered even slightly sexual. I didn’t want to do that but the poster was clear because I had seen the drawings, it was…well, I thought it was a good idea… Of course, no one knew that it would be so successful, not me or anyone […] A year later I went on a retreat in a forest, no one saw me any more. [It wasn’t because of the campaign]. When the campaign had so many repercussions I wasn’t really that concerned. I had done it just to earn a bit of money, to pay my rent while I was away, so I wanted to pay for my rent in Paris whilst I was on that retreat. So that is what the campaign did and that was the only purpose of my job as a model, I didn’t want to make a career out of it (Author’s interview with Myriam).
Reading the Avenir poster in this way also means returning to the difficulties within Bluebeard, this tale torn between a moral that is both repressive and permissive, marking the transition between a sacred curiosity (suppressed completely) and a market curiosity (often encouraged). Both of these morals are as entrenched in the posters as they are in the collective subconscious: the ambiguity of Myriam works both through the ever-present discourse of Scripture, in simultaneously referencing the original innocence and the feeling of guilt, and through advertising culture, in oscillating between condemning the commercialisation of the female form and variously accepting it in the name of the candour of humour, a certain emancipation, and a new language (Parasie 2010). On the one hand, just as Jupiter adopted the appearance of Amphitrion to seduce Alcmena, the advertiser borrows Myriam’s body and voice to capture its audience. On the other hand, the discourse of Myriam particularly mischievously revives the two inseparable sides of virtue: the promises made, and the primitive innocence of the undressed body. These virtuous elements are emphasised through the extreme simplicity and starkness of its presentation. ‘Thanks to the naked Eve (‘Ève nue’) coming (‘à venir’: forthcoming) soon, Avenir has arrived (‘est venu’ or, literally, ‘has come’). This subtle pun (in French at least!), at once involuntary and somewhat juvenile, at least has the advantage of folding into a spectacular chiasmus; the entire anthropological background that, whether we like it or not, informs the story.
Box 3. Volvo’s Tentation (temptation) Offers
For those not satisfied with the mirror-image inverted stripteases of Myriam and Genesis, and for those who still doubt the underlying links between advertising teasing and Biblical temptation (because they observe either, at best, the hare-brained ideas of an analyst blinded by his subject or, at worst, a sacrilegious comparison), it is worth taking a detour via the following leaflet by the carmaker Volvo:
This leaflet (almost! See insert 3 below) brings full circle my own stripping of the layers of the history and forces of teasing, given that it manages to draw together across three pages the highly carnal strip-tease-removal of the Kellogg’s example, the triple teasing of Myriam (hooking, unveiling, revelation), and the symbolism of Genesis,27 including the apple, temptation, and not forgetting the fig leaf that discreetly features in the bottom left-hand corner of the far left panel; and, of course, the Fall (‘choose… succumb’ – ‘choisissez… succombez’).28
Of course, the mobilisation of myth is a means for Myriam, not an end. The advert’s anthropological background is directed entirely towards the pragmatic efficacy that is disclosed in the final revelation: ‘Avenir, the billboard company that keeps its promises’. Just as with modern packaging, part of the surprise is, to some extent at least, the lack of surprise, given that the bikini bottom has clearly been removed and the body exposed, despite the model rotating 180°. The ‘reveal’ (from the waist down), seen ‘from behind’ and thus far more acceptable than representing the pubis that is either expected or dreaded – the ‘front’ view – as well as the surprise revelation of the message’s meaning – which consists of promoting, with dizzying reflexivity, the dependability and know-how of advertising professionals – are an occasion for a moment of clarification, for relaxation, and even mutual communion, taking the form of an implicit dialogue between the partners of the exchange: the amused ‘admit that you did not guess the point and that I really scared you!’ by the advertiser is followed by the ‘ah, that’s what it was all about then; I get it now’, which is undoubtedly experienced by the majority of passers-by through registers of admiration, complicity, and relief (tainted for some by slight disappointment or, for others, frank indignation?), through a knowing smile at the corner of their mouths (or pursed lips). The promise was kept perfectly in return for a little moral hazard,29 subtly played on the side of virtue: given that the advertiser scrupulously maintained the model’s initial pose and accomplished the removal of the bottom item of clothing, it was in fact justified, in order to keep its promise, in making the most of the absence of any prior commitment about the viewing angle, at the cost of a whiff of scandal but without risking an outcry. Above all, this final ‘pirouette’, in the true sense of the word, gives the advertiser the opportunity to share with its public Myriam’s point of view, to look with her – and if possible, with it – towards the horizon of advertising territories yet to be conquered.
The structure Pn-1* + Pn continues at least to rank 3, while secretly hoping to retain its validity until rank n, to infinity. Keeping the promise P2 is accompanied by a new promise, P3. Although implicit, the latter is paradoxically the most well understood, the most important, and the most significant of the three, given that the entire campaign is directed towards its performative potential: ‘from this point and from now on “it’s going to be mind-blowing”: if you hire me, I promise to remove all the obstacles you would never have thought able to remove from your path; I will grant your wildest wishes’. Roland Canu (2011b) demonstrated magnificently the extent to which the effectiveness of advertising relies perhaps less on the mysterious power we assign to it than on ploys similar to those employed by the Wizard of Oz, the legendary character who succeeded in making all his companions’ wishes come true by using what were in fact, quite prosaic forms of subterfuge. Avenir’s advertising campaign uses at least four tricks of this kind.
The first involves linguistic confusion. Normally, ‘keeping your promises’ means ‘realising announced objectives’. With Myriam, this ordinary meaning is put forward, while the promise’s actual meaning is more literal, or even literary, given that it limits its respect for commitments to the linguistic scope of the statement: we say what we will do and will do what we say, but we only say and do so in within the closely circumscribed area of the billboard – to the exclusion of everywhere else. In doing so, the campaign undertakes a double substitution of the forms of effectiveness we ascribe to advertising media. On the one hand, the (discursive) fulfilment of a sequence of (still discursive) promises is presented as an (illusory) demonstration of a desired commercial effectiveness; on the other, getting yourself talked about is offered as (false) proof of commercial power, given the distance between notoriety and actual sales.
The Wizard of Oz’s second trick involves a ‘public illusion’, to paraphrase the title and spirit of the famous play by Corneille. In the play, Clindor captivates his father Pridamant by making him believe, thanks to a magician’s tricks, that he was now able to view the life of his son, who he believed had disappeared. In fact, Clindor and his accomplices are themselves acting out his life before Pridamant to convince him of the power of theatre and the nobleness of the acting profession they had embraced. Similarly, Myriam organises a spectacle for the captation of the general public so as to captivate the captors. Now, this strategy reminds us of the conclusion to the second of the morals in Bluebeard: ‘No husband of our age would be so terrible as to demand the impossible of his wife, even if he be such a jealous malcontent; he is meek and mild with his wife. For, whatever the colour of her husband’s beard, the wife of today will let him know who the master is’. Perrault did not know how true that was: with Myriam, it is as if a thousand curious wives had already been recruited to demonstrate to contemporary Bluebeards30 – who now go by the names of Big Blue, Racing Green, the Yellow Pages, Orange, Red Bull, among others! – their ancestor’s system, in order to sell them both the rooms and the keys, to the extent that they are made to fall, quite literally, into a trap of their own making. In so doing, they also validate the irony of behaviourism, according to which the effectiveness of conditioning can be greater for the conditioner than for those being conditioned (with the notable exception, as we shall see, of the conditioner of the conditioners):
In a wealthy economy in which consumers have great latitude of action, suggestion plays a role. There is also manipulation. But who manipulates whom? There can be no doubt that the consumer also manipulates the advertiser, the retailer, and the manufacturer, who all carefully watch for any slight change in consumer tastes and buying inclinations. The often told story of the animal psychologist who spent years training his rats to respond to various stimuli only to realize ultimately his rats regulated his life contains a grain of truth. Among consumer and advertiser, as in all interpersonal relationships, there is interaction (Katona 1960: 242).
However, there is something even more subtle going on. The Wizard of Oz’s third trick consists in initiating and then coming back to a game of masks. The Myriam campaign is not simply any old campaign for any old product. It is indeed an advert, but above all it is an advert about and for advertising. As such, the series of posters possesses a dizzyingly reflexive power: it appears both as a masterful exercise in advertising and as a skilful theorisation of the same; it explores how far it can push its own logic; it theorises and spells out a way of acting whilst simultaneously putting to the test its own exploration and modus operandi. To use a form dear to Roland Barthes,31 the Avenir advert adopts a ‘Larvatus Prodeo’ approach: it wears a mask as it proceeds, adopting Myriam’s features while at the same time (almost) pointing to the mask. The message is: ‘experience the power of the mask and discover the force behind this power’. In fact, if we look closely, the last item of clothing to be removed in the poster is less the bikini bottom than Myriam’s body itself, so as to reveal, through the use of contrast, the entire power of the clothing of advertising in which she has been dressed from beginning to end. In Myriam, the Wizard of Oz is no longer discovered by accident; on the contrary, it is as if the wizard intended to take advantage of the public exposure of his trick, by demonstrating it to be more extraordinary and powerful than the magic it is intended to simulate.
But who is the wizard here? Who is hiding behind the mask of Myriam? Avenir, of course: in the end, it is all too obvious to expose the identity of the campaign’s beneficiary. However, is there not someone else, someone hiding behind Avenir? To answer the question positively means pointing to the last mask, and the fourth and most astonishing magician’s trick. This trick consists in playing with the eminently likely confusion in the mind of the general public between ‘billboard company’ and ‘poster designer’, between services responsible for dealing with the urban logistics of the various messages (managing billboards and putting up posters) and advertising agencies. Just as in Genesis, the ‘work of temptation’ is shared between the Creator, who designs the Garden of Eden, and the snake, who draws attention to the forbidden fruit; in the world of commercial communication the task of arousing market curiosity is split between those who respectively create and display advertising. Avenir falls into the second category: it is a ‘billboard company’ that was bought in 1999 by the street furniture company J.C. Decaux, but whose identity and name was retained, no doubt due to the brand’s reputation ever since Myriam and, of course, thanks to her. However, Avenir is closely linked to another actor, from the first category of advertising specialists: behind Avenir’s mask, and also hiding in the Myriam posters, was the agency CLM/BBDO, of whom the billboard company was but a client. This is what is so extraordinary: the advertising magician does not just have one understudy, but two; CLM/BBDO is wearing the mask of Avenir… who is wearing the mask of Myriam.
This set of masks, whose layering redoubles the removal of layers of clothing, plays on an intoxicating ambiguity that, as we shall see, echoes the forked moral of Bluebeard, but which first and foremost involves the two-sided public addressed by advertising. Advertising is directed at two targets: on the one hand, it is presented to the public; on the other, it is sold or bought by professionals – the press and advertisers, respectively (Chessel 1999).32 So far, I have adopted the public’s point of view: I read the series of posters through the eyes of the everyman – in other words, employing only the skills and knowledge of someone whose eyes landed one day on the Myriam poster series. However, if I switch position and adopt the point of view of advertising professionals, the same campaign takes on a completely different meaning, in a kind of final dramatic twist accessible only to those with the necessary expertise to understand the real hidden agenda, as it were:
There was no intention or desire to shock at all. We wanted to provoke people’s awareness. The brief delivered to the agency by Avenir’s CEO involved a business to business problem: at the time, billboard advertising was not considered to be a reliable media outlet given that posting dates could not be guaranteed. It was difficult to promote. Avenir was the first to develop a system to guarantee posting dates. In order to demonstrate this, we naturally suggested they prove it through billboards, by providing regular deadlines! (Comments by Pierre Berville, quoted in Mantoux 2010).
This was therefore Myriam’s real mission. Behind the double promise to undress – made to the public – lay another double commitment – this time made to its sponsor – involving the tempo of the striptease. Myriam’s mandate (the brief delivered to the agency by the chairman of Avenir) was to act as a promotion that would prove Avenir’s reliability as a billboard company. From this point of view, the performativity of the message is not only self-referential, as I mentioned earlier, but also involves a ‘performance’ that is well and truly material, that is to say indexed to the real world, given that everyone was able to compare the poster’s promises to the actual public calendar. On the other hand, what is shown is a pretext that does not refer to anything real except to its time of exposure: Myriam’s body is phatic; it is only there to say there is nothing to sell or convey except for a coded message aimed at professionals. The real promises kept are in fact less concerned with bodily revelation than with respecting the dates and intervals that ensure the scansion! The original, professional meaning of the messages is in fact as follows:
It is indeed on September 2nd, and no earlier or later, that Avenir will put up the second poster for you; it is indeed on September 4th, and no earlier or later, that Avenir will put up the third poster for you… whatever its content, for better… or worse (a woman, breasts, buttocks, a product… it doesn’t matter: each to their own).
This is what is so essential: ‘unlike its competitors, Avenir is a billboard company that keeps its promises, and these promises are inevitably limited to the logistical management of billboard posting operations, regardless of what is on the billboards themselves’. Therefore, behind Myriam’s ‘generic’ campaign directed towards the general public lay an extraordinary hidden private joke between advertising professionals. There was, in other words, a message that was even more enjoyable for these private addressees given that it involved a double meaning, one intended exclusively for insiders (here, advertising and billposting professionals), the other for a general public incapable of perceiving the first.
In light of this last ‘revelation’, which limits the meaning of Myriam to a business-to-business publicity campaign for a billboard company, must we conclude that the public misinterpreted the campaign, which delivered significant promises in order to benefit a generic and reflexive advert for the advertising industry? Not at all! The ‘private joke’ maintains the possibility of two interpretations. The message varies depending on whether it is the candid Myriam or the astute Avenir who is speaking, or whether Avenir is considered as an ‘advertiser’ or simply as a ‘billboard company’. This discursive virtuosity could not but impress professionals well beyond the limited circle of billboard companies, to the extent that a third kind of performativity can be added to the two others we have already come across. The first, it should be remembered, is a linguistic performativity addressed to customers which consists of making the keeping of promises within the confined space of the posters seem like the fulfilment of real promises. The second is a performativity addressed to advertisers themselves, consisting in linking the timeframe of the promises to the rhythm of the calendar. By combining their powers of impression (both illocutionary and perlocutionary), the effects of these two types of performativity became magnified in the performance of an economic outcome. The result of the campaign in fact far exceeded its initial objectives. By reaching not just the restricted circle of billboard companies at which it was originally aimed, but also the 4,500 French publicists and their advertisers, as well as the media and the general public, the campaign has earned Avenir Publicité two million francs’ worth of advertising revenue since September 1981 (Mantoux 2010).
To the ambiguity of the two-sided public can be added the campaign’s moral ambivalence. Just like the tale of Bluebeard, the story of the girl in the green bikini is open to two interpretations, as we are led to draw conclusions about either the worrying power of the creators of curiosity or their radical innocuousness. On the one hand, the impressive set of levers for action in the poster leads us to conclude that we can never be too careful about advertising:
Be even more careful of commercial curiosity and advertising teasing: you are being had. Look at how duplicitous it all is, how effective this device is, how the promises of advertising achieve their goals, how the surface of advertising hides deeper layers, or even tricks that you will sooner or later fall victim to!
However, the very fact that we are able to experience this kind of mistrust points, paradoxically, to another lesson. If we get the feeling that advertising has a certain influence upon us, it is only because Myriam, Avenir, and, ultimately, the agency CLM/BBDO are pointing at the mask they are wearing and, in doing so, revealing their power as much as boasting about it. ‘From now on we are giving you all the keys, full access; there is nothing to hide: neither upon Myriam’s body, nor beneath the surface. You therefore have nothing to fear; you can no longer complain about what is going on behind the scenes; it is all completely transparent. Those arousers of curiosity are no longer so terrible; do not distrust advertising:
It’s humorous, risk-free, inoffensive, no one is forcing you to buy anything – in fact, look: today we are even putting on a thoroughly delightful free show for you which is not trying to sell you anything except for an enjoyable presentation of advertising industry know-how.
Once again, the advert is not necessarily effective in the way we were expecting it to be; its social contribution is perhaps stronger than its market contribution… even if, of course, the advertisers’ whole trick consists of selling one in order to prove the other. The final manipulation lies perhaps in this act of disengagement: the best way of seducing everyone, including the professionals, would be to show them that they are under no obligation – ‘They must have many other tricks up their sleeve, say the suddenly curious passer-by and advertiser, if they are giving away the secret of a feat as impressive at that’.
Box 4. ‘Adverteasing’: a technique that is older than we might think
I took the decision to illustrate the forces of advertising teasing with the campaign that seems to me to bring them together in the most complete, spectacular, and effective manner. However, it would be wrong to think that we owe the invention of this technique to Myriam. The use of teasing is in fact virtually inherent to the history of advertising, and demonstrates, incidentally, the extent to which the arousal and maintenance of curiosity is at the heart of attempts to establish commercial relations.
The appearance of advertising teasing is inseparable from the difficulties advertising has experienced, from the very outset, in getting itself accepted and noticed. The first issue, concerning the acceptance of advertising, goes back as far as early product features (which incidentally shows that this practice, usually presented as an archaic form of modern advertising, should rather be considered as a prescient representation of its more effective contemporary versions). Recall that these product features appeared in the form of short articles that introduced products using non-advertising arguments, as though about current affairs items or breaking news, similar to what are nowadays called ‘advertorials’. However, if we concern ourselves less with the content of these adverts than their position in the publication, their meaning changes completely: placed on the second or third page of four-page newspapers in the first half of the nineteenth century, product features were followed, on the fourth and final page, by a more conventional advert that spelt out the underlying commercial meaning. The idea was less to arouse curiosity than to discreetly awaken a reader’s initial interest in the product and then to provide him with the means of obtaining it. However, the use of a process of attracting attention that was sequential clearly set up the teasing devices that would follow (Thérenty and Vaillant 2001).
The second issue concerns the difficulties long experienced by advertisers in drawing attention to their messages. In the United States, advertising expression was, until the 1860s, severely hampered by the typographic standards imposed by the newspapers responsible for relaying it. Newspapers – convinced it was in their best interest to fit the greatest number of commercial announcements into the available space and jealous of the technical mastery of printing – obliged advertisers to write adverts that were no more than a few lines, to fit them into a single column, and to use a single font, called ‘Agate’. This all changed thanks in particular to Robert Bonner, a brilliant pressman who published the New York Ledger, a family magazine whose increasing success was due to the appearance of stories commissioned from well-known writers – including, for example, Charles Dickens! To promote his magazine, Bonner found a way of simultaneously freeing himself from the prevailing typographic constraints whilst obeying them, given he had no choice. During a trip to England, he had noticed that English auctioneers advertised their lots as a series of separate adverts, published in a single column, all starting with the same two first lines ‘DANIEL SMITH & SON WILL AUCTION’. Bonner immediately understood the extent to which this anaphoric method could, in his market, introduce a clean break with other adverts. When he was back in the United States, he expanded the method first to two columns, then to the entire page, and was not afraid to repeat the same message – for example: ‘Read the New York Ledger and a new story by Cobb’ – up to 600 times! Driven by the momentum of this, he found other tricks to make his own messages noticeable among the sea of monotonous, individual small ads, for example, by using vertical acrostics to highlight the publication’s name: ‘L-E-D-G-E-R’ (Presbey 1929: 237–238). By demonstrating the absurdity and inefficiency of such typographic constraints, Bonner’s tricks contributed to their abandonment. More importantly for us, such tricks introduced a highly rudimentary form of teasing, involving recognising the lack of raw and immediately available information, creating a ‘hook’, while also, in anticipation of the logic to come, finding a way to be noticed in stages, initially by attracting the customer’s visual and cognitive attention and then, once alerted and intrigued, by revealing the meaning of the message.
Much later, by contrast, during a time in which advertising space had become saturated, other professionals logically adopted the opposite strategy, consisting in capturing the customers’ attention by spectacularly shrinking the visual space, as shown in the example below.
Obviously, here we have a single image rather than a series of posters (as with Myriam) and there is thus immediately some distance from the sequential approach inherent to teasing. However, we soon see that this image is skilfully designed to be read as a series of boxes that are successive and superimposed on top of one another. First the eye is intrigued by the empty space, which provides a stark contrast to the usual graphical saturation of newspapers. The reader is thus led to seek the reason for this anomaly and stumbles upon the curious little three-handed figure. By continuing the exploration, the reader understands, thanks to a few carefully staged instructive indicators – the left hand stationary to help with balance, the right hand mobile, holding the same rag – that this is not about a physical monstrosity but an almost cinematographic method, designed to suggest the frantic rubbing out of what was on the page, of which just a trace remains in the bottom right-hand corner.33 In a third stage, the gaze is then led to swerve to the left, to read the caption that sheds light on the whole scenario: ‘Mr Zog says: “You don’t often see a page as clean as this, do you?” [To get this result] I’ve been using Zog’. In a spectacular fashion, the poster links substance and form to sell a cleaning product: it ‘simulates’ its power by artfully substituting the cleaning product’s actual performance for the performative and self-referential cleaning of the page, in keeping with an approach we will come across in Myriam. The scenario has a manifestly playful dimension that activates the meaning of teasing as ‘seduction’: the situation of reading involves a call for an interactive relationship with the reader, from whom are requested complicity, sagacity, and a sense of humour. It is nevertheless interesting to note, as suggested by Field (1959), to whom we also owe the poster, that printers did not like this genre of posters, no doubt because it rendered their know-how secondary, and thus far from those former blessed times of typographic control, but without giving them the slightest possibility of once again reversing the trend.
Despite the typographers, the same kind of approach reappeared in an even more spectacular fashion in British newspapers during the 1930s, in an astonishing advertising campaign aimed at supporting advertising. As demonstrated by Stefan Schwarzkopf (2004), British advertisers at the time intended not only to counter the effects of the Great Depression that had lost them important clients, but also to prevent consumer organisations from taking off and the growing indictment of advertising as a waste of money, both of which they had witnessed in the United States. Thus, from the first signs of economic recovery in around 1934, the British Advertising Association launched a colossal ‘campaign aimed at the Consumer’, that for six years mobilised hundreds of papers and thousands of adverts, with slogans such as ‘you can put your trust in goods that are advertised’ or ‘it is the GOOD products that have a brand name’. Whereas the campaign’s first adverts conventionally took the form of a slogan followed by explanatory text, a new type of poster appeared in 1936. For example, a blank page, introduced by an enormous question mark in the top left-hand corner, drew the reader’s attention and confusion, who was then led towards discovering, in the diagonally opposite bottom right-hand corner, the meaning of this mysterious empty space: ‘without advertisements you do not know about things you should buy’. Here again we are confronted with a prescient anticipation of the discourse of Myriam, in which the power of teasing is put entirely to the service of a reflexive advert for advertising.
In between the two – teasing through the saturation of the graphic space as invented by Bonner and teasing through the reflexive reduction of advertising discourse – a series of one-off, unconnected innovations were introduced of which it would be impossible to create a complete collection or chronology, but which show that the technique of teasing is inherent to the language of advertising, to all its efforts to arouse the customer’s curiosity in order to attract his or her attention. This, for example, is how Knox, a milliner from New York, invented a new kind of advertising, consisting of establishing a connection to the day’s news: ‘Although Queen Isabelle has lost her crown, the crowns of Knox hats never come loose, as everyone who buys them at Broadway, corner of Fulton Street can testify’ (Presbey 1929: 256). However, the method was risky: a pet shop owner, who used the message ‘I lost my dog, I lost my dog’, with the intention of subsequently showing off his products, was beaten to it and taken advantage of by a competitor: ‘You’ll find your dog where you can also find all the best overcoats: at Blank’s’ (Ibid: 258)!
The interest in ‘teaser ads’ was even clearly identified, formalised, and ‘sold’ for use by professionals, as shown by this short item in the Progressive Grocer magazine:
As can be seen, this short – in fact very short – article 35 is a perfectly illustrated manual about teaser advertising.36 Behind the particular case described in the above text, the teasing technique is itself exposed via a communicative sequence, introduced by a message that is as appealing as it is enigmatic (see, for example, the illustration: ‘Free sugar? Certainly! Watch for STANDS GROCERY Announcement Friday’), followed by a second message, shedding light on the first and attracting the reader to read it all the more because it provides the solution to the original enigma.
The same technique (amongst others?) was used a few years later by Sylvan N. Goldman, one of the inventors of the supermarket trolley (Grandclément 2006; Cochoy 2009; Wilson 1978) to promote his innovation. On Friday, 4 June 1937 – in other words, the day before Saturday, a busy day – regular readers of the local newspaper would have seen an advert that featured a woman, burdened with the weight of an overflowing shopping basket, and the caption: ‘No more of this at your Standard Stores’. The text went on to explain: ‘Just pick up your items from the shelves. They will be checked and placed in your car without having to carry a single item’. The effect of the recourse to a negative definition (what the consumers will no longer suffer) and the passive voice (what ‘will be done’ with their products) was amplified by the total lack of an illustration that might allow people to understand what this wonderful device was that would supposedly enable them to not have to carry a single item without abandoning the system of self-service. A week later, a second mysterious advert in the same newspaper struck, proudly proclaiming: ‘Last weekend, the Anti-Basket-Carrying Plan was approved on the spot’ – still, of course, without mentioning or showing the chosen solution… and without specifying that attracting curious people was far from enough to convince them: the introduction of supermarket trolleys was actually rejected twice, both by men who were proud of their muscles and women tired of pushing pushchairs! They were only ‘adopted’ following an additional ploy, consisting in hiring extras to make their use commonplace and to persuade perplexed but ‘genuine’ customers to try them out (Wilson 1978: 87–88).
Continually Agitating Curiosity, or How to Lead a Consumer towards Wonderland
In the different layers of the display window, packaging and teaser ads, we are beginning to understand just how broad and irreversible the movement of commercialising curiosity is. In 2007, this movement was magnificently captured by the entertainment retailer, Fnac, with the slogan ‘Fnac: agitator of curiosity’. This superb advertising motif sums up in two of these words the shop’s entire history and its ambiguity, as well as all the know-how involved in organising curiosity to benefit the market.
We know that this entertainment retailer was founded in 1954 by André Essel and Max Théret (Chabault 2010), two people whose Trotskyist origins had connotations of ‘agitprop’ and political radicalism, but whose commercial orientation appeared more inclined towards ‘propaganda’ in the Italian and Portuguese sense of the term, in other words something synonymous with ‘advertising’ (Iulio and Vinti 2009). On the other hand, we are also aware of the role played in the social unrest at the end of the 1960s by advertisers and the world of consumption – as considered in Things: A Story of the Sixties by Pérec (1990 ), The Society of Spectacle by Debord (1983 ), One Dimensional Man by Marcuse (1964) or Consumer Society by Baudrillard (1998 ). Hence the formidable ambiguity of this company that combines, to an extreme degree, culture and market, ‘artistic’ values and ‘managerial’ logic (Chiapello 1998). Beyond this history, Fnac’s slogan also transformed the shop into the equivalent of the ‘agitator’ in the laboratory – in other words, into a piece of equipment designed to shake test tubes in order to accelerate chemical processes, as if it were a matter of promoting the sale of cultural curiosities through the ‘cultivation’ of curiosity.
How does this latter form of agitation operate? Part of the answer is provided by the series of TV commercials used to reinforce the slogan.37 Each of these commercials uses a variation of the same narrative framework.38 First we are shown a young man leaning against a bus shelter, gently sighing with boredom. Suddenly his attention is drawn by a ticking sound coming from the right-hand panel of the billboard, of which we can only see the external side: ‘fnac.com’. His face lights up when he realises that the poster has in fact just opened like a door. The young man immediately enters and stumbles into a magical world where he chases hundreds of books that flutter about like butterflies, dives into an audiophile universe in which flowers and rocks act as loudspeakers, and drives a car with a computer game joystick on a circuit studded with screens… that suddenly takes him towards the exit, towards his bus shelter (now slightly dishevelled from his exciting experience), whilst the camera once again zooms in on the outside of the magic door, where the message ‘fnac.com’ has mysteriously turned red and has been enhanced by the addition ‘Agitator of curiosity’. The entire scene is mute, simply accompanied by a very rousing song, ‘Where do we go?’ by the Australian artist Sandrine.39 As we shall see, throughout its brief run this advert effortlessly employs the three key forces for those wishing to agitate curiosity: boredom, serendipity, and wonderment.
First, the Fnac advert uses an approach common to outdoor advertising: that of making the city one of the privileged sites for commercial communication (Cochran 1972, McFall 2004). However, the chosen location is not unimportant: it is neither an immobile wall, on which there are posters that attempt to make passers-by stop, nor a bus, or taxi, with attached messages that aspire to catch a pedestrian’s eye, but a bus shelter – that is to say, a place for stopping and changing – that possesses aspects of both the wall, because of the shelter, and transportation, because of its horizon. The bus shelter is an empty place with no purpose of its own, other than waiting and boredom. However, this vacuity, this boredom and waiting, create precisely the right conditions for expressing/arousing curiosity. Unlike the wall, that is too immobile to arrest the moving passer-by, and unlike the vehicle that, by contrast, is travelling too fast to be read from the pavement, the bus shelter offers a moment of suspension – a vacuum, a parenthesis – and it offers particularly favourable conditions for being temporarily diverted from one’s path, for a little digressive reading – it is as if the bus stop, by making city dwellers available for something else for a second, were itself the condition for an advert to begin. In other words, at the threshold of the bus shelter/advert shelter, boredom and curiosity each support the other.
According to Kierkegaard, boredom cannot be considered a mundane or fleeting feeling: the Danish philosopher in fact does not hesitate to depend on Genesis when turning boredom into an anthropological force as fatal as it is ancient…
Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings. Adam was bored because he was alone; therefore Eve was created. Since that moment, boredom entered the world and grew in quantity in exact proportion to the growth of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored en famille. After that, the population of the world increased and the nations were bored en masse. To amuse themselves, they hit upon the notion of building a tower so high that it would reach the sky. This notion is just as boring as the tower was high and is a terrible demonstration of how boredom had gained the upper hand. Then they were dispersed around the world, just as people now travel abroad, but they continued to be bored. And what consequences this boredom had: humankind stood tall and fell far, first through Eve, then from the Babylonian tower.40
Now, we have seen that the same sacred tale also transforms curiosity into one of the key human motives for action. This rapprochement, in which boredom and curiosity are located at the beginning and at the core of the human condition,41 is hardly coincidental: as Kierkegaard briefly yet clearly suggests at the end, it is because of her boredom that Eve paid attention to the Serpent and gave into the temptation of curiosity, just as much later her descendants built the Tower of Babel in order to once more escape the vacuity of their existence. Boredom provides one of the most favourable conditions for the expression of curiosity, as if stasis, stopping, and immobility were, paradoxically, the condition for being enraptured, carried away, for agitation.42
This enchantment occurs along the way. This is an important point. In the Fnac advert, curious agitation, far from being the expression of an existing inclination, occurs rather as if at a turn in the road, in the manner of a meeting, a distraction, or an opportunity. This is the second force for agitating curiosity: serendipity.
The concept of serendipity has a fabulous history, whose many facets cannot be captured in the following brief presentation. It is a word derived from a tale from the orient about the three sons of King of Serendip, the ancient medieval name given to Sri Lanka. On one of the days of their journey, the sons, who had been sent by their father to discover the world, came across traces of a camel. The eldest son saw that the grass on the left-hand side was short, but it had not been touched on the right. He concluded that the camel was blind in his right eye. The second brother noticed many chewed balls of grass only on the left-hand verge and concluded that the camel had undoubtedly lost a tooth. The youngest son inferred, from one footprint being lighter than the others, that the camel was lame. Further on, the eldest noticed, on one side of the road, an uninterrupted line of ants busy with something, and, on the other, many bees, flies, and wasps stuck to a translucent, sticky substance. He deduced that the camel was covered in butter on one side and honey on the other. The second son discovered traces indicating that the camel had knelt down, but also a small human footprint and a wet patch. He touched it, and, before even smelling his fingers, he felt a carnal temptation. He concluded that a woman rather than a child had sat on the camel. The youngest noticed handprints on each side of the area she had wet. He thought the woman had probably lifted up her body because she was pregnant. Later on, the three brothers came across a camel driver who had lost one of his animals. Based on everything they had seen, the three brothers jokingly said they had seen the camel, and to substantiate their claims, asked if the camel was blind in one eye, toothless, and lame, covered in butter and honey, and carrying a pregnant woman – all details that turned out to be correct. The three brothers were accused of theft and thrown in prison. However, the camel was found safe and sound and they were freed. After many more adventures, they succeeded their father as leader of Serendip (according to Merton and Barber 2004; and Andel 1994).43
The term ‘Serendipity’ was coined, with reference to this tale, by the celebrated man of letters Horace Walpole, in correspondence with his friend Horace Mann:
This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called the three Princes of Serendip: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right – now do you understand Serendipity? (Horace Walpole, quoted in Merton and Barber 2004:1–2).
In their fabulous chronicle, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity, Robert Merton and Elinor Barber highlight all the ambiguity of this definitional derivation, based on a rough memory of the tale – the camel becomes a mule; the grass becomes better on one side than the other – hesitating (without really paying attention) between seeing serendipity as an inner faculty that gives meaning (through ‘sagacity’) to the world, or as an external event of discovery (by ‘accident’), using the word ‘discovery’ to mean both an intellectual construction and a ‘treasure’ found along the way. They show, through an exploration of serendipity that is staggeringly reflexive,44 how the word that was invented by Walpole has travelled from the literary world to the scientific, and has changed continuously with them, oscillating, for example, between a particular type of intelligence, a specific genre of discovery, or, in the sense employed by Merton, the skill of taking into account unforeseen information so as to invent a new theory. It is precisely this ambiguity, inherent both to the word and to its history that we will retain: serendipity refers to both a certain cognitive receptiveness to what occurs (that is, an ability to give meaning to unforeseen events), and a disposition/event favourable to the expression of curiosity.
Serendipity activates our twin abilities; on the one hand, to be detached, indifferent, and distracted (in other words, what Albert Piette (2009) calls the ‘minor mode’ of action) and, on the other, to pay attention, focus, and to be able to make good use of those overflows that cognitive relaxation allows us to encounter: to consider them, to take them on board, and, eventually, to give them meaning, and integrate them into our logics of action. As such, commercial forms of serendipity combine two ways of acting, as analysts of commercial behaviour and theory have clearly identified but have tended to distinguish from one another: ‘hunting’ and ‘foraging’, when it comes to browsing the internet; ‘provisioning’ (Perrot 2009) and ‘shopping’ (Miller 1998) in urban commercial spaces; or even inside shops, the figures of the ‘pacer’ and the ‘sleepwalker’ (Floch 1990) (or even ‘instrumentalists’ and ‘bargain-hunters’, ‘technicians’ and ‘flaneurs’ (Bonnin 2002)). In the Fnac commercial, the young man simultaneously expresses and adopts these two modes of action: he happens to come across a poster that appears in his path and shows he is able to grab the invitation and therefore to fall, even if for just a moment, into a wonderful other world.
Wonderment is thus the third way to agitate curiosity. If the commercial makes explicit reference to any tale at all, it is to Alice in Wonderland rather than the Princes of Serendip. In fact, I could have begun there, given that the former is a story that, far from confining itself to wonderment, also encompasses the two previous forces – boredom and serendipity, in other words. As the Fnac advert uses the story of Alice as its main source of inspiration, it is not surprising to find both elements there. The commercial begins with the boring wait for a bus and the sideways glance towards the advert, modelled on Lewis Carroll’s story, which begins with the following lines: ‘Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do’… other than to glance at the very boring book her neighbour is reading (‘once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’). This is when a pure episode of serendipity occurs, when a plan Alice has just come up with to stave off her boredom – making a ‘daisy-chain’ – is interrupted by the appearance of a strange, white rabbit with pink eyes, who, afraid of being late, pulls a watch out of his waistcoat and hurries immediately into somewhere unknown:
[Having seen this] Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again (Carroll 1916 ).
This tale is fascinating, as it allows us to specify, perhaps despite itself, the way in which serendipity and curiosity differ from one another whilst being mutually reinforcing. On the one hand, the rabbit’s appearance suspends Alice’s (in)action and leads her to attempt to give meaning to the interruption, in line with the logic of serendipity. On the other, however, it is precisely both because the rabbit is curious (‘she had never before seen [such] a rabbit’) and because Alice is/becomes curious (‘burning with curiosity’) that she strays from her path (here, of immobility) and embarks on the ‘serendipitous’ quest for the meaning, which commands her to track after the intriguing object to solve the mystery. The same scheme appears in the Fnac commercial, where the act of waiting for the bus is disturbed by the appearance of the poster, which leads the customer towards different horizons – it is as if Alice’s sister had not been reading a boring book, but Carroll’s story, thereby allowing Alice to delve simultaneously into both book and rabbit-hole.
From then on, in both the story and the commercial, agitating curiosity involves enticing the subject into wonderland by drawing wonders before the subject’s eyes. Certainly, the sequence of wonders in each case is very different: following the tendency of bowdlerising classic tales in advertising (Iulio 2004); the avalanche of sometimes troubling dialogues and characters in Alice, compared to a flood of images and objects that all appeal to the male consumer. However, in both the subject is caught in a strangely similar whirlwind in which the agitation affects the subject as much as the objects which surround him/her: Alice and the consumer are drawn into a succession of visions and experiences that are both profuse and disjointed, allowing no respite until they return ‘to the surface’, a return that is as unforeseen for the one as it is for the other. Wonderment arises precisely from these juxtapositions and ruptures, that is to say from the accelerated renewal of the new that occurs without transition. The whirlwind of wonders, rather than leading the two characters to passively abandon themselves to it, instead paradoxically pulls them toward their active involvement: Alice does a lot, she converses, she asks a lot of questions; the character in the commercial leaps towards the butterfly-books, dives into a river of sounds, and drives a car on a computer game circuit. The paradoxical involvement of subjects in the whirlwinds that carry them is associated with the ‘exploration mode’, the characteristics and mechanisms of which are explained very clearly by Nicolas Auray:
Exploration is inscribed within […] a logic of feeling one’s way forward step by step; it happens through a dependence on the chosen path and a suspension of judgement. It involves an inability to extract oneself from a curious fascination that exercises a veritable tyranny and subjects one to dependence […]. The behaviours grounded in exploration involve a concern for the maintenance of the state of excitement and the constant delaying of the moment of satisfaction through repeated stimulation (Auray 2006).
It is actually the manipulation of objects which, in both Carroll and the Fnac commercial, arouses excitement for the new and the desire to give it meaning, even if the constant appearance of new attractions continually suspends the search for the meaning of a previous object, transferring it instead to the next. Ultimately, the triple ‘curiosity agitator’ mechanism, based on activating and relating boredom, serendipity, and wonderment (or, in Auray’s words, the ‘excitement for what is new’), introduces a generalised form of teasing as no content is provided, apart from the promise that the contents will be infinitely refreshed. Curiosity remains, its objects change, and it is because the objects change that curiosity can remain as the memory of an enchantment: a form of excitement that has become a habit, even an addiction. Note that the entertainment products marketed by Fnac lend themselves to this game particularly well: the distinctive feature of the books, CDs, and computer games the shop sells is that in each case their form remains the same while their content is constantly renewed. This mechanism of the ‘renewal of the same’ – that Roland Barthes so clearly identified and formalised in the metaphor of the vessel Argo, the mythical ship whose permanence depended on the incessant replacement of its constituent parts (Barthes 1977) – tends to become exacerbated nowadays in the renewal of the material objects charged with carrying updated cultural content: as we can see with digital books, the players of dematerialised music, or the development of computer game download platforms. In fact, this mechanism is inherent to Fnac’s identity and slogan: it is because I know that every time I go through the looking glass of posters I will discover new objects, that Fnac is now able to identify itself as a perennial agitator of curiosity. That which we see in Fnac’s commercials no longer exists, although paradoxically it is this very disappearance that reinforces the relevance and permanence of a slogan that has become their hallmark; a message, in other words, that is no longer ephemeral, but rather a motif that is part and parcel of the brand and its identity.
On the permanent carousel of new releases that can be found at Fnac, we now come across strange telephones that themselves work like a multitude of rabbit holes, each capable of transporting talking Alices ever onward towards new wonderlands. Choosing one of these phones suggests our belief that one product among others in the telephony market is being selected; however, when we use it we realise – a little late – that we have actually been sucked into a market in its own right, into a world that is both very closed, underground, and controlled, and at the same time infinite, open to a thousand possibilities, and which cannot be explored to our satisfaction. The paradox of these new objects and markets is not only that they excite curiosity, but also that they multiply the number of tools able to maintain this excitement. There are a great number of such tools – for instance, software that makes it possible to automatically identify objects (like the title of the song we are listening to45), to ‘geolocate’ a set of resources within reach (for example, restaurants, banks, or other services located within the user’s immediate vicinity46), or to ‘augment’ a perceived reality by superimposing a certain amount of additional information onto the image we are filming, such as the names of stars, mountains, or more prosaically, metro or bike stations.47 The distinctive characteristic of each of these devices is that they accompany the world and enable its serendipitous exploration, thereby sustaining the expression of curiosity.
To conclude, I would like to turn to the introduction of one such device that, to me, seems to have the advantage not only of mobilising and pulling together, quite successfully, the various capacities that I have just outlined, but also, above all, of providing an insight into the potential development of teasing practices and their associated devices. For some time now, we have seen enigmatic barcodes that look like small, quadrangular labyrinths effectively sprouting up on display windows, bus shelters, and now on an increasing number of products.
These types of code, termed a ‘Data Matrix’ (or QR code or Flashcode, depending on the standard used), are not in fact aimed at market professionals like traditional barcodes, nor specifically at consumers themselves, given that they are unable to read them, but rather at smartphones, with which an increasing number of consumers are equipped. With the help of a smartphone furnished with the relevant software, the consumer is able to decode the Data Matrix and to thus switch directly to a website containing further information about the product. By organising the sequence ‘code visualisation, software decoding and activation of the corresponding link, reading the website’, the Data Matrix operates, perhaps in spite of itself, as a pure teasing device – the kind of teasing where the first stage is reduced to the form of a riddle, a mystery, or a puzzle we itch to figure out, to the point of returning us to the highly archaic time of the keyholes and locks so dear to Bluebeard.
In fact, just like the keyhole in the tale, the Data Matrix only grants access to the knowledge it possesses on the condition that it is activated. Admittedly, as a keyhole it is very particular given that it is presented as a door that is freely accessible to all, as if Bluebeard had now allowed his set of keys to be copied and distributed, and had invited not only his wife but all women (and also all men) to come and visit his house, this time without attaching to the invitation the slightest restriction or threat. Nonetheless, in both cases the force urging that the door be opened remains the same: the keyhole that simultaneously deprives us of and promises us information. Because it alone will not tell us anything, the Data Matrix generates a riddle and a sense of expectation; because it is intended to mean something, it might well arouse the excitement necessary for its activation. In addition to the childish pleasure of unwrapping a present, mentioned earlier, we can now add the symmetrical pleasure of deciphering a secret message. Therefore, the entire charm of the device lies in its imperfection – it is illegible, and unable to grant direct access to the desired information. In its small, two-coloured, completely hermetic square, the device contains all the information that can later be revealed as long as the consumer assists. As such, the Data Matrix offers an original challenge to the classic problem of ‘too much information killing information’.
This problem increased considerably with the proliferation of billposting, packaging, and labelling systems (Cochoy and Lalanne 2011), press releases (Czarniawska 2011), but also ‘emails’, ‘alerts’, ‘tweets’, and other ‘notifications’ which are taking over the world of the internet (Boullier 2009). The management of this proliferating information recently gave rise to an entire ‘economy of attention’ (Golhaber 1997; Kessous et al. 2010) that, on the one hand, attempts to ‘economise’ the attention of those involved in order to avoid saturation, and, on the other (and by doing so), to also ‘economicise’ a customer’s attention – in other words, to convert the captured attention into economic value by selling either ‘clicks’, or an audience’s preference for this or that newspaper, and so on (Bouiller 2009). The whole point of the Data Matrix is to (unintentionally?) introduce a third mode in the economy of attention that lies between these two. The device in fact attempts to reduce the number of signs that might attract attention in order to spare the players’ cognitive vigilance, as well as, paradoxically, to arouse and encourage it. In fact, far from being imposed upon the attention of the consumer, the additional information attached to the Data Matrix only appears as long as consumers perform a complicit gesture in order to activate it. With the Data Matrix, it is as if Bluebeard’s wife was free not only to open any room she wanted without injury, but also to fine-tune the extent of her visits, or even to fashion in her own time what she wished to see displayed (according to a list of options of course deliberately framed and staged by her husband).
If consumers remain inert, then the Data Matrix refrains from pestering them; if consumers activate the Data Matrix, then they have access to the layers of commercial information into which they have been invited. In a way, it is as though the keyhole and Bluebeard’s wife borrowed some of their traits from Sleeping Beauty (for the former) and the passing Prince (for the latter). In so doing, this device overturns the age-old unilaterality of commercial information in order to open it up to the game of interactivity: as each takes a step towards the other – the device as it proffers its riddles, consumers as they decode them – consumers lend themselves to a game of ‘self-marketing’, where, instead of struggling in the same informational space, each party freely chooses the nature and intensity of the information they intend to retain as a guide to their choice.
However, nothing guarantees that the consumer will make this small gesture of activation upon which the Data Matrix’s entire capacity to inform nevertheless depends. The conditions determining the success of ‘self-marketing’ are as fragile as they are tiny: on the part of the device, it is the tiny, enigmatic square, stuck to the body of the product, and on the part of the actor, it is the extremely tenuous disposition created by the subject’s supposed propensity towards curiosity. The chances that the device and disposition will be jointly activated are even smaller as they also depend on the availability of the smartphone and the relevant software application, without which nothing is possible, not to mention other favourable social and/or ‘environmental’ conditions (sufficient lighting, time, dexterity, and the available patience, etc.; see below). In order to evaluate the chances of the Data Matrix being activated, together with other colleagues I took part in a scientific and industrial project in which the Data Matrix was adopted as a means of accessing information on the ‘geo-traceability’ of wine (Cochoy 2011d). The idea behind making wine ‘geo-traceable’ is to make it possible to track very precisely the ‘localised’ characteristics of the grapes that go into each bottle – such as soil composition, the properties of a grape variety, meteorological and hygrometric data, plot exposure, gradient, name of owner, and more – throughout the cycle, from harvesting to production, then from production to marketing. One of the project’s objectives was to grant each consumer direct access to the ‘geo-indicators’ corresponding to the particular bottle they had in their hands. As this information was infinitely more detailed than could be contained on the front and back labels of a bottle, the Data Matrix appeared to be the only possible way to provide access to it. In order to test the device, the project leaders designed an interactive label with two triggers: a first screen offered the internet user the choice of four options: ‘authenticate your bottle’ (by comparing it with an identifier on the bottle that was impossible to forge and its photograph on the website), ‘discover the wine and its terroir’ (a map of plots and a presentation of grape varieties), ‘discover the wine’ (a wine fact sheet and geo-indicators), ‘wine-growers’ story’ (videos). Of course, once a choice had been made, it was still possible to navigate to one of the other options.
In order to assess how this kind of device might be received, we gave a questionnaire to 502 respondents who were representative of the French population, and conducted a series of five focus groups, two with ordinary people, two with younger and older wine-lovers, and one with technophiles.48
The quantitative survey results appeared to be very encouraging, given that more than 40% of respondents stated they would probably or definitely use the system (of which they were shown a photo with instructions for use) to access information they nonetheless knew nothing about. Better still, the propensity towards curiosity could even be carefully measured by distinguishing between an interest in wine and an attraction to the device: a considerable number of those who stated they were not particularly interested in information about wine thus said that they would nonetheless activate the device: 29.3% said probably and 8.6% definitely.49 However, if taking account of the Data Matrix seems easy, based on the results of a questionnaire, when it comes to actually using it the situation changes, with the risk of people’s propensity towards curiosity falling significantly.
With real bottles, smartphones, and Data Matrix in hand, the consumers in our focus groups experienced difficulties and showed very little appetite for overcoming the obstacles on the path to the wine’s hidden information. Admittedly, this double complication only emerged gradually. When we invited our guinea pigs to assess two similar bottles, one of which had a Data Matrix with the caption ‘To know more about the wine, scan me’, quite often, as was predicted, they showed a tendency to be curious (‘the “scan me”, it’s actually the first time I’ve seen this… so I would have taken [the bottle with the Data Matrix] anyway’; ‘I would have scanned it out of curiosity’; ‘me too’; ‘maybe I would have, out of curiosity’; ‘it’s obviously something new so yes, I would’; ‘yes, I would have scanned it’; ‘just out of curiosity’).
However, it proved to be during the next stage of decoding the Data Matrix when people’s propensity to read the device dropped spectacularly. Even when suitably equipped, consumers do not necessarily know how to download the required application; even if they know how to proceed, the internet connection might not be good enough; even if the network is sufficiently available and the application works, people might not have a smartphone able to focus on the code (first-generation iPhones do not have a fixed focal length); even if the smartphone has the required ability to focus, people might not know how to correctly point the device; even if people know how to point their phone in the right direction, the lighting conditions might not be good enough to guarantee the operation’s success; and so on and so forth! In fact, rather than being based either on the conformity of a single device or just the subject’s prior dispositions, the expression of curiosity depends instead on the right configuration of a very subtle agencement (Callon 2015)50 of a number of devices and a multiplicity of dispositions that the version of the device we experimented with could not achieve. If the suitable agencement cannot be established, the flow of curiosity is interrupted. If it is guaranteed, then the exploratory movement has some chance of being resumed. However, even when all the conditions are met and the website is accessed, people’s propensity to explore it varies considerably, given the different levels of desire they have for the proposed information (some are interested in wine, others are not, and we noticed that the curiosity dynamic gives way very quickly to preferences and interests that pre-existed the intended experience).
Some of our participants did nonetheless succumb to the charm of the device. For example, a young woman stated that ‘out of curiosity [she] might well go and look at the information’. She appeared to be interested in obtaining new knowledge (‘things that [she doesn’t] know’) and in acquiring additional information on ‘certain wines [she likes]’. Her openness was reinforced by her personal taste for the genre of technological devices that give access to information. In fact, she explained that she wanted the device to offer certain forms of functionality that were missing, such as the possibility of saving any choices made, of sharing discoveries with colleagues and finding them using geo-localisation. In this last example, curiosity is once again revealed as a force capable of opening Pandora’s box, and an equivalent to the ‘hope’ that remained at the bottom of the box after all the disappointing content surrounding it had been dispersed (Latour 1999). Or, to use a more appropriate image here, we see that sometimes curiosity is the drop of wine (the desire) that can make the wine bottle overflow,51 thus responding in extremis to the promises inscribed in the Data Matrix curiosity device.
The particular power of the Data Matrix as a curiosity device is that it restricts access to information in the hope of multiplying the revelation. It is certainly the case that, despite this trick, its appeal to curiosity is often unsuccessful. It appears to produce more consumers who are sceptical, disappointed, or indifferent than those who are enthusiastic. The excess of promises is jeopardised by a symmetrical excess of technical defects and a lack of interest. However, the difficulty that must be overcome is less the curiosity device and more the delicate agencement that needs to be established between the complex set of objects, and the human properties on which the circulation of these practices depends. Once established, this form of agencement leads to a flow of everyday behaviours, as the omnipresence of similar devices in Japan tends to prove.52 In addition, even if the propensity towards curiosity within a suitable socio-technical environment remains low, the device is not necessarily condemned to failure. In order to understand why, we must not forget the presence of the very same logic in conventional forms of advertising, which is generally highly ineffective: only a ridiculously small percentage of target audiences respond positively to adverts in terms of actual purchases. If curiosity devices are therefore just as ineffective as ordinary adverts, we might wager that they have a very promising future ahead of them!