Medieval marketing

Grant McCracken, a research affiliate at MIT and the author of Chief Culture Officer, writes about the appeal of "hidden messages" in popular culture. Fnord.

The medieval world took for granted that the universe was filled with secret messages, placed there by God and the correspondences on which the world was built. What did not come from God or nature was made by man in the form of emblems, icons, and insignia insinuated into public life. The home of Sir Francis Bacon was covered with arcana. Only people with a keen eye and a university education could make sense of it.

By the 20th century, all of this was stripped out by the modernist impulse that said form should be about manifest function, not secret meaning. This world was rendered perfectly clear, rational, and transparent. No decoding necessary. Consider Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building. Or Charles and Ray Eames' lounge chair. What you saw was what you got.

Marketing was created in this moment. And the idea was complete transparency. Marketing came to stand for big, bold, simple messages, fired repeatedly at a mass target. "Keep it simple, stupid" was the order of the day. This was a world of absolute clarity and shameless repetition.

How things change. The 21st century loves a puzzle. We have the skill and the patience. We have quicker eyes. No couch potatoes, we. Perhaps it's that we now live with so much noise that we are better at decoding signals. We are ready for secret messages. To judge from the rest of popular culture, we are hungry for them.

Medieval Marketing (Thanks, Dale!)


  1. I painted “This Is Not A Meth-Lab” on my shed. How will those people in the 21st Century decode that?

  2. No offense, Mark, but this quote, at least, is complete bullshit. Also it’s a bit sticky with self-congratulation. Is there some ironic valence here that I’m failing to bond with chemically?

  3. I gotta say, van der Rohe was a complete and total hack who deserves no recognition and his buildings should probably be torn down as pollution. <.<;; I'm sorry but I have an unending hatred of clean lines, glass, and the color white. Art Noveu and Art Deco buildings are still some of the best in my humble opinion, and if you really want mind bending look up Antonio Gaudi.

      1. Is it? I’ve always called him van der Rohe, but I’m just an english only speaker, so I mess things up alot.

  4. @ Parker Williams:

    I admit that I do have a genuine fondness for our “Less is More” guy and the Minimalist, modern architectural movements ( it goes back to my college days). But I also fully agree with your opinion about Art Deco and Art Nouveau ( and also Gaudy :).  I used to be Donald Deskey’s senior designer and he presented a magnificent world of Golden Age American Deco.

     I believe that the creation of ornamentation is an ages-old human desire and boldly apparent in all cultures.

    1. I can agree with that, there are certain things in the modernist movement that I love, such as the work of the Eames’, but other then them I struggle to name any other modernists I really like.

  5. Wolfe’s pithy “row after Mies van der Rohe” of glass boxes.

    Ant: I’ll see your pedantic and raise you a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

  6. Milton Glaser addressed a similar point in a brilliant essay, “Ambiguity and Truth” back in 2005. (Link below.) He explored Leonardo Da Vinci’s use of misdirection in “The Last Supper.” The payoff: 

    “The human brain is a problem-solving organ, a characteristic that probably is at the center of our dominance over other species. The brain frequently remains inert until a problem is presented to it. In the case of The Last Supper, the profound ambiguity it contains alerts and stimulates the brain into action. DaVinci clearly believed that ambiguity was a way of arriving at the truth. As a result, the painting moves us in a deeper and more profound way than any direct statement.”

  7. This was written by a marketing person for the Harvard Business Review. I read the entire essay, and then I read some more of his essays. He sees the whole history and purpose of culture as leading up to this glorious moment when “consumers” can lose themselves in a mystical experience in a “brand”. If you read other articles of his, you see he regularly conflates culture and marketing.

    In the full essay he says he’s referring to puzzles in entertainment–embedded mysteries for the fans to solve. He doesn’t mention Twin Peaks, but what he describes sounds like an extension of what David Lynch started. Only, he wants to whore out the log lady:

    “Imagine making the brand a cipher, something that the consumer has to figure out. Imagine creating a brand that teemed with meanings, some of them explicit, some of them an invitation to decode. Allowing the consumer to find his or her way into the brand would surely make that brand more compelling. Imagine making a brand that was a lot like a manor house, complete with hidden passage ways and secret compartments. Imagine making the brand as they would have done in the medieval or early modern period: shot through with secrets of every kind.
    Whether we like it or not, marketing is moving away from modernist simplicities, away from the “Keep it simple, stupid” era. With more sophisticated consumers, more and more subtle media, more robust and complicated value propositions, this was bound to happen. The only real question is what we will make of this liberty. Perhaps the place to go looking for the future is in the 15th or 16th century.”

    The art historian in me was about to write paragraphs about the willful wrongness in that original excerpt, but I think that quote above is plenty.

  8. On Tuesday, Stairway to Heaven turned 40. As I recall, a certain segment of the population was looking for hidden messages in it.

    Medieval, you say?

  9. The 21st century loves a puzzle. We have the skill and the patience. We have quicker eyes. No couch potatoes, we. Perhaps it’s that we now live with so much noise that we are better at decoding signals.

    I have a box of doughnuts that says the ad agency pitch that resulted in Herman Cain’s campaign commercials sounded very much like this.

    Hope springs eternal, as does the certainty of each new generation that they are smarter and better than generations that came before. And yet, the world is not yet paradise. Curious.

  10. Speaking of medieval marketing, many Kabuki plays contain straight-up product placements in their scripts.

  11. In the UK, there was a growth in obscure adverts in the 1980s, after the ASA tightened rules on tobacco advertising.

    ‘Silk Cut’ were particularly known for this, with most of their adverts neither featuring the product, nor its logo, nor its name.

  12. His understanding of the Medieval world strikes me, as a student of philosophy and history of the period, as primarily derived from what his friends told him about some Umberto Eco novel. That feeling is not allayed when he cites a book on Elizabethan England in support of his crude interpretation of the doctrine of signatures. That is not only the Renaissance, it is the late Renaissance.

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