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Dressed in irony: Advertising critique and the imagined consumer on The Gruen Transfer

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Todd Sampson, regular panellist on the popular ABC TV show The Gruen Transfer and CEO of the Australian branch of the advertising agency Leo Burnett, has become a media celebrity in Australia. Famous for his seemingly critical stance towards some of the advertising industry’s practices, as well as his trademark irreverent T-shirts, he appears to present the archetype of an ‘enlightened’ advertiser. The popularity of both Sampson and The Gruen Transfer also reflects a renewed interest of popular culture in the workings and culture of the advertising industry. This article takes Sampson’s performance on The Gruen Transfer and its various spin-offs as an illustrative case to analyse how a high-ranking advertising professional imagines and conceptualizes consumers on a popular TV show that claims to explain how advertising works on audiences. It argues that Sampson’s popularity can be understood by the way he reflects, alludes to and shapes three central discourses characterizing contemporary consumer culture: ironic enjoyment, branded activism and self-branding. Despite The Gruen Transfer’s apparent mission to immunize consumers against questionable advertising techniques, these discourses instead serve to immunize the advertising industry against any serious critique.
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Keywords: Gruen Transfer; advertising; branded activism; consumer culture; postmodern irony; professional ideology; self-branding

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Bond University

Publication date: April 1, 2014

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