Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sold out

It’s no accident that the degradation of modern political life has coincided with the rise of advertising as a dominant form of communication. I use the word “communication” for lack of a better term—advertising has bent the meanings of more than a few words we once took for granted.

An ad could be considered merely another spice of capitalist life when it was just the local grocer hawking his wares, or a few lines in the back of a penny weekly. But with commercials plastered on almost every available surface and blaring from radio and television, the spice has become a deadly narcotic.

Worshipers of the “free market” may claim to enjoy advertising, but we know they’re in the minority—the popularity of the mute function on the TV remote is proof enough of that. Of course ads are annoying. There’s a big difference between a friend knocking on your door to pay a visit and the stranger selling you magazine subscriptions. But the pretense of advertising is that there is no difference. And it’s only one of many pretenses permeating this dubious anti-artform.

The prominence of out-and-out lying as a commercial strategy is no secret, but even supposing that an ad’s claims about a particular product are true (quite a supposition, that), there’s something about ads themselves that feel deceptive. The person, actually the company, doing the persuading will obviously say whatever it takes to accomplish the objective of selling you the product. Only children and the credulous, to their misfortune, believe that the advertiser is attempting to communicate a truth—the rest of us recognize persuasion for what it is. And persuasion is annoying because it constantly presses us to make a choice. It pulls at our sleeve like an unwanted companion who won’t shut up and leave us alone.

In this imagined conversation, a burden is placed on you, the customer. In other words, you are being asked to do something—in point of fact, told to do something, since an ad rarely stoops to asking, which would imply some sort of need. In any case, there is a decision that you are being presented with. The relationship of salesman to customer is incompatible with friendship. Friendship is based on equality in the personal sense. It involves dialogue. A commercial, on the other hand, talks at you, never with you.

The ad pretends to be sincere about the content of what it presents, but we know that the desire to sell the product overrides any consideration of content. The salesman may even believe in the product—it’s irrelevant because the act of persuasion itself is inherently insincere. Looking at society under the influence of advertising, then, we notice that we are surrounded and enveloped by false sincerity. The omnipresence of this false sincerity makes actual sincerity more and more difficult. The phony pitch gradually replaces rational discourse in the public sphere until many find themselves unable to tell the difference.

The voice of the ad—which we can take literally as a voice in the case of radio and TV—is the voice of self-satisfied capitalism. "Everything is fine the way it is," the voice says. "There are no real problems other than what to buy, what objects to acquire, and how to acquire them." The commercial's persuasive appeal, the need to buy the product, is always set against the background of an essential acceptance of this situation as the only reality, the only happiness.

We can laugh at the blatant hard-sell techniques of old commercials from the 1950s. But the supposedly hip, humorous, smooth, ironic voice of the present-day ad campaign is no different in essence. Behind the slick veneer of the commercial is the grin of a fool. No rational person talks this way. People know this instinctively. Yet we have been conditioned to accept this language, this decadent form of speech, as an important part of our environment. Advertising presupposes stupidity as the normal, acceptable human condition. The ideal customer may wear a suit, drink martinis, and listen to indie rock, but his brain resembles that of the rube trembling with excitement when he gets the sweepstakes letter telling him that he “may already have won.”

There used to be a sense that advertising was only one aspect of business, and that business was only one aspect of society. But now advertising dictates the campaigns of political candidates, and the methods by which government leaders communicate their actions and intent. Its methods have to a large part absorbed more traditional ideas of journalism—the "news" shows seek to agitate, inspire, and distract us, rather than truly inform. The blather about “values” that has been one of the favorite political dodges in recent decades ignores a basic truth—a society’s values can be easily discerned through the messages that dominate public life. Those messages, by a huge majority, can be summarized simply as “Buy now!” This has the effect of repressing true dialogue in the social, spiritual, educational, artistic, and political realms, and it does so without most of us being aware of it.

I remember how shocked many people were by the statements of a Bush aide in a 2004 New York Times Magazine article. That’s the one where the Bushie said that the “reality-based community” believed wrongly that “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality,” when in fact (according to said Bush freak), the empire creates its own reality when it acts. I was surprised by the uncharacteristic frankness and demented eloquence of the unnamed neocon (“reality-based community” indeed—if I hadn’t known better, I’d say it was satire), but the idea was really just a central tenet of advertising pushed to the level of geopolitical strategy. The worth of the product is ultimately not the point—the important thing is to sell it, and when you succeed at selling it, the success of the “market” justifies the product.

The problem, then, is much bigger than those rotten billboards blocking my view of the mountains—although I’m not opposed to banning them; it would at least be a start. The problem is really a new way of thinking and perceiving, a way exemplified by advertising but now influencing all aspects of society. It’s delusional because it filters everything through a paradigm of persuasion for profit, persuasion without reference to standards of truth and without a relationship to notions of the public good, the welfare of the individual or society. The principle that opposes this new force is simple honesty. With the loss of this principle comes the inevitable destruction of culture and the end of freedom.

To expose this way of thinking as false, then, is one of the goals of a progressive movement. It implies the recognition that capitalism does not constitute a way of life, but only a single aspect of society. This aspect needs to be kept within bounds by an informed citizenry and a government that represents all of the people, not just the salesman.

You can see what an uphill climb we’re talking about. Oh, it’s steep, alright. But there it is.


Elizabeth S. said...

Hi, Chris. This is my first comment on your blog! Your post was timely for me. I'm teaching argumentation to my freshman English classes right now. It's all very low level, but no matter--one quickly realizes that a world in which reasonable people can disagree and the test of an argument is its validity, not its loudness or its persuasiveness, doesn't exist anywhere in the "real world." There are no models for my students. They can't see this kind of debate on TV. Mindless ad-speak is all they've ever heard, all they know. It makes my job seem futile at times. Sold out, indeed.

Mauigirl said...

Excellent points. I think I'll link to your post in my blog tomorrow if you don't mind. You said, so eloquently, something I've been feeling for a long time about this country.

Anonymous said...

citizens are shaped from the moment of birth to be "consumers;" consumption is the equivalent of being. I consume, therefore I am. advertising is the language that speaks to their needy, plastic-lined "souls." there is no other real identity they know, and even we who would teach them another way cannot hide our own consuming nature. we are all immersed; some of us cry out as we're drowning to warn the others. the success of consumerism and advertising is proportional to an individual's dread of facing and answering the question: who am i if i'm not consuming? if i step out of this identity, what is my purpose in this society? is there a purpose in life, a meaning, for a non-consumer in a consuming society? (clearly to us perhaps, but for those less inclined to introspection, the prospect of seeking an answer is far too daunting and, to many, an exercise in futility.)

i think the question is whether the language and tactics of advertising can be usurped and utilized to shift the way people think of themselves, so that they can see the evils of those same tactics. it's a tricky thing. can we manipulate the tools we scorn to build a better world? or does using those same tools degrade our message and put us into the same league as those we seek to dethrone? if not those tools, then what tools?

Chris Dashiell said...

To anonymous: That's an interesting angle, but I don't think that the techniques of advertising can be used to wean people from consumerism. Advertising, as I wrote, is by its very nature the art of persuasion rather than of free dialogue. There really is no substitute for honesty.