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April 26, 2013 at 4:34 PMComments: 6 Faves: 0

To Covet Is Human

By Kyle McCarthy from SLN More Blogs by This Author

"Advertising is a racket, like the movies and the brokerage business. You cannot be honest without admitting that its constructive contribution to humanity is exactly minus zero." - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Depravity Don

On AMC's Mad Men (a show about the fallibility of human nature thinly masked as one about the complex nature of advertising), the most morally depraved character (Jon Hamm as Don Draper) is simultaneously the most human - in fact, this ambiguity is the guiding subtextual principle of the program. How can this be, you ask? Simple. The updated metric for the measure of our humanity doesn't correspond with sophistication or the pursuit of knowledge, but rather debasement and the willing decline of our collective IQ. I don't know if this is a good thing or if this is a bad thing, but I do know that this thing interests me.

Draper is the quintessential 20th century man (albeit more classically handsome and probably more addicted to Lucky Strikes than most) dealing with the quintessential 20th century art form: Advertising. The story lines of Mad Men are magnified in stunning HD to reveal ourselves to ourselves, while still allowing us to keep a comfortable distance from our own shortcomings. (Ah, the power of fiction!) The show never breaks the fourth wall, but for anyone paying attention, it might as well blast us over the skull with a brick. Viewers that can't empathize with the corruptibility of these characters likely needs a stern crash course in self-awareness. 

One of the most interesting and telling aspects of the program is the surface landscape of its subject matter. The creators could have placed the action of the show in any setting other than the Madison Avenue of the 1960s, but they didn't. The reason for this is that no other 20th century phenomenon accurately depicts the self-aggrandizing instinct of the human species as well as the world of advertising. The occupation is designed to subtly expose the most depraved characteristics lurking within us all - perversion (sexual and otherwise), deceit, egoism, entitlement, and envy - but in a way that encourages us to view them positively; it's double-speak for a new generation.

The trick, then, becomes making the consumer believe that these characteristics are entirely natural - which they most definitely are, but few people are comfortable consciously accepting them as part of their makeup. For instance, in the very first episode of Mad Men, Don says, "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons." He's not saying that love doesn't exist; he's saying that advertising has the ability cheapen our definition of what love means to me and to you. There's nothing wrong with a little perversion, shop at Victoria's Secret! Who said you shouldn't be the envy of the neighborhood, buy a new Cadillac! You're not entitled, you deserve that $600 iPad even though you already have a smartphone and a laptop.

Because of this bit of rhetorical sorcery, the advertising copywriter has become the modern-day equivalent of a magician, converting and adapting the truth into an illusory fancy of subconscious materialistic desire. Nobody bats an eye, because everyone wants to want things. This desire is part of the human experience; it just takes the genius of well-crafted advertising to tell us that it's okay to want more than we deserve, which we all do.

Gimme Fiction

Fitzgerald was right, advertising doesn't contribute anything to humanity, per se, but it does catalyze and accelerate the experience of being a human, at least one that lives in the staged reality that exists in developed nations. For instance, a friend of mine who works in advertising sees the medium as one through which we can not only be made aware of our emotions, but one where the appropriate response is to actually act on them. I think this is a fair and factual statement, but I don't believe that acting on our sentiments is necessarily a good thing (this statement will not shock my girlfriend). He further argues that music, literature, film, etc. do have the power to influence our emotions, but that advertising extends that power by prodding us into some sort of action. For my friend, this is the brilliance of advertising. For me, this is what is most despicable about it.

When I see an ad, I want to know the price, what kind of deal they're offering, the closest location where I can purchase said good or service, and the quantity I'll be receiving for my hard-earned dollar. I know that I like Coke, and if I want one, I'll go buy one. I don't need Adrien Brody driving around in a convertible blaring some lame pop jingle with a smug smile of satisfaction on his stupid face to convince me to buy a soda from the lobby vending machine. Everything else is just extraneous white noise inserted to prey upon my subconscious and convince me that I need or like something more than I actually do, if indeed I need or like something at all.

A Cure for Nothing

An example of the latter: Consider the mass advertising campaigns over the last decade or so related to anti-depressant prescription medication. I believe that the seemingly universal diagnosis of depression across all age demographics can be laid squarely at the feet of big pharmaceutical. This isn't to say that certain individuals aren't legitimately depressed, but companies like Zoloft play the "good guy" role, when they've likely been the single largest contributor to the pity-party culture in which we live.That little circular goofball bouncing around fluffy clouds in their television spots makes it seem like everything is going to be okay. But sometimes everything isn't going to be okay, and a gender-neutral animated being of some sort isn't going to persuade me otherwise.

Sad people become convinced that there's something wrong or even sick with being sad occasionally. They then schedule an appointment with their doctor, tell him or her the origins of their sadness, and he writes them a script for happy pills. The number of times this will occur in a given day across this country is absolutely shocking, but commercials continue to insist that we need their help rather than a promotion, or a girlfriend, or some exercise. How are we supposed to feel anything if we have the ability to make ourselves feel nothing? It's not Pfizer's fault that advertising exists. In fact, it's a credit to their marketing teams that they are able to make us feel so badly about ourselves. But that doesn't mean that I don't resent them for their emotional manipulation.

Ticks and Leeches

The friend that I mentioned earlier defines advertising as "producing communication objectives for products or services... that create friendships, lovers, enemies, actions, beliefs, etc." He's right; advertising is an exceptionally powerful tool that definitely directs the thinking of the modern consumer. Unfortunately, it's more than that. In most cases, advertising is the ability to make me think that I want something that I have no use for. If McDonald's shows me a couple of beefy patties topped with fresh vegetables and dripping in various condiments wedged between two buns and insists that "I'm Loving It," I begin to believe them. I begin to think that I should run out and blow $5 on a garbage dining experience rather than preparing myself something more nutritionally substantial. In this way, advertising is parasitic. It feeds off of human hosts and infests us with manufactured ideals from the inside out. They feed us the line, and we gladly devour it.

Some would say that any form of opinionated discourse could be construed as advertising. There's a motivating factor behind every single thing that we do, whether it's an argument on behalf of our favorite college basketball team or a difficult apology. This blog, for instance, is an advertisement against what I consider to be the evils of advertising; I'm trying to sell you on my opinion. I'm no different from Don after all. What you call your beliefs was invented by guys like me to sell the illusion of integrity.

The lesson? Don't believe anything anyone says. Ever. Unless you're really hungry.

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  • I am curious how the ad men can justify the money they spend. I mean, I know that when I'm hungry, a commercial can sway my decision. But a sleek car commercial with "Sympathy for the Devil" playing in the background is not going to encourage me to spend more than I possibly could. Maybe the insanely rich make decisions based on commercials, but it seems like they wouldn't be watching that much TV. It seems like they would be doing more productive things. But, who knows? I'm sure that their market research shows them just how much it is working, but I would like to think that most of my decisions are calculated, and not on the whim of a pretty girl telling me I need something. Am I the exception to the rule?

  • I think that most people would like to think that their decisions are calculated, and that is exactly what advertisers would like us to believe. If it were otherwise, there would probably be some sort of retail rebellion.

    I can honestly say that I've never seen an ad and consciously bought something based on its message. With that said, I'm also pretty sure that advertising subconsciously directs my spending much more than I'm aware of. Not necessarily through hidden subliminal messaging, but definitely through repetition, sex appeal, jingles, attacks on my self-esteem, etc. I don't like Honda crawling around in my head telling me how much my life would be improved if I would buy a new Accord - because this obviously isn't true - but they sure make it seem that way sometimes.

    To put it more succinctly, whenever I regret a purchase, I can invariably trace it back to being "sold" on something I didn't need or want in the first place. It happens, I just don't know it until it's too late.

  • Kyle you're exactly right about the subconscious. Advertising isn't about getting you to jump up and buy right away. The target is the subconscious the "deeper bond" (Draper, Mad Men, Carousel).

    The goal is to connect a feeling or emotions to the product or service. Then once you feel that emotion or feeling later in time you remember the product. That is the time you actually might want or need to buy it.

    It's not about instant action. It's about consistent subconscious attachment. I buy Old Spice cause it makes me happy, and I'm happy cause the commercials make me laugh.

  • Your comments on Prozac reminded me of a blog I wrote awhile back after listening to this fascinating interview with the author of "Crazy like Us: the Globalization of the American Psyche." He points out the way diseases come in and out of fashion, the risks of labeling symptoms, and how America is healthcare trendsetter. Specifically, he talks about the way Paxil did what everyone said it could never do - sell in Japan.

    "For a long time pharmaceutical companies had thought of Japan as untouchable when it came to the sale of anti-depressants - not because there were no sad people there, but because they had no cultural notion of "depression". To them the symptoms of this disorder were a normal part of the human experience - until Paxil came along.

    Alongside a team of Japanese cultural experts, Paxil surmounted this mental health hurdle, essentially by selling not only their prescription medication, but the condition it was treating! Until the new millennium, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) were non-existent there. Today their sale makes billions of dollars each year."

    While I haven't had TV for years, the points Ethan Watters makes illustrate just how unavoidable advertising is. Our world - for better or worse - is formed by advertising be it from glossy paper, billboards, commercials, politicians, or even doctors.

    On one hand, like you said, not everyone that is depressed - even those diagnosed with depression - needs or will really benefit long- term from the use of antidepressants. On the other hand, Japanese people with clinical depression, with depression caused by severe chemical imbalances, now have a means to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

    It's easy (and fun!) to villainize big, wealthy corporations, that tempt and seduce us with marketing sales campaign, but in the purest sense of the word, when you really think about it, each of our LIVES are advertisements. It's the viewer's responsibility to decide what to take from the messages they're receiving.

  • I love it, a bunch of humans who spend their entire work life attempting to goad people into buying product are discussing the implications of plying their trade upon themselves. Reality lies between the sheets. We love manipulating our own kind. We love winning. We love proving that we are more intelligent, en masse. Marketing allows us to do all of these things.

    The truth is, Kyle, your last lines are the best advice to be offered to normal people. Don't believe a single thing you hear, ever. Personal experience is the only way to live this life honestly.

  • By the way, the Ticks and Leeches reference is most excellent.

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