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To Covet Is Human

By — One of many Psychology blogs on

"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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