Category Archives: Advertising

The Stupor Bowl

Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII in East Rutherford, New JerseyI’m drawn to the Super Bowl the way junebugs in my Texas youth were drawn to our porchlight. Though the bulb sat inside four secure panes of glass with seemingly no junebug-sized access, every fall we opened the lamp to clear out remnants of another summer’s massacre.

There are so many reasons not to watch: seventeeen minutes of actual sports action in three-plus hours, the crass commercialization that preys on fans’ affection and loyalty, the exploitation of players asked to sacrifice healthy futures for their profession, the American-ness of American Football complete with faux patriotism and resistance to first amendment rights to protest, the gladiatorial, bread and circus nature of the contest itself, and the not-so-vaguely militaristic celebration of barely controlled violence.

That, and I loathe the Patriots.

Yet, at around 5:30 CST, I’ll probably be watching. Why? I’ve arrived at four answers:

Nostalgia: I played a lot of football growing up in Texas. Though I didn’t attain the height or weight to play for my high school, junior high, or even the peewee league, every fall weekend found me behind La Marque Intermediate School playing sandlot with my bigger and badder neighbors. If I could get tangled in their legs or bull-ride them down, I could gain some stature among them. And, yes, I enjoyed playing. For a long time, when I watched football on television I could imagine—fantasize, really—running routes or dropping back to snatch an interception from a sure-armed quarterback. My love of the Cowboys (sorry) made football my every third thought, and I still regard that era with some warmth. Of course, those were really times of ignorance not innocence, but football seemed purer when straight-arrow Roger Staubach led the team and strong and silent Tom Landry strode the sidelines.

FOMO: I might elude my nostalgia—I’m well over other youthful devotions—except that everyone else is watching the game. At work tomorrow, the first or second question from colleagues will be whether I saw some play or, just as likely, some commercial. It takes a person proud of splitting from the herd to leave the TV off. A strange and rare solidarity surrounds the event. We live in a Chicago neighborhood with multiple bars within earshot. Most nights we don’t hear them. Tonight, though, shouts will alert me to some highlight or turn in momentum I’m missing. Having spent 17 years in Delaware, well within the Eagles’ orbit, I’m not sure I’ll have the fight to resist tuning in.

Any excuse to celebrate: The game appears when my will is weakest. It’s a terrible gray day in Chicago with spitting snow and dropping temperatures. The holidays are long forgotten, and don’t I deserve a break, some excuse to eat poorly and let my resolve go for one night? Don’t I deserve some relief from bleak national news reports?

Cognitive Dissonance: Please don’t answer. The Super Bowl brings out all my greatest powers of denial. Watching or not watching is more than a contest between head and heart, knowing and feeling. It’s the same struggle of our time writ large. We live in a nation that isn’t what it once was, certainly not all it presents itself as. Football is just one example of clinging to what it is supposed to be instead of really scrutinizing what it is. Ultimately, I’ll be watching for the worst reason, to fill a deficit I feel in the rest of my life these days, a stubborn wish that, though this nation and its national sport don’t truly match what people want to believe, there may be a little dream left.

Fly, Eagles, fly.

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On Thanks

1200People sometimes imply I’m not grateful enough. I catch their hints and know they’re right, but agreeing doesn’t get me far.

Cultivating gratitude receives considerable attention in cognitive therapy’s efforts to confront negative thoughts and amend counterproductive behavior. You change the way you act in order to change the way you feel, and one prescription is ending each day with thanks—name five things that went well today or acknowledge a few moments that made you appreciate yourself and the people who love you.

Sounds good. I’m not oblivious enough to miss my advantages. Living in Chicago, I walk past desperate homeless every day. I see the tired, three-job, overworked souls slumped in L seats. I recognize my comforts, the safe and appreciative place I work and the warm and welcoming place I live. My worries, I know, hardly compare. I ought to be grateful and—mostly—am.

I’m not sure why affirmations rarely work for me. Intellectually, they make sense, but my relatively good health, relatively good pay, and relatively good emotions don’t fill me up. Try as I might, satisfaction feels somehow false. Doing what a cognitive therapist asks feels like prayer from memorization rather than faith, an act.

Even Thanksgiving, the national holiday of gratitude, exudes desire—company, decor, celebration, and food—ultimately unsated by the most extreme excess. Like the rest of the U.S., it seems, I’m never sure how much is enough. With potential continually thrown in my face, the day ends without fulfilling its promise. Part of me remains empty and insatiable. Do I have higher hopes than can be fulfilled?

The Buddhist in me says, “Live now,” the corporate advertising machine says “Buy.” I fantasize sometimes about dire circumstances, the lower limit of what’s essential, what few things might actually be necessary for happiness—a good bowl of oatmeal, a working pen, a thoughtful companion, a book I relish rereading. Yet little in this world helps me discover what I must have… yet.

Perhaps some poverty ahead will help me decide. For now, I’ll join the chorus of gratitude, if only half-heartedly. For all my doubts, Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday, the least acquisitive of all the acquisitive holidays. I only wish to mean it more, to realize emotionally what I recognize rationally, to feel what I know—that I am indeed lucky.

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Not a Diet, A Lifestyle

home-5d75bad805b9382457be8d50231b6e95I hoped growing older might dry-up the appetites that beset me, that age might turn me into a wizened old gentleman for whom asceticism is natural—like breathing—and that air, and maybe some water and crackers, might become the only essentials to my continued existence. In short, I wanted to slowly and imperceptibly (and painlessly, please) grow happy as a monk. After decades of daily struggle with blind, ignorant yearning, can’t my brain finally win?

This summer, I’ve been counting calories. I was reasonably healthy before, not medically overweight or (chronically) immoderate in my eating. Being attractive isn’t even essential to men of my age and circumstance. Yet I see young, muscular males walking about and note their ubiquitous presence on television and the internet, in magazines and advertisements looming over the city. This imagery is enough to remind me of my inadequacy. Sure, my brain knows those expectations are artificial. Very few men look that way naturally, without rigorous physical training—or photoshop—and I might not desire weight loss without such clear messages about the importance of thin.

The Confucian philosopher Xunzi (ca. 312–230 BCE) made a distinction between xing and wei. The immediate aspects of existence fall under xing, which describes human nature at its most basic, including all the desires—he says bodily satisfaction, comfort, and prominence are chief—linking us to other animals. Though not exclusively evil, our xing needs training and channeling by our wei. Wei is artifice, the deliberate and conscious acknowledgement that our spontaneous whims must be controlled if we hope to cultivate proper habits. Wei is the first step toward virtue, as trying to be our best selves won’t happen naturally.

Something Spartan lurks in his philosophy that appeals to me. To get what you truly desire you must overcome your desires. If thin is good, make peace with eating the number of daily calories dictated by your current weight, your age, your activity level, and your goals.

Though it’d be easy to call Xunzi a Hobbesian cynic, his belief in our capacities over our proclivities is idealistic. For example, we may desire skill in painting, writing, and music because it brings us prominence, but we train as artists because of wei. We exercise those skills conscientiously and diligently knowing that, if anything of universal value is to come of them, we must find willpower and self-discipline. Anything requiring effort ultimately separates us from our xing. Desire created our goals, but artifice expressed their best form. Unlike Mencius, another prominent Confucian, Xunzi doesn’t believe we can do much with our basic appetites—xing isn’t good and is never good—but it can be overcome. Wei will supplant xing.

Yet, I suspect any distinction neatly dividing overlapping human impulses. I have questions: If we all have the capacity for wei, does that make it natural or artificial? What about wanting to have the best wei on the block, where do you put that impulse? Xunzi’s appreciation of the war between nature and artifice as the key struggle of existence seems right, and I’d love to believe wei will win. But can the brain and body ever make peace?

Xunzi’s answer was his faith in “approval,” by which he meant the heart’s decision to do what’s best, even if it opposes our appetites. According to Xunzi, we inevitably settle on what we should do and not what we want. Because health is the greater good, I sacrifice to achieve it… putting aside, of course, that vanity isn’t healthy.

The creation of “approval” helps assure Xunzi that proper behavior can exist without squelching natural desires. When “approval” takes over, reason—or, in my case, calorie counting—won’t dominate for long. We don’t develop habitual denial without training, but, to Xunzi, it becomes a part of us. Eventually, doing right requires neither thought nor effort. I WILL embrace 1500 calories before adding in extra for time on the elliptical.

Really? So far, my experiment suggests Xunzi is delusional. Granted, ours is not an age of self-denial, but it seems the gap between what you want and what you get will always be obvious. How can you act against your nature without knowing it? How long does it take to forget you’re acting against your nature?

I’d like to reach that stage tomorrow.

I battle my xing mightily, I do, and right now I’m bravely conserving the planet’s food resources for others. I cast aside spontaneous needs in favor of conscientious retraining, even though I’m probably old enough not to give a shit. But where do I find “approval” and how will I know my heart, and not Calvin Klein, is behind it?

Maybe I shouldn’t ask these questions, but I’m not thinking straight. Truth is, I’m very hungry.

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On Difficulty

Reprise…

Soon, one of my classes will wander into meta-territory, the domain where you are no longer talking about this book and begin talking about writing, reading, thinking.

Next week they will reach the twenty-second and twenty-third chapters of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. If you’ve read the book you would remember these chapters—one is stream of consciousness coming from the eponymous Beloved, a murdered two-year-old come back from the dead to occupy a young woman’s body. The next chapter was her consciousness layered with her mother’s and sister’s.

Two-year-olds make complete sense only to themselves, and seem biologically incapable of the linear, sequential thought that streams through prose. Morrison must have done something right because chapter twenty-two is particularly incomprehensible:

I cannot find my man the one whose teeth I have loved a hot thing the men without skin push them through with poles the woman is there with the face I want the face that is mine they fall into the sea which is the color of bread she has nothing in her ears if I had the teeth of the man who died on my face I would bite the circle around her neck bite it away I know she does not like it now there is room to crouch and to watch the crouching others it is the crouching that is now always now inside the woman with my face is in the sea a hot thing.

We will spend some time trying to decode this passage and others like it by examining what are clearly repetitive and important elements: faces, teeth, the sea, and, of course, “a hot thing.”

During discussion, the last item can become comic punctuation—“I think water might represent birth or transformation between life and death and back again…a hot thing.”

In such moments, I’m especially appreciative of what good sports I teach. I give them a task—make sense of a pointedly and relentlessly recondite passage—and they sum their considerable intelligence to gain a foothold. But I’m not naïve, some only pretend to like it. Midway through the period, someone will wander into meta-territory by asking why this book has to be so challenging, why authors don’t try harder to be understood.

If I turn the question back on them, they have a ready generic response—authors want us to participate in assembling meaning instead of absorbing it. Half the fun, a dutiful student will say, is solving the puzzle. Authors know: show, don’t tell.

Okay, of course that’s right, but something in me goes cold when I hear it. Maybe I’m tired and skeptical of right answers that are too easy, but a better response might be that, if consciousness is mercurial, prose should be too. As Morrison channeled her character, the diction and syntax probably formed like new track in front of her, but some students seem to see it the other way around. Morrison laid the tracks with switchbacks and impossible grades…then tried to drive it, reader-passengers be damned. Perhaps it’s both—she wanted to be true to Beloved’s elusiveness in an aesthetically sophisticated way—but I’m sure her subject came before her reader. Her aim was authenticity, not ostentation. She wasn’t trying to pander to a bunch of brains looking for something to do. She was doing her best to be Beloved.

My students accept the explanation that Morrison wanted to present Beloved as she would be—difficult to understand—but they have much more difficulty with my other answer: perhaps the trouble is our expectation of sense, not the book’s reluctance to offer it. Language isn’t all about rational communication—some shifting percentage (but always majority) of communication is non-verbal, or so I’m always told. So why can’t language have an effect that eludes rational explanation the same way music can? Why can’t Morrison’s chapters be music not intended to further the plot or offer clues to character?

Which is a tough sell because Morrison has to be after something. School teaches us to analyze and look for meaning in the text, and advertising teaches us to look for hidden agendas. In school, we expect information rather than tone or emotion. When we watch TV, advertisers send us searching for extra-textual motives in art. The author means for us to do this or that (or the other) the same way Maxwell House means to sell us coffee by telling a story of new neighbors sharing a cup.

Some people resent speakers with advanced vocabulary because they believe the speakers are showing off or want to create a particular image. The speakers, these people believe, are advertising their intelligence. The words, they believe, have an extra-textual intent. But it’s possible those speakers might use the words because they are looking for just the right words or because they enjoy the diversity and range of language or just the sound of words like “recondite.” They may have been looking for any excuse to use the word “eponymous.” Yet, for some people, those words distract instead of add. They’re pretension, not communication.

However, the more literature I read the less I believe great writers calculate their image. Pick up a New York Times Book Review, look at the ads, and it appears every book is about its attractive author, but that’s about selling the book, not about appreciating it…and certainly not about writing it. I like to believe writers are difficult or easy because it’s what their subject demands.

And, as for the photographs, it’s just a fact of life writers are good-looking.

After too many minutes talking about difficulty in fiction, my class will inch closer to understanding what “a hot thing” is and—as I’m not at all sure myself —I’ll be grateful for the diversion and for the re-education, any chance to redirect students’ attention and reclaim them from advertisers…and maybe even school itself.

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Ending and Mending

Children in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World receive hypnopaedic messages as they nap. The architects of the utopia hope to worm slogans into future citizens’ subconscious so socially advantageous behaviors become inexorable truths. All of these slogans are interesting, but one seems especially prophetic, “Ending is better than mending.”

Huxley had good reason to offer this warning in 1932 when he published this novel. The 1920s saw dramatic refinement of modern marketing—lifestyle advertising, easy credit, consumer comfort goods, and built-in obsolescence. The period’s idealistic materialism led, in some measure, to the crash of 1929. Without economic protection, the capitalistic fantasy couldn’t continue. Instead of mending our delusions however, we pursued them anew.

“Ending is better than mending” is a given now.  In any contest between the new and the used or the novel and the passé, the latest nearly always wins. Corporations learned long ago that repurchasing is more lucrative than repair, and some current products can’t be fixed. Even if a consumer wanted to restore them, many don’t have access panels or screws to re-screw. Few are built for future enhancements or adaptability. And even if the consumer could find a suitable repair-person, mending can be prohibitively costly, troublesome, and time-consuming. Why bother? Who abides delay when access to new products, advertised everywhere and constantly, is unlimited?

Engineers and designers would be better qualified to discuss the environmental advantages of mending over ending, but the broader philosophical assumptions of preferring change to development seem patently self-destructive. Every job site on the web offers statistics about how many times the average person will switch careers. Those statistics are descriptive, but they are also prescriptive, contributing to employees’ expectations for sticking with and growing into careers. The new reality of switching jobs also encourages flailing industries to turn to lay-offs first as the clearest, cleanest, and quickest way of cutting costs. Employers who favor reducing personnel save themselves the trouble of enhancing workers’ skills. It’s much easier to find someone who can do the job now than to make a current employee into that person.

We seem just as devoted to change in politics. We prefer the latest candidate, the firebrand who promises to alter everything. For those in power, a new policy—any policy—barely begins before backlash follows. The opposition’s chief role becomes obstructionist, expressing no clear purpose other than ending any attempt at mending currently underway. Sometimes the opposition seeks a return to what existed before, but, more often, they have novel agendas of their own to push. Some of these solutions might work, but the public hasn’t the patience to wait and see. They want decade-old troubles to end immediately.

In medicine we prefer drugs—new and improved and lucrative drugs—to patient education, prevention, or long-term treatments. Mental health, for example, becomes more and more pharmaceutical as insurance companies, doctors, and drug corporations recognize how messy and expensive any “talking cure” is. Mood enhancers—much like Huxley’s soma—promise to end what might take much longer to mend. Patients want relief from symptoms instead of addressing and mending underlying issues.

Our economy suffers especially. Pundits pin its health to continually increasing production, purchases, and employment. Yet our faith in growth may be the problem and not the solution. Belief in unlimited new products and new markets seems short-sighted. We might fix the economy by acknowledging our addiction to a materialism and turning more toward repair and renewal as a vision of economic health, but we haven’t the patience for complicated remedies. We could be happier doing more with less—or, more accurately, valuing what we have more—but we don’t seem to be willing to ask what, besides a new car, house, or iProduct, might make us happier.

Maybe Huxley is wrong, and our affection for novelty is intrinsic enough not to need training. Perhaps we’re hard-wired to love starting over. However, if that is true, ending certainly doesn’t need reinforcement, for what will happen when we kill the impulse to mend altogether? What will be next then?

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You Pick

After five abortive starts on this week’s blog post, I decided to write fifteen opening sentences instead. Maybe you, Dear Reader, can help me choose which to pursue…

1. Even when snow doesn’t fall, winter can leave you snowblind—lost between landmarks and anxious for traction.

2. It’s unfortunate self-loathing is my great subject, as no one wants to read about it and, of course, I don’t blame them.

3. Those who call blogging the land of confession need to remember it’s also the land of amnesia.

4. People seem surprised when they discover I follow football, and, to be honest, I’m embarrassed.  I’m a fan despite myself.

5. Insomnia has taught me all about lonely hours, ones that leave you feeling you’re earth’s last inhabitant.

6. New advertisements on TV beg Catholics to return to the church and, a fallen away Catholic myself, I hear them luring me to the rocks like a Siren song.

7. One of the indignities of aging is how little sympathy it elicits.

8. Emerson said “Imitation is suicide,” but, if it is, it’s the slowest sort.  Most of our days are a deliberate imitation of the day before.

9. In my running list of ugly emotions—anger, hopelessness, contempt, and many more—envy is moving to the top of the chart with a bullet.

10. After five years in Chicago, I understand the appeal of urban living.  I’m addicted and have trouble even picturing suburban or rural life.

11. Recently I’ve been thinking about Chuang Tzu’s fantasy in which a man dreams of being a butterfly and wakes to wonder which is real, the dream or his life.  That’s exactly how I feel about work and home.

12. The body replaces every cell in seven years.  My mind replaces memories much faster.

13. The other day someone told me Kafka’s friends found him hilarious.  I can’t believe it…  but maybe that’s because I don’t understand humor myself.

14. Sometimes I envy people who carry only fatigue home from work.

15. One of my friends has a peculiar gift for being eloquent even when he has nothing to say.

PS. Should YOU want to write a post using one of these openings, please do.  Just leave a link in my comments section.

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Laughing at Our Own Expense

We have turned into hanging judges laughing all the way.  As evidence I offer a response to a new ad on TV.  It’s a minor example, but it will do.

In this commercial, a narrator caught in an uncomfortable close-up describes being depressed as feeling like a wind-up doll needing constant attention.  She spins the key in the doll’s back, and it stoops and fades.  She winds it up again, it lurches forward a few steps and dies, its head turned slightly in hope of another fix of kinetic energy.

On YouTube you’ll find a version where someone has inserted snarky speech bubbles saying things like, “Oh great.  This pill makes you walk like a total loser with a load in their pants” and a number of other comments LOLing and deriding the original as just as lame and just as funny.  One featured comment says:

Thank you [insert drug name here] for making me laugh my ass off all day. I haven’t seen anything this retarded on TV in a long time. This is one of the world’s worst commercial’s [sic] ever, in my opinion…

I understand.  The tight focus on the doll’s pained expression is a little creepy and weird, and her constipated walk would never remind anyone of any toy a child would want.  I understand why someone who has never experienced depression could find antidepressants and toys laughably dissonant.  The advertiser tried to make the doll depressed but instead may have turned depression into a toy… a profitable toy apparently.

Yet equally troubling is the reaction to the ad because—though I disapprove of direct advertising by pharmaceutical companies and have never been sure what to think about antidepressants—the metaphor seems apt.  The prop may be funny, but the idea that a depressed person requires constant winding, that being depressed means vigilance and a perpetual application of will to move forward, all that is vividly true.

And even if the ad is odious (and I can think of many ads no one notices that seem worse to me), the judgment of it is disproportionate.  Clicking on the “more info” line for the comment above reveals more observations:

If you are clinically depressed enough that this commercial is appealing to you, maybe there is nothing left for you, but to have a creepy wind-up doll version of yourself to cart around to family picnics and wiffleball games. Seriously, if this drug makes you this messed up, maybe you were better before. Now you have to worry about some Puppetmaster, Chuckie, voodoo doll homicidal doll action on top of your depression. This will surely lead to paranoid schizophrenia. So please people, do not take this pill.

In its appeal to humor, the extended comment transposes the figurative and literal.  The commercial isn’t really suggesting depression is a doll you have to cart around to family picnics.  But that isn’t my issue with it, nor are the pop allusions, nor are the mechanical errors in the comment or the quite unmedical and irrational advice to avoid the drug because the ad for it is dumb.

I may place myself at the dock for judgment, and I don’t want to answer disproportion with disproportion by using one comment on YouTube to indict modernity but, to use our ubiquitous expression, WTF?

Our world abounds with judgment.  Town Hall attendees equate Obama’s plan to help the uninsured with Nazis who systematically slaughtered millions.  A senator shouts “You lie” before the president has even has his say.  And, as funny as John Stewart and Steven Colbert are, we watch their sarcasm in place of actual journalism.  Their targets, the “news analysts” on other networks, may be even worse.

You can say I’m overreacting and that the extreme judgment of our age is more public than new, but I wonder if more is at stake now. When judgment takes the place of deliberation—when humor trumps empathy and wit passes for reason—we may suffer a much worse fate than being subjected to silly ads.

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