Advertisements are weird. Ads on walls, floors, signs, doors, shirts… everything gets converted into ad space. Ever notice how ads are always better than the real thing? Just once I want to see a crappy ad deliver an amazing product. Not that I’d buy it, of course.
The thought of embellished advertisements always summons to my mind a scene from the 1993 movie, “Falling Down.” Michael Douglas, playing a broken man on a rampage, orders a Whammy Burger. To his dismay, he receives a flat patty that poorly represents the Whammy Burger shown on the overhead advertisement: “Turn around, look at that—see what I mean? It’s plump. It’s juicy. It’s three inches thick! Now look at this sorry, miserable, squashed thing… Can anybody tell me what’s wrong with this picture? Anybody? Anybody at all?” The image of the burger made a promise that the burger failed to deliver. Year after year, I become more and more aware of how promises—packaged as products, billboards, songs, films, articles, causes and more—actively work to replace our brain space with ad space.
Whether or not the promise is professionally defined as marketing or advertising, that’s exactly what it is. It makes sense that advertising is everywhere in a free-market, capitalist society. Our livelihood depends on our ability to create and sell value. The more valuable a product or service, the more a person or company is willing to pay for it. To attempt to get as much as possible, we embellish. This ‘dressing up’ of things isn’t necessarily bad in small doses, but I have to wonder if the sheer quantity of advertisements has some negative impact. How can being perpetually antagonized by degrees of falseness not affect us?
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote an article in 2003 about the Kinder Surprise Egg (a chocolate egg with a toy inside which is banned in the US; it recently resurfaced in the news after a tragic event involving a French toddler). The Kinder Surprise is not falsely advertised; it’s a strange kind of… false product. Zizek lingers on a few questions, such as why it is that we would add a toy to a chocolate egg, and why we would want to do this at the expense of the chocolaty center of the egg. One could—after all—simply buy a full chocolate egg and a small plastic toy. No doubt this dividing of commodities would mean a more delicious egg and a toy of higher quality than that which is found inside a candy. Why would we want to mix these two?
Zizek points out that the Kinder Surprise is “one of the most popular chocolate products on sale all around Central Europe,” so it’s clear that the mixture is a success. His argument anchors around the psychological desire for more. The chocolate will not fulfill us, but maybe more than the chocolate will satiate our thirst—our desire for something to be as good as promised. He contends that the ultimate product would live up to exactly that which is promised in its advertising, nothing more and nothing less. But we must ask ourselves: with two options on a shelf, one that embellishes and another that does not, which option would we choose to buy?
The reason for the current arrangement of marketing is that it works. It works because we are fools for lies. It works because we would sooner choose a multi-colored package featuring a cartoon animal than a plain-looking cardboard box with a few honest words on it. It works because we’re easily fooled into believing that things are a way which they are not. The problem with it working so well is that it affects many more things than bank accounts and buyer’s remorse. Marketing and advertisements affect our health and conception of reality.
People Needed to Be Told to Eat Bacon…
Bacon and eggs have been staples of the American breakfast for forever, right? Actually, the staple breakfast used to consist of a cup of coffee with a roll or a piece of bread. Bacon and eggs became normalized in the 1920s, when PR man Edward Bernays was hired by the Beech-Nut Packing Company to increase consumer demand for bacon. Bernays steered 5,000 doctors into confirming that Americans needed a heavier breakfast diet consisting of bacon and eggs. When doctors spoke, we followed.
Guess what else? Breakfast may not even be the most important meal of the day! In fact, some health experts now recommend skipping breakfast entirely for weight-loss so that your body perseveres in starvation mode until lunch.
By the way, Bernays was also the guy who told women in the 1920s that smoking would fight hunger and help them lose weight, and he brought feminists on board by labeling cigarettes as “torches of freedom.” Yeah, we’re easily duped, and some of the ideas that fool us can directly relate to our health.
Social Marketing and the Weakness of Certainty
Going back now to Zizek and his chocolate egg, he observes that recent years expose a demand for things that are not exactly what they are: a chocolate egg that’s hollow inside, non-alcoholic beer, caffeine-free coffee, sugar-free sweetener. Why on Earth would we want a thing that is simultaneously not what it is? Because we’ve been told that we should be having certain things. We culturally should be drinking coffee in the mornings or beer at social events; so those who don’t want to drink them have found a way to pretend to drink them. We turn ourselves into false advertisements: beer drinkers who don’t drink alcohol, coffee drinkers who steer clear of caffeine. Let’s buy cheap cars that look expensive so people think we’re wealthy when we aren’t. Now we’ve turned our insecurities into marketing devices that perpetuate our insecurities.
The worst part is this: we don’t even notice that anything is happening. We don’t notice how much of our identity is compromised by notions subtly imposed upon us through pretty colors, elegant words and confident eyebrows. We joke about how people have “bought into” this or that, or how they’ve “been sold” on a bogus idea, but how often do we check our facts? When we do check our facts, how often do we check our sources? The resources are more available than ever, and this is because the need has never been greater. This is a world where people wake up and eat dessert for breakfast, where people tell others who they can or cannot love, where a joke can end a career because someone is offended, where a person with no science education can make policy regarding stem cells, and this list can only get worse!
Being certain of ideas is more than a bad habit. The temptation to be certain about things of which we aren’t only reduces our ability to accept true answers when they finally come our way.
Ad Space and Brain Space
It behooves us to challenge everything, to test everything, and to test our tests. The digital age has brought us an Internet of ideas through which to sift, to challenge, and to accept or reject. Politicians commercially advertise for ideologies, and brilliant philosophers argue openly in clashes that all can see on YouTube. We are walking, talking advertisements for our thoughts; this means that if our thoughts are compromised, we become someone else’s ad space. There’s never been a greater need for critical capacities to help us navigate the labyrinth of ideas. It’s our responsibility, as the only humans in history to face an information explosion of this magnitude, to develop these skills.
Yes, a single television commercial might merely be trying to sell us a Whammy Burger, but the groundswell of advertisements and ideas that reach out at us every day—from radios and billboards, movies and songs, books and preachers, friends and teachers—is much more than a single advertisement; that’s a traffic jam one must learn to navigate. If you aren’t careful, you might just find yourself marching to the beat of all that noise… another loud advertisement, blending into the posters, stickers, jingles… becoming one with the ad space. It isn’t a conspiracy. It’s a natural disaster. It’s also an opportunity.
It may just be that the antagonistic onslaught of ads forces us to grow like we never have, to ask questions like we never have, to refine and strengthen our heretofore unrefined notions of skepticism. Maybe we need outside forces that are trying to dupe us, trying to fool our internal systems, in order to develop the tough mental mechanisms that can withstand them, and that can ultimately aid us as we travel among the endless stream of truth claims, suggestions and promises we’re bound to encounter in life. Maybe this proliferation of competing ideas will teach us to communicate, to disagree, to challenge our preconceptions… or maybe it’ll just grind us down until we’re all drones who are subject to the whim of every holiday jingle and every inch of ad space. What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know!