Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Brought to you by....

I just finished watching Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, the new documentary on advertising by Super Size Me filmmaker Morgan Spurlock that’s playing over at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. I definitely recommend it, because it’s fascinating and light-hearted. Through the whole thing, Spurlock is winking at the audience, and there are some brilliant comic moments (the in-movie commercial for Mane N’ Tail brand shampoo is pretty priceless). But it also had a few sections that triggered real brainwaves for me.

One is just the ubiquity of advertising. In the film, Spurlock travels to Sao Paolo, a city that has outlawed outdoor advertising. And the whole place looks naked, somehow unnatural. And when you see the video of Sao Paolo intercut with video from Times Square, the cognitive dissonance is astounding.

Of course advertising is everywhere. We all know it. We all accept it as the price we pay for modern convenience, to a certain degree. If the big companies are willing to pay the expenses of the shows, concerts, even some book tours, in exchange for getting a little bit of our attention, then doesn’t that make everyone happy?

But what occurred to me while watching The Greatest Movie is that, no, it doesn’t make everyone happy.

Part of advertising, of course, is making a customer aware of a certain brand and its benefits. If, for example, flame-retardant vest A is 50% more flame-retardant than vest B, you might tell your customers that in an ad. But what if vest B is still plenty flame-retardant for your purposes? What if you don’t need anything more flame-retardant than good old vest B? Then advertisers have to do something else: they have to convince you that you need something you don’t (incidentally, this is where SPF 50 comes from…every study has shown that 15 does just as well for practical purposes, but still, there is 50 and 75).

If you, like most of the country, are part of the lower to upper-middle class, then the gap between what you need and what you have is probably pretty minimal (food, clothing, shelter, water, books, internet), so advertisers have their work cut out for them. They have to convince you first that you need coffee, then that you need an iced double-espresso machiatto (I don’t know if those words make sense together—I drink iced tea). They have to convince you that it’s not enough to be clothed, but that you must have hip-hugger, bun-lifter, crotch-tweaker jeans (idea copyright Evan Perriello 2011). And the only way they can do this is to convince you that your life, as it is, is deficient. Where there is no gap, they create the semblance of a gap (incidentally, this is also the advertising slogan of the aforementioned jeans).

The net effect of this is that, not only are you seeing 10,000 advertisements a day. You’re seeing 10,000 signals all telling you the same message: You are deficient. You are not good enough without brand X. And unless you have millions of dollars, you won’t ever have all the brand X’s that are out there, so you will always be deficient. We wonder why, according to the WHO, the US has the highest rate of depression, but in no other country is one subject to the same amount of metaphorical mud-slinging (the notable exception being Japan, which is in a similar situation, mental-health-wise).

In many forms of entertainment, advertising has been around forever. I love watching the old Twilight Zones with their original ads for doctor-recommended cigarettes. And while the ads have become more prominent and have blurred the lines between the show and the ad, (anyone watch Biggest Loser and notice that the entire 2 episodes spent in New Zealand were one big travel ad interspersed with “trainer tips” that always recommend a distinct brand-name product you can buy?) it has always been part of the accepted territory of television, of radio, of magazines, of newspapers.

But what about books? Books, it seems to me, are the last unconquered terrain for advertisements. Or at least they were…until now. As good independent book-buyers, I’m betting you don’t follow Amazon that closely, so what I’m about to say is going to be shocking and horrifying. They’ve released a new Kindle, their proprietary e-reader, that gives you “special offers.” That’s right. As you prepare to flip open your copy of Moby Dick, you can get a few advertisements for a new Buick or special credit card.

I’m not against e-book readers, per se. I don’t have much use for them myself, because I prefer real, physical books. But I can see their purpose. Still, there’s something sickening to me about the thought of setting down my book, coming back to it, and finding the page has switched to an advertisement while I was away. I don’t want a character to grab a Pepsi from a fridge and have the word link to Pepsi.com when I click it. If I ever publish a novel, I don’t want to have to change a single word, from “car” to “Honda” or “hot sauce” to “Tabasco” just so that I can afford to publish. And more than anything, if I ever have a daughter, I don’t want her to have to click off an advertisement for makeup when she’s trying to read Wuthering Heights for the first time.

And it makes me wonder what the world would be like if instead of walking through a jungle of signs telling us what we’re missing from our lives, we walked through the same number of signs telling us things like, “Love your family,” “Be good to your friends,” “You’re beautiful,” “You’re smart.” If an e-book reader would say something like that every once in a while, maybe then it would be worth interrupting the narrative. But in the meantime, I think I’ll pass on the “special offers,” and just get back to my book.

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