Monday, October 29, 2018

In Praise of Advertising

I think about advertising a lot. I think it's possible I think about advertising more than most other people. I've had many thoughts about it in the course of my lifetime, and I could just as easily write a post entitled: "Against advertising."

But who even needs to write such a post? The ills of advertising are so obvious, they hardly need to be mentioned. Advertising irritates all of us every single day, most likely. Even when we accept that it's necessary, that it makes the world go around, it's still very often irksome.

Less obviously, I've often been bothered that advertising is so tacky. Why can't it be more tasteful? Why does it so often have to be garish, silly, gimmicky, and so forth? Some advertising can be artistically very appealing, for instance, this Irish ad for peat briquettes from 1986. I can't help thinking the world would be a better place if advertisers sought to give their ads some artistry, some restraint.

So please don't think the purpose of this post is provocative, or contrarian. I agree that the level of advertising in our era is a cause for concern, and that advertising can be a very shabby industry.

But advertising has also brought a lot of joy into my life-- not only in the sense that there are many fine and artistic advertisements, but in a more particular and personal sense, as well.

I've often mentioned my purple notebook on this blog. Simply explained, it's a little notebook full of memories, images, lines of poetry, and other items which inspire me. They don't just inspire me; the common feature of purple notebook entries is that they never cease to inspire me, they never grow old. I can ponder them repeatedly and they continue to speak to me.

Jung had his red book. Why shouldn't I have my purple book? (Indeed, with the popularity of Jordan Petersen, who often delves into archetypes and the collective unconscious, my purple notebook seems quite intellectually fashionable.)

Every Saturday I take a long walk and browse my purple notebook. Yesterday, I realized (for the first time) how many of my purple notebook entries refer to advertising, in one way or another. I just counted, and there are eighteen of them. And it's a short text, not more than than two thousand words. 

One of the things I like about advertising is something which is often held against it, and sometimes rightly held against it. That is: hype.

On the whole, I love hype. This struck me very clearly one night, a few years ago, when I looked up into the sky and saw that there was a full moon. For a moment, I saw the moon purely as a physical object, a ball of rock in the sky. And I realized how much I was missing in that view; how much the moon had been "built up" in our imaginations by all the legends, myths, poems, songs, and allusions that it's featured in, down the centuries.

The moon itself is a beautiful thing. But the idea of the moon is even more precious, in my mind.

How much of human culture could be accurately described as "hype"? Poetry, song, painting, dance, fireworks, the accentuation of femininity and masculinity, all of these could fairly be called hype. One might use the term "celebration" instead. But what's the difference? Indeed, advertisers often make use of the term "celebration" ("to celebrate the release of our autumn range...")

The word "celebration" is one that I've spent a lot of time thinking about, too. What does it actually mean? What do you do when you celebrate?

I'm a bit of a mixed-up person in that I see the world with a kind of double vision. I see things from both a romantic and a relentlessly rationalistic viewpoint-- although I inevitably favour the romantic view. Indeed, my problem with rationalists is that they don't go far enough. Rationalists like to complain that national anthems, or men holding the door open for women, or various other ceremonial and symbolic actions, are silly mummery. And I suppose one could argue that they are. But how many other things in life are "silly mummery", when you get right down to it? Shaking hands, saying "thank you", wishing somebody well, keeping your mouth closed when you eat, covering your nakedness for the sake of decency....what is the rational defence of any of this?

(I take this reaction against rationalism so far that the argument that any custom, rule, or practice is silly and illogical tends to recommend it to me.)

I could easily get lost in this subject, so I will press on and say: I like advertising because it celebrates. It hypes. It might be celebrating only in order to sell you stuff, but is that the worst thing in the world?

I'll take an example of an advertising-related entry in my purple diary: "Bed/duvet packaging with picture of dark-haired woman."

This is a memory of an picture I saw on the label of a bed, or a duvet, or something, which showed an attractive dark-haired woman lying in bed, with her eyes closed. This was in my early childhood. Of course, the fact that it was a picture of an attractive woman was much of the appeal, but it could hardly be all of it, since I must have seen any number of other ads showing attractive women. No, there was more to it than that.

It was the fact that the woman was doing something so mundane that appealed to me. She made it look...what? Glamorous? Exciting? Sexy?

No, none of those words applied. The whole point was that it was still mundane. Its mundanity had simply been heightened and elevated. I'm reminded of the Police song, "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic." Every little thing this lady did would be made magical, even when it was mundane. Besides, I had never seen bedtime as in any way exciting before. (And this sight certainly didn't convert me,, as I hated bed-time all through my childhood. Most of my "purple notebook" moments were almost subliminal, things that hardly registered with me at the time, that I only realized had burrowed into my soul many years later.)

It isn't only beautiful women in advertisements who possess this power of elevating the workaday world, in my eyes. All sorts of advertisements do this, even advertisements that don't feature people at all.

This is the thing I like about most advertisements-- somehow, mysteriously, they make life seem more appealing. So many advertisements seem (at least to me) like advertisements for life itself.

(A memory rises to the surface at this point. In the summer of 1998-- I remember the date precisely, since I remember what I was doing at this time-- I was going through something of a depression, for all sorts of reasons. I was lifted out of the depression, at least temporarily, by a bus advertisement for the fizzy drink Fanta, whose caption read: "Welcome to the world.")

The world in advertisements is cleaner, brighter, better framed, prettier, and apparently more meaningful. Looking through this window might be expected to disillusion me about this world, but it doesn't. Somehow, it makes this one seem more appealing. After all, there's nothing impossible, for the most part, in the world portrayed in advertisements. There's nothing even particularly implausible. It's just a spruced-up version of this world.

So that's the main reason I like advertisements. They make the world itself seem brighter, shinier, more attractive.

Another reason I like advertisements is their sheer enthusiasm.

I generally avoid debates about "capitalism", because the word has so many meanings it's ridiculous. As a faithful Catholic, I accept the teachings of the Church, as far as they can be discerned-- I think it's fair to say that every modern Pope, right back to the Leo XIII at least, has affirmed that our current economic system is in serious need of reform. Amen.

Having said all that, there are many things I like about capitalism, and one is that it's based upon pleasing people. True, it's based upon pleasing customers, but nearly everyone is a potential customer. The purpose of business is to make money, but it does that (to a great extent) by trying to make people happy. And so advertisements tend to radiate this bias towards happiness, towards pleasing people.

I've never bought anything from a TV shopping channel, and I've only ever been exposed to them accidentally-- because I happened to be in some place where such a channel was on TV. But I must admit, I've always felt my mood being lifted by them. The presenters are almost evangelical about the vacuum cleaners, coffee-makers and foot-baths they're selling. There's something child-like about their excitement, something I can't help warming to. Once again, their zeal seems to transcend its actual object, and to pervade their whole environment. If they get this excited about a hair-dryer-- well, there are much more exciting things than hair-dryers in the world!

Another thing I like about advertisements, and the world of advertisements, is the absence of tragedy. Even when there is tragedy in advertisements, it's not so bad as it might be. (Of course, I'm not talking about the kind of advertisements that are intended to shock, or to warn. I'm talking about ordinary commercial advertisements.) The ad that comes to mind in this instance (although it's not in my purple notebook) is one I encountered when I was working in UCD's veterinary science library. One of my tasks was to stamp certain pages in the periodicals we received, and one of these periodicals had an advertisement for a drug used to treat HIV. The photograph on the ad was very simple-- it simply showed a youngish man looking into the camera, and holding a net bag of fruit and vegetables. Presumably, the picture was set at an outdoor market, or somewhere like that. He looked perfectly happy and well, even though he was obviously meant to represent a man who was HIV positive. The ad had no caption, as far as I can remember, but the message was clear: being HIV positive is by no means the end of the world (especially with this drug).

And that's generally the message of all ads that touch on the tragic, whether it's an ad for a funeral home, or for life insurance, or for some kind of counselling service: it's not so bad. It's endurable. There's no need to lose your calm, or to despair. And I find this very soothing and consoling.

It's not that I don't respect tragedy, or the tragic dimension of life. One of the reasons I'm a conservative and a romantic is because I do respect it. And one of the reasons utopianism is so unappealing, to me and to many others, is because it's tone-deaf to the high tragedy of human existence. The human condition drips with pathos, and that gives it a grandeur and a dignity that progressives often miss. So much of all that human hearts endure cannot be dispelled by legislation, or technology, or social improvements. We are not lab rats, thank goodness, So I am not anti-tragedy..

But it's nice to take a mental holiday in a world without tragedy, without shadows.

In the world of advertisements, families are always sitting around the table at dinner, or absorbed in a board game, or playing in a paddle pool, or otherwise occupied and united. Couples are always leaning towards each other over candle-lit dinners. Nobody is ever at a loose end, or bored (unless the boredom is immediately rectified), or suffering from any malady other than the one the ad tackles.

Even maladies are made desirable by advertising. There's an ad which shows a woman yawning, with the caption: "Tired of being tired?". She looks so deliciously drowsy, it makes me want to be tired.

What is the moral of this blog post? Well, there isn't one, particularly. I'm just describing a mental phenomenon which is of interest to me, and may be to others-- but I do think it throws a bit of a sidelight on a more general question. That is, the whole question of the ideal, or even the idyll.

Some people (observational comedians, media studies professors, newspaper columnists, and so forth) seem to harbour a hostility towards the ideal in itself. Think of how the term "two point four children" has been used to derisively, so often. Or think how certain theologians like to dismiss the Catholic ideal of family or marriage because it doesn't "reflect the reality" of peoples' situations. Or think how much ridicule has been heaped on the idylls of Irish romantic nationalism since about the middle of the twentieth century, if not before. Debunker after debunker set out to show that the Irish peasant was not a noble savage but miserable, overworked, bored, etc. etc.

This last reminds me of some of my favourite lines form Yeats, taken from his poem "The Fisherman". This passage comes after he has described the cynicism and opportunism he perceived in the Ireland of his time:

Maybe a twelve-month since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face
And gray Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark with froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream—
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream.

I agree it's a long way from Yeats's Fisherman to a family playing Trivial Pursuit around the coffee table. Indeed, I rather fear Yeats will haunt me for quoting his lines in this context, since he had little but scorn for the bourgeois, the suburban, and commercialism. But my point is this: why should we view the ideal as a trick, a fraud? Why can't we see it as simply an ideal, something that elevates rather than degrades/

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