Tuesday, June 9, 2009



Advertising nauseates me for several reasons. I don't like it because it twists and omits information in order to induce people to enrich the speaker. I don't like it because it plays to weak human sense. And I don't like it because it presumes to impose "acceptable values," when in fact it merely wants its listeners to go buy things. Advertisers could care less whether listeners "Just Do It," "Are Who they Are" or "Get Down with Dr. Scholl." They just want people to associate sounds, images and words with their product so that a listener will go buy the product when he remembers it. It is fundamentally childish: "Look. Listen. Remember. Go. Buy." Advertising speaks to commercial urges; and commercial urges are not complicated. They are as simple as human sense.

Yet advertisers act in very subtle ways. It is easy to forget just how simple and base they are because they wear disguises. They try to fool listeners into thinking they stand for something other than commercial gain. Today, for example, I was riding the subway and I saw a man carrying an "American Eagle" shopping bag. There was a new advertising slogan on the bag: "LIVE YOUR LIFE." It was not enough to just show pictures of shirts, pants and youthful sunbathers. American Eagle wants people to remember the phrase "Live Your Life" when they think about buying hip beachwear.

Why, exactly? What does "living my life" have to do with buying American Eagle clothing? More to the point, what does "live your life" mean, anyway? And why is American Eagle commanding me to "live my life?" Does American Eagle have some authority to recommend whether I live, or how I live? Should I be willing to listen to their advice about my life? After all, who can say what my life--or anyone's life--means? Aren't we living precisely to figure out why we're here? If anyone commands me to "live my life," I would like to issue the orders, not American Eagle or some advertiser bent upon wreaking commercial gain from my existence on this planet.

American Eagle's slogan made me angry. Not only did it bring to mind why I detest advertising, but it made clear to me an important reason why I detest it. American Eagle's slogan fits into a particular advertising category: The "values" pitch. In my view, advertising really pushes its legitimacy when it ventures down the "values path." As mentioned, advertising has a simple goal: To implant sensory impressions that mature into memories and inducements to buy. It provides targeted information in just such a way that a listener forms a favorable memory about a particular product or service. In this way, advertisers increase awareness about their products or services, which in turn increases the probability that someone will buy them. It is all about numbers: If more people know about something, there is a greater chance that someone will act on the knowledge and spend their money. Advertising solicits a commercial transaction between the speaker and the listener. If the transaction materializes, advertising has done its job. It does not matter whether the listener and the speaker share values or even agree on anything other than the price. Advertising does not aim to sway your conscience or alter your life philosophy. It just wants you to spend your money and make the advertiser rich. That is your purpose in the advertising scheme.

Why, then, do advertisers go further? Why must they also espouse a particular value perspective when suggesting that people go buy their products? Is it merely to woo a target audience? When American Eagle commands you to "Live Your Life," are they appealing to those individually-minded rebels who want to ignore convention and make their own way? Or are they commanding you to "Live Your Life" in the "American Eagle way?" If they are, they are commanding you to get young, get tan, put on your damn flip-flops, angle up that polo shirt collar, frost that hair, throw on a shell necklace and start getting it on with some hot white chicks on a private beach somewhere near the prep school. In other words, you need to start "living your life," man! You aren't doing it now, so you'd better start. You need to start having fun "AE style;" that's an order. Note that "Live Your Life" is not a recommendation. It is an imperative.

Yet life is not fun, nor is it all about having fun. Anyone who succumbs to the delusion that life is fun will not last long once the "external world" falls upon him with what Freud called "merciless forces of destruction." See Civilization and its Discontents, p. 25. I will choose what is valuable to me in my own life. I resent the notion that a superficially-minded advertiser dares to suggest how I should live my life, let alone command me. Yet advertisers often do this. Are people really so weak that they need commercial actors to tell them what is valuable in their lives? We only get one shot at existence. It conceals a great mystery for all of us. If anyone can answer why we live, or how we should live, we should look no further than ourselves. Perhaps we can trust a few close friends or loved ones to help us find our way. But we certainly should not entrust that duty to an advertiser who just wants our money.

For advertisers, our life purpose is amazingly simple: "Stay Alive and Buy My Product." Any suggestion beyond that is facetious. Advertisers do not really care about me as long as I survive to buy their product. As long as I buy the product, it does not matter whether I agree with the advertiser's abstract life philosophy. That is why I do not listen to advertisers' disingenuous invitations to "live my life" or otherwise adopt particular values. I might live in a commercial world and I might need to buy things. But when it comes to "living life," I will choose my own path.

If anyone tells me to "Live My Life," it will be me, not American Eagle. American Eagle sells baggy shorts, pink shirts, cargo pants and sunglasses. It does not order people how to live their lives. It is a seller with a stock exchange marker, not a sovereign deity with power over individual destiny. Commerce does not grant authority to instruct others how to live their lives. It does many other things, but it does not have authority to control others' most intimate life values. Despite its theoretical limitations, however, advertising submerges us in sensory detritus every day. It is difficult to separate the legitimate from the illegitimate. It is hard to ignore things that constantly barrage the senses. And commercial speakers appear to have power because they are constantly talking. In fact, they speak so much that we have to consciously avoid listening to them. They have things we want. They constantly recommend what we should want. Yet they have no strict power to tell us who we are. "Being" is our task. Commerce plays solely to our urges to "have." It even encourages us to confuse whether "having" actually translates into "being."

Having said that, some are content to "have" in order to find satisfaction in life. I'm not. Perhaps that is why I hate advertising. In response to American Eagle's command to "Live my Life," I respond: "You are not competent to give that order."


Timoteo said...

And what about the fine print that you often can't read even with a magnifying glass! Isn't it false advertising to tell people one thing up front, then contradict most of what you just said in the fine print? i am totally befuddled as to why this is legal.

Balthazar said...

So true, Timoteo. I have satirized fine print many times on this blog. Check out my "advertising" archives.

To answer your question about how deceptive advertising is legal, let's just say that it varies from State to State. The Supreme Court basically lets "commercial speakers" say anything they want as long as it is not "a provable lie" or "deceptive." But you need to be really dense to say a "provable lie." You can tell half-truths, include a footnote, use the word "may" and you're suddenly not lying anymore. You're not being entirely truthful, either, but that doesn't matter from a legal perspective. And frankly no one would buy products if they knew the full truth about them in advance.

You can exaggerate all day and night, but as long as you include a barely-readable, ineffective disclaimer, you can escape the law. It's total bullshit, but let's not forget whom these rules protect: COMMERCIAL ACTORS... and these guys control the economy. The Court is not going to let government stymie them too much with requirements that their words be "true," "informative" or "verifiable." Truth scares people from buying things. Truth is not good for business.

One last point: You should stop expecting the law to guarantee justice or fairness in commerce. Just because something is "legal" does not necessarily mean that it is also "right" or "just." First Amendment law concerning advertising is a perfect example.

Thanks for the comment.