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SATURDAY, MAY 28, 2016
I have a very ambivalent attitude towards advertising: I both love and hate it. On the one hand I can see how advertising is manipulative, deceptive, anti-social, slanted, based on greed and profit, a waste of public space, and therefore is generally evil. On the other hand, advertising has a large aesthetic appeal (mostly because of the production value put into it), it amuses, it surprises, it tickles the emotions, and yes, it can even enlighten.

Ryan Sauve's Gum versus Internet article takes the more positive view of ads - at least in relation to a recent Dentyne ad campaign, which uses the language of social networking websites ironically to promote face-to-face (rather than Facebook) contact between people. As Ryan wrote, "I enjoy the minimalism and how (the ads) depict people as generally good folk." Compared to the typical view of ads, Ryan's is a daringly sympathetic take on the subject.

The more popular view - the negative one - of advertising is espoused by an anonymous(!) blogger, to which Ryan provides a link. The blogger, "Short Round" (anonymous even on his blog's so-called "complete profile" page; however, a click brings you to his "MySpace Music" site, which tells you he's in a band from New York City, but that's all...anyway), says this about the Dentyne campaign: "ads essentially lie their way into our hearts and manipulate us like an unholy cross between a used-car salesman and the T-1000, but (the Dentyne) ad seems particularly...unfortunate." A little later he adds, "why does Dentyne wish we all spent a little more time together? Because Dentyne wishes we were more worried about our breath.



(It's spaced out that way on his blog.)

...So. We have here the two polar opposite views - Ryan's and "Short Round's" - concerning ads. Is one right and the other wrong? Are they both equally valid? Or is there simply no comparison? (Those were all rhetorical questions. I don't have answers to them.)

Advertising, I should say, used to simply mean informing, which is obviously much more neutral than the pejorative bent we usually give the word today. We tend to think of ads as not informative at all, but rather as covering up information, or at best, carefully selecting a small portion of the truth and then piling heaps of hype on to it. (Echoing this theme in 1988, the anti-establishment rap group Public Enemy released (ironically, in hindsight) their most popular single of that year, "Don't believe the hype.")

Northrop Frye (who I quote too much but need to here) described advertising, quite rightly, as "a judicious mixture of flattery and threats." The flattery usually comes in the form of showing, first of all, how smart you are, that is, if you choose the product being sold, and second, that you too can be as outgoing, vivacious, attractive, fun to be around, etc, as the beautiful and nice people in the ads, again, with the help of the product being hawked. We definitely get this in the Dentyne adds.

Frye also said of advertising that anyone who believed literally what ads told them would hardly be capable of managing their own affairs, since they'd be so gullible.

As an illustration, think of that episode of The Simpsons where Homer slams on his brakes in the middle of the freeway (causing a huge pile-up of cars behind him) because it's "new billboard day". Homer reads the first ad, salutes it, and proudly says, "Whatever you say, Mr. Billboard!" After a few ads he ends up at work with a bunch of the products just saw advertised and says, "Well, I got everything I was supposed to get."

Homer is exactly the type of gullible person Frye was talking about.

Now, nobody in real life is as stupid as Homer Simpson, and no advertiser is so naïve as to think they can treat viewers as if they were as stupid as Homer is. Ads did used to be more naive in their approach, like with those corny sitcoms and radio shows of the 1930s, 40s and 50s that would not-so-subtly work their main sponsor's product into the storyline. And actually, today we have the so-corny-it's-painful-to-watch "infomercials" of late-night TV (the term "infomercial" itself seems to be an unconscious throwback to the connection between "advertising" and "informing").

But what about my love/hate feeling for advertising, you ask? Glad you did. Here's what I think - or rather, feel and think about advertising.

When I watch see an ad I'm fully aware that it is specifically designed to stimulate, provoke, draw out certain emotional and intellectual reactions. Ads maximize their ability to work over your brain, not exactly bypassing your rational faculties to get at your more susceptible emotional ones, but pretty close. Ads plays our intellect and your emotions against each other, in a way.

Despite the better judgement of my intellect, my emotions sometimes get the better of me. As critical (and sometimes cynical, though I try to avoid that) as I am about such things, I often get those tingles down my spine, those involuntary shudders, when I see, say, a powerful ad, or even hear an eloquent speech by George W. (run with me...) or watch a scene from a clearly propagandic Hollywood war or action movie.

Yes, even I, the "critical thinker" I take myself to be, gets tingles when watching a crappy movie designed to produce that exact reaction in me. Try as I might (though maybe I just shouldn't) to fight against it, the shudders overtake me, and the poignant ad, the well-crafted speech, the cheesy movie scene, wins me over- no, wins my emotions over. I know the ad/speech/movie is garbage, but my emotions don't seem to know it.

So, in a way I love ads, and in a way I hate them. The "tingles" perhaps demonstrate that at some "unconscious" level I actually enjoy them, while my more sober intellect tells me that I hate them - not only for their inherent social manipulation but for making myself shamefully fall victim to those friggin' tingles.

What I think it shows, however, is just how powerful and manipulative advertising - or mass media, or pop-culture, or whatever you want to call it - actually is. If I, who am so critical, gets sucked in to the degree I am by the emotional reaction traps of ads, what hope is there for those who don't put up any shields against them at all? (That's a rhetorical question, too...I think.)

Maybe my division of intellect and emotion is overly simplistic, or condescending, or betrays a denial of my emotional side. I acknowledged the somewhat embarrassing "tingles" and "shudders" that crappy media give me, so I don't think I'm in denial about anything. Anyway, I have one last point about emotions versus intellect.

The emotional centers in the brain are, as far as I know, some of the oldest neurological hardware we have (Alamir, can you back me up on this?), and they're therefore what our brains have most in common with other primates brains. The "lower" part of language, those inarticulate, mostly automatic grunts and calls and gestures and signs that apes as well as humans use, are regulated by those older, "emotional" parts of the brain. And these emotional, largely involuntary responses are, in a way, the least human thing about us (or the most "ape" thing about us). The intellect on the other hand, is what makes us uniquely human, and I personally tend to trust (or discard) my feelings after they've been filtered through my intellect.

Maybe that sounds all cold and overly-rational or something but, uh, not to be redundant, I don't really care if it does sound cold.

What my intellect tells me is that my emotional response to advertising and media shouldn't really be trusted, at least not uncritically (I don't often have much use for "Just go with your gut"). Sure, I can love an ad, get pleasure from a crappy movie or TV show, and I can even get excited by a rhetoric-drenched, partisan political speech. But, using my better judgement, I can hate those things, too, or at least be critical of them, and of my gut-reaction/emotional response to them. Hate, I realize, is an emotion as well. But I mean it in the good way here: "hate "as in "think"; "hate" as in "reflect". What I'm pointing to is the downright unconscious, dangerously automatic, and physical aspect of emotion. I know it's "all physical", intellect included (to many people, anyway; I'm not a dualist)), but emotions seem to have an even stronger physcial hold on us than our intellects (hence those involuntary tingles).

And yet I don't feel torn between my emotions and my intellect. Actually, I feel more free. I can watch crap, know that it's crap, and still enjoy it. There's no need to choose between the emotional and the rational. Love it or hate it, we humans can do both.

My brother runs adblock on every site he visits. He is unaware of what the real MySpace/Facebook/Gizmodo sites look like. In general his web experi...

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