Words are amazing. They give voice to the essence of being human, they are how we share who we are, why we are, what we see and how we hope. Which doesn’t mean they’re always pretty. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t hurtful, or cruel, or peevish or unthinking. But they -and our ability to use them – are amazing.
And then there’s advertising. An acknowledgement, yes. A promotion, yes. A means of sharing, absolutely. And so often nowadays, frustratingly, a manipulation that we so easily allow ourselves to be drawn into. Through words, and the images they support.
I yell at my TV, a lot, to my daughter’s chagrin (I’m pretty sure my husband has learned to just tune me out). And the radio station I listen to in my car. And at billboards I happen to drive by. And newspapers and internet ads and video clips and headlines, and all sorts of things that trumpet advertising as truth. That don’t promote their product as much as work to convince us that we need their product in order to be successful, to be safe, to be happy.
The most recent ad that trips my trigger is for T-Mobile, a huge mobile communications company. I find it reprehensible. In this particular ad, an everyman sort of guy named Steven is sitting at a cafe table, laughing with a life-sized Snapchat icon “sitting” across from him. Celebrity Nicki Minaj comes in and asks him what he’s doing there with “this thing,” meaning Snapchat, as if she’s caught him in some kind of tawdry infidelity. He immediately stops laughing and looks ashamed, and then abashedly explains that he had been downloading her videos all morning, but had to switch to something less data intensive in order to not go over his data limit. She belittles him for not having T-Mobile’s unlimited data plan, and then says to the Snapchat icon, “C’mon girl, let’s get us a man with unlimited data” as they both saunter away, dripping distain. He’s left sitting there, alone, sad, and publically emasculated.
Dang, you don’t want to be THAT guy, do you? Better get T-Mobile’s unlimited data plan so as not to find yourself in such an embarrassing situation!
But, wait, what did this dude do wrong? He was having fun with social media. Isn’t having fun good? Why should he feel obligated to remain loyal to a particular celebrity, a particular platform, a particular activity? Should not his loyalty be to his own enjoyment, where he wants to go with the tools with which he has surrounded himself? I mean, c’mon. If someone wants to obsess, fine, but deciding to do something else, for whatever reason, should not be attached to a value judgment. Especially a value judgment that is artificially created by an advertising agency for their client. To make money off of the consumer.
Listen, if Steven was miserable talking with “Snapchat”, that’s something else. If he was obviously having to “settle” for something he’d really rather not be doing, then they have a point. But he wasn’t. Before the interruption, he’s laughing. He’s having fun. This is a Good Thing.
To add insult to injury, Minaj takes Snapchat with her when she saunters away, as if poor Steven and his lack of unlimited data is not good enough even for the social media he still can obviously stream with his inferior plan. And Snapchat goes with her, even though she called Snapchat a disdainful “thing” just moments earlier, deriding Steven for using it instead of focusing solely on her.
So what is being said here is that having fun isn’t important unless you’re doing the “cool” thing according to some celebrity arbiter of value; if you don’t have unlimited means, you’re a loser; if you’re not obsessing, you’re a loser. There’s also the message that attaching yourself to a cool thing is desirable even if the cool thing debases and demeans you, as well as the more subtle message that your consumption of a celebrity’s commodity means that the celebrity will notice you personally, instead of you just being one of the teeming masses that guarantee them a profit. None of those implications are true, but they are being displayed as truth in this ad.
It’s not just mobile phone services, of course. Although T-Mobile’s ad might be heavy handed and poorly realized, we are bombarded with these artificial value judgments dressed up as “needs” or “truths” everywhere we turn. We are told we really need the ability to open our van’s sliding side door with our feet rather than our hands (how did we handle all that stuff we had to carry before now, eh?). That we won’t be safe on the road if we don’t have the option of a rear view camera, a side object alert, an auto braking system or a highly engineered steering system as well as a built in system to keep from overcompensating (for those times that logs fall off trucks in front of us or we find ourselves in a selective rock slide on a steep mountain road that requires us to swerve at speeds faster than we really should be going along that wind-y, drop off road in the first place). That we need to have a truck that can take a load of concrete blocks being dropped haphazardly from 15 feet into its bed without a dent because dang, you hate it when that happens, amirite? Or that if we have a fancy GPS system then we’ll be able to leave bumper to bumper traffic for a magical road that no one else has thought to take, that we miraculously can get to with no one else noticing.
And how about the ability to lock our doors and turn our lights on and off no matter where we are – across the room or across the world! I mean, how did we survive without being able to see what Fido was doing all alone at home at any hour of the day – or make a video of it that we can replay for our loving partners later! (Oh, that rascal Fido!) How could we (or better yet, our children) learn before there were iPads, or take stunning pictures without iPhones, or make movies and share them immediately with everyone without the newest, hottest, hippest device? How horrible our world would be if we couldn’t watch every single NFL game live, or if we didn’t drive a car where people turned and stared at us in envy when we passed by, or we didn’t drink the beer that made us young and beautiful and happy (while surrounded by all our young and beautiful and happy friends).
Listen, I’m not against advertising. It provides a valid service, letting us as consumers know what’s available, even if it is beyond our means. And not all advertising is meant to mislead or exploit. There’s some gorgeous, wonderful, hilarious advertising out there. And some folks do need truck beds that don’t dent when heavy loads are dropped into them. There are people who have thwarted robberies or helped capture thieves due to home security systems that run off their phones. And even I will admit that rear view cameras on cars, or foot activated back hatches could be mighty convenient, if you are in the market for a vehicle with those options.
What I do dislike, however, is manipulation, and it seems that so much advertising is trying to convince us we need something rather than letting us know that they have something we might want. This manipulation seems to be an awful – and if not dishonest, at least dishonorable – use of words in the hands of those who have made such manipulation an incessant art form.
So the next time you have to sit through a bunch of commercials while waiting for the next segment of Mr. Robot, or between possessions during Monday Night Football, or while binge watching Orange is the New Black or listening to your Modern Celtic Radio station on Pandora or scrolling through your favorite news site or what have you, don’t let them just drone on or keep flashing by, but actually pay attention – not for what they are selling, but how they are selling it to you. See past the hype to the messages that are truly being given – is it about the merchandise, or about some person you should be and could be if you’d only buy their product?
Or better yet, mute them. The commercials, the ads, the “sponsored posts”, the “suggested sites.” Block them. Hide them. Make them a non-entity. Preserve the words as much as possible for the things that truly matter, for the things you choose to matter. Don’t let them be used against you. And do what Makes You Happy -not what you’re told you should do in order to be happy.
Oh, and while you’re at it… stay off my danged lawn!
~ Sharon Browning