Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The tyranny of reason

A prescient book from the fifties called Motivation in Advertising, by adman Pierre Martineau, reads like a map to our current public sphere, delineated as it is by the kinds of advertising Martineau pioneered and promoted with tireless and extremely sinister enthusiasm. The point he harps on constantly is that consumers make decisions based on emotional rather than rational logic, and though they may need some pseudo-logic to excuse their emotional indulgence, it's always the emotional connections they feel with a product that sells it. Buyers typically repeat an ads logical claims as justification for their purchase, he reports, even when they don't understand it; all the while indulging semi-conscious emotional reasons for their purchase -- feeling important or young or secure, to belong or stand out or what have you. He states flatly that style and obsolescence are the primary reasons for product sales, not utility, reporting it as a received truth that warrants very little comment. This kind of meaningless consumption raises the standard of living, he explains, as the striving to stay up to date mirrors the collective will a society must exhibit to cease living in caves or without cable TV.

Now that may sound like a tautology: we typically define raised standards of living as the ability to consume more (so one can't really lead to the other). But that would be altogether appropriate to Martineau, who urges tautology and meaningless jargon as ways of breaking down what fellow adman David Ogilvy called "the tyranny of reason." The circular logic short-circuits reason and allows an emotional assent of the standard-of-living justification for consumerism. Thus, it is a more satisfying and persuasive reason, one likely to convince more people, and therefore one that contains more truth, which of course a matter of collective belief rather that substantated fact (An idea that finds justification in James Surowiecki's recent book The Wisdom of Crowds, which argues that aggregate data collected from a mass of ignorant individuals will be more accurate than any individual expert's opinion. So maybe those factoid poll bubbles in USA Today are something other than completely fatuous and pointless.)

Admen's impatience with the "tyranny of reason" makes them strange bedfellows with a variety of radical groups -- beatniks, French feminists, hippies, mass-society sociologists, etc. -- who espouse the same distrust of "instrumental logic" and "technological reason" and "utilitarianism." This strange confluence of opinion is explored in Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool, in which he argues that the business world's discovery of market segmentation and the ideology of personal creativity (which is a jargon word coined after the Industrial revolution, necessitated by the meaningless of modern work) presaged the countercultual movement of the sixties, feeding it its tropes as well as its consumer fetishes and its rock bands. The common thread running through them, to which the rejection of reason is a corollary, is the celebration of individualism as an end to itself. Reason rules against this, because, again, it's tautological. (Why is it necessary to prove one's individualism?) But advertisers celebrate it because it represents an impossible quest that one will be forever outiftting oneself for, buying more and more commodities as one tries harder and harder to discover oneself.

This was one of the main thrusts of Martineau's argument, that admen should flatter a consumer for his individuality, training him to value it while calling it into being as an issue, a process akin to the way advertisers invented halitosis or Fahrvegnugen. (What is fahrvegnugen, anyway, but an ersatz individualism?) For really, ads succeed when other sorts of social information networks fail, and these word-of-mouth networks can be destroyed by promoting an extreme individualism, one that feeds on suspicion of and competition with neighbors and friends, one that encourages a withdrawal from the public sphere and civic involvement, one that equates personal convenience and entertainment with personal fulfillment and duty (the duty to relax).

So ads appealing to the individual's feelings rather than a shared set of social values helped promote the idea that one should be motivated primarily by one's selfish desires rather than by a desire to fit in to a larger community, described in ad cant as that bane of modern existence, "conformity." Conformity is something the Soviet Union forced on its citizens, just as it forced them to all vote for the same party and shop at the same store. Individualism is the prerogative to not conform, the basic freedom that America supplies. To indulge that freedom, to earn it and to experience it, one must consume those things that make one different -- you must shop to show you are free, as President Bush reminded us after the September 11 attacks.

To appeal to individual feelings, ad copy needed to infuse products with emotional triggers. Admen need people to respond to things with the kind of spontaneous warmth and assent that other people once inspired in them. Commodities must replace the good feelings being part of a community once inspired. It may be that advertising has been so successful in accomplishing this that we now model our expectations and our reactions to other people on our relationships with goods. We need them to present themselves the way ads present the goods that give us emotional pleasure. We need other people encapsulated in a Friendster profile, one that cross-indexes the various products that they respond to, in order to understand how to respond emotionally to them, in order to derive the emotional satisfaction from them we are searching for.

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