The age of reason: Barbie dolls and G. I. Joes

Nostalgia is an interesting thing, acting as a common past that binds those of a particular time or generation. When used correctly, nostalgia can also be very handy in manipulating people. Advertisers discovered this long ago, which may be one reason why certain fashions and trends from the past three decades have made a comeback in the last ten years.  

For what appears in advertising today, I can conclude, that creative, resourceful and unscrupulous people constantly try to discover what others value most-then look for some way to attach their product to the stars.  

By their very nature, no products can help us attain the ideals that are visually promised, such as family togetherness, personal power, self-esteem, sociability, security, sex appeal and a clear orientation in an evermore confusing world.  

Advertising is the process of manufacturing glamour. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. Advertising, then, is about the solitary happiness that comes from being envied by others. But envy has a dark side which largely has been lost to the twentieth century thought. Since medieval times, envy has been considered the major term for identifying the causes of human suffering. Like despair, envy derives from the separation of the person from the object of desire, combined with a sense that one is powerless to attain what is desired. In envy, the urge to reach out becomes the urge to destroy.  

And yet, at the heart of this hatred, lies the remarkable depth and simplicity of human longing-a longing for life, ideals, values, vitality and love. A longing for connection. A longing for beauty. It is a longing that projects itself optimistically through symbols, images and idealized concepts.  

Advertising is the consumer culture’s version of mythology. No society exists without some form of myth. Thus, it is not very surprising that a society which is based on the economy of mass production and mass consumption will evolve its own myth in the form of a commercial. Like myth, it touches upon every facet of life, and as a myth it makes use of the fabulous in its application to the mundane.  

Why would the makers of commercial want to evoke hate and envy? In his book comparing Piaget and Levi-Strauss, Howard Gardner wrote: "Myths are designed to deal with problems of human existence which seem insoluble; they embody and express such dilemmas in a coherently structured form, and so serve to render them intelligible. Through their structural similarity to given ´real world´ situations, myths establish a point of equilibrium at which men can come to grips with the crucial components of the problem. Thus a myth is both intellectually satisfying and socially solidifying."  

Commercials driven by value-laden images which are unrelated to the product may be alienating us from the very values they exploit, confusing us about how to attain these values, laying the groundwork for despair, resentment and apathy.  

Because products do not provide the kind of psychic payoff promised by the imagery of advertising, we are left to doubt whether anything can. If we follow this doubt, we wind up contemplating a state of mind in which a black hole surrounds almost every product like a ghostly negative of its radiance-the black hole of failed promise.  

And into this black hole, dub by advertising’s exploitation of so many ideal images, steps any religion that promises to cut through the cycle of idolatry and connect us with the one great ideal that transcends all others: God, immortality, cosmic consciousness, enlightenment, the spirit world, the deep self or whatever name It has. In using techniques that are fundamentally religious, advertising inadvertently advertises religion.  

Considered in terms of religion, advertising encourages people to believe that the most vivid and appealing ideals of our culture can be easily attained, if you just find the right product, or by extension, the right savior, philosophy, church, guru, cult or even performance enhancing drugs.  

That is a disturbing possibility; but another possibility is even more disturbing. Could we be producing a generation that distrusts ideals altogether, because most powerful, convincing and forceful presentations of those ideals occur on television commercials-where the ideals are prostituted in the service of sales? Are we responsible for the creation of the most disillusioned generation in the history of mankind? A generation that will have difficulty not hating beauty of the kind used to manipulate and disappoint them in advertising? Worse still, will they also hate to be delicately overpowered by real beauty when they encounter it in the world? Will people continue to be able to hope, have faith, set goals, and believe in something beyond themselves?  

Ironically, most advertisements are not sexually obvious, but rely instead on sexual story-telling in which seduction, deception and passion are portrayed as acceptable means for achieving selfhood.  

Inseparable from the clothes we wear and the products we use are our ideas and fantasies about our bodies. Beauty products present beauty ritual as transcendent occasions, and diet products call up religious imagery of guilt and salvation. The body itself is to be anxiously manipulated and systematically worked over until the consumer turns her body into an advertisement for herself, a complicated sign to be read and admired.  

The magazine cover in which feminine seductiveness, or the comic strip in which narrative clarity has absorbed all the artist’s creative impulses, are contemptible, not because of their insistence on sex appeal or their concentration on anecdote-Titian and Boucher could rival them in the former, Giotto and Goya in the latter, but because of their lack of enrichment from within. They are hollow for the same reason that abstract artists are small and often insignificant.  

The success of modern advertising reflects a culture that has itself chosen illusion over reality.  

The supernormal images of perfection presented on the media are worth some thought, because any kind of a guiding image has a double nature. On the one hand, idealized images can uplift and give direction. In the pursuit of the unattainable, people attain great things. The uplifting ideal may be to love like Jesus Christ, to manifest the compassion of the Buddha, to show the wisdom of Confucius.  

In the Western world of "equal opportunity," even if you try but fail to attain such ideals, you are entitled to feel ennobled by the effort. "Us" of the XXI century is a culture guided by unattainable ideals: liberty, equality, happiness. Noble failure while pursuing great ideals is central to our striving, romantic, quixotic spirit. For most modern-day Westerners, the hyper-real has often been merely a way of looking toward a future that has exceeded science fiction’s wildest dreams.  

But idealized images are uplifting only when there is some way to move from where you are in the direction of the values implicit in the image. If there is nothing to connect us with the image, so the ideal seems unattainable, we feel cut off from it, thus promoting NOT the joining of the audience and the ideal, but just such a separation.  

Advertising promotes despair first by surrounding us with images of unattainable perfection. Second, advertising promotes despair by implying that the product will deliver the ideal-when it can’t. People do not need new automobiles every third year; plasma television brings little enrichment of the human experience; a higher or lower hemline no expansion of consciousness, no increase in the capacity to love. As one critic of advertising put it: "Sadness betrays the idyll (of advertising is more-than-perfect world)."  

Despair, is a natural byproduct of the experience structured into the way advertising promises to deliver the values implicit in its hyper-normal images.  

As Vladimir Nabokov acutely remarked, "In our love for the useful, for the material goods of life, we have become easy victims of the advertising business. The rich philistinism emanating from advertisements is due not to their exaggerating or inventing the glory of this or that serviceable article but to suggesting that the acme of human happiness is purchasable and that its purchase somehow ennobles the purchaser. The amusing part, of course, is not that it is a world where nothing spiritual remains except the ecstatic smiles of people serving celestial cereals but that it is a kind of satellite shadow world in the actual existence of which neither sellers nor buyers really believe in their heart."  

Advertising is merely a modern myth serving the same function as the mythology of ancient cultures. If advertising is a genuine mythological system, it is surely a myth that has failed in its primary responsibility to give personal identity and spiritual meaning to those it reaches.  

Finally, to apply the deadly label of philistinism to something is not only an aesthetic judgement but also a moral indictment.  

The United States of today, is a country of moral imbeciles, of smiling slaves and poker-faced bullies, has stopped noticing philistinism because this country, under the guise of the Republican Party is so full of its special brand–a blend of despotism and pseudo-culture. In quest of the simplicity of truth easily distinguished the vulgar side of things as well as the trashy systems of pseudo-thought.  

In the end, I hesitate to apply the label "politically incorrect" to so "insightful" and "spirited" criticism. In many quarters, calling someone "politically incorrect" has become a popular method of discounting his opinions without the inconvenience of allowing them a hearing. It is a clever, if cowardly, rhetorical trick. It allows you to ignore someone by the simple expedient of declaring one´s arguments to be beyond the pale, "extreme"-that is, unworthy of a place in the forum of public exchange. At bottom, the procedure is a form of political ostracism. The goal is to silence someone not by forbidding him to speak but by denying him an audience.  

This is my clause of protection against self-incrimination that is worth recurring to by non-conformists who specialize in telling truths that most people would rather not hear.