Archive for December 2009
These two commercials are playing at the same time and in the same markets as one another. Given that they use the same style of artwork and advertise the exact same product, that’s not surprising. What is surprising is that the theme of each commercial glaringly contradicts the theme of the other.
In the first commercial what is being highlighted about the Honda Accord Crosstour is the fact that while the car does actually offer an amount of cargo space over and above the regular Accord, it does so in a fairly hard to notice manner. This is what is meant by the phrase “cargo, incognito.” The implication, of course, is that if you buy this car you can still maintain – or, at least, make other think that you maintain – your music-loving, responsibility-free, sport sedan-driving lifestyle, while also secretly being able to handle the added cargo that goes along with having a greater degree of responsibility and less of a night life. This is in direct contrast to what is being highlighted in the second commercial.
In the second one, the Accord Crosstour’s added cargo space – and the resultant difference in design from a regular Accord – is flaunted rather than hidden. Instead of sympathizing with the buyer’s resented, but necessary, additional cargo space, and trying to convince him that it’s actually not very noticable, this second commercial tells him to be proud of it. Aside from conceding that the difference in the Crosstour’s design is noticeable (and thus a contradiction from the assertion made in the first commercial), the way in which the buyer is made to feel proud of it is by likening it to, and in fact making it an example of, his individualistic attitude (anyone who would think this would constitute proof of one is a superficial conformist of the highest order). The phrase “it fits, without fitting in” is what this is supposed to mean.
Now, why would Honda risk making such obviously contradictory claims about the noticability of it’s design changes? In any other culture, two commercials, selling exactly the same product, running within the same time frame, in the same markets – and yet contradicting one another’s claims, would be an embarrasement to the company who’s name is attached to them. But not in this culture. In this culture a company like Honda can get away with such insults to intelligence, and such flagrant “being all things to all people” because people have cynically come to expect such things from major institutions like companies, colleges, and governments. Overworked, spiritually-defeated or frustrated parents, who advise their children to “follow what I say, not what I do.” Multiculturalist professors, who allegedly prepare young minds for adulthood by having them incessantly study ideas which ensure that they’ll be congenital depedants. Politicians, who proclaim that the road to prosperity is more of same type of policies which induced the recession. Even sport stars, who admit to cheating and then expect to be cheered for nevertheless. Why would advertisers be expected to behave any differently?
It is tempting to conclude that people simply cannot notice the contradiction just pointed out, but they do. Instead of being insulted by it, people – if anything – will feel complemented by it. It confirms their view of existence – that of one where senselessness and pretentiousness are omnipresent, and that it’s futile and even “uncool” to resist either one. They will thank and admire Honda for confirming such a thing for them. For giving them their own concrete, automotive expression of it.
In order to sell the Accord Crosstour, Honda certainly hopes so at least.
First an explanation of the dynamics of FLO TV’s advertising strategy. Then an identification of the strategy’s psychological root, then it’s economic root, and finally the philosophical root of them all.
Evidently FLO TV, because it’s product truly is the final manisfestation of the much-aligned coming ubiquity of television, expects to be criticized, and so it is cutting it’s critics off before they have a chance to point out the obvious.
Personality – and by extension, familial – problems, which are frequently (and not without some legitimate basis) blamed on too much time watching television, will somehow alleviate FLO TV’s complicity in them simply because they pointed them out voluntarily. The message they wish to impart to the public is “yes, we realize that television does indeed lead to a lack of communication and intimacy between family members (even to the point of interfering with land mark events in a child’s life), and that that can be directly traced to the lack of personal introspection by members of the family, and that the easy escape from reality which the television offers is largely responsible for that – but because we realize this and admit it preemptively, somehow using our product won’t produce the same results.”
Bud Light uses this same marketing tactic, which has been written about here and here on this blog. The psychological root of this can be traced to the fact that the advertising of products, increasingly, does not sell the product, but the personalities of those who produce the product. The consumer, faced with virtually identical choices, makes his decision based upon a feeling of spiritual unity with the company. He feels “these are my kind of people”, and so by extension he also frequently feels “this is my kind of television/beer/cheeseburger.” The irony is that it is presicely this lack of spiritual unity which these companies exploit by pandering to in the short-term that they depend upon in the long term (excessive television and alcohol consumption is the source of their profitability).
Why are companies, whose products are technologically sophisticated, and whose business models are extremely complex, willing to risk exposing their long-term well-being to disaster (customers becoming acutely aware, through advertisements such as these, of the detriments of buying these products) for the sake of short-term gains (a result of pandering to the consumer’s unfulfilled psychological needs just discussed)? Economically, the answer is the unpredictable nature of the macroeconomic situation. The prices of raw materials, the availability of affordable labor, trade agreements with other nations, and taxation and regulatory structures are so intimately tied up in the shifting whims of the political culture of the country that to make a product which is actually good for your customers, and to sell that product using nothing but it’s objectively valuable traits, is a competitive disadvantage and a recipe for bankruptcy.
Philosophically, the immediate reason why advertising like this is expected to work on the public is that the public is cynical. Acutely aware of it’s own unhappiness, but lacking an adequate explanation for it, it seeks to have it confirmed on the widest and most detailed of scales, instead of being reminded of it let alone have it uprooted. Companies follow where the culture takes them. The root philosophical reason why obscene commercial celebrations of sociopathic or dysfunctional behavior are accepted, and why encouragements towards psychotic behavior (“keep doing what you know is bad for you”) are tolerated, is the same reason why the macroeconomic situation is tolerated – even why more of the same of what caused it is celebrated as a “solution.” That reason is the belief in the inefficacy of man and the malevolent nature of the universe at large. If one’s mind cannot be trusted – if everything is a matter of perspective, and all we encounter is a distortion induced by our fallable senses – then there is not reason not to drink too much beer, or watch too much television, or to laugh at it when we are told that we do. If the universe, even if we could trust our minds to give us correct unbiased information, is an ever-shifting network of malicious forces ultimately beyond our control to coexist with, then again, there is no reason not to lose ourselves in drinking, and fantasy, and cynical laughter at the destruction or perversion of all that is good, decent, and valuable.
This is a complex commercial. It is full of contradictions, but that’s to be expected given today’s non-philosophical – and even anti-philosophical – approach to everything. The most important thing to do then is to untangle the contradictory elements from one another, lay them side by side, and see which type is presented as the most fundamental. What is written below will do just that.
What immediately strikes the viewer about this commercial is that, unlike most other military recruiting commercials which highlight just one appealing aspect of military life, this is clearly an appeal to higher ideals. What is presented, immediately, is a set of striking images, set on a back drop of stirring music. This is meant to intrigue the viewer, and it certainly does. However, more than that, what is most intriguing – what is the major element counted upon to engage the viewer – is the strange way in which the narrarator opens. He begins to describe a subject which the viewer is made aware of, but not immediately informed of, and it creates a strong effect. People simply do not speak like that any more. In addition to the refreshing idealism the viewer is promised to hear, the vague, poetic prose and tone of the speaker allows the viewer to, in effect, spend a few moments inside the mind of a Navy sailor while the sailor himself identifies why it is that he chose to serve. It suggests to the viewer: “should you join the Navy, what you will experience will enable you too to ponder such profound ideas, and with such an acute level of clarity.”
This is all completely legitimate morally (a man should be concerned with the philosophical validity of what he does with his time), and in fact quite powerful and well-done aesthetically. Where the commercial falls short, however, is in what it ends up offering as validation for joining the Navy.
The interesting, unique approach taken by the narrarator deals with the branch of philosophy known as epistemology. It appears to be an attempt to validate the epistemological reasons for an action before it validates the action’s ethical reasons, and since epistemology is more fundamental than ethics on the philosophical hierarchy, this is correct. The error made, however, is that the author’s preconceived ethical notions are not completely discarded before the attempt is made. Instead of trying to establish a valid concept of “action” (of which military service is a type) through a process of rational thought, and then seeing which (if any) ethical ideas are derived from it, the author seeks to validate his ethical ideas (which actions he thinks you should do) by making them appear as if they were derived from a valid concept of action per se (why you should do anything). This is why, from the very beginning, what is being discussed is not “the reason to serve”, but rather “the call to serve.” That is not analysis, it is rhetoric.
The difference between “the reason to serve” and “the call to serve” may seem like an inconsequential semantical issue, but it is not. It is the reason why the commercial ultimately falls short of it’s ostensible goal of being a commercial in line with the Navy’s recruiting traditions (ie: that service in the Navy is an extended expression of an individual’s already existent personal pride – as opposed to Navy service being the cause of his personal pride). Unfortunately, even though it fails in this regard, it’s danger is in that it does a very good (ie: sinister) job of appearing to do so.
The approach to a discussion of military service this commercial utilized had the potential to describe a truly heroic process: the act of forming a valid abstraction from seemingly disparate aspects of one’s daily life (ie: “these things [that which comprises my daily life as a civilian] are not guaranteed, they can be endangered”), identifying the method of maintaining that abstraction (ie: “without military service those aspects would be in danger if not destroyed”), and then, if necessary and feasible, acting to protect those aspects (ie: actually serving in the military). What the commercial actually does, however, is to distort that process by claiming that it’s cause is not the willful, volitional mind of the individual performing it, but as an external force “calling” the individual to passively accept it’s conclusion (ie: “join the Navy”). What is that external force? That is the common theme of the entire commercial, and it is identified immediately: other people. Other people are presented as the cause and the justification for service in the Navy. Despite the unusually explicit reference to self-interested motives near the end of the narraration (ie: “for themselves”, said with emphasis) – which could quite fairly be supposed from afar to be simply an allusion to all of the Navy’s other commercials which more narrowly focus upon the financial, educational, travel, and career benefits of service – it is irrefutable that the commercial’s central theme is that self-sacrifice is the highest form of nobility.
The first evidence for this appears at the very beginning of the narrative, where the “sound” of the “call to serve” is found is “in the whispered retelling of honorable sacrifices made by those who have served before me.” What this means is that the only way to know if service in the Navy is honorable – if it’s a call you should answer – is if you will be allowed to sacrifice. And, if history is any indicator, you will have plenty of opportunity to; thus you should join if you wish to be noble. Next is the “form” of the “call.” This is allegedly found “in the eyes of men and women infinitely more courageous and more driven than most.” Aside from this simply being not true (there are plenty of civilian activities which require just as much if not more courage and perseverance than military service requires), what this “justification” plays into and exploits is the individual’s desire for recognition. Not as a secondary consequence, but as the primary driving force behind joining. It was touched upon in the description of the call’s “sound”, when it was hinted that if he did a good job sacrificing, future generations would talk about him, but now, in the discussion of “form”, it is explicitly pandered to. Finally, the call’s “weight” is discussed. Since, by now, self-sacrifice as the purpose, and other people as the justification, for service has been clearly established, not much effort is put into describing this aspect. There is a rather sloppy bridge between “I have held it in my hands” (what it is) and “I will commit to carry it close to my heart…” (what should be done with it), but that is about it. At this point, the pretext of describing the noble process of the induction of an abstraction, the deductive use of it to identify what must be done, and then carrying out those actions, is dropped. Left with nothing directly percievable which could be misconstrued to justify the ethic of self-sacrifice, and probably not needing any since at this point the viewer is either disgusted or elated by what he’s already heard, the author simply resorts to making bald assertions about the appropriateness of his ethical code.
Besides a rather obligatory nod to the traditional notion that the purpose of the Navy’s existence is the protection of America, he asserts that equally important is using the Navy’s resources to “soothe the anguish of those less-fortunate.” How it is possible to both protect one’s country and simultaneously serve those less-fortunate (eg: citizens who are the victim of a natural disaster) is never explained. Conveniently, to those who hold self-sacrifice as the moral ideal – as something only the most courageous, driven, and legendary can live up to – this is not bothersome. The idea that neither goal can be reached if both are sought is not a question they consider. To them, what is important is not the achievement of any goal, but only it’s intention. To a person with this mindset, so long as the intention was self-sacrificial the results are unimportant. If America is still not safe after years of fighting half-hearted wars, and if many more “less-fortunates” have suffered than would have had they been told in no uncertain terms that they are responsible for protecting themselves from natural disasters and that they had better get to it, these results are acceptable.
The commercial ends with it’s most blatant bald assertion; which also happens to be obscene and chilling: the unveiling of the Navy’s new slogan “A Global Force for Good.” It is honest in it’s intention, no doubt, but it is a complete perversion of the Navy’s true purpose. If one is feeling generous, it could be interpreted as simply a superficial observation of the fact that the Navy, when acting properly, is, incidentally, a global force for good, but given everything preceding it in the commercial, one cannot be generous. This slogan is clearly, unambiguously the capstone of a new, changed military culture which – like contemporary American culture at large – regards self-sacrifice and recognition by others as at least equally, if not more, deserving of fighting and risking death for than self-interest and independently-held personal pride are.
If your kitchen were infested with cockroaches, would you simply move your appliances into the living room and prepare your meals there? If the vermin followed you, would you just start ordering in, and eating in bed?
Sooner or later, like it or not, you have to deal with politics. Business doesn’t need to be “reinvented”; politics does. Americans have worked enough. They shouldn’t have to work more, in order to overcome these down times. What they should do is say “enough is enough” and call the exterminator. They need to learn that they are the exterminators.
Aesthetically, this commercial is beautiful. The simplicity, clarity, and boldness in color and lighting of each and every shot is stunning. They are juxtaposed perfectly, creating a smooth flow throughout. Obviously, the tone of the music is synchronized perfectly with the emotions expressed by the objects, but more than that, what is particularly satisfying is that unlike most of the “sad” objects, the “happy” objects were automatically happy. Certainly all of them were the result of human action, but the actions producing “sad” faces were more temporary (a hanger hanging on a door nail, a shower curtain pulled just so), whereas the “happy” faces were more durable and designed to appear how they do (the structure of a set of headphones, the front of an airplane) – even though the designers were oblivious to the “emotion” of the thing when they made their decisions. That communicates the notion that harmony, success, resiliancy – happiness – is far more durable and everlasting than the random, transient nature of unhappiness. What better message, if what you’re trying to sell is insurance?
The whole piece is exceptionally creative. It serves it’s purpose by communicating big ideas without losing sight of it’s specific message, it empathizes with potential customers by recognizing that the loss and replacement of items is not just a financial transaction, but an emotional experience, and because of it’s design quality it creates in the viewer’s mind an emotional state which allows him to engage that specific message with the best he has before deciding whether or not to take American Express up on their offer.
The commercial opens with a shot of an old man packing his suitcase, and behind him is a black and white picture of an American soldier. The viewer assumes that the man in that picture is the old man. As he continues to speak, the viewer learns that the place he is going – a place with great significance in his life, judging by the tone of his voice – involved young men storming beaches. The viewer now has enough information to piece together the reasonable expectation that this man is a WWII veteran (WWII veterans who are still alive are necessarily old men, WWII was the war in which more beach storming was done by American soldiers than in any other), and that he is returning to the site of a battle he was involved in (since those places, understandably, leave deep impressions upon those who’s actions at them give them noteriety). Instead he turns out to be returning to a famous vacation destination.
What is offensive is the implication that those veterans who do claim that their finest hours were their heroism in battle are lying. It gives the impression that when a man claims to have been forever changed by war he is simply saying what is expected of him. Although it is entirely possible for a man’s “finest hour” to be his youthful vacation in Cancun, that is being extremely charitable, and given the context, it’s certain that that was not the position Kayak was taking. Again, being charitable, perhaps the old man finally summoned the courage to propose marriage to his wife on that beach in Cancun – and that that’s what he considers his finest hour. That would be pefectly valid (and actually show a uniquely admirable orientation towards values, rather than simply the defeat of disvalues), but given that he mentions the presence of many women (“bombshells”) on his vacation, that can be ruled out. He was there to do nothing exceptional; but simply to relax, party, and have more or less meaningless experiences. Kayak was readily conceding that the most cherished experiences of most men come when they are tested and they succeed, not when they take time away to rest and to celebrate those successes.
Why would Kayak be willing to denigrate the significance of war’s effects upon it’s participants by elevating the effects of an unchallenging vacation? Why is such an advertisement considered safe – let alone positive – for a company’s reputation in today’s culture? The answer has to do with three philosophical ideas running rampant in today’s culture: egalitarianism, subjectivism, and mysticism. Egalitarianism allows those who’ve achieved nothing to feel as though their lack of achievement – their habitual gravitation towards leisure and escapism – is equal in moral stature to the decision to challenge oneself and achieve. Next, subjectivism allows the viewer to justify this feeling by maintaining that everything – every experience – cannot be understood by an external observer. If someone asserts that his consistent pattern of eschewing opportunities to meet challenges was itself just as challenging, subjectivism tells any would-be detractor that those feelings, because they are feelings, are beyond the scope of rational scrutiny. And, finally, mysticism allows the failure to indulge the notion that he will be able to reach the same sort of personal satisfaction in his old age as the achiever has reached. This commercial provides him with “proof” of that fact, in much the same way as descriptions of heaven resemble the best places on Earth provide believers in that delusion with a saving grace for their sense of personal failure.
Anyone who is not deeply offended by this commercial, at least after the comedic effect of surprise and incongruity has worn off, is drawn to is precisely because it gives him a momentary relief from the chronic axiety brought about by a meaningless life.
These commercials exploit the public’s understandable but misdirected indignation towards the petty and detail-obsessed behavior of major banks. Many people call their behavior “predatory.”
Why do so many banks (and many other types of financial institutions for that matter) have to engage in such practices? Why do they charge extra fee for simple services, levy exhorbinant penalties, and make the terms of their contracts so difficult to understand? Ally Bank would have you believe that it’s because of the fundamentally evil, greedy souls of their larger, more established competitors. Imagine that, a capitalist insitution, engaging in the patently capitalist action of trying to lure new customers, doing so by attacking the source of capitalism (self-interest).
The actual reason why banks do what they do is that the financial industry is one of the most highly-regulated and highly-taxed industries in the country. These burdens add majors costs to their operations, while doing nothing to change the revenue requirements of profitablity. So banks are left with a choice: incur the emotional wrath of the public, the legal wrath of the government, or avoid both and put themselves on a financial path towards bankruptcy. They have chosen what they believe to be the lesser of the evils.
Ally Bank, because it is currently the “little guy”, is not subject to the burdens that it’s larger competitors are, so they are free to deal with their customers in a more personalized, understanding, and even forgiving manner. That’s fine – it’s not Ally’s fault that the government persecutes large financial institutions – but the least they could do is to not add fuel to the fires of distortion by attacking the victims. And to employ children in the proces, no less? Is there no honor left amongst the ranks of those who call themselves capitalists?