Archive for October 2010
“America’s founding ideal was the principle of individual rights. Nothing more—and nothing less. The rest—everything that America achieved, everything she became, everything “noble and just,” and heroic, and great, and unprecedented in human history—was the logical consequence of fidelity to that one principle. The first consequence was the principle of political freedom, i.e., an individual’s freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by the government. The next was the economic implementation of political freedom: the system of capitalism.” – Ayn Rand
In this advertisement, Chevrolet is attempting to be excused for it’s notoriously unpopular and characteristically unAmerican acceptance of government money. “America” is not an aggregate of particular traditions or institutions – or folk dances or cooking styles – it is the result of the individual’s commitment to individual rights. A to-a-man refusal to let one’s own rights be violated and a principled respect for the rights of others; no matter how tempting or desperate the situation might be. America would be America regardless of what it’s citizens choose to do with their lives, so long as they adhere to the principle of individual rights. When they do not, it is not “America.” When Chevrolet claims that the government must violate the rights of other Americans to keep it in business, under the excuse that it is “too big to fail”, or now that it is “deep” in America’s identity, the people who comprise Chevrolet are not being Americans. They are enemies of America – just the same as foreigners who explicitly do not believe in it’s ideals. They do not deserve an exception because they “aren’t just any car company, they are Chevrolet”; they deserve to have their rights taken away.
To be an American means to hold certain political principles, and to hold political principles – any political principles – one must be equipped with the ability to conceptualize at a fairly high level. This is precisely the skill that most people today who call themselves Americans lack; and that is what this commercial exploits. Instead of thinking deeply about what America is, Chevrolet asks the audience to focus on the superficial similarities shared by Americans (it’s culture and romanticized history), and to ignore the principles which should define them, and then unite them, as Americans. What is particularly dishonest about this commercial is that in doing so – with it’s genuine music, it’s appeal to history, and it’s use of morally-loaded concepts like “integrity” – is that it gives the impression to the viewer that he has thought deeply about what America is when he actually hasn’t.
The commercial claims that “today the American character is no less strong [than when Chevrolet went into business].” If so, then why would Chevrolet think that such a dishonest commercial would actually work?
The reason why this commercial is expected to be funny to every day people is because every day people – regardless of their conscious political beliefs – are in fact subconsciously aware of how out of control their government actually is. It violates the rights of individuals in a myriad of ways each and every day, but because its always done indirectly, politely, in ways that are so common most people don’t even realize what they are losing, and because such actions are always given a moral (ie: altruist) justification, it doesn’t bother most people enough to do anything serious to oppose it.
This commercial gives those people relief. It lets them think to themselves “at least they’re not doing that” (even though they might as well be, because what they are doing is tantamount to this). Directv wants to be liked not for the quality of their products, but in a personified manner. The company wants to be seen as being able to understand it’s customers and the things that secretly trouble them – all so that it can encourage them to purchase yet another product that will help them avoid having to take that subconscious awareness, turn it into conscious understanding, and then, maybe, do something about their out of control government.
The reason why people spend too much time on their phones is because the software is either too slow or poorly designed? Really?
This is the “getting out in front of it” tactic, and has been discussed on this blog here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. It consists of acknowledging a problem, demonstrating it in absurd, out-of-proportion, and highly unlikely manifestations, and in doing so making it seem like it is okay to continue to indulge the cause of the problem. The advertiser is trying to convince the consumer that because his problem isn’t this bad, it isn’t really a problem. Or, at least, because he acknowledges it as a problem he therefore is ipso facto in the process of solving it, and therefore it is okay for him to continue to indulge it’s cause.
However, set all of that aside for a moment. Suppose that acknowledgment actually is the first step in resolving relatively small, yet extremely difficult to isolate, personal problems. Also suppose for a moment that commercials such as this one actually do help sufferers embark on the process of solving such problems (instead of just further twisting their awareness of the problem’s existence). Then this is the first commercial using this advertising tactic to not only fail to actually help the consumer acknowledge the problem, but simultaneously intentionally appear to do so. It is the first commercial to use the “getting out in front of it” tactic in a twice-removed fashion. Not only is an acknowledgment via an implicit, begrudged admission – and defended (perhaps self-defeatingly) by humorous satire – not really reliable as the first step in lasting change, but “acknowledgment” that misidentifies the source of the problem as some non-essential detail like poor software design is not really acknowledgment at all.
The actual reasons why people spend too much time on their phones (or on all kinds of media, for that matter) are vast and complex. Disgust and boredom with the real world, fear of it, some kind of neurological reprogramming that makes the slower pace and higher effort demands of real-life experiences excructiatingly painful are all probably factors. If it were simply the case that poorly designed software has made effective technology use slower than it should be, then technology use would be at all-time lows – not all-time highs. History would show a directly inverse relationship between technology speed and technology use. The fact is that more and more time is wasted looking at computer and telephone screens precisely because there is more and more opportunity to distract oneself from one’s real life in an ever more efficient and entertaining manner.
It is true that all of the products being sold via this marketing tactic – especially modern cell phones – have redeeming qualities, so going “cold turkey” may not be the best option. Acknowledgment is definitely a necessary and useful step – and while that should never be a product advertisement’s primary purpose, it can be an appropriate side benefit. But to take advantage of that fact simply because, if challenged, one can confidently hide behind the excuse of “What would you have people do then? Not use cell phones at all?” is disgraceful. Undoubtedly the macro-economic situation in America is currently dreadful. Large, heavily-leveraged companies like Microsoft can have very little confidence in the direction of it (since the current taxation and regulatory structure makes their long-term strategies forever contingent upon the unpredictable whims of government policy) and thus have little incentive to target anything except short-term gains, but the solution is not to further inculcate in the population at large – via one’s advertising – the same kind of dishonest, short-term thinking that caused the dreadful situation in the first place. That is like saying our culture is the way that it is not because what it values is invalid, but because those values are improperly implemented – and that “it’s time for our culture to save us from our culture.” The problem is that our cultural values are invalid!
Nothing can save a person from the ill-effects of wasteful technology use except a clear understanding of what he finds interesting in media and why; and what values he is wasting by implication and why. Which means: an identification of his values, what is attacking or perverting them, and a commitment to reorganizing them (and thus preserving himself). Similarly, nothing can save a culture or it’s economy except a slow, thorough reexamination of what it has come to value, a realization of what they actually mean in every day terms (eg: a culture full of media-addicted compulsive escapists), a rejection of those values and a replacement with the values it believes it has held all along, but because they were never actually understood, never actually has.
The reason why Directv now has movies available on it’s pay-per-view service a month before Netflix does on it’s internet and mailorder services is actually the result of a consensually-reached deal between it and a handful of movie studios. The studios are of the opinion that the future of movie consumption is through PPV, beyond that of internet downloads, mail order, in-store rentals, and even to some extent beyond the theaters. So why announce what is, if correct, an actually productive step forward (even for those people who are momentarily losing out because of it, and even if they don’t now realize or agree with it) via a dramatization of crime? As if the natural progress of an industry – the adoption of new business models and the necessary obsolescence of others – were a zero sum game?
The reason is that that is the culture’s conception of business, and Directv believes that in order to ingratiate itself with the consuming public it must show itself to be of the same opinion. People may not approve of the superior refusing to sacrifice themselves to the inferior, and the spectacle of the superior surpassing the inferior, and they may not take their convictions seriously enough to actually avoid purchasing Directv’s new product, but they would certainly be offended if the company were to say proudly and openly that it has simply bested it’s competition fairly and squarely.
Constrast that approach to public relations with this one:
This is a startling, all too rare explicit admission by a capitalist organization that it not only understands, but believes in and regards as good, the competitive nature of capitalism. It is willing to risk the economic performance of one of it’s actual products, and thereby experience actual economic consequences should they be wrong, by having it associated with such an unapologetic homage to what it believes is the engine of progress.
Of course, in comparing and contrasting these two approaches to public relations – where one is a choice to avoid controversy by cloaking one’s actions in conventional morality and the other is a deliberate attempt to create it – a glaring bit of irony must be noted. Research into the situation surrounding the motion picture industry reveals that PPV operators such as Directv are in fact the only one who have not attempted to use lawsuits (ie: force) against the movie studios to achieve their ends. Movie theater operators – through their trade organization – as well as movie kiosk operators (eg: Redbox) have both sued various movie studios in recent months; attempting to dictate to them terms favorable to their businesses. Simultaneously, and in direct contrast, in the automobile industry, it is General Motors who is only auto manufacturer who has benefited as a result of government favoritism. If not for it’s status as “too big to fail”, GM would have done just that. They can play lip service to their respect for their competitors – and the nature of capitalism as such – but in truth they are the most non-capitalist player in their industry, if not the entire American economy.
The General Motors commercial featured here is to be praised – it is daring and theoretically accurate – and the Directv commercial should be condemned as short-sighted and twisted – but one must wonder two things: First, is Directv’s timidity to advertise the actual reasons for it’s recent success simply a matter of “picking one’s battle”, or is it simply the actions of a pragmatic company which, if ever necessary, would behave exactly as it’s competition? And second, is GM’s two-year-old willingness to sing the praises of fair competition a genuine desire to slow down and reverse the anti-capitalist direction of the economy or simply an attempt to escape popular condemnation for being the non-capitalist organization it actually is?
Contrary to what most people believe, and even despite what they would give as an explanation for their benevolence, it is not a sense of responsibility that creates the culture of good will being show cased and celebrated in this commercial. If “responsibility” were the motivator for one’s benevolence – if a “responsible” person is willing to retrieve a bowl from a high shelf, or pick up a stranger’s luggage from a conveyor belt – why shouldn’t he go further? Why shouldn’t he leave his every day life and devote himself to helping consistently needy people who are in much more radically desperate situations in some far flung, undeveloped corner of the world? What is the principle which prevents him from carrying his “sense of responsibility” to it’s logical conclusion?
While the commercial asks the viewer to focus on the willingness to perform small courtesies for strangers as the trait common to each person featured, what is actually common to them is purpose, action, and vitality. One is dressed in business attire and, presumably, going to work. Two of them already are at work. Two more are shown later on to have occupations. The last presumably has a job because he is able to afford an automobile as well as airplane tickets. Each person is, primarily, concerned with himself. He is proudly self-sufficient. The ethical principle – whether consciously understood or merely subconsciously followed – which makes benevolence possible is selfishness.
At first glance, this is a paradox. How could people who are, on principle, selfish ever bring themselves to help others – and thereby violate their principle? The answer lies in a proper understanding of just what a principle is, and thus just what the principle of selfishness actually means. A principle is not a rule. “Responsibility” is a rule. It is an out of context injunction to be followed not voluntarily or because one’s judgment compels one to take a particular action, but to be followed in spite of one’s judgment simply out of fidelity to that rule. A principle, on the other hand, considers the context – so even though an action that on it’s face appears to be of one type, if the underlying facts support it, can actually be of an opposite type. This is the case with the selfish basis of benevolence, common courtesy, and a general good will towards others.
Here are the underlying facts:
Contrary to popular belief, those cultures who are explicitly “responsible” – where selflessness and self-sacrifice are held in paramount moral esteem – are in fact the least benevolent and courteous cultures. The reason for this is that an ethical doctrine dominated by self-sacrifice creates mutual contempt and suspicion amongst the population embracing it. They will still pay lip service to their love and concern for one another, but so long as they know that each person represents a potential claim upon their own life and happiness – that according to the rules of their doctrine they may be at any moment asked to give away everything to satisfy someone’s need (and that there is no principle to prevent it) – they will remain closed and suspicious. Why go out of one’s way to help perfect strangers when all that will do is show that one is a more vulnerable and less resistant target? The would-be benevolent person knows he is going to be taken advantage of. Besides, do people who think they are entitled to benevolence actually deserve it?
Conversely, those cultures where selfishness is explicitly the rule (or, at least, implicitly via it’s founding political documents) are the most benevolent – where people treat one another with the most good will and courtesy. In a society dominated by an ethic of selfishness, what causes people to be courteous to one another is a sense of the value that other people represent. By the mere fact that a person is out in society, active, seeking to make his own way, he represents a potential value to the person in a position to help him in his moment of need. The desire (as distinct from the willingness) to help him comes from a recognition of the fact that if someone appears to be at least minimally decent, then he deserves help – not because he needs it, but because who he is means he will pay it back; often with interest. In many contexts it is selfish to be “unselfish”!
Justice, not “responsibility”, is what it is properly called when people do the right thing.
[Update]: Here is another, newer (2011) from Liberty Mutual of the same theme. All of the comments above are applicable.
The message of this commercial is “we know you would never do this, but if you wanted to, you could.” However, the thing Microsoft is saying you could do is something pretty serious. The functionality or dysfunctionality of a person’s family is a deeply personal issue. When it is felt acutely – as during the taking of a family photo – the pleasure (if the family is functional) or pain (if it is dysfunctional) one feels can be overwhelming. It may be joked about routinely, but if one has always hoped that underneath it all her family is functional and it turns out that they’re actually not, that is understandably a very disappointing and painful experience.
Why would Microsoft risk resurrecting that pain in the consumer, and thereby have her associate their product with it? Put simply, it is because Microsoft knows that most consumers in this day and age, if pressed, actually would do what they showed being done in this commercial. The company recognizes that, morally, there is no principle stopping ordinary people from reaching these depths of dishonesty. The commercial’s appeal is that it gives the consumer a subtle permission to do so. It says to her “We know how you operate, but don’t be afraid, we’re not going to stop you. In fact, if you ever need to, we will help you take it to an even more fundamental level.”
Circumstances have not pushed ordinary people to the point where their attempts at manipulation would be so crude, or reach down so far into their souls as to touch something as personal as their family dynamics. It is true that most people still present family dynamics as they actually are, but this is not the result of some principled committment to truth. It is because they are overwhelmed by how, to them, inexplicably dysfunctional their families are and simply have no means of covering it up. What they count upon, instead, is the moral cowardice (ie: “politeness”) of others to spare them. Because they know that just as they have ulterior motives for going through the ritual of sharing the picture, the receiver has his own for going through the ritual of looking at it. So long as they do the “polite” (ie: fashionable, expected) thing and share the photo, the receiver is willing to play his part, and so the truth or untruth which is depicted in the photo is of little or no consequence. The consequences of such an arrangement need not even be practical (although they frequently are in an economy where so much is made of “personal relationships” and “friendship” instead of competence or convenience). Often, people simply perform these rituals as practice; as a means of being okay with compulsively doing what’s “in” (eg: being on Facebook), or psychologically conditioning themselves to be able to perform in the same dishonest manner (and to ensure that they don’t accidentally perform in the opposite manner) in other, more important situations.
What are these other, more important situations? Virtually no one in today’s culture refrains from some degree of manipulation in order to gain or keep values. Usually it is in the workplace – whether that be sucking up to a boss or placating irrational coworkers and customers, or even just working in an industry that you know wouldn’t exist in the form it does now (the form that makes it possible for you to work in it) without some kind of market-distorting tax or regulation. Then, of course, there is the growing phenomenon – well chronicled on this blog – of the willingness of private organizations to do anything, say anything, and brand themselves as anything (no matter how much it contradicts last year’s branding) in order to meet short-term financial goals. This used to be the hallmark of politicians – who were justifiably scorned for it – but because of the short-term pressures and long-term uncertainties of the modern era’s regulatory and macro-economic environment, and because these pressures and uncertainties have been beating down on the culture for so long, people have come to admire politicians for it. It is no coincidence that there is no serious, popular opposition to such politicians. Ordinary people allow them the power they have because in the privacy of their own minds they believe as the politicians do: that this is just how things are done. It is a kind of vast, culture-wide “Stockholm Syndrome.”
Is it any wonder then that the average person watching Microsoft’s commercial would not feel insulted by it? That he would not regard it as an inappropriate intrusion into a personal problem, or a wreckless, inaccurate assumption? That he would actually feel reassured when he sees it? The phenomenon of such a non-objective, people-preoccupied mode of normative mental functioning as being confined to one’s “professional life” falling, and it begining to encompass one’s “personal life” as well is inevitable. As was mentioned, there is no fundamental moral principle to appeal to in order to stop it. If a person lacks the conviction that to be moral (eg: to be honest) and to be practical (eg: to be productive) need not be mutually-exclusive, and if virtually everything in the macro-economic environment ensures that for a given individual they are, then he will feel he must choose – and he will invariably choose “practicality.” But that will not solve his problems.
People still want to be moral (as they understand the subject). What caused this commercial to be produced and aired was Microsoft’s conclusion that ordinary people would find it appealing. What will cause ordinary people to find it appealing is that it gives them a reprieve from their sense that because they are “practical”, they are immoral. It appears to provide a solution to the dilemma by uniting the two. It gives them two rationalizations, either of which they can rely upon to regain their confidence whenver they need to (and can turn to the other when the first one wears thin), but which amount to the same thing and lead to the same destination. The first – which is becoming the standard in advertising today – is “you may be bad, but at least you’re not this bad”, and the other – which has already been mentioned – is “We know what you’re doing, but don’t be afraid, we all do it. It’s just how it is.” Both ad up to the conclusion “I am bad, but I couldn’t help it! I had to be practical!”
The irony is that as ordinary people understand morality, that conclusion is true. If a person regards morality as either incomprehensible dictates from a supernatural authority, or as the ever-shifting consensus of the culture he finds himself in, he actually, literally is helpless to act morally in the face of alternatives. He has nothing real to serve as his reference and standard. His decision to do one thing and not the other is not grounded in facts – universal, immutable facts about nature and man. All he has is the “impractical” ideals of religion or tradition – which he pays lip service to (eg: through the production and distribution of “happy” family photos) – and the “practical” mores of the canibalistic society he finds himself in. If his allegiances lie with the “impractical” he will do what he must (eg: he will be “practical”) in order to live up to them, and if he the type which is “practical” he will be appear “impractical” from time to time – which, after all, is the “practical” thing to do in order to remain where he is. The fact that ultimately both policies lead to the same soul and wealth-destroying end is too vast of a concept for him to grasp. That he finds himself laughing at the thought of lying about the people he allegedly loves, or that he is seriously considering spending what little is left of his meager after-tax income on software to more effectively do so, never enters his mind as the full and final proof of the fact that the moral and the practical are not, and cannot be, opposites.
The “motorcycle lifestyle” is commonly described as invididualistic. Those who lead the lifestyle are “free-thinkers”, “non-conformists”, et cetera. Ostensibly, they utilize motorcycles rather than cars to meet their transportation needs because they do not have the petty requirements, or suffer from the irrational insecurities, that other people do. Their lives are defined, secure, and complete. As such, they don’t need the added financial burden that owning a car brings – they have other, clearly-defined values with which to spend their money on (eg: “good times”). They don’t feel the anxiety conformists would by having extra money that isn’t dedicated to what conventionality says it should be spent on. Nor are they plagued by the anxiety that a conformist would feel if he were able to move more freely, and being more exposed to the eyes of others, by riding a motorcycle instead of driving a car. While a conformist feels secretly comforted by the tucked-away privacy of his car’s interior, and the structural predictability of traffic, gridlock, and routine, the individualistic motorcycle rider would never be able to tolerate it. Why would such people, for who self-assertion and self-assuredness comes naturally, need life coaches to help them with their personal goals? They wouldn’t.
Looked at more closely, women who lead the motorcycle lifestyle, because it is an individualistic lifestyle, are naturally much more in touch with their femininity than other women are. Biker women are “comfortable in their own skin.” Although they need not necessarily be youthful in appearance, they are youthful in spirit, and this creates such an overwhelming impression upon the people they meet that any need to artificially accentuate their youthfulness is unnecessary. Why would they use botox when their skin begins to age? They wouldn’t.
The police who are the bane of the motorcycle lifestyle’s existence are simply conformists with power. Their actions are not motivated by a desire to protect society from the bad behavior of motorcyclists, but simply by a need to control those who are better than they are so they can momentarily escape the pain of insecurity which they chronically feel. But even so, despite all of their power, and despite all of the motorcyclists whose lives they ruin by enforcing their laws, they are still unsatisfied with themselves. So in their private lives, away from their jobs, they turn to things such as self-improvement tapes to overcome what harassing motorcyclists could never get them to overcome. Would an individualistic, self-realized motorcyclist ever feel the need to improve himself? He wouldn’t.
Finally, men who lead the motorcycle lifestyle, because it is an individualistic lifestyle, are naturally more in touch with their masculinity than are other, conformist-type men. Like their female counterparts, they too are “comfortable in their skin.” They are okay with being men. They are not ashamed of the physical roughness which comes with being a non-self conscious man. As a result, women are naturally attracted to them – and they are able to have social and sexual encounters with good looking women more often than conformist men do. Would such a man ever feel the need to receive a manicure? He wouldn’t.
These are the messages, point by point, implied in the coordinated wording and imagery of this commercial. The entire piece is dedicated to flattering the vanities of men and women who already consider themselves to be “living the lifestyle” by contrasting it with the lifestyles of others. However, this is only what the commercial implies. What it states openly is that if you are one of the people being put down in this piece, there may be a way out of it – and that way is to buy a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
But then the obvious question is this: if changing one’s spirit really is as simple as making a purchase, how could anyone who has already made that purchase take pride in it? Wouldn’t this commercial be a reproach instead of a compliment? A reminder that it wasn’t the consumer who made himself able to ride the motorcycle, but the motorcycle which made him able to ride it (ie: that defined his values and goals for him, embraced his gender identity, taught him to stand up for what’s right even if that means going outside the law, and finally gave him his confidence around members of the opposite sex)? Also, once a conformist who is moved by this commercial’s message purchases his motorcycle, and some months or years later is exposed to another piece of advertising which presents the same basic message (and it is a common message in motorcycle culture), isn’t he going to be similarly offended and deflated?
Why is a company taking the risk of offending both of it’s major demographics – those who “live the life” and those who believe that “the life” is the key to happiness – in the same exact ad? Why are they so confident that neither group will sense the contradictory element, and simply respond to the aspect which they find flattering (in the former’s case) and inspiring (in the latter’s)? Wouldn’t this at least anger the “lifestylers” because it will be seen as inviting “outsiders” in, just as it would be ineffective towards the “outsiders” since, being the self-conscious pedants they are, they would sense the illogic in what the company is claiming it’s product will do (it is, after all, their “conforming” which made them able to afford a motorcycle)?
The answer lies in the non-conceptual method of mental functioning which dominates every category of contemporary society. Just as a person’s relative “freedom” in regards to some superficial aspect like his mode of transportation does not make him an individualist, and just as a person’s relative “conformity” in regards to that or any other superficial aspect does not make him a conformist, a commercial’s superficial aspects (which one a particular person picks up is irrelevant) does not give it it’s particular power. That comes from the essential point that it makes; a point both “individualists” and “conformists” agree upon: that personal happiness is derived from the outside. Whether it be a life coach or botox or self-help books or motorbikes, what makes a person happy is not knowing that he is actually an individualist (regardless of how rare or common his particular traits might be) because he knows he actually understands and independently embraces his characteristics, but rather some external force (which he must pay money for). Or, if a woman knows she is youthful in spirit because she knows what that actually means, and has engaged in a titanic struggle to preserve the fire of her soul, she will never actually feel it unless and until she either gets injected with botox or rides on a motorcycle. Both parties (which are actually just variations of the same party) agree: happiness – like individualism and conformity – are not actual concepts, so there’s no reason to think too deeply or carefully about them; and there’s no reason to pay too close of attention to the contradictions in this commercial. If it speaks to you for a moment, you will take pride in being a “biker” and want to trade your current one in for a new one, or you will feel a moment’s embarrasment for being a “conformist”, and you will want to visit your city’s Harley-Davidson dealer. But whatever you do, don’t be yourself. Join a group. Either the “group’s group” known as “conformity” – with it’s botox and male manicures – or the “non-group group” known as “the biker’s lifestyle” – with it’s “freedom” and sex – but be sure to ignore the fact that it’s precisely the kind of self-destructive behavior glamorized by things like the “biker lifestyle” which leads so many confused, miserable people to things like life coaches and self-improvement books in the first place.
This is the kind of short-range mentality that Harley-Davidson is counting on to fuel it’s sales. In this constantly-shifting, unpredictable cultural, political, and economic landscape, this is what the once honorable practice of production and trade has been reduced to. Pragmatic manipulation of other people’s flaws – their stupidity and their pretentiousness – in order to get whatever profit one can at this very moment.