Archive for December 2013
The difference between being a naughty or a nice person is much greater than the difference between being a red or a white automobile. Why would someone who’s naughty deserve a gift that is virtually identical to the gift that a nice person deserves? Because of how our economy is structured, the issue of “deserving or not” is no longer relevant in the economy. It’s possible to get paid by being either naughty or nice. That is what this commercial “addresses.”
In a laizzes-faire capitalist economy, because of the wisdom of crowds, the long-term trend is that objectively good (read: truly productive and mutually-rewarding) behavior succeeds, while objectively bad behavior fails. However, in today’s mixed economy (a mixture of freedom and controls), bad behavior is often just as personally profitable as good behavior. It’s perfectly possible to build a business plan on (or at least crucially supplement a business plan with) some bad idea held by a relatively small number of “members” of “the crowd” (ie: politicians or bureaucrats). Instead of spending time figuring out what is a customer’s objective best-interest, and figuring out how to make him see that your product or service serves it, a business can spend it’s resources trying to guess what a politician or bureaucrat thinks is the customer’s best interest, and pander to that without any consequences (because the consumer legally must follow those conclusions anyway). Or, a business can make a sincere effort to create an objectively valuable product, but simply fail – and avoid the consequences by instead, after the fact, convincing the politically powerful that “the crowd” was wrong and that it’s product should be the one (forcibly) “chosen.” The variations are endless.
This commercial appeals to the (often subconscious, unadmitted) awareness of this phenomenon that most people have. It was written about elsewhere on this blog regarding another commercial which appeals to it, but unlike that one – which uses evasion through hyperbole – this commercial uses the trick of “acknowledgment.”
In identifying a portion of it’s potential customers as “naughty”, Mercedes Benz is, in effect, saying to them “we know what you are but it’s okay. Others can see that in truth you are (in whole or in part) an economic parasite (despite your posturing as strictly an independently existing producer), so just admit it.” This message causes the viewer it speaks to to do just that: admit it. But then it tells him that he still deserves a Mercedes for Christmas. Somehow.
In other words: it tells him that so long as he acknowledges his flaw, that that somehow constitutes having fixed it, and therefore it’s okay go on living as if he were truly only a producer and not at all a parasite. This is nonsense, of course (acknowledging a problem is a necessary condition for correcting it but it isn’t a sufficient one), but Mercedes Benz knows that the desire to escape the guilt a parasite feels is so strong that he is susceptible to any rationalization offered to him. The company also knows that that rationalization will fade, that the truth will make it’s presence known again, and that the desire to rationalize yet again will return. They hope that when that happens, the viewer will think of the rationalization which Mercedes Benz gave to him, remember that it was Mercedes Benz that gave it to him, remember that he needs/wants a car, and conclude that he should buy one of their cars.
When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion–when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing–when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors–when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you–when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice–you may know that your society is doomed. -Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Corruption, of course, is essentially no different than brute physical force. Is causes people to act in a manner that they may not have otherwise acted, and that the perpetrator had no right to cause them to act. This commercial is expected to resonate with people because it touches on the actual nature of American society. The nature that is there, everywhere, just below the surface. A surface that is nothing more than the pretense of a society still built not on corruption, or intimidation, but persuasion. To see it manifested in such an over-the-top, explicit, and therefore unbelievable manner gives people a momentary reprieve from the dread that constantly plagues them. It allows them to feel as though their concern is misplaced because “if society were really governed by anything other than persuasion, then that is what we would see happening. We don’t see that happening, so I must just be paranoid.”
Bud Light knows that that feeling of dread will return (because it’s a reaction to the objective facts of reality, even if they aren’t acknowledged), and that when it does, people will look for a way to continue to rationalize it. They’re hoping that people will remember the rationalization that this commercial provided them with, remember (incidentally) that it was a beer commercial, remember that they like to drink beer, need to put beer on the grocery list, whatever, and then choose Bud Light when they do.
While not technically force, this commercial is itself an example of the corruption that plagues American culture. Instead of appealing to the public’s rationality, and trying to make a case for why Bud Light serves their best interest, it takes advantage of an important emotion in order to associate the good emotion that would come from examining it (ie: thinking of ways to rid society of the corruption that causes it) with the momentarily pleasant sensation of rationalizing and evading it; and therefore with the brand of beer that helped them do it. When advertising becomes not education (even if augmented by entertainment), but simply psychological manipulation, it is another indication that the society which does it is doomed.
People laugh at what they regard as unimportant. If, for example, a person has a habit of obsessively biting his finger nails, but otherwise is a rational person, he may poke fun at himself about it (or let others do so) because doing so is a round-about way of reveling in the healthy parts of his personality. It does not mean that he regards his bad habit as acceptable, or inevitable (since “no one is perfect”), but simply that he doesn’t regard consider it to be an essential characteristic. His marginal neurotic tendencies do not define the overall course of his life, and therefore they aren’t “who he is.”
What, then, do people who find this commercial funny regard as unimportant? This commercial highlights a shortcoming in the English language which makes certain words very easily mistaken for one another. Is this commercial a celebration of the fact that such shortcomings are rare (ie: unimportant), or is it something else? There are plenty of other linguistic shortcomings that Kmart could have chosen to dramatize. Why did they choose this one? Would having people mistake “fifty” for “fifteen” have been funny? It would have been just as feasible – people are, for instance, outside of a football stadium talking about where their seats are located, a misunderstanding ensues, and people do what they wouldn’t otherwise do – so why not choose that particular pair of words? Why not save the comedic value of linguistic shortcomings for an advertisement that highlights some other aspect of the company, and simply deliver the message of free shipping from Kmart.com in some other way?
The reason is because the types of misunderstandings that could occur if “fifty” was mistaken as “fifteen” could never be as shocking as mistaking “ship” for “shit.” That one particular instance of similar sounding words can make an innocent, innocuous remark very easily sound like a shocking, vile one. The contrast between what was intended and what was perceived is enormous. More so than probably any other instance in the English language. Nevertheless, it is still just a marginal, inconsequential, unimportant feature of the language, so why should it be any funnier than any other? Why should the comedic value of a linguistic misunderstanding outweigh the unpleasant experience of hearing dignified people speak in an undignified way (something which only “shit” for “ship” – instead of “fifteen” for “fifty” – can accomplish)?
People who find this commercial funny do so not because they regard unsuccessful communication as unimportant, but because they find civility and dignity unimportant. They regard the similarity between “ship” and “shit” – and the diametrical reactions that would ensue as a result of an innocent misunderstanding – as proof of the futility of trying to gain and/or keep anything (ie: that it could all be taken away so easily, by something as small as a mistaken word – or an o-ring). In other words: for such people, it’s not the failures in life that are the flukes, but the successes. Successes are what escape the normal course of things (which is to fail). By focusing on the fact that not only can the shortcomings of the value that is language produce misunderstandings, but that they can produce misunderstandings so completely out of proportion to what caused them – and that they can have consequences as severe as losing one’s dignity (albeit unintentionally) – people who enjoy this commercial are reveling in their hopelessness. Such a massive failure of man’s intended purpose helps them to feel that their own failures, or foregone opportunities, or sufferings under an oppressive political system and/or culutre are not so bad. Seeing this commercial reminds them of the “truth” about reality. A truth that is always there, just underneath our “pretentions” towards values, standards, success, freedom, happiness, dignity.
Kmart has a legitimate value that it is advertising in this commercial, but that is not enough these days. People will not pay attention to a company’s product or service unless it stands out in some way. If it doesn’t actually stand out in some way (ie: it’s more or less identical to what your competitors offer), then the only way to ensure that your message is remembered is to associate it with something unrelated – but profound and reocurring – in the viewer’s psyche. Obviously one’s sense of life is such a thing. Kmart knows that people who are governed by the malevolent universe premise (and who suffer existentially as a result) will regularly look for ways to rationalize their beliefs. It simply hopes that when they do, they will remember that one of the moments in which they were able to escape the negative feelings such beliefs cause is when they watched this commercial, be reminded that Kmart is a retailer, think about how they have this or that material need, and put two and two together that they can satisfy that need at Kmart.
Exploiting the worst within people, instead of tapping into their best. That’s what’s required in today’s over-taxed, over-regulated economy. The long-term doesn’t exist, so companies do whatever they can do make as much as they can, as quickly as they can.