Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Ad Nauseum

As I struggled recently with what seemed like an unending series of pop-up ads--I started to hear the The Sorceror's Apprentice in my head--for every one I kill, three rise to take its place!--I naturally took the time out to rotate loudly through my (impressive, if I do say so myself) repertoire of profanity and blasphemy, directing much of my vitriol towards those responsible for these digital gadflies. (At some point I wished bone cancer on their children, a wee bit of an overreaction, I admit.) This moment continued a long-standing tradition of mine of cursing advertising in all its many forms, but I realized something in the midst of my self-induced, cathartic rant--my blame was misdirected.

Indeed, for all the bitching and moaning that I and weak stand-up comics do about advertising and marketing and its pervasive, patronizing presence in our lives (even the late, great Bill Hicks spent his energy in lengthy tirades encouraging those in the industry to suicide), we bitchers and moaners need to pause collectively and recognize that advertising is an inevitability. It just is. In any kind of competetive market--from 3rd world bazaars where hawkers loudly proclaim the superiority of their wares, to 1st world late-nite infomercials where overenthusiastic Australians speak in ear-splitting volumes about their latest white-plastic miracle product, to the commercials that people tune in to the Superbowl to see--nevermind about the game--with budgets equal to the GNP of a South American nation--in any world in which folks have to choose between as few as two options in their purchases, both sides have gotta plead their case or lose a customer. And, bizarrely, cruelly, this is a sign of a good life. If you like being able to choose what to have for breakfast, what toothpaste to use, what car to drive, where to live, where to go on vacation and what to do when you're there, what to read, what to watch, what to wear, what candidate to vote for--if you like to choose, in short, then the self-interested rhetoric of a provider of services is part of what goes with that freedom. Advertising is vulgar and crude and panders to the lowest common denominator (i.e. to the stupidest, most impressionable consumer), and so it's guaranteed to be offensive to just about everyone with a firing synapse or two, but believe me, the alternative is much, much worse. We live in a society with too many choices, of course--take a trip down the Shampoo aisle if you doubt this--and this leads us to spend too much time making choices about trivial things--"Should I go with the apple/pear- or the apricot/mango-scented conditioner?"--but having too many choices is better than too few.

Plus which, I happen to be close to one or two people in the industry, so I happen to know for a fact that they're neither satanic nor stupid. According to them, it's the clients who are loathsome--but then, I know people in marketing and they're not evil. So whom do we blame for the grotesqueries of advertising?

Ourselves, of course. (It always comes back to self-blame, doesn't it?) Depite all the whining we do about the presence of advertising in Every Single Aspect of our lives--if I'd had some, I would have thrown my popcorn at the screen the first time I saw an ad for Coke in a movie-theater--thank God I couldn't buy anything at the concession stand without two forms of ID and a credit check to enroll in the installment plan--the ugly, ugly fact is that It Works.

And that's what we're really mad at.

Think about the implications for the true state of humanity when considering these facts: Spam works. Junk mail works. Pop-up ads work. The dumbest commercial you've ever seen--I'm not sure which one I'd vote for, but I'm fairly certain it would involve feminine hygiene and the words "the latest breakthrough"--worked. Stands to reason--ads cost money, time, and/or effort to produce and distribute--nobody would engage in such activities if there wasn't a payoff. So that pop-up ad for the diet aid you just deleted--somebody saw it and said "Heyyyy!" That e-mail about penile enlargement? Oh yeah, a LOT of men went to that website. (And, on a tangent, folks must still be falling for that scam about the attache in Nigeria who has access to secret millions and just needs your bank account to get it to Switzerland--if it wasn't working, they'd have moved on to a new scam.) People are persuaded to spend money as a result of reading and seeing these things. People who work and drive and have kids and are visually indistinguishable from everyone else you see on the street--and don't comfort yourself that these are Pod People or escapees from institutions that take field trips on short buses. We know these people. We work with them. We're related to them. Their blood runs through our veins. Advertising--terrible, terrible advertising works. On them. On us.

And what are we going to do? Stop buying stuff? Kind of hard to--I know I'm not buying a butter churn or learning how to mix tallow and lye to make soap. Home brewing takes time I could be spending doing more enjoyable things--like giving free pedicures to the neighborhood homeless. Bottom line, while I may not buy all the s--t that's being advertised, I'm gonna buy some of it. Which means, whether I'm moved to do so by an ad or not--usually not, but sometimes--then, to the producers of these products, I'm indistinguishable from those who are so moved. Which means, I'm making it look to them like their awful ad bought or kept them a customer. Which mean I'm inadvertantly supporting the continued production of those awful ads. And I'm going to keep doing it. While I curse the makers of pop-ups, I need to look to the mote in my own eye as I travel to my Netflix account--Netflix, one of the most prolific purpetrators of pop-ups, and about which I've said "I couldn't do without it." Ads. If they're intrusive to the point of abusive cruelty, then we must all be masochists.

And besides, some of those porn sites are pretty sweet.


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