Monday, January 9, 2012

Defined by Advertising; Killed by a Culling Song

If you ever want to make someone angry at philosophy, science, critical thought, or just yourself as a human being, talk to them about determinism. Tell them that they have no free will. Tell them that everything they are going to do was predetermined by the arrangement of particles at the Big Bang. Tell them that they are just as much matter-in-motion as the rest of the universe, and tell them that their thoughts and desires are just as much a result of the motion of particles as the rest of the universe. Told to the right kind of personality, it's not inconceivable that you might ruin their life.

As I've indicated before, the nature of who we are and if it can even be said that there is an I is one that fascinates me. There is something that should be taken into account here, I think, and that is modern society's dependence upon advertisement. Ask yourself what the purpose of advertising is: a less cynical man will say that it serves merely to raise awareness of a product or service being offered to the public, a more realistic man would say that it serves to create a need. Watch a series of commercials and ask yourself, are these meant to tell people who are already in the market for X good or service where they can find satisfaction or is it meant to draw more people into the market?

Then ask yourself the following question: would advertising be an over $100 billion dollar industry if it didn't work?

When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy them, but now they call this free will.

-Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

In Chuck Palahniuk's Lullaby, the protagonist Carl Streator repeatedly muses that the world is full of quiet-ophobics (or some variation of that idea). In between constructing models of various examples of western architecture and then stomping said models to pieces with an increasingly injured and infected bare foot, Streator cynically says that society and the media-Big Brother he says-is filling us up with so many distractions that our imagination withers and our own thoughts are forced out by all of the outside information pumped into our heads. Such an arrangement is threatened by the culling song, an African poem that kills anyone who hears it. Streator comments that this could be a plague unique to the information age, a series of words that could kill you, to protect ourselves we would have to shelter ourselves from all mass media lest an advertising jingle accidentally carry a series of words that would trigger death.

Despite his complaints about our noise-oholic society, Streator does not really want the world to come to such a fate, so he travels to find every written copy of the culling song and destroy them. While Lullaby was an enjoyable read, it does not really explore the possibility of a world that had reason to fear information. The culling song does not become common knowledge, a new dark age is not ushered in, the fiber optic cables are not cut by men with axes.

But what if it was?

What if you could die by watching a commercial? What if a flash ad on a website could keep you from ever waking up the next day? What if advertising became clearly hazardous to your health? What if you had clear reason to avoid ever being told you needed some product?

What kind of world would we live in?

Our Dependence Upon Advertising for Shaping Ourselves

I happen to have the privilege of living without television. There are TVs in the house, but they are not used except to watch the movies or TV shows we already own. It's amazing how rarely you crave the Colonel when you don't see juicy, golden fried chicken torn apart in front of you. In fact you tend to remember that for every delicious moment that the crispy chicken is in your mouth is ten moments of feeling like you've been lubricated throat-to-anus via chicken grease. You remember it because no one is trying to convince you that you would enjoy yourself if you ate some Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I don't listen to the radio too often, so I don't have too many new songs written with pop hooks getting caught in my head.

Of course I'm bombarded by online advertising. It hasn't affected me too much, except for the time I spent over a year spending hours upon hours playing a browser game called Erepublik that literally could have taken me less than three minutes daily to remain competitive. I found an ad for it on

Speaking of, I've been a faithful reader of theirs since 2008. I was linked to David Wong's 10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (and Must) Agree On, and one day spent a few hours laughing hysterically at article after article. One of my favorite books is John Dies at the End, check out who the author is, bet you can't guess how I found it.

One of my favorite articles of clothing is my black fedora. I wanted a fedora for a long time before I finally got that one. Why did I want a fedora? Because for a few months I was a big fan of slasher flicks and Freddy Krueger had one. I just happen to prefer black to brown.

My favorite graphic novel, and one of my favorite works in general, is Watchmen. Apart from Batman and in my earlier days Venom, I never really followed comic books. Of course, you're on the internet if you're reading this. You've heard about Watchmen too.

What's my point here? Not all of these were even genuine examples of advertising. I found Cracked through word of mouth, I found JDatE by looking up a Cracked writer I liked, and Freddy Krueger was hardly trying to sell anyone an article of clothing. My point here is that I was not looking for any of these things when I stumbled upon them. I wasn't trying to find a website that I could read every day for the next three years, I just found one. JDatE was just a free book online that I fell in love with, I didn't typically like paranormal stories until I stumbled across it. I certainly wasn't looking for a timesink that would one day become one of my greatest regrets, but Erepublik paid good advertising money to make sure I had ample opportunity to find theirs. These are all things that became influential in my life, things that helped define who I am, what I like, and how I see the world, and I did not find any of them because I was looking for them.

Advertising is the art of trying to get people to stumble across something that is profitable for you if they stumble across it. All the same, most of the things in your life that make you who you are were probably put there by someone else. Without advertising, think of all the things you might miss out on that could change your life.

Not that I'm endorsing advertising, mind you. It is clearly an exploitative art, it is trying to make things appear attractive whether or not they are, it is trying to shape the very minds of the populace in a way that is advantageous to the advertiser. But if it doesn't shape our minds and our desires, then what will?

If the Culling Song Went Viral

The culling song would be a plague unique to the Information Age. Imagine a world where people shun the television, the radio, movies, the Internet, magazines and newspapers. People have to wear earplugs the way they wear condoms and rubber gloves. In the past, nobody worried too much about sex with strangers. Or before that, bites from fleas. Or untreated drinking water. Mosquitoes. Asbestos.

Imagine a plague you catch through your ears.

Sticks and stones will break your bones, but now words can kill, too.

The new death, this plague, can come from anywhere. A song. An overhead announcement. A news bulletin. A sermon. A street musician. You can catch death from a telemarketer. A teacher. An Internet file. A birthday card. A fortune cookie.

A million people might watch a television show, then be dead the next morning because of an advertising jingle.

Imagine the panic.

Imagine a new Dark Age. Exploration and trade routes brought the first plagues from
China to Europe. With mass media, we have so many new means of transmission.

-Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Although Streator imagines the culling song ushering in a new dark age, the reality wouldn't be nearly so dramatic. Research, censorship, and regulation would follow. People would still watch TV, but the government would make sure it was safe to do so. The internet, however, would die out. Watching YouTube would be like shoving your dick into a glory hole in the bathroom of a building hosting an STD support group. For every two videos of an untalented teenager foolishly pursuing her dreams in full view of the world, there would be one asshole rickrolling you with a sudden reading of the culling song.

Maybe it wouldn't be that bad, but it would be safe either. Imagine every misanthrope with a computer suddenly having a means by which to end a few lives, you don't think a few would do it? YouTube would shut down. Facebook statuses could be lethal. You'd risk your life every time you clicked “StumbleUpon.”

With that kind of fear, people wouldn't trust media that hadn't been tested, filtered, and made safe for consumption. We would willingly ask someone to control what ideas and information we're exposed to.

When I sat down to write this, I imagined that at this point I would be speculating on what a quiet world would be like. We wouldn't go back to that, though. We're too used to having an expansive culture. We couldn't really handle going back to exclusively word-of-mouth information travel. You know, word-of-mouth with actual mouths. No, we would just make sure everything was filtered first.

We would hand some agency the right to determine what information is allowed to try to define us. What means are acceptable for turning us into markets. What jingles would get stuck in our heads and what brands of carbonated sugar water would be able to use to fill our guts. They would be the most powerful governing body humanity has ever allowed to guard them. They would decide what material would shape our wills.

Advertising, entertainment, and all that information that gets pumped into our head, all that stuff is who we are. It's what we want. Really, it's always been this way; imagine a man who lived his life in isolation, what kind of personality, thoughts, and desires would he have? How much of a man actually originates from the man himself? Scant, precious little. He would have his hunger, his preference for warmth as opposed to cold or heat, his need to relieve himself, an impulse to stick his penis into tight areas, all those immediate natural desires that make up every man's personality. But it would be scant, precious little in the way of a character.

If the culling song went viral, humanity would have three options: A) risk death and continue on as usual, which we will not do. B) isolate ourselves and degenerate as we refuse to share information and regress back to only those aspects of our personalities that derive from basic, biological needs, which we will not do. C) let someone make information safe for us, let someone determine what is acceptable for our consumption, this we will do.

A Prescriptive Statement

It has been said that the reason we believe we have free will is because there are so many stimuli we are sensitive to, so many variables in our behavior, and so many seemingly possible courses of action that it seems like someone must be deciding which course of action to take. I do not know the precise extent to which I agree with that, but it leads me to what I hope is an interesting idea.

Never allow any market to own you. Face it, living in this world, your will is going to be shaped, only in part of course, by all those commercials, product placements, and catchy jingles. Do you want to be a complex person? Then drown yourself in it, seek to be cultured by sampling influences wherever you can find them. Let lots of different sources compete for your heart. Fill yourself with stimuli, be a cultured man, then any company that would turn you into a market would have to do a damn good job of shouting over all the voices you have in your ears.

Or, perhaps you could go in the opposite direction. Choke yourself off from advertisements. Only allow yourself material that meets some particular standard. Perhaps restrict yourself only to information that you do not believe intends to sell you anything. Read books, mostly older books, from people who you reasonably believe did not write in such a way to maximize sales. You will be shaped by them, but at least you will be shaped by people who really believed in the influences they put out there. At least you will be shaped by dialogue instead of sales pitch.

And never, ever read poems from untested books to your family. And if your wife isn't moving, that doesn't mean she's just letting you take care of everything, they call that "postmortem sexual intercourse."

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