Monday, March 30, 2009

Is Advertising just Hypnopaedia?

In a world that bombards its inhabitants with constant advertising, is a harmless commercial really harmless? In a synopsis offered by Dennis Mahoney of the Morning Times, his readers are given a look at a television advertisement for Coors' Light beer from his perspective. It reads:

Asses/mini-skirts. Clinking cans. Aerial view of football field. Smiling cheerleader. Low-five! Fattish guy in a parking lot with grill, frattish white guy throws football, frattish black guy catches it, date-rapish guy kisses girl. Someone eating meat from various angles: Meat, meat, meat! Painted-face retarded man in clown wig cheers at stadium! Fans go ape in living room! Team mascot/desperate non-SAG actor in animal outfit cheers on field. Smiling twins with pom-poms. Fan makes ‘yeah!’ or ‘rawk!’ sign. Tackle, tackle, tackle! Tit-shaking cheerleaders, rumpshaking cheerleaders, more fans, retarded guy in clown wig, twins, mascots/desperate non-SAG actors in animal outfits drop-kicking one another, fans chanting/grabbing Coors, cheerleaders looking sassily back over their shoulders, winking, having led cheers.

The song playing throughout is called ‘I Love Twins.’ Actual lyrics:

I love playing two-hand touch
Eating way too much
Watching my team win
With the twins

I love quarterbacks eating dirt
Pom-poms and short skirts
Fans who won’t quit
And those twins

And I love you, too!
Here’s to football!

In this humorous, yet poignant example of commercialism-run-amok, Mahoney shows how advertisers need not even associate the product they are persuading the consumer to buy, only barrage them with meaningless symbols and sex to net the perceived benefits of a lifestyle the product may somehow unlock. In a recent study published by the Cell Press, researchers found that, when they “created visual cues from scrambled, novel, abstract symbols” they were able to reason that, “if subjects were unable to correctly perceive any difference between the masked cues, then they were also unable to build conscious representations of cue-outcome associations, [and were able to] conclude that, even without conscious processing of contextual cues, our brain can learn their reward value and use them to provide a bias on decision making.” (Cell) Given this conclusion, it is reasonable to infer that the former example need not ever expressly mention anything about the product being sold, only that it confer the appropriate cost/benefit relationship and lend a sense of well-being to the consumer. This form of advertising seeks to implant an quasi-Pavlovian response in the mind of the watcher by associating the feelings of fun, youthful exhilaration, and drunken flirtation with Coors' Light beer. However, the reality of the situation is that, if the 21-34 year old men the ad targets (USA) were tailgating and flirting and drinking, they wound not be in their living rooms and could not actually see the ad on television. To quote the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning regarding hypnopaedia, “Moral education (apparently, the equation of beer to happiness), which ought never, under any circumstances, be rational,” (34) in this case appears as such; Coors' seems to have left the business of beer altogether and has begun selling lifestyles.

Additionally, advertisers make use of heavy amounts of repetition to drive their brand strategies. During a single, prime-time television show, a watcher may see a single commercial 3 or four times, for a total of approximately 90 to 120 seconds of conditioning per product per 60-minute show. Extend this to the full programming schedule for the evening and it now becomes three 60-minute shows, multiplied by 90 to 120 seconds of conditioning per show, totaling 270 to 360 seconds (4.5 – 6 minutes) of conditioning per product per night. This proves to be strongly correlated to the hypnopaedic conditioning schedules in Brave New World, in which the population is subjected to rigorous batteries of moral education in a systematic and methodical progression of relevant messages as they sleep. Even the way Bernard considers, “Five hundred repetitions once a week from thirteen to seventeen.” may evoke an image of an advertising executive buying air-time from a television executive.

This combination of heavy repetition with suggestions of what a good consumer should do to be happy, suggests conditioning of a moral order taking place during a time when the watchers are least likely to resist it. Given the schedule of the average American worker that leaves his garage at 8 AM to arrive to work by 9 AM, he is likely to consume goods, services and advertising all day, until he gets back into his car, drives home and plants himself before his television, physically and mentally exhausted, and proceeds to achieve contentment by having his behaviors from the day completely reinforced by brand-driven advertising. The average American consumer lives in a world in which he is constantly conditioned to buy more and save less: from buying Coors' Light beer to remember the glory days of college, to the next car that he is supposed to buy, to the drugs that will cure everything from headache to death. He is conditioned to never be without, for fear of failure, or sickness, or pain. He is engaged by the manufacturers of his happiness every night and he is sold the promises of nirvana through consumption. He is told not to think about what he buying, only to buy it and look for the happiness that comes as a result. He is conditioned to live a consequentialist existence in which happiness comes at the cost of his labor and the dollar is king.

The practice of supplying subliminal messages to subjects in a state of reduced consciousness is not completely new. If consumers were left to their own devices, that is to say, allowed to consume blindly without the constant reinforcement of advertising, then it is likely that the climate of consumption would be very different. Without the constant direction, the possibility of a truly consumer-driven economy, in which the consumer judges products and services for their worth and promotes success through their sheer buying power combined with evaluative reason, becomes evident. This is not the case however, and the marketing machine is far too sophisticated to allow for such levels of thought. Advertising has been slowly shaped and crafted to execute its purpose through clever nuance and subtlety, rarely directly stating any truths. In 1932, Aldous Huxley, writing in the character of the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning says, “wordless conditioning is crude and wholesale; cannot bring the home the finer distinctions, cannot inculcate the more complex courses of behavior. For that there must be words, but words without reason. In short, hypnopaedia.” (35, 36). This statement appears to accurately foreshadow the current state of mass-market advertising by suggesting that seemingly pointless advertisements do in fact have a strong purpose. To give another example of seemingly pointless ads that reinforce a morality of consume-till-content:

Jerry Seinfeld in a tent, watching a bear show on a big Toshiba television, which is cripplingly funny because he’s watching TV in a tent! American Express allows you to purchase tents and televisions—you could make your own cripplingly funny ad! The bear show notes that bears have a ‘secret competitive nature’ and we see a couple of bears drive by in the background… in a golf cart! Jerry says he’d like to see this secret competitive nature in action, but he doesn’t see the golf-cart bears because… he’s watching television in the tent! Use American Express! It’s cripplingly funny! (Mahoney.)

There is no cost/benefit analysis, no features to speak of, just a ridiculous scenario and a logo. To a person that never uses a credit card, this may seem innocuous and trivial; but to the American Express card holder, the point is perfectly well made: Jerry Seinfeld uses his Amex to buy whatever he wants. . .Congratulations for being just like Jerry. There is no actual reason behind Seinfeld selling Amex, but when the watcher is half-asleep, sitting before the television, and digesting his dinner he is much more susceptible to the power of suggestion. This is the goal of hypnopaedia and advertising. They both affect the semi-conscious subject in such a manner as to teach what is right and reinforce correct behaviors. The obvious benefit to this type of conditioning is the lack of willpower defense on behalf of the watcher. If the watcher cannot reason, the watcher cannot resist.

Without the active ability to discern meaning from meaning's inverse, the watcher is subject to limitless suggestion, and may even go so far as to adopt a morality of purely false reason. An example of this is the Pokemon franchise. With toys, games, cards, movies, and a long running television series complete with child-targeted advertising, the franchise has grossed $455M in movie sales alone (Kotaku). The franchise sells a morality to children which, on the surface appears to be about respecting each other, fair play, and never giving up. However, the multi-billion dollar grossing franchise makes no explicit statement about morality, as it does about selling children's toys. This example shows that advertising firms make no distinction between children and adults, save one: children hold power over their parents; parents rendered impotent and without willpower by years and decades of conditioning from television, radio, and print to buy and not consider the long-term effects. We now see a self-propagating model of consumer control that spans generations of semi-conscious consumers.

Having established that effective advertising employs subliminal conditioning, and that subliminal conditioning constitutes hypnopaedia, it can be safely concluded that effective advertising is, if not exactly identical to, equivalent to the hypnopaedia of Brave New World. The governing bodies appear different: corporations controlling consumers rather than government, directly; but they appear nonetheless. Niel Postman refers to this surrender of culture (and consciousness) to technology (seen here as the newer, bigger, better mousetrap) as Technopoly. In the chapter titled, “The Great Symbol Drain,” Postman uses advertising as an example to demonstrate the manner in which traditional symbols are rendered devoid of their meaning through trivialization of usage, i.e. fat people selling light beer to other fat people. To the rational person, the idea of gross obesity may suggest a health hazard, an unhealthy lifestyle, or irresponsible consumption habits. To Coors', it represents fun, and flirting, and sports. It then becomes the goal of Coors' to convince the watcher that fat people are not in fact unhealthy, but more fun than athletic sober ones. The very words used to describe the actors come under attack by this form of advertising. By bastardizing societies' symbols and changing the meaning of the words used to describe them, Postman would argue that advertising is attacking the very core of the American value system, by offering its own version of the consumer narrative. This narrative is not a doctrine of right and wrong, good or evil; it is a narrative of consume and consume.

To that end, Huxley's hypnopaedia set forth to accomplish the same. It suggests the proper dosages of soma and reminds the citizens to buy more clothing, rather than mend the old. It teaches class consciousness and the appropriate ways to behave socially, not unlike luxury automobile and cigarette ads. It teaches that impulses should be acted upon, instead of repressed, a la fast food and condom commercials. It creates a practice of sleep-thinking; very much like the people that stand in line at Starbucks and get the same 560 calorie muffin and decaf-venti-nonfat-no whip-extra white chocolate mocha (nonfat, of course, because I'm watching my figure ;)) at 7:36 every weekday morning, and 9:32 on weekends. It rewards the masses for being the masses and chides them for thinking too critically. If she is not a librarian, taking down her glasses and unbuttoning her shirt to seduce a greasy, unshaven, overweight chump in overalls; the educated, discerning, self-determined woman is entirely too smart and successful to be portrayed in television commercials. This is evidenced in the latter's complete absence in television advertisements. As with hypnopaedia, advertising refuses to portray a reality separate from the morality they determine to be pure.

In conclusion, the last three thousand years have been filled with the philosophies of virtue, and morality, and action, leading up to a full-scale rejection of organization-sponsored control for the alternative of self-determinism and freedom in the late 1920s. Since then, evidence of the rejection of thought and acceptance of control has flown in the face of any person so inclined as to ask, “Why do we do the things that we do?” and “what is happiness?” In short, society has sacrificed its will to act for instant gratification and user-friendliness. As for a call to action, it is inconceivable at this point to quantify the amount of counter-thought necessary to slow the momentum of the freight-train that is the American advertising industry, and awaken its citizens to the prospects of a brave new world of their own, one in which they are free to think and pursue happiness in their own right. Thought of that magnitude would have epic implications and would necessarily constitute a global revolution with unknowable consequences. The alternative however, is nothing more than the same; nothing more, nothing less. The players will change, but the message will not. The reclamation of society's will to act and think is crucial to avoiding this latter series of consequences and should be paramount in the lives of its participants.

Works Cited

Cell Press. "Subliminal Learning Demonstrated In Human Brain." Science Daily. 28 August, 2008. 23 March, 2009.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper Collins Publishing, 2004.

Mahoney, Dennis. "Ads are Stupid." The Morning News. 05 November, 2002. 23 March, 2009.

McCarthy, Michael. "Coors' twins ads a hit with target market"USA 02 March, 2003. 23 March, 2009.

McWhertor, Michael.”Pok√©mon Movies Gross Almost A Half Billion Dollars" 13 August, 2008. 23 March, 2009.

Postman, Niel. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books. 1993.

Snyder, Michael. “Chicago's ad:tech: The big brand idea strikes back for advertising.” Wisconsin Technology Network. 07 August, 2008. 23 March, 2009.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Archimedes Claw and Corporate Feudalism

This assignment asked us to research a technology discovered before 1900 and analyze its effects on civilization. Please feel free to comment.

The great classical engineer Archimedes is credited with designing technologies and theories that revolutionized the word manpower. The claw that bears his namesake was actually an ancient boom crane, designed to utilize leverage and a block and tackle apparatus of his own design to motivate and maneuver a monstrous grappling hook. The boom’s fulcrum and pivot was the pinnacle of a four pointed, pyramidal structure that lent exceptional support to the claw and provided the base for the incredible amount of leverage needed to execute the claw’s intended purpose of capsizing attacking ships. Most notably during the second Punic war, when the enemy galleons attacked the walls of Syracuse with their massive rams, the booms would lower their claws into the sea and attempt to seize the longitudinal beams of the ships’ hulls. Upon the seizure, men would pull the rope connected to the effort of the boom lever, the claw would lift from the water and the ship would be capsized. This represents one early instances of man using machine to lift immense weights and deposit them elsewhere.

After major advances in the 1st through 3rd centuries A.D., and falling into disuse at the demise of the Western Roman Empire, the crane was resurrected in the 11th century to support maritime operations in the Netherlands and Prussia (Coulton, 7-19). The use of the crane to transport massive loads onto ships and sail them across the known world gave rise to the first ocean traders and not long after, pirates. By the end of the 17th century, the Dutch East India Corporation was the dominant trader, dealing in commodities ranging from coffee to slaves. The technology continued to evolve throughout the Age of Reason, giving rise to taller and taller structures, as well as more remote colonies. By 1931, the British Empire encircled the globe and the Empire State Building had been erected to a height of 1230 feet, becoming the world’s tallest building, and from the top, the tallest seat of power in existence. Having now constructed monoliths of such epic proportion that cranes had to be used to lift other cranes into place hundreds of feet over the city, man could now stand on solid ground one quarter of one mile from the streets of New York City. The ideas of immense mass and weight had become manageable as a result of the crane, completely tertiary to man's achievement of his vision.

The erection of these towering structures becomes symbolic in the coming decades, paralleling the rise of the American Capitalist. The New York skyline is the result of a major push in architecture in the late 19th century to achieve the biggest and tallest buildings in existence. Unlike traditional buildings at the time, skyscrapers utilized a skeleton structure of steel and iron beams that, in the case of the Home Insurance Building constitute approximately one third of the weight of similarly strong measures of concrete and masonry (Petersen). A towering crane was then, a necessary condition of skyscraper construction. As architects became more ambitious, so did the need for taller cranes. In the case of the Sears tower in Chicago, cranes were lifted to the tops of smaller buildings, where they were then used to complete secondary lifts of the materials necessary to complete the tower. In the age of skyscrapers, the pinnacle of success truly was the pinnacle of human civil engineering. This idea is espoused in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, in which main characters Howard Roark and Dominique Francon spend the final scene of the book, after defeating the forces of immoral collectivism, speeding up the main column of a tower crane up the precipice to a new civilization (727). Never before had man been so equipped to execute his will and establish his place in the natural order.

Even today, the skyscraper and the Capitalist are inextricably intertwined. In his January, 2008 article, “Booms, Busts, and Cranes,” Doug French describes while, “standing on the 88th floor observation deck of the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, any capitalist gets an exhilarating rush, looking down upon over 5,000 high-rise buildings (all built over the past two decades) in a teeming city of 18 million people.” This intrinsic sense of societal dominance has reshaped the way in which corporations function globally. As has been epitomized by the financial scandals and failures of the last three years, corporations and their executives have become increasingly apt to believe themselves untouchable under the rules of law and reason. We have an entirely new ruling class of humans that spend their professional lives looking down over civilization. In this new feudalism, fifes are defined by brands and companies do battle not with guns and steel, but with advertising and product launches. Serfs no longer toil in the fields, but spend their entire adult lives trapped at a desk, managing information and being managed by despotic office managers. Clothing of soiled rags have been replaced by bad, off the rack suits and cheap ties; and horses by the Smart car. For this, I do not mean to suggest that the Capitalist is to blame, necessarily. But the Capitalist built the tower, and the bureaucrat, like the cockroach, invariably followed.

Archimedes likely could not have foreseen the implications of giving man the power to lift thousands of times his own weight, to thousands of times his own height. The crane is the technology that contributed to the rapid expansion of the European colonial empires, the practice of nautical commerce, made the skyscraper possible, and thus changed the way we perceive business and governments. It elevated businessmen to positions of power in the stratosphere, and contributed to the fundamental disconnection between businesses and buyers, facilitated the creation of the consumer class. As a man that lived in the second century B.C., Archimedes is quoted as having said, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.” (Pappus.) It appears, perhaps, he has.

Works Cited

Coulton, J.J. “Lifting in Early Greek Architecture.” The Journal of Helenic Studies. 94. pp 7-17.

French, Doug. “Booms, Busts, and Cranes.” January 7, 2008. February 28, 2009.


Pappus of Alexandria. Synagoge: Book VIII. Direct quotation of Archimedes: c. BC 230- 212. Greek Text: Pappi Alexandrini Collectionis. c. AD 340.

Petersen, Ivars. “The First Skyscraper – New Theory that the Home Insurance Building was not the First.” The Science Times. April 5, 1986. February 27, 2009.

Postman, Niel. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books. 1993.

Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. New York: Plume. 1994.