Advertising is Culture Pollution
Last week at the International Advertising Clio Awards, Jerry Seinfeld had his Colbert moment (or perhaps his Jon Stewart moment). Receiving his honorary Clio, Seinfeld somewhat surprisingly played one of the most intense “comedian as social critic” moves of the modern era.
For four cutting minutes with the full attention of the cream of Madison Avenue, Seinfeld plainly and effectively laid out what we all know: advertising is bad for us.
Its worth watching the video or taking the time to read the transcript in its entirety.
I am excited to win this. This is the award they give you when they don’t think you can actually win one, but they think you’ve done a pretty good job and seem to have been around for quite some time, and that’s how I got it.
I would like to thank Ogilvy and Mather and American Express for getting me into this business. That was the first time I did it. I’d like to thank my manager George Shapiro, my incredible wife Jessica, and Ammirati for keeping me going.
I love advertising because I love lying.
In advertising, everything is the way you wish it was. I don’t care that it won’t actually be like when I actually get the product being advertised because, in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing, I’m happy, and that’s all I want. Tell me how great the thing is going to be. I love it. I don’t need to be happy all the time. I just want to enjoy the commercial. I want to get the thing. We know the product is going to stink. We know that. Because we live in the world, and we know that everything stinks. We all believe, hey, maybe this one won’t stink. We are a hopeful species. Stupid but hopeful.
But we’re happy in that moment between the commercial and the purchase, and I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low-quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy.
Because a brief moment of happiness is pretty good. I also think that just focusing on making money and buying stupid things is a good way of life. I believe materialism gets a bad rap. It’s not about the amount of money. Nothing’s better than a Bic pen, a VW Beetle, or a pair of regular Levi’s. If your things don’t make you happy, you’re not getting the right things. This will all be in my new book, Soulful Materialism, which is in the planning stages at this moment.
I have always wanted a Clio. I don’t know much about it, but I know it’s a good award because in 1991, they screwed up this whole presentation, and there were a bunch of awards left over, and all of these ad people here climbed up onto the stage and tried to grab them. So, to me, that says this means something. That really happened, and it’s my all-time favorite awards show occurrence because it was so honest. People just said, I want a damn Clio, and they went for it. And that is why I am happy right now. I got this. I didn’t really win it, but I got it. And tomorrow, I don’t know where this is going to be. It’s going to be somewhere. Eventually I’ll be dead. Someone will just take it or sell it or throw it out. That’s fine. I’m happy now. The same way those executives were in 1991 when they ran onto this stage and grabbed trophies that weren’t theirs. But it trumped up their phony careers and meaningless lives.
So thank you all for this great honor and all your great work. I hope it makes you happy as you have made me happy for this five minutes of my life, which will last until I get to the edge of this stage, and it hits me that this was all a bunch of nonsense. Thank you, and have a great evening.
Its rare to see a cultural elite like Seinfeld tell truth to power so starkly. Particularly one who has been on the gravy train of Madison Avenue for more than a decade. Perhaps this is a sign that we are at long last as a culture getting to the point where we are more than mad as hell — we are not going to take it anymore.
Culture Pollution is a serious issue. The human organism’s cognitive processing systems evolved for a particular environment — small bands of closely related people semi-nomadically hunting and gathering. We are pretty good at navigating those kinds of environments and challenges. But the modern world is composed of an entirely different set of challenges, perhaps the most signficant of which are called “supernormal stimuli.”
Supernormal stimuli are inputs that hijack an animal’s instincts beyond their evolutionary purpose. Like cotton candy that takes the evolved good signal of “sweetness” and turns it into deception; or television programming that takes a survial bias for visual and audio novelty and turns it into “attention abuse”. They go deep and manipulate us at a fundamental level.
Advertising is an extraordinarily virulent example of this sort of “signal hijacking”. Perhaps the perfection of the form. Carefully designed to get behind the habits and senses that tell us what we need and what is good for us and, rather than actually give us what we need, give us some “empty calories.” Duping our senses so thoroughly that we loose track of the possibility of authenticity and quality. Leaving us full, but not fulfilled.
Fortunately after three generations of this nonsense the worm is beginning to turn. Its not a matter of regulating advertising or of attempting to shame the industry into better behaviour. The answer is simpler: we are going to render it obsolete. Much like wikipedia didn’t compete with the Encyclopedia, there is an emerging “Aesthetic/Ethical” sphere that will simply render advertising an obsolete relic of a less healthy past.
These days more and more people are aware of the need to take personal responsibility for their buying decisions. And this is a big part of the solution. Markets only work if people are thoughtfully investing values where they put their money. Yet, as even highly empowered individuals, none of us is a match for the ever increasing flow of potential experience available to us. Arguably, this is the function that advertising (or “marketing communications”) was supposed to fulfill. If we are to be free of advertising for good, we need some way to quickly, easily and confidently get to the most satisfying experiences and the best solutions to our problems.
Co-creation is the key. In the contemporary environment, all that is necessary is a little bit of old-fashioned sharing. We all have some things that we care about. Some things that we spend our valuable time and energy understanding and learning the nuance and quality of the thing. Values and intent might vary. One person might care about the health impacts of a given meal while another might focus on the environmental or the economic aspects. Or it might be a matter of performance versus beauty. Or local versus handcrafting. All are right answers.
What is necessary is simply this: If we all just shared those things that we understand best and care about most with each-other, and do it authentically and helpfully, we will have produced the rich, nuanced truth that is all we ever needed. And we will go a long way towards crafting a culture that is healthy, thriving and a place where we are all proud to live.