Action Alert!

The Advertising Culture

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 06, 2010

There is much that can be said about contemporary culture being essentially an “advertising culture”, a culture that prefers promotional images of one kind or another to the messy reality such images are meant to hide. I am reminded of Chesterton’s famous observation on the strangeness of modern merchandising, by which we purchase this or that product primarily because the maker asserts it is excellent.

But Chesterton may have died just soon enough to miss a far more ridiculous form of advertising. Nowadays, many products are touted not because they produce whiter whites but because they are used by those who live “the good life” (however that is defined). A particular beer, or a watch, or an automobile is associated not with any semi-objective claim to excellence but with cool people doing cool things. Generally what is “cool” is also rather shallow, but perhaps the marketplace is not looking for depth. Or, to put it another way, those who are deep and reflective—those with some sort of inner life—do not make the world’s best customers or consumers.

This problem of shallowness often raises its ugly head in unexpected ways. Today I was listening to a well-known Novartis radio advertisement, Novartis being a drug company working on treatments for a variety of serious diseases, including various forms of cancer. The ads typically feature feel-good stories about people who have gotten a second chance through these medications. In the advertisement I have in mind, a woman lost her older sister to breast cancer, so she decided to get on her bike and ride across country as a way of coping with the tragedy. Later, she too got breast cancer and, as a survivor, she organizes bike events for others who suffer from cancer. Whenever she’s faced with a serious problem in life, she responds by hopping on her bike.

Without minimizing the need we all have for natural activities and natural goals—or even for exercise to dissipate tension—this warm and fuzzy advertisement has to be marked down as one of the shallowest ever conceived. When we are faced with serious problems, problems of life and death, are we supposed to look for strength and hope to a bicycle? Or even to our own efforts on a bicycle? Or even to our own efforts at anything? In an antiseptic culture, problems are typically either denied or kept at bay rather than embraced. Not surprisingly, this is also how we deal with God. It becomes habitual to respond positively to every kind of presentation which glosses over reality. Superficiality reigns with a tone of voice, a splash of music, and a patina of emotion to evoke depth.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the bike club. It turns out that most people, when they set out on long bicycle trips, are driven nearly insane by the constant, unchanging repetitive motion. It isn’t enough to pedal harder. They have to stop. They simply have to stop or go mad. So let’s take pedaling as a metaphor for the endlessly repeated patterns of an unfulfilled life. Of course it is perfectly all right to enjoy pedaling, and it is certainly a good thing to organize activities for those who are suffering. But there is a far more important sense in which we should not enjoy doing the same thing over and over again to no apparent purpose. The stark and sometimes distressing reality is that we cannot fulfill ourselves, no matter how much we purchase, and no matter how hard we try.

In the long run, pedaling alone can’t help any more than buying a poodle or driving a Porsche. For fulfillment, we need to advertise something else entirely, though it does begin with P. So here's my slogan: Less pedaling; more prayer.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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