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From the vault

I have no idea when (mid-'80s?) or why I wrote this. Was it published? My Social Security number was on the cover page. I'd certainly edit it if I were sending it out now but it's got its moments. And its lapses! I either lost interest at the end or couldn't figure out how to get out of it. VCRs!



The World (of Advertising) 


I think of myself as immune to advertising.

      In fact, I pride myself on being immune to advertising.

      Is it true? Is it possible?

      If not, what can catch me?

      Have I always been immune or did it start with Watergate? Our parents didn't believe was was obvious to us instantly — who else but the Republicans would have any reason to break into Democratic headquarters? We were a generation that early on got used to being lied to. We expect it. We factor it in when we cruise through the ads. Never lower! Never brighter! Never better! New! Improved! Smoother! Cheaper! Whiter! Fresh! ... Bullshit!

      You'd think advertisers would play to that skeptical or rebellious streak. Sort of "anti-advertising": "You're too smart to fall for the usual line, so listen to us." Is everything advertising? What is a wedding ring advertising? A May Day parade in Red Square? America? Art? What about those young novelists better known for what they drink than what they write? Maybe we all think of ourselves as exempt. As someone recently said you can only be affected by what you want anyway.

      It wasn't always this way. Once upon a time, when I was six or eight, I craved a hula hoop. I wanted to stand out in on the driveway and spin as wild as a comet. I have never desired anything quite so piercingly. How did I know to want this? And how readily it was granted. The ad delivered. For of course, my longing sprang from some clever inventor, rolled along to the adman, arriving by way of the Sunday papers in South Dakota, the end of the civilized world, originator of no fad, follower of the few that even arrive before they're passé. If it can make it there, it's already made it everywhere…

      But now we're post-Watergate. I'm inoculated. Immune. Don't think I don't know that the point is't so much to get me to buy any one thing, but to make me a consumer, someone who buys. Tote up everything you've bought in the last decade ("couldn't live without") that didn't even exist 10 years before that (CD player, Nintendo, Walkmate, VCR, microwave, answering machine).

      I know people who buy anything and everything as long as it's NEW. They think newness is what makes it great. It's hip, it's hop, the past has nothing to do with them. My neighbor went on a tour of London. Wow, she said, London is really historic — we saw the original Hard Rock Café! If you have no sense of history how can you not be buffeted by each little wind of suggestion, scandal or surmise?

      But wait a minute. Some kind of selling is doing its job. No one laughs at me on the street because of how I'm dressed. I look like everyone else, more or less.Where do I get a fashion sense from? My culture? I can't help but be part of it… I Am An American… It seeps in from some cosmic fashion gene… I know I dress like people who do study the fashion mags and ads. Who wants to wear the same rags every day? Is it a coincidence that what I think looks cute is also what's au courant?

      It isn't TV that sucks me in, that's for sure. I don't even own one, and I watch elsewhere rarely. And yet I'm aware of almost every popular show. It trickles down from somewhere.

      I listen to the ballgame on the radio every night all summer long. The same commercials play over and  over. I know they're for cars and beer, but boy, I couldn't tell you which car, which beer. Who sponsors my team? Is advertising working? What do they want from me?

      There's a story by Ron Hansen in his collection Nebraska that describes the "Ben Franklin close," in which the salesman lists a dozen reasons for the purchase and lets the buyer list the cons, usually two or three. Then the salesman says, What would Ben Franklin do now? What would the logical man do now? And the only response that keeps you from driving away in a new Ford that'll eat up the road is to say, "I just don't feel like it."

      Would I vote for Candidate A when I intended Candidate B because A's commercials are better? Or would it be because her ads reveal only that I agree more with her after all? Could B's ads be so cleverly written or presented that I find myself agreeing with her despite myself? Are we talking hypnosis here? Or merely flatulent puffery?

      A friend, an artist, once mentioned that she considered me the least visually oriented perseon she know. That reminded me of poring over a large, beautiful volume of Georgia O'Keeffe watercolors, with snippets of autobiography running alongside. I soon found myself reading about her life and barely glancing at the pictures.

      I can't be sold by visuals. I just can't. But obviously I fall into line like anyone else. Advertising works after all, just not the way I'd thought.

      Words are more picturesque, more convincing and commanding any day. I believe what I hear not what I see. Pictures lie and words don't. My traveling shoes tingle over a paragraph about raw Detroit sooner than a lush photo of Bali. Maybe that's why I like the unphotogenic prairie, about which there is much to say, best of all landscapes.


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