Play dumb

It seems to me that the appropriate response to ads that wink at you with knowingness, expecting you to applaud yourself for being either smarter than the ad itself, or in on the joke the ad’ s positing as a semi-secret, or for being more priveleged than some other part of the population is to play dumb. On the BQE there’s a billboard I simply don’t understand. It reads: HUMMER. THE NEW SUT. If I started to think about it, I could probably figure it out; but then I’ve wasted valuable time thinking about Hummers, and not thinking about how every moron who drives one should be forced to spend a few months working on an oil rig. The seduction method of this ad is to encourage you to figure it out, and then applaud yourself for being so smart, and then associate that self-satisfied feeling with the product itself, that hulking gas-guzzling metaphor for personal superiority. So I try to play dumb with ads. And I feel I’ve mounted a successful resistance every time an ad forces its way in to my conciousness and I am able to say “I don’t get it” to myself and seal it out my mind again.

The same thing goes for ironic ads. When I take these with a stubborn literalness, I feel as though I have warded them off. Those ads that narrate the mundane achievements of someone as though they are heroic accomplishments, I try to think to myself, these aren’t achevements. This praise is absurd, and the people praising him should be ashamed. When an ad is absurd, the reponse shouldn’t be knowing laughter — oh, haha, we all know ads are silly; they’re fun! — it should be uncomprehending disgust: the people in this ad are acting idiotically, in a way that would make me ashamed if they were friends of mine. That car can’t be on that mountain, there’s no road there, and not enough clearance under the vehicle. These ad makers are liars.

A letter from one of the readers of the magazine I work at captures the spirit perfectly. He complains that the editors can’t possibly know “the best new restaurants in America,” because they haven’t been to every single new restaurant. So their claim is meaningless, possibly fatuous. So maybe he doesn’t understand superlatives, hyperbole — but maybe he understands it perfectly, and is holding the magazine accountable for its use of language. He’s taking a fundamentalist view of language; people should mean what they say and should be expected to have what they say taken literally. This is a foolproof way to be resistant to ad copy, which is where all poetic devices have gone to die.

This kind of stubborn literalism is forced upon us by ads that want to use our intelligence against us. The problem is we may then carry this kind of willed ignorance into other spheres, like our responsibliites as a citizen in a democracy. Then catastrophes like the 2004 US presidential election can occur.

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