Flaubertian copy and the Ur-idea of capitalism

Victor Ozols directed me to this 1938 article about sloganeering in the early days of mass marketing. It details the efforts of Elmer Wheeling, who invented “Tested Selling,” a quasi-scientific foray into the levers of persuasion with systematic ways to rejigger a customer’s common sense so that it embraces pitches rather than resist them, as it ordinarily would reject something so obviously biased and self-serving. One of his methods was to labor lke Flaubert in search of the perfect wording for his catch phrases, the “sizzle” that could sell the steak. This is yet another way that literary and ad-copy methods overlap; they pursue the same meticulous care with language for the same ultimate reasons, to manage the responses of readers and channel their reactions in certain narrow flues.

The cliche runs that “failed” poets become advertising copywriters, as though their poetry is ineffectual. But oftentimes, what has failed is the market for disinterested poetry, poetry that doesn’t accomplish any specific goal. Failed poets are not always bad poets. Many copywriters are exquisite poets in the service of the only industry that will reward such talents. They are akin to those journalistic acrobats who wind beautifully intricate, tightly coiled sentences aren’t such trivial topics as the latest 50 Cent album. Ours is an ends-conscious, pragmatic society, and we tend to respect discourse which has a clearly recognizable purpose. As freshman composition classes laborously teach, we can then evalulate this rhetoric on how well it accomplishes that explicit purpose. What we don’t learn is how to appreciate to ambiguous discourse, writing with no obvious and specific intention, for instance, entertainment that doesn’t telegraph the emotions it wishes to elicit from you with genre conventions or lyric poetry or exploratory essays, et cetera.

Ad copy is easy to appreciate on its own merit because its intentions are so clear and because it so eagerly panders directly to us. It is designed to make us feel like experts even as they are being persuaded to maintain our ignorance and go with our gut. It flatters us by seeking our opinion and we never reflect that we’ve been presented with loaded questions — not if but which, like Wheeler’s “One egg or two?” campaign.

But the more sinister bogus question ads invite us to answer is “How persuasive was it?” as when people watch Super Bowl ads and rate them. The illusion is that you are somehow transcending the persuasion by appreciating the commercials for their abstract efficacy or artistry, that you have put yourself on the level of the copywriter and not of the copywriter’s mark. But as the autoconfessional nature of the industry’s honchos suggests, advertisers want you to know the inner workings of their business, as they seem to feel it is intrinsically glamorous and exciting (as opposed to caustically cynical). They want your empathy in the struggle to open recalcitrant minds, so that you’ll overlook the fact that you are one of them. The more we are brought into the conference room where ad campaigns are designed, the more we will feel like soil-sports for not going along with them. Invited into the inner circle, we’ll think applying a critical eye to ads is simply an aesthetic question — how elegant, how effective is that Ford truck ad? — rather than holding on to the true standard of criticism which asks instead, How honest are this ad’s claims, and what values is it promoting in the people it addresses.

Best of all, the most critical mind might block out all questions regarding the ad, and ignore it altogether in a bravura feat of intellectual negation (as I wished I could regarding the “coldest tasting beer in the world” campaign). But, you might ask, if we are ignoring all marketing messages, might we misss the ones that are actually disseminating useful and important information? Isn’t it true that all ideas, noble ones as well as commercial ones, need a marketing push behind them to become efficacious in our culture? We’ll set aside the point that this may be so only because we have allowed ourselves to be saturated with so many attempts at persuading us that good products and important ideas have a hard time breaking through. Obviously, marketing inevitably breeds more marketing, the way highways simply make the demand for more highways that much more acute.

Of larger significance is this: Can the dubious means of marketing and PR be used to promote noble causes without tainting those causes in the process? Is a product, once advertised, corrupted by the claims made on its behalf, all the ways in which it has failed to sell itself? In other words, if you had the cure for cancer, would you need to market it? And if so, why? Can the means by which phony significance is manufactured then be employed to amplify the significance of something truly important? Marketing posits resistance, presumes skeptcism to be overcome, injects skepticism into things like the theoretical real cancer cures, where it should not be. Marketing makes it impossible to distinguish between the real cure and the patent medicine without more marketing, and that only worsens the problem.

Marketing exists to create profits, not to disseminate information. It is easy to confuse the two, because marketing uses information (or cleverly disguised pseudoinformation) to achieve its ends. But whereever a marketing campaign exists, there also exists someone who’s main goal is to make a buck. It may not even be the product’s inventor; it may just be the marketer himself; but their presence will leach away the dignity of whatever cause they’re backing. But I know, I know, I’ve got this all backwards. Profits are the only important idea, the life-sustaining ur-idea that capitalism gloriously trumpets in all its discourses, the only source of dignity, its mark and its measure. Maybe if I extend my Journal subscription, I’ll finally get that through my head.

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