I used to say I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. My parents were both against it. My dad said, “Kay, you don’t want to be one of those kooky artists.” Kooky! I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that word since it came out of his mouth. My mother was more rational. “You know, if you want a job as an artist you’ll have to go into advertising. You don’t want to spend your life trying to get people to want what they don’t really need, do you?”
Of course I didn’t.
And my mother knew about advertising. Before she was married she had a job at an ad agency. It was the source of many stories. If the subject was shoes, we’d get the shoe story.
“My feet would get tired in those heels, you know, so I’d kick them off under my desk. And one of the guys—all of them were full of the dickens—went and got them when I stepped away for a minute. Did I ever tell you what they did with them?”
“They put them up on the ceiling light?”
“Yes, and they burned. The guys thought it was funny, and I had to laugh and be a good sport, but those shoes weren’t cheap.”
She also told a story about her first day on the job. I don’t remember if she wrote ad copy, but I know she was in charge of the newsletter, so her language skills were important. And she was very confident of them. (For good reason. Read on for an incredible scene I witnessed that lends credence to this.) In setting up her office, the guys told her they’d get her her own dictionary for her desk and asked her what else she needed.
“Oh, I don’t need a dictionary,” she said. They laughed, and then never stopped razzing her about it—about being a human dictionary. In telling me the story, she’d always end by saying, “Well, I’m glad I never needed one. And it’s a good thing, too. I wouldn’t have been able to admit it would have helped.”
In short, the ad agency was a crazy place to work. Fun in some ways, but you never knew when you were gonna get teased. It was challenging. She didn’t recommend advertising as a career.
I listened. I considered a number of careers, even a few different majors in college, before I found out there were other jobs you could do as an artist besides making ads. You might be an illustrator, drawing for scientific publications, maps, books, courtrooms, even hospitals. You could be a graphic designer, and design the pages of magazines, the covers of books, brochures for nonprofits and good causes. After two degrees I didn’t use, I became an artist anyway. Once in a while, I’d even do ads—local stuff, nobody big enough to be evil.
My parents moved to Tucson for their retirement, so I could visit them. Evenings they liked to watch TV, so I’d sit with them. Mostly it was Wheel of Fortune. Mom, with her English skills, was good at guessing the phrase. Of course it meant lots of commercials in between, which would send my mother into High Disgust mode. I couldn’t say at this point what specifically made her recoil—it was thirty years ago—but it would have been the usual silliness, exaggerations, half-nakedness, and loudness of the day, not unlike today’s fare. (The mute button didn’t come until later.)
One night, after a commercial break, there was an interesting new puzzle to solve:
Can you solve it? Of course not! In this game the contestants have to choose their lucky letters and watch where they appear as Vanna flips them. You can’t guess anything until that starts to happen.
But the puzzle hadn’t been on our TV screen for more than a few seconds when my mother called out, “Little Lord Fauntleroy!”
The letters fit the boxes. One by one, the revealed letters matched her solution. But none of the players named the fictional character until just two squares remained blank. I think they read “LITTLE LOR FAUNTL ROY” when someone at last guessed out loud, ‘Little Lord Fauntilly—Fauntlo Roy—Fauntittle Roy.” The player who “won” couldn’t even pronounce the name.
Didn’t my mother deserve the prize, the cash award, rather than whoever it was? Or at least a chance to compete someday, spin the wheel herself? I felt briefly obsessed with making something out of my mother’s improbable feat. But she didn’t think it was anything. The show was over, and the between-shows ads had taken over.
“Oh, who actually has a kitchen that huge!” she might have said. Or, “That woman’s supposed to be a senior, but she looks about 30, only with white hair!” Or, “I’m pretty sure using that face cream isn’t going to get me a job.”
I felt she was overreacting. Why did these things irritate her? I was thirty-something myself. I had grown up with TV, with this kind of advertising held up to me as normal. It was as much a part of life as anything else.
She had not. She had grown up on a farm without electricity, and was 38 when we got our first TV. (I was two. My word for TV was “bahchie,” due to the glittering appearances of Liberace I watched.) So she’d spent the first half of her life without a screen. To her, commercials were fresh on the scene. They were new and should be subject to critique, just like a movie that has just come out, or a recently opened museum exhibit. Whereas I saw her as out of touch, as someone who hadn’t completely adjusted to the times as I had. But she was actually in a much better position to see and evaluate what we were watching than I was. She had more insight, coming at it from a more distant, more objective, place.
Sorry, Mom. I lived and I learned that.
Because now I feel like I’m just as disgusted by ads as she was—maybe more. At least she could turn off the TV, which she watched for entertainment. But I’m on the Internet for work, communication, almost everything—have to be, more and more. Wherever I am, a popup ad will get in my way. If I’m lucky, I’ll figure out a way to close it. (These ads are so broadly hated that their inventor later apologized for inventing them.) On other sites—for me it might be an online dictionary—a frantically moving image prevents me from focusing on my task. (I still own one in book form. It’s outdated—but maybe I’ll go back to it.) Then there are advertising tricks, like the video promising “ten possessions even minimalists need” that’s actually a commercial for ten products. Or ads that are disguised as news stories. Or clickbait graphics that promise to answer a burning question but lead you instead to a bunch of advertising. Worst of all are the targeted ads, because they take advantage of information they have about a person through spying on them.
As I’m sure you’re aware, this isn’t a comprehensive list of the ways advertising has expanded and diversified—even since my mother’s win (!) on Wheel of Fortune in the eighties. I bet another form will be invented before you finish reading this.
Of course my mom was hit by ads via billboards, magazines, and radio in addition to TV commercials. But she could drive past the billboard, turn the page of the magazine. Nothing jumped out and grabbed her by the throat.
It was the content she couldn’t stand. She had a low tolerance for silliness, and there was plenty of that in TV ads. Anything too sexual was always stiffly judged. Weird, improbable animations didn’t go over well, either. (“That’s screwy!”) She hated it when loud-mouthed, obnoxious characters were featured.
When the message was “Look at this thing! Shouldn’t you have one?” she always talked back. Same thing when a luxurious car or property was presented as normal, or what everyone was aspiring to. I was going to say the active backtalk prevented her from signing on to those mandates, but I’m not sure. She was most affected by her peers—the neighbor who ran her finger over the top of the refrigerator looking for dust, or the church friend with the big house who was able to “keep it clean and still serve on all those committees!” These were in-person influences, but . . . where did those standards of cleanliness or house size come from? Maybe the past. But if there’s anything advertising does well, it’s reinforce natural social instincts and twist them for profit.
I’m not qualified to analyze how the content of ads has changed, but I’ve lived through it, and maybe you have, too. Everything becomes dated; that’s a given. Beyond that, though? Ads today look like a lot more money has been poured into them. And research. And sophistication. Obviously it’s been shown that the product doesn’t need to be front and center any more. We see happy people, elegant circumstances, thrilling technology, means to a competitive victory, or a story with the viewer cast in the lead—and as long as the product is identified in some small way—even with a tie-in to a previous ad or music—the ad will fly. Realism isn’t important; exaggeration and enhancement are. To the extent that we watch, these depictions become who we are, what society accepts, and how we define happiness.
I know I can feel as intensely disgusted as my mother if I’m watching something delicate and thoughtful, when, without warning, a loud, absurd, highly commercial commercial breaks in. (And I mean breaks. Pauses for advertising used to be created.) If you’re young enough to have grown up with all this, it probably seems normal. It likely doesn’t scare you the way it scares me, having watched it become more pervasive and monstrous over decades. Because it’s not there for us. The motivation is always profit. To get us to buy new stuff—even if it kills us as individuals or as a species.
Who are we? Who am I? Who are you?