SIN OF THE MONTH: Advertising


Many years ago, my ex-husband, who teaches philosophy, often performed a useful mental exercise: he would examine something very ordinary that we do here on earth from the point of view of a Martian. For example, you could be riding the bus and he would start talking about how odd it was to pack a bunch of earthlings into a moving container and then disgorge them periodically. At the time, I would have been likely to respond, dude, it’s just a bus.

But in retrospect, I find I have accidentally maintained his habit of looking at things that way, often when I wish I hadn’t. Now, when Dancing with the Stars is suddenly interrupted by seven commercials, I find myself thinking, Martian-like, “The earthlings watch hundreds of hours of beautiful films about food. No wonder they are portly! Don’t they realize they are being programmed to eat voraciously?” Then I shake my head and sigh, “Ah, the poor human beings,” which my husband (the present one—there is no way to say that without making him sound temporary, which he is not) tells me is a Swedish expression. He used to be a Volvo mechanic, so he knows.

Indeed, we earthlings are subjected to a constant barrage of blandishments to which we like to think we are immune. Stand on a corner of any city in America, or possibly the world, and a stream of buses will pass you with colorful ads on their enormous sides. Roads are lined with billboards; delivery vehicles bear logos and phone numbers; and in Ellicott City, where I live, a sad young man stands in front of what used to be my husband’s theater, wearing a sandwich board that says, “Cash for Gold.”

My fellow humans, this is just weird. Imagine you are a cow. Basically, all you need to survive is a pasture, some grass, and a cocktail of bovine hormones. Okay, kidding about that last bit. What if a bunch of jackals hung out in the pasture with you, urging you to consume foods that weren’t good for you, to spend your cow-money on items you didn’t need, and to wear fancy cow clothes—actually, the clothes would be adorable. At best, you would be confused. At worst, you would be a fat, broke, fashion-forward cow.

I was thinking about this as I read a magazine on an airplane recently, having walked to my gate past unremitting signage flogging various airlines and said a firm “no” to someone who wanted me to open a credit card in exchange for miles. When I opened the magazine, I could not find any actual text: all I saw were pages of beautiful young people flaunting their transient youth in a variety of odd-looking outfits. I searched for the table of contents and finally located it amid the sea of glossy photos. Such is the fate of text in our age.

I have not always been repelled by advertising. When I was a child and my father was watching football, I lived for the moments when Hamm’s beer commercials would come on so I could see their cartoon bear and hear the haunting Hamm’s refrain, “From the land of sky-blue waters.” I loved that bear and consequently, always had a soft spot for Hamm’s beer. Imagine how disappointed I was when I finally snuck a taste of it and found it tasted like club soda mixed with pee.

My father’s best friend was in advertising, and he made it seem very glamorous. Hal was one of those charismatic, smart ad people immortalized on the show Mad Men—he had a Master’s in Classics—and was responsible for several huge, memorable campaigns. My favorite was the one for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes with Homer and Jethro telling corny jokes and saying, “Ooh, that’s corny—corny as Kellogg’s Corn Flakes!” At Hal’s memorial service a few years ago, a reel of his commercials was shown, and I have to say they truly struck me as art, even the one for dog food.

One of the problems with the advertising industry is that for years, it was the only place smart, creative people could make any money. Nowadays, smart, creative people can’t make money anywhere, but back in the day, Madison Avenue was a magnet for wordsmiths, and I have to admit that Hal once very kindly gave me a “copy test” so I could try out for his agency. I must have bombed the test, because he never mentioned it again, and perhaps it is my lack of aptitude for the business that has led me to regard it with such bemusement.

Because I am so puzzled by advertising, and by the fact that we have allowed it to form the essential fabric of our culture while it appears barely to register, like a punch to the kidneys that doesn’t leave a bruise, I find myself in an odd position now as a writer for The Voice. Because if The Voice does not run advertisements, it will die. There really is no other economic model for media, as the The New York Times found out a few years ago when it started charging for online subscriptions and may perhaps find out again now that it has gone back to charging for online subscriptions.

In fact, it turns out, there is no other economic model for anything. Advertising is what drives our economy. To pursue the American dream, I am free to open a shop that sells shoelaces or neckties, but if I don’t buy advertising somewhere, no one will know where my shop is (since suburban geography turns every trip somewhere new into a magical mystery tour) and I will soon go out of business. And frankly, the shoelace/necktie biz isn’t what it used to be.

Last month, I asked Voice readers to follow me on Twitter. I would like to thank everyone who did so: thanks, Bill! What I didn’t realize when I wrote last month’s column is that requesting followers is inherently seen as “desperate”: this even happened to Oprah, who was forced to issue an apology after a particularly desperate tweet []

So I will not make that mistake again by asking you to support The Voice by buying advertising. In retrospect, that would be kind of like a commercial, really, wouldn’t it, and I am not good at anything to do with commerce. However, my son, who is really good at that kind of thing, has often told me you can sell anything if you truly believe it’s great.

And I do truly believe The Voice is great. In an era in which papers are increasingly run by national chains, The Voice is a genuinely independent voice of its community. There is nothing else like it.

Let me end with a blandishment, or if you prefer, a commercial. A bunch of cool young people are sitting in a bar, reading newspapers. Close-up: each person is reading The Voice! Someone enters the bar, carrying a newspaper. It’s the Washington Post. All the cool young people look at the newcomer, burst out laughing, then pick up their copies of The Voice and continue reading. Voiceover: “The Voice. It’s cool. If you read it, you will be cool, too. We’re not desperate, and we don’t care if you read us or not.”

Ah, the poor human beings.

You can follow Abby Bardi on Twitter @Sinofthemonth. If you want to. No pressure.

About the Author

Abby Bardi
Takoma Park expatriate Abby Bardi explores the wickedness of modern life in her Voice column, "Sin of the Month." Born and raised in Chicago, Abby has worked as a singing waitress in Washington, D.C., an English teacher in Japan and England, a performer on England’s country and western circuit, and, most recently, as a professor at Prince George’s Community College. Author of "The Book of Fred," (Washington Square Press: Simon & Schuster 2001), she is married with two children and lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.

2 Comments on "SIN OF THE MONTH: Advertising"

  1. You are SUCH a good writer and funny and smart! I didn’t know about your tweeting but I will sign up today.

  2. Karen Semple | April 28, 2012 at 7:02 pm |

    I’m so sorry I don’t tweet! I had completely forgotten about the Martians -thank you for the reminder. It’s a useful tool to get/keep things in perspective…

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