Truth in Subvertising

Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs...There’s a flier tacked to a telephone pole on the corner of East Napa and 8th, which, at first glance appears to be notice for a lost dog. Inset over its magenta background is a smudgy mug shot of the missing mutt captioned with hand-printed stats. Upon examination, however, the flier proved quite insidious: it wasn’t about a lost dog at all, rather, it was actually a cleverly deployed advertisement for a dog spa made to look like a lost pet flier and placed strategically on a route well traveled by those taking canine constitutionals.

I suppose such is to be expected in this day and age of crass message manipulation and spin cycles so dizzying that the teacup ride at Disneyland looks stationary by comparison. Advertising and publicity, or Propaganda-Lite as it is referred to in the trade, seems to have reached new depths – if Joseph Goebbels walked into a PR firm today he’d be lucky to qualify as an intern.

“The medium is the message.” – Marshall McLuhan.

“The medium is a mess. The message needs meds.” – Luhan McMarshall.

Isn’t the lost pet flier a sacred form of cultural communiqué? Hijacking it for advertising purposes (by parroting its form and placement) diminishes it at the semiotic level. The sign will no longer signify properly and eventually become tuned out like all the other white noise called advertising. This can be dangerous – first it’s your dog, then it’s your kid on the back of the milk carton. What happens when safety officials post signs that flash “Evacuate!” and everyone ignores them because they think it’s an ad for an online vacuum cleaner?

The ad glut is a stellar example of diminishing returns: the more we hear, the less we listen; the more razzle-dazzle designed to catch our eye, the less we see. This probably accounts for the proliferation of these little message-mines disguised as lost pet fliers, slipped into fortune cookies, popping up like dire computer messages or graffitied on bathroom walls. No, seriously, you ever hear of “street teams?” Once a grass roots means of getting the word out (about, say, your band’s gig at Café Shrag), the concept has been adapted by ad firms who hire vandals to spray advertising on sidewalks and building sides, often with the aid of a stencil. A stencil? That’s the graffiti world equivalent of a clip-on tie.

I have a showbiz friend who annually fabricates one of those “Best Superbowl Commercials Ever” shows, a slapdash compilation of television commercials created for the sole purpose of selling more television commercials. When she asked her employers “What’s the point of that?” they replied “People watch the SuperBowl for the commercials.”

She writes: “The saddest thing about the commercial show is that viewers love it. It gets top ratings for the night even in the most difficult demos every year. It may be lame that the show is all about ‘advertising advertisements,’ but the fact is that it exists because the ‘hoo-hahs’ in middle America demand it and eat that shit up along with their lite-beer and Extreme Pringles. I don’t blame the evil corporations, I blame the dollars in the hands of idiots.”

And there it is, but do the hoo-hahs demand it or are they coaxed into believing they demand it?

As E.B White wrote in his 1936 New Yorker essay Truth in Advertising: “Advertisers are the interpreters of our dreams—Joseph interpreting for Pharaoh. Like the movies, they infect the routine futility of our days with purposeful adventure. Their weapons are our weaknesses: fear, ambition, illness, pride, selfishness, desire, ignorance. And these weapons must be kept as bright as a sword.”

Well, that bright sword has been used to lobotomize society. If you think I’m wrong, we can chew it over at the dog spa.

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