Monday, May 14, 2007

Flattery That Insults

One of the most annoying assumptions built into most advertising today (though obviously there is a very long list to choose from) is the belief that Americans are so brainlessly vain that they can only be reached through the most transparently ridiculous levels of flattery. The idea seems to be that we are so conceited that we will not only believe absurd expressions of praise but will lap them up happily and reward those who proffer them.

This kind of flattery is of course ubiquitous in political advertising, where every candidate of either party is virtually required to make ritual obeisances to "the American people, the most generous, courageous, freedom-loving [etc. etc.] people on earth or indeed in the entire history of the universe." This silly buttering-up of the electorate is also a regular feature of political speeches and candidate appearances, one of the more laughable recent examples being Mitt Romney's response during the first Republican debate to the question, "What do you dislike about America?": "Gosh, I love America! I think I'm going to be at a loss for words here."

(To be fair, this is a bipartisan vice. My man Jimmy Carter, though admirably honest in many ways, was a fairly egregious practitioner of this revolting art, for example in his memorable 1976 campaign slogan, "This country deserves a government as decent, compassionate, and responsible as the American people themselves.")

Just once I would enjoy hearing a candidate say, "Let's face it, we Americans have been screwing thing up royally! What the hell have we been thinking? Thank God our heads are screwed on, otherwise we'd forget them somewhere." Deep down, don't we know it's true?

In consumer advertising, of course, one of the common forms of this sucking-up to the customer is the formulation "You deserve it!" to describe everything from hair care products to a fast-food lunch to a luxury car. But a radio ad I've been hearing lately carries this to a new extreme of absurdity. It's a commercial for some kind of low-rent get-rich-quick Internet business scheme. The ad begins with the usual appeal to greed followed by the obligatory flattery: "Tired of struggling to make ends meet? Now make the kind of income you deserve!" It then goes on to describe the get-rich-quick scheme as implausibly easy: "No experience, education, or skill required! You'll have no inventory! Work a few hours a week from your home! No selling, no hard work!" etc. etc.

Taken as a whole, the message of the ad is: "You are a lazy talentless bum--and so you deserve to be rich!" Just how stupid are we in the radio audience supposed to be? (Of course, I admit I hear these ads while listening to Mike and the Mad Dog discuss sports on WFAN, so maybe I have no real reason to complain about being considered stupid . . . )

And of course ads like this wouldn't be so widely used if they didn't work--which is the really depressing fact about the state of our culture. Sigh.

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