Mass Moralizing

When a McDonald’s ad shows a dad and a young daughter bonding in the drive through lane, all smiles and excitement, it is claiming that eating at McDonald’s with one’s child is a way of giving to the child, perhaps repaying the child for neglect, a way to foster warm family relationships. We do not measure this claim against the real world, we measure it against our desires for this to be true, for it to be possible. (more)

That is Phil Hopkins, author of the new book Mass Moralizing. His main argument is we like to buy from producers who offer sermons with which that we want to identify, even when the connections between product and sermon are very weak. Donating to charity is pretty much the same process. More examples from the book:

In a television add for Jeep … we are shown a series of images, beginning with a close-up of a television remote, and proceeding through shots of various locations in the home, office, and gym in which some for of television is present displaying images the marketer clearly wants us to find both trivial and … representative. … “Jeep … ‘Going’ reality isn’t capture by a hidden camera. It doesn’t come in episodes either. You see, I don’t live to live through anyone, ever. So while everyone waits to see the next best `this,’ or an unbelievable ‘that,’, here’s the reality: there’s no `re-run’ when you’re living in the now. So while you tune in, I’ll be somewhere, getting out.” The final image is a white screen onto which fades a Jeep Liberty … and the words: “i live. i ride. i am. Jeep.” …

A mom and a little boy are shown eating a bowl of breakfast cereal together and the little boy asks, “Mom, did nana ever give you Cheerios when you were a little kid?” The mom responds, Yeah, she did.” The boy asks “Were Cheerios the same back then?” The mom responds … “Cheerios has pretty much been the same forever.” The boy looks contemplative for a moment, then says, “So … when we have Cheerios, it’s kind of like we’re having breakfast with Nana.” The mom … tears up at this point, and she nods and says, “Yeah.” She kisses the boy on the head and says again, “Yeah.” Then the Cheerios branded yellow appears on the screen with the single word: “Love” with a single cheerio for a period. …

The first commercial in the [Be A Pepper] campaign opens with a scene in an urban commuter rail station filmed in shades of gray with the camera focusing on one of the anonymous commuters, pausing and standing as if unsure how to proceed, and holding a Dr Pepper can (the only object with color in the scene). A modified version of the ironic Sammy Davis, Jr song, ”I Gotta Be Me,” begins playing, and the Dr Pepper commuter significantly takes a sip from the can and begins to tear off his shirt and tie, invoking the common superhero motif, revealing a red T-shirt underneath with the slogan “I’m One of a Kind.” The “hero” of our ad then begins to move through the crowd with new urgency and purposive air, again, with no clear destination signified, and an unfocused gaze. … As he passes others, they are inspired to tear off their own outer clothing to reveal different versions of the same “I am ..” T-shirts, sporting slogans that identify them by means of stereotypical categories: e.g., “Dreamer” worn by a street musician, “Cougar” worn by a somewhat older woman in tight skirt and high heels, “Fighter” worn by Paralympics athlete John McFall, … and two T-shirts with the slogan “I am One and Only” worn by identical twins jumping rope. …

Dove … let us hear Florence tell us that beauty is everything. … In allowing her to tell us this, Dove tells us this. Such a claim is not in “debate” with society’s definition of beauty. .. It doesn’t offer a counter argument. It merely encourages us to think ourselves as closer to the ideal than we currently do. … However powerful the messages, though, at best, Dove just shows us the problem, not what we can do about it, at least not directly. Its invitation to buy a bar of soap or a tube of cream in order to help make the world a better place is, unlike FEED or TOMS, clearly secondary, if not even more tertiary, and it doesn’t make it easy to see how its “giving” works. Rather, the Campaign is an explicit invitation to join a moral tribe, one that is configured almost completely on the basis of vague, if powerful, sentiments, and a general agreement with their “concern.”

It should be obvious in each of these cases that viewers are persuaded to associate products with attitudes and outcomes that have little to do with those products, in the absence of such ads.

Here someone who writes music lyrics saying something similar: logic has little to do with when we embrace the lyrics of a song:

Music and words together exist in the end in an older realm of magic and enchantment, a place where the nursery rhyme and the church hymn and the pop single all meet. They work as spells do – that is, either entirely, or not at all. We sing and the magic door swings open, or it doesn’t, and there’s no explaining it. … Music is so emotionally overwhelming that it pushes the discursive and explanatory roles of language aside – and it is part of the job of the libretto writer to get out of its way. …

Small fragments of sound and sense strike our hearts as shrapnel strikes our skin. They lodge and wound us, independent of their intended trajectory. The audience responds or it doesn’t. The audience is less like a crew of supercilious analysts and more like a magnet set to one pole or the other. … Our minds make meaning out of music by not making too much meaning out of it. One learns as a librettist to tiptoe to the edge of argument, and then back off to the limbo-land of implication and indirection. (more)

Since other people who hear the same ads and songs tend to make the same vague associations that we do from them, our instincts do help us by telling us what songs, products, charities etc. to associate with in order to make good impressions on others. (Hopkins says the same goes for stories, media articles, and school lessons, which rely on the same process). The problem is that this often has little to do with the actual affects of using products, donating to charities, etc. If you wanted to have accurate beliefs about those things, well all this should just terrify you. Unless you are some kind of alien, unmoved by what moves most folks, you have to realize that your mind isn’t at all set up to infer the true affects of using products, or donating to charities, etc. Beware, and avoid hearing the siren’s song, or the siren’s ad.

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