When we examine television advertising we once again find art and technology being used to create simulations that tell stories in an effort to evoke desired reactions from audiences. But in advertising we see a strange new cultural creation: the 20-second “cinematic” production full of dancing, singing and joke-telling characters playing physicians, housewives, and used car salesmen, with ultra-abbreviated plots and quick resolutions of conflict in which the characters overcome obstacles and fulfill their desires in record time with the help of the product.
Unlike movies, which will evoke the wrath of the audience if the unfolding of the story is interrupted, in commercials there is virtually no story to interrupt. The entire commercial is a dynamic, graphic, field composed of images, music, theatrical performances, superimposed illustrations, narration, and other elements, which reinforce each other to achieve their effect. Like other complex simulations, these inventions of sound-bite television are typically made up of a great many individual forms of fakery and illusion. For example, they display products that are cosmetically altered to seem more appealing to viewers. Raw turkeys are made to look baked and delicious with food coloring. Gelatin deserts are made denser than the real thing, so they will look firm and symmetrical, while the sizzle of cooking food turns out to be a sound effect added during editing. These sensory deceptions are supplemented by exaggerated claims, to create a false identity for the product.
Commercials also include another kind of simulation in the form of digitally manipulated images, which are used to portray another realm of fantasy in which the limits imposed by the physical world no longer seem to be in effect. As a result, they are full of talking dogs, children who grow to giant size, products that zoom into space, dancing credit cards and scenes that suddenly become two-dimensional screens, which spin out of existence, creating a virtual world that surpasses anything produced by Imax or Nintendo.
Commercials take these elements — visual fantasy, deceptive images of the products, and false claims — and weave them into their various approaches. There are, perhaps, a half dozen kinds of approaches that they rely on and put together in different ways, just as the theme parks, video games, television and news fall into a few basic categories. Some present trivial product information as if it is of momentous importance. Others use glamour or sex, or they try to evoke a sense of empathy and sincerity in an effort to melt viewers emotionally into buying the product. A great many use humor to win over viewers and reduce the pretentiousness of the message, since pretending to be absurd is the best camouflage for something that really is absurd.
But the most common form, today, are commercials that convey a sense of life as celebration, full of enraptured people who can’t help but sing out because they love their Skittles or who emerge from swimming pools, all luminescent, with magnificent hair and wonderful lives, surrounded by bright colors, upbeat music and dancing friends, in which everything is in motion to convey a sense of what life can be if we buy the product. These kaleidoscope-like images of endlessly festive situations, which are the same as we saw in Disney, are a constant presence, conveying the ultimate image that consumer culture can offer of the good life as an endless party.
But whatever form they take, commercials are, ultimately, about what the product will allow consumers to achieve. If politics is about the transformation of the nation to an ideal state, then commercial advertising is about the transformation of you, the viewer, offering the promise of prestige and self-esteem, control over your life, luxury and good times, and a work-free existence. In effect, commercials try to inspire in viewers a sense that they can escape from the flawed and mundane state of everyday existence. They appeal to the same desires for freedom and perfection that Disney appeals to, turning the yearning for a better life into a tool of manipulation.
Many television commercials thus give us another variation on Umberto Eco’s absolute fakes; they are false promises that make everything seem better than it is. Like theme parks, they make mundane realities look like transcendent utopias. One might say that if Disney is a permanent world’s fair that creates fictions intended to reveal the way technology will one day free us from the constraints of life, then television advertising is a virtual world’s fair that creates fictions about how the products of technology can free us now.
Like Disney, all of these 20-second spots end up inventing a postmodern world for us. It isn’t that we live in anything that deserves to be called postmodern; it is just that the fictionalizers of American culture keep pretending we do, and inviting us to pretend along. A truly postmodern society (although I doubt it would call itself that) would be one that is able to use technology to significantly transcend the limits imposed by the physical world. We aren’t a postmodern society. We merely play one on television
Commercials create invented “worlds” based on fantasy and desire. To achieve their effects, they engage in the new production process of high-tech capitalism, which is to turn everything into an image.
This process is very evident in what happens to the actors — they are turned into simplified human images. Their role is to become characters in false utopias so they can act as living sales pitches for products.
Like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, and the workers in the movie Metropolis, they become cogs in the machine of technology. But now that machine is about etherealizing — using the appearance of actual people, objects, places and situations to create images and stories that can be sold and/or used to sell other things that are, themselves, increasingly made up of images or simulations.
This new production process and form of sales has its own forms of alienation that characterize contemporary societies. As we see in the movie The Electric Horseman, human beings who are turned into images can feel alienated from themselves and what they do since they become involved in a great deal of contrivance, manipulation, and deception. They become false selves that are carefully crafted to get us to buy the product, whether it is a consumer item, a candidate, or a way of life. Being an image-cog in a lie machine can be very alienating and more than a little degrading, whether you are a famous celebrity, suffering all the way to the bank, or a salesman living out of a suitcase. If your false role takes something essential to you and turns it into an image, it can be all the more disturbing, as in The Electric Horseman in which the rodeo champion gets turned into a cereal box cowboy. If it requires that you do something demeaning, like hang lights on your purple cowboy outfit, or play a chipmunk in Disney World, that too can obviously be a source of strain.
Of course, as the character in The Electric Horseman discovers, in the realm of images all human images are replaceable. Whatever qualities they have — fame, courage, physical attractiveness — can be got elsewhere. And it is only a matter of time before what they have to offer is replaced altogether by synthetic actors. Robots, computer-generated voices and visual images, lifelike manikins — the image world is quickly coming to ersatz life.
I don’t mean to make all that much of this — I’d rather be an actor than a factory worker and I’d rather live in a society that has the luxury of devoting many of its resources to creating images, than one stuck trying to figure out how to get coal out of the ground. And many kinds of work are repetitive and alienating. Even being an actor in a Shakespearean drama involves repetition and can involve a feeling of being lost in one’s character.
But most of today’s human images aren’t doing Shakespeare. They are doing sales-entertainment, of which commercials are an extreme version that casts light on the rest.
Audiences suffer forms of alienation, as well, as they feel increasingly trapped in a culture of con artistry in which they are surrounded by sensory images, stories, rhetoric and presentations that are intended to get them to buy something or buy into something. This culture fakes the appearance of places and people and situations, as the window dressing for fake promises and false claims. It offers sales pitches disguised to look like a new and better “postmodern” reality.
All cultures place people inside invented worlds, so that, in itself, isn’t what is new about all this. The human world is by nature full of fictionalization and metaphor and drenched in stories and metaphysical assumptions, much of it contrived by conscious and unconscious design to support the claims of those in power. But never before has a culture been scientifically invented in this way, using the tools of rationalization — including marketing studies and computers — to sell products and a way of life. These tools of rationality extract the essence of our own irrationality — our fantasies, imbued with fears and desires — and give them back to us in the form of their invented worlds.
Most viewers know it is all a manipulation, even if they don’t always reflect on what they know. But many still respond by buying the product, voting for the candidate and admiring the celebrity, as if they have been taken in by the message. It is as if the radio audience in 1938 had realized it was listening to a performance by Orson Welles but decided to panic anyway because the play was so convincing and so much fun to believe.
The Age of Simulation
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