Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Contrarian View

For this paper I was required to simply summarize an article with the implication that I was required to agree with it. However, I was unable to agree with the article because I felt the author used incredibly poor logic. So, I wrote my paper explaining exactly why I thought the author was wrong and how easy it was to prove my point. I got a D for the paper and the teacher wrote a note that my argument was fallacious, simply because she disagreed with it. I didn't have the heart to explain to her that "fallacious" means that poor logic was used in an argument, it does not mean simply that you think a statement is false.

A Contrarian View
by Grant S. Robertson
Written June, 2009
In Jack Solomon's 1988 article “Masters of Desire” his primary thesis, as laid out in the first few paragraphs, is that the American populace is consumed by two paradoxical desires: The desire to belong to a group and the desire to rise above the crowd. Further, he contends that all advertising exploits one or both of these desires. “…advertisements are designed to exploit the discontentments fostered by the American dream, …" (161). He does not seem to allow for any other method of advertising. Unfortunately, many readers may jump on this bandwagon of overgeneralization due, in part, to the way in which Solomon portrays his opinions as scientific fact. While there are surely many advertisements that exploit one or both of these stereotypical American desires, there are many more that do not. And to claim with scientific certainty, using only anecdotal evidence, that all ads follow his model and all Americans fall for it is a disservice to his readers. Fortunately one does not need to look far for evidence disproving Solomon’s thesis. Some may need look no further than the top of their toilet tank. His own article even provides ample evidence to disprove his theory.
It is clear Mr. Solomon firmly believes that all Americans and all advertising directed at them fit his model by what he says. “We Americans dream of rising above the crowd, of attaining a social summit beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.” (161). Notice he says, "We Americans …" not "Some Americans …" Also, “The American dream, in other words, has two faces: the one communally egalitarian and the other competitively elitist.” (161). He believes there are only two faces, no more. It's as I often say, "There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who think there are only two kinds of people, and those of us who know better." He further claims that “…advertisements are designed to exploit the discontentments fostered by the American dream,…” (161) leaving no room for any other form of marketing.
One could argue that writers in the fields of English and Literature are given license to 'state their opinions as fact' because most works can be nothing more than opinion. However, for the purposes of his article, Mr. Solomon claims to be a “semiotician” (161) in addition to being an English professor. According to Eugene Gorny of the University of London, "Semiotics is a science of signs and/or sign systems (Gorny para. #3)." When he claims he can “…plot the precise state of desire…” (161) and to be providing “…a representative sample of ads…” (161), Solomon is reinforcing the implication that what follows is a scientific analysis.
Some of the advertising strategies cited by Solomon include: using special paper (161-162), Italian design (162), status symbols (162), and body language (163) to connote exclusivity. As well as using “such common icons as country music, small-town life, family picnics, and farmyards.” (163), symbols of “backwoods independence” (163), signs “…of America ’s populist tradition.” (163), “…patriotic iconography…” (164), “…groups of hip and happy adolescents singing, dancing, and cavorting together.” (165), and fear of or guilt over not belonging (168) all to exploit our need to belong.
One human desire not found anywhere in his list is the desire for convenience. However, it is incredibly easy to find dozens of ads marketing to that desire while making no references whatsoever to desires for belonging or exclusivity. For lack of space we will have to make do with only three.
First, there is a Visa ad for their automatic bill payment service. Set in a neat entry way or living room with hardwood floors, the edge of a Persian style rug showing, and a white entry door with brass mail slot. In the far corner sits a large terra cotta pot used as an umbrella stand with one leg of a wooden table showing next to it. Front and center, contrasting all this neatness, is a scruffy little dog busily chewing up the mail. The only legible letter is a phone bill with the stamp torn off of the corner. This stamp appears to have been photoshopped in to make it more apparent. A text box, stuck like a label, above the dog reads, "Man’s best friend, another reason to pay bills automatically with your Visa card.” The text at the bottom describes the convenience of paying bills automatically (Visa).
Second, is an ad for Cialis erectile dysfunction medication. Depicted in the photo is a middle aged couple in a pool. Only shown from shoulders up, she is wearing a modest swimsuit with no visible cleavage. They are embracing and about to kiss. She has a nice, content, happy smile and is wearing earrings, but it is impossible to determine their quality or value. One interesting point is that she seems to be holding her left hand in a slightly unnatural position showing the viewer that she is wearing a wedding ring. Semiotically, this could indicate a desire to assure the public that they are married. Cialis is trying hard to avoid any appearance that their product is for recreational use for casual sex. The pool is very nondescript with the edge barely visible and out of focus near the top of the photograph. There is no way to tell for sure if this is their private pool or one in their apartment complex. Text overlaying the bottom of the photo stresses the convenience of being able to ‘respond’ at any time during a 36 hour period. The bottom third of the page is just a list of side effects and other legally required information (Cialis).
Finally, there is the Rosetta Stone ad for language training on CD-ROM. With no photograph, the ad is mostly text with two illustrations. Against a solid yellow background, the primary illustration is a 'silhouette' of an airplane but instead of all black the space is filled in with the word 'Avion' repeated over and over in different sizes and juxtapositions. To the lower left it is labeled "Avion French for airplane" illustrating how pictures are used creatively to enhance learning. The smaller illustration is a simple line drawing of a laptop with 2 speakers attached and a CD-ROM sticking out the side. This just shows how little equipment is required to use the product. Text across the top lists the available languages while text at the bottom describes the product’s ease of use and purchasing options. There is no mention of exotic locales or even why one would desire to learn a new language (Rosetta Stone).
A semiotic analysis of these ads reveals, primarily, that people like convenience. At least Scientific American readers do. People also don't like inconvenience. If they do have to be reminded of inconveniences they prefer it be done in a light-hearted manner. Visa appears to assume that most people think scruffy little dogs are cute. We can tell by the copy that Visa assumes everyone already has a Visa credit or debit card. The Photoshopped flag stamp may be subliminally appealing to recent patriotic fervor (Visa).
The Cialis ad reminds us that people don't want to have to plan a specific time to have sex. The prominently displayed wedding ring is just a simple band. This could indicate an average couple. More likely it is simply to make it clear that it is a wedding band and not merely a fancy ring. This reflects the recent trend towards a greater emphasis on ‘family values’. When it comes to medications people obviously prefer clearly stated facts rather than hype. A very interesting and subtle sign is the logo which features a yellow oval that appears to approximate the normal shape and position of a testicle hanging in the scrotum. It is being cradled by a stylized ‘C’. This may be intended as a subliminal message that the man's testicles or even his manhood will not be harmed. On the other hand it could just be case of reading way too much into things (Cialis).
Again, the Rosetta Stone ad reminds us that people like convenience, simplicity, and they like things to be easy rather than difficult. When will that ever not be a part of our culture, semiotic signs or not? People also like to buy products that are trusted by many others and they like varied purchase options (Rosetta Stone).
There are many ‘signs’ that riders of Solomon’s bandwagon may pick up on and misconstrue. For instance, they may say that nice accoutrements indicate wealth the viewer may aspire to. However, not enough is shown in either the Visa or Cialis ads to indicate wealth or commonality with any certainty. Other possible misinterpretations include: “Visa’s neat room (except for the mail) indicates that everyone desires a neat ordered life in this chaotic world.”; “Scruffy dogs are a symbol of the everyman!”; “Scruffy little dogs are popular with the elite, wealthy crowd.”; “No one ever wants to have sex before midnight on Friday night.”; “Mr. & Mrs. Cialis is a wealthy couple in their own private pool, something all Americans aspire to.”; “The Rosetta Stone airplane is taking off to an exotic destination where only elite can go.”; “Everyone likes to travel, thus one won’t belong if one doesn't learn a second language.” Their bandwagon would be terribly unstable, though, because these ads contain no real signs to indicate any of these types of interpretations.
For contrarians, the wonderful thing about Jack Solomon’s article is that he does such a great job of disproving his own thesis. In fact approximately the last two thirds of the article does just that. Take his entire discussion of McDonalds ads. He claims they sell fantasy (165). Funny, that doesn't seem to be belonging or exclusivity. Nor does using sex to sell (166). People want to be cars and robots (166-167)? Aside from disproving his thesis, it is utterly ludicrous. Then there is the fear of a disappointing loss or of loosing one’s retirement (169). Again, having nothing to do with belonging or elitism. Finally, in his discussion of the ‘New Realism’ (169), at least he is willing to admit that it is just his opinion but he doesn’t seem to realize that his opinion is different from his thesis. Maybe by this point he had simply forgotten what his thesis was.
If you're going to put on scientific airs then you should adhere to scientific standards of proof. Picking and choosing anecdotal evidence just doesn't cut it. It’s been said, “You can’t prove a negative.” But it’s easy when the negative you are proving is that someone's over generalized thesis is just plain wrong. Perhaps Solomon is simply a bad writer. Perhaps he skipped the real introduction and the first few paragraphs were only an intro to the first section of a general expose. It’s hard to say. But what is certain is that American culture is more diverse than any black/white model anyone could ever dream up, regardless of how learned they may be.

Works Cited
Cialis erectile dysfunction medication. Advertisement. Scientific American March 2005: 13
Gorny, Eugene. "What is semiotics?". (1994) 42 paragraphs. 6/15/2005 <>
Rosetta Stone language learning software. Advertisement. Scientific American March 2005: 103
Solomon, Jack. “Masters of Desire: The Culture of American Advertising.” Signs of Life in the USA : Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. 4th ed. Ed. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 160-171
Visa bill payment service. Advertisement. Scientific American March 2005: 9

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

1 comment:

  1. Over generalization of any culture can be dangerous and even insulting to the culture being generalized. Solomon was just talking about advertizing to the American population but when we generalize about all Iranians or American Indians or even white Anglo Saxon middle class men we run the risk of making huge mistakes that can cost us a job, respect, or even our lives.