Sept. 27, 2004
#1: "The Public Mind"
In “The Public Mind,” Bill Moyers said: “Our own willingness to face society has been deeply affected by the triumph of the visual image as the grammar of the times.” When we’re constantly being bombarded with pictures without substance, and lies but little truth, do we know when we’re being toyed with?
First, Moyers told us about being a culture that values the image over reality. Advertisers know that, to attract people to your product, appeal to the emotions. If something looks good or makes us feel good, we’ll probably buy into it. We’re supposed to associate products with the feeling they’re showing.
Then Moyers extends his point to politics: selling hollow symbols rather than focusing on the relevant topics. He said, “It’s not the state of our nation, it’s our emotional state.” Both advertisers and politicians use polls and research to find out our opinions. They do it so that they can then appear to share our feelings—they don’t address problems, but make us “feel good.”
Next, the visual image was discussed—how it affects news and politics. The media’s only interested in political stories if they have entertainment value. So politicians replace real content with embedded messages and soft images, which really say and mean nothing. And language is reduced to meaningless buzzwords and sound bytes.
The final segment talks more broadly about lying and why it’s done at all. We all have to feel loved; that we have a place in the world, and we’re afraid that admitting the truth will cost us that sense of belonging—so we believe in lies so strongly that we confuse them for truth. Moyers warns us that the worst thing we can do is deceive ourselves; look at events like Vietnam and the Challenger. Honesty may be painful, but denying truth and distorting reality comes at a much harsher price.
A shared quality in all of the above is how we are fed a distorted version of reality that is all about feelings but not thoughts. Almost 30 years ago, Marshall McLuhan, one of the founders of modern media studies, said of advertising: “So pervasive are they in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected or unaltered.”
What Moyers called the “rhetoric of emotion,” or the lack of meaningful content, is the language of advertising, and he warns that if it is so powerful just in a commercial, it is only so much more dangerous in politics. Even in just the advertising world, emotions are exploited to sell us a product—or at least the immaterial emotion they attach to it. Bush Sr. talking about flag sales increasing, Reagan popping jelly beans, Mom and daughter playing dress-up … we like to see scenes of love and family. Persuade by reason, motivate by emotion. In a way, these also all appeal to the fundamental drive for love and acceptance.
One popular psychological tactic in ads is using feelings of family and sentimentality. Look at this ad from Splenda, with the little girl in the kitchen, messily eating frosting from a mixing bowl blender. Also look at this ad from Pergo, two little girls who just got out of the bathtub. These ads use visual imagery, but as symbols. The ad’s designers don’t expect us to believe that a tender moment is going to come from a sweetener packet or laminate flooring. But it was part of the moment, they say. The first story implies that Mom used Splenda in her mix and spent some quality time cooking with her little girl. Pergo’s story is that the girls are toweling off and getting the floor all wet.
These products don’t represent feelings themselves, but the girl in the kitchen and the girls near the bathtub are meant to. “Splenda and spice and everything nice” is a take on the old phrase about what little girls are made of. The caption on the flooring ad reads “Why can’t every room be a living room?” The girls are the focus because of their bright towels and because they’re doing something cute. The real message is that in normal bathrooms, the floor would be an absolute mess, but Pergo is water-resistant so it’s great for kids being messy. The caption implies the underlying message: more Pergo equals more antics for the parents to enjoy (without having to do a lot of clean-up). More “kids being kids,” more fond memories. By the way, the red ball in the bottom-left corner didn’t just happen to be where it is: It draws the eye back to the caption so it doesn’t get overlooked.
These products use association—they want you to believe that there’s a connection between the product being shown and the feeling it’s showing. Whether or not the information given is accurate doesn’t really matter. The image is the focus; the selling point.
Lastly, here’s an ad from Jeld-Wen windows and doors. The grayscale coloring of the scene does two things: It makes the much smaller images of the doors and windows pop out a little bit, and more importantly, it makes the scene look quiet and peaceful. Mom and son are reading together on a cushioned bench in front of some Jeld-Wen windows. The key to understanding this ad is the little “to-do list” timeline at the top: “promised to spend more time with him,” “wanted to create moments of togetherness,” “Jeld-Wen bay windows inspire family time” and finally “promise kept.” The implied message is very clear—Mom wanted to spend more quality time with her son, and by installing Jeld-Wens, she has somehow kept her promise. There’s no real relationship between the windows and anything else. The two could be reading together in the hall closet and be spending quality time there! Where you sit doesn’t matter, but this ad may think that mothers will buy Jeld-Wen on the grounds that it’ll make up for lost time, or maybe even make them better mothers.
There are other kinds of ads, of course. Look at this one: “Reality. What a letdown.” It says outright: TV equals escapism. Some appeal to vanity and tell us that their product is what we deserve; we’re worth it. Many ads imply we’re not good enough by showing us things we don’t have or someone who looks better than us—that plays on insecurities and lets us convince ourselves we’re not good enough. Then the product looks like the cure-all to get past our inadequacies. The point is, regardless of what kind of ad we’re looking at, it always has some psychology at work. The ones I’ve shown sell us images not of something suggesting sex, but of love, family and kids acting cute, meaning it’s targeted mainly at middle-class parents. But the ads are not what they seem. The images are extracted from focus groups; from the consumer’s mind. The people behind them know that an image is worth a thousand words.
McLuhan said that “the media work us over completely.” Advertising is, by its very nature, manipulative, since it tries to convince us to act, feel or buy a certain something. If we don’t like reality as we’re seeing it, illusion seems an easy way out, but we miss a lot, including things that really are truthful. If we’re disillusioned with a product, we’re out a few bucks. If we’re disillusioned with a politician, we’re out millions… or even lives. And all because truth was sold out for a psychological trick disguised as an innocent photograph.