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My folks and I recently argued (in a friendly way) over whether Progressive’s “snapshot” is an actual thing you can hold or simply a service they offer. My parents said it was just a part of a policy—an abstraction. But the commercials show this dongle-like plug-in that keeps track of the insured’s driving habits. I contended that the snapshot was actually a good, and that it would be false advertising to show a good, while it was simply a service they offered. Well, we were both right, depending on how you view the thing—that an insurance company would actually sell something you can hold is novel enough.

This device isn’t peculiar to Progressive—other insurance companies have their own answers to it. I was confirmed in my suspicions that they were not, in fact, falsely advertising a good for a service—at least, not in legalistic sense. But the general impression that the commercial creates associates Progressive with other hard work, the results of which are the production of goods.

Progressive recently rolled out a commercial that showed aprons, accompanied by a piano ditty that would fit nicely along any Spielbergesque tearjerking scene. They show a procession of aprons in various settings: Hanging outside a barn, in a restaurant kitchen, in a forge, in a luthier’s shop, hung on a vineyard hand(?), working at sunrise in Winecountry, etc. All who would wear these aprons make goods or creatively shape them into goods—and they tend to work for small businesses to boot. The commercial wants you to conflate these notions of goods and services, with the added insinuation of being friendly like a small, mom-and-pop business.

An insurance company doesn’t really do that, and they aren’t really a small business. Sure, they commissioned these dongles from somewhere in East Asia. They give you this dongle so they can spy on your driving via your car’s digitized brain, and the insurance company adjusts the meter on your risk quotient accordingly. You drive well, you can save money. Seems like a good enough idea; but we might as well ask whether the government’s surveillance programs will get us to behave better. (After all, if you’re late for work, or up to no good, you can always unplug the snapshot.)

Anyway, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that this program will lead to better driving, which would be good. But is it really honest to associate this dongle and apron thing with hard work that produces goods? How a car insurance company functions is a hybrid between a bank and a credit rating agency (and indeed, failed company AIG was a default insurance company). Instead of assessing lending risk and accordingly adjusting interest rates—the costs of having money to use—a car insurance company assesses the risk of you driving a car and adjusts your premiums accordingly. They don’t make anything. Like a bank, they sit on a pile of money paid in by members, and dole it out to garages and customers who need it while raising their premiums. They take their profits and invest them in other corners of the FIRE sector. They employ a workforce that produces affects in weary and traumatized customers, but that workforce doesn’t wear aprons. Then there are the agents who assesses the damage, but they don’t wear an apron, either. They are photographers who, along with the mechanic, settle on a price to fix your car.

The Asian people who build those snapshot dongles probably do wear some sort of apron. But they don’t really work for Progressive.

The snapshot they make jots down your speed and distance covered. With that information, someone interested enough can typically gather where you’ve traveled. Depending on your habits, that may or may not bother you, but it’s safe to assume that the data mined from your car’s brain could wind up on some bureaucrat’s computer screen without the courts batting their eyelashes. Just saying.

Again, though, the dishonesty is in the symbolism of the apron, worn by Flo, who sells boxes of insurance, bundled as if they were a cords of wood. It suggests they produce something of value to the economy. In reality, they are a just one of many snakes on the head of the FIRE-hydra that suck the life out of people. Part of the cost of being alive, I guess, is overpaying somebody to fix our cars when the proverbial turd hits the radiator fan.

Now, these body shops also overestimate the cost of making a car roadworthy. Typically, half the repair costs go into getting it up to code again, and the other half in making the car look pretty—e.g. repainting the whole thing so the new paneling fades out at the same rate as the old. (If this is actually a serious concern of yours, then our schools have failed to interest you in anything of substance. You are a sad, shallow, pathetic person and I pity you.) So you pay a lot of superfluous costs. “Totaling” implies a whole loss of an automobile, but an insurance company totals a car out at 75% of its value, because it often would cost them a lot just to put you in a rental car while your car is being repaired. So a totaled car doesn’t have to resemble a squashed aluminum can—it often doesn’t need to have much damage at all to be “totaled.” Mechanics overshoot their estimates (not judging—they still gotta eat), the insurance companies overpay, and then extract their repayment from your future insurance premiums, while giving car companies another sale.

Which brings me to a curious phenomenon: A great many people believe that, when it costs more to repair their cars than the Bluebook value of the cars, it must be time to buy a new car. People advise this to others when no insurance company is involved—say, when you forget to put oil in your engine and it seizes up and throws a rod. It’s a mantra that repetition has validated, I suppose, but I’m not sure why people blithely throw out this advice. You may or may not want to fix your old car; but for the price of fixing it in a “totaled” scenario, you’re not going to be able to buy a new car. You can buy a used car or lease one, but you’re not going to have a car in perfect condition. If you lease a car, then you’ll never own it. If you’re not familiar with cars, you’ll be taking whatever the salesman or mechanic says about your new car on faith, and not by sight. In fact, they’re banking on you not knowing much about cars. Your ignorance keeps the economy going strong.

If you own a real lemon, then it’s probably time to buy something that doesn’t break down all the time. But broadly applying an insurance coverage principle to everyday car repair confuses yourself with a company that’s trying to make money off of you. For instance, nobody will pay you premiums for insuring your own car. You have no extraneous income or money pool to draw upon, other than a loan from a bank. So don’t mistake their situation with yours. And while you’re at it, don’t mistake a FIRE company for a farm, a vineyard, a forge, a flower shop, a luthier, or a moped designer. If you regard them as akin to any profession, regard them as a bank that employs ex-mechanics as photographers, and machines that take snapshots of your driving.

Frankly, I prefer the insurance commercials that employ talking animals.

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In honor of the Superbowl, I’m going to talk about commercials. A particular series from the Discover It Card has been appearing on the boob tube for over a year now, with the slogan, “We treat you like you’d treat you.” I’m sure many of you readers have seen them. I’ve probably seen them about ten thousand times watching hockey games.

They advertise late-payment forgiveness and credit monitoring services, claiming the Golden Rule¹ for their trademarked slogan. Seems mighty magnanimous, doesn’t it? But Beelzebub is in the background….

These services are probably not all that helpful, contrary to some opinions.  For late-payment forgiveness, they grant you a one-time fee cancelation. Then it costs $35 for every other late payment. They also won’t hike up your interest rate for this one-time slip-up. Every time after that, they’re just like any other credit card, apparently, only more so. So you’re still pretty likely to go into debt and repay the principal amount several times over in interest alone.

With the FICO credit score service, you have the added comfort of a once-a-month gander at you credit score. These services, too, require a good credit score to begin with—676 / 800. So if you suffered from a foreclosure in the recent economic malaise, or if you couldn’t find a job that paid enough for you to keep up with your student loans, you are S.O.L.

Discover claims this service is meant to help you “avoid surprises” with your credit score. If we made accounting a compulsory class for every high school student—you know, teach them math that is useful and applicable to daily life, unlike algebra—then few would really be surprised when their credit score took a nose-dive. Maybe they wouldn’t have the trouble to begin with, because they’d be educated enough to see through the deception.

And it seems to me that all of this is meant to lull people into a false sense of financial security. They say, “Hey, we’re just like you! You can trust us.” And how do we know they’re just like us? Well, the person in the call center always looks like the caller.

But beyond that, you have to look in the background to see how they’ve transmogrified the second person pronoun, “you,” into the third person, “it.” The people offering you their immaterial labor also have a whole lot of stuff that’s just like yours: Coffee cups, polished rocks, sports preferences, sartorial proclivities, little yellow toy bulldozers (Seriously?—how old are they—five?), and so on.

The underlying message: You are what you buy.

(Obey. Consume. Reproduce. Repeat.)

So here I’d like to counter with a quote from Oscar Wilde, from his essay, “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (1895), in which he makes a key inference from the same source as the Golden Rule:

The true perfection of man lies not in what man has, but in what man is.

Well said, Oscar, as always.

So let me be clear: Credit card companies are not your friends.

In other commercial news, this just in… Did Bob Dylan really just sell out for Chrysler? Bob, I thought you were only ever going to sell out for lingerie!

1. The Silver Rule comes from Confucius, who sez, “Don’t impose upon anybody what you wouldn’t impose upon yourself.” The negative of Jesus’ Golden Rule, perhaps the credit card companies could, you know, actually follow that advice instead of paying no heed to it.

It’s been ten years since this album’s quiet release. I picked it out of a bargain bin at a Christian bookstore for six dollars. I was sixteen, yet within the first five seconds, I could tell this album was a nightmare to market for Tooth and Nail Records, whose bread was (is…?) mostly buttered by the youth of evangelical America. In those first five seconds, I heard a can of spray paint shaken and sprayed—aural evidence of vandalism.

Suffice it to say, it was the last album the Dingees (g pronounced like a j) released on Tooth & Nail—although they had two previous on BEC, another branch of the same company—and judging from the lyrics, things didn’t end well. And, while I don’t have any insider information, I can reasonably guess at generalities to say that the Dingees, a ska-punk band, were dropped for—heaven forfend!—behaving like punks.

The genre “ska-punk” is a generality at best. They dabbled in a bit of everything, from straight-up reggae, to dub, to hardcore, to rock ‘n roll, in addition to ska and punk. Indeed, HM Magazine wrote that they were but “a fading memory” of third wave ska. But let’s not argue over semantics. Let’s get down to brass tacks about why they were dropped. The Dingees were dropped for at least one, but perhaps up to all four, of the following reasons:

  1. Anti-record company / not profitable
  2. Not Christian enough
  3. Paranoid about the government
  4. Ska was on the way out, anyway

From track one, this band tries to walk the line between speaking their minds and cloaking their intent in possibly Christian, yet possibly subversive, positions (at least, to neo-con America) both spiritual and political. If only the reviewers could understand the lyrics—lyrics which, according to Dan Bell, didn’t come with the promo CD. Which is a bummer, because the lyrics are one of this album’s strengths. My copy has something else that the promo CD didn’t have: a hidden track. Bell declared that there were no hidden tracks, but there most definitely is one, not at the very end of the album—as is customary—rather, in the middle. More on that in a moment. Without the lyrics, Bell was at a severe disadvantage and couldn’t give this album the shrift it deserved.

This absence wasn’t an accident. The album cover looks like Soviet propaganda, and that wasn’t an accident either. The title reads “Work! for the Crucial Conspiracy,” and at first glance, one might imagine that the band had a free-market-friendly stance on politics. The marketers tried to sneaky-Pete this album into conservative homes, hoping the conservative father would nod his head in approval and never think about the album again, his dividends being more pressing.

But ’tis a ruse. This album has a liberal, pro-proletariat stance all the way. Let’s just examine a few tracks and their lyrics.

“Moving Underground” plainly announces their subterranean plans, and could possibly tell their story with T&N, although that is speculation about clandestine events. It could have been some other label. Nevertheless, the Dingees washed onto California beaches in 1998 in a swell of ska-punk bands, only to be washed back out to sea in a riptide of corporate paroxysms as mentioned. Most ska bands are now working like every other schmuck. And so with the Dingees. In 2001, the Dingees went underground and most people forgot about them, but they’ve been together ever since. The song “Moving Underground” may tell their story.

They came on up and take their place in my face
There talkin big and they got so much to say
They say ‘I’m really digging on that sound that you play.
Whattya say lets take it to another level today?
How’d ya like to be on the radio, Magazine, and movie and the TV show?
I’m a go getter got to get up and go. Meet me uptown this time tomorrow.’

So then we wonder should we do this thing.
We go on down to hear them promising
We’ll be living like the kings on all the money we’ll bring
Your every whim that you want, catered to every need
‘We could move ya out of the underground.
There’s just one thing it’s about your sound.
Even though we love it, it’s a little run down.
Let’s meet ya in the middle, let’s move ya uptown.’

So that tore it, they explain:

And that’s the last we never saw of them.
Domino keeps falling like a chain reaction.
You cannot beat em. If you think of joining,
Come back the back door is open.
We will be here in the underground, etc.

And that is the last we never saw of the Dingees until last year’s ambitious Rebel Soul Sound System.

On “Moving Underground,” there is a hidden track, as I indicated. It is a hardcore track, and I believe it is a middle finger raised to this record company, whoever it is.

CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE YOUTH

You try to shake me to the ground Jah strike fire and burn!
You think I haven’t been around?
Jah strike fire and burn!
Don’t let the deal be.
Jah will bury you!

It’s a big conspiracy. They hate youth and they hate me!

Dems fightin’ words, and I love it (and I’m a pacifist!). The balls, man.

But from another point of view, imagine the A&R guy who has gotta drop these guys. How does he market this stuff? He knows reggae and dub ain’t too many signifiers away from signifyin’ ganj’ to his market. What’s more, the Dingees weren’t too horn heavy, and they weren’t saturating their guitar tone with the requisite amount of distortion—and that’s what he’s paying them to do. In the end, he’s gotta be like, alright, fuck it, ska’s dead anyway. Let’s cut our losses and sell it for six bucks. I’m surprised T&N actually released it, frankly. Contracts, I guess…

Another red flag for this album comes during “Latchkey Kids,” when Pegleg sings, “I’m full of fire, never better never been higher.” Not necessarily a drug reference, but again, think of who this is marketed to and what it must sound like to mom who went to that reggae-fest in her twenties. They also call God Jah, and they didn’t have the same mission that  their Christian ska contemporaries had, such as the Ws, whose doctrinal stance in “The Devil is Bad” is palpable to the average two-year-old. Or consider the O.C. Supertones mission: “The Supertones’ main message is Christ and Him crucified. We want to help people understand certain doctrinal truths.” The Supertones, for the record, also wanted to “get dumb like Beavis.”

The Dingees seem less concerned about doctrinal truths than actual truths about the world and the people running it. They also sing for and about real people, living and suffering both at home and abroad. In “Dear Sister, Dear Brother,” the singer encourages us that “For every hardship, there’s a reason, but you’re not seein’ so you’re not believin’,” the line referencing Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas. “World’s Last Night” is my favorite track, being both apocalyptic and hopeful at once, as they sing, “We don’t want the end. We want the beginning. We don’t want destruction, but we know it comes before a new creation.” The Dingees weren’t obviously Christian, but the message remains. Nevertheless, the Christian music market wants obvious songs that repeat the name Jesus to leave no doubts about the singer’s ecumenical leanings.

The Dingees seem to take a stance against witchcraft and voodoo from a seemingly Christian standpoint. But it may be more complicated than that. In my teens, I remember liking “We Rot the Voodoo” for its eerie dub and spooky Theremin, but I thought it was about actual voodoo. As I creep closer to thirty, however, I’m inclined to think it really pertains to trickle-down economics, ever-maligned by liberals as “Voodoo economics.” It’s not particularly evident from the lyrics, which could also concern real voodoo—and there again, voodoo is not even a hop, let alone a skip or a jump, from Rastafarianism, another kiss of death for Christian music marketing. But since the track comes right after a song called “Ronnie Raygun,” it’s reasonable to assume that Reaganomics is what they’re really rotting. (I don’t know if they really even believe in voodoo. They are Christian, after all, and not Rastas, only one member being of the African American persuasion.) If one understands “rotting the Voodoo” as opposing the principals of trickle-down economics, it takes on a quasi-liberation theological bent, basing their ideals for organizing society as the earliest Christians, who shared everything, and considered the rich rich, not “job creators.” Jumping from Reagan’s economics to foreign policy, “Ronnie Raygun” deals directly with clandestine CIA ops conducted under his presidency, subjects ranging from Star Wars missile defense to extraordinary rendition (doublespeak for outsourced torture) and mind control.

They don’t call me this for nothing.
Clueless to the fact I know something.
Clueless are the masses.
They’re better off staying paranoid.
They don’t know how true this really is
Pull my string, but no, I’m not talking
The polygraph I guarantee won’t be on the record

Ronnie raygun Nowhere to hide, nowhere to run

My brain is frozen numb from debriefing
Ignore the transmissions I was receiving
Does SDI have lasers beaming saucers in the sky?
Black budget unmarked helicopters
Chase me home and drop me off there
They call me in the middle of the night and
Tell me to return

Clearance majestic
Erase my existence
Alleged intimidation
Hypnosis mind control

SDI stands for Strategic Defense Initiative, the strategic initiator being Reagan. This all must have sounded like a bunch of nonsense to parents, since the song has hardcore vocals. But the message is quite clear in print—that is, if military boilerplate can be considered clear. Moreover, the conspiracy-obsessed skankers also are “outta mind with modern age,” as they declare in the first track, “Spraypaint (We Won’t Carry Over).” They shout,

We won’t carry over. We are the new. We move it on.
I’m outta mind with modern age, ultraviolent syndrome
Beware mad scientists are stealing chromosomes.
Experimental aircraft chemtrails across the sky.
Rain disease down on suburbia, burning lungs stinging eyes
Microcellular breakdown ’cause the cancer couldn’t wait
Early morning at the clinic methadone helps shake the shakes
For another ninety days, mother daughter alanon
Electroshock on blacktop, blown away oblivion.
US Army and the Navy, hovercraft on beachhead.
Anti-tank gun missile, meshing blood and bone and lead.
Past and present combined stress, psychadelic Vietnam.
Paratrooper won’t elaborate about the burning bombs of napalm.
Rust and blood and telecaster helicopter spotlight
Seven-forty-seven shot straight out the sky
National security global emergency
Civilizations unraveled seams
Bionic build titanium broken bones and x-rays
Couple cans of neon spraypaint, half a dozen razorblades
Propaganda posters clinchin’ tight around my brain
No synapse can make connection. No idea can cause change.

The aforementioned reviewer claimed the album would lift people spiritually, and I believe certain tracks do, but this is about as pessimistic—not to mention antagonistic—a view on US foreign policy as any of Fat Mike’s or Mick Jones’. The Dingees released this before, but in the year of, 9-11, and the ensuing ten years have shown this album incredibly relevant. Rather than being informed strictly by the X-Files, which the band openly declares an affinity for, Pegleg’s rants seem informed by academics, such as Dr. Chalmers Johnson, a former Cold-warrior and CIA consultant, turned in his old age a soothsayer of US imperial collapse.

They were relevant then, as now. Americans may be kept in the dark, as “Ronnie Raygun” would have it, but the light burns brightly for those in countries the U.S. occupies—and so for the Dingees. I wonder how this album would have fared had it been released after Wikileaks’ revelations.

The band announced their most recent release would be free online. This decision, I believe, was more influenced by Christian musician Keith Green than to Radiohead, for Pegleg had read No Compromise: The Life Story of Keith Green. Keith Green advocated giving away music—especially music based on the Gospel—for free. He also had a rather literal view of Jesus’ commandment to sell all of one’s possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, a radical verse that rarely gets underlined in evangelical Bibles.”Dear Sister, Dear Brother” reminds us that

Man, fellowman is not your enemy
The world strikes out on us universally
And do no gasp at death of celebrity
Ours is not a life of futility
Do not stand ahead of each other
Dear sister, dear brother

and “World’s Last Night” directly quotes the Bible, paraphrasing Romans 8:38,

Neither death nor life nor angels, no height of heaven, no depth of hell, and no created thing, now or soon to come, can steal away [the love of God]

This album departed crucially (get it?) from their first couple albums. To look at it, it seems like a concept album, the album artwork featuring the band standing in conspiracy theorist darkroom, UFO pictures on bulletin boards, etc. The idea, from the record company, I think, was that we weren’t supposed to take all that conspiracy theory stuff seriously. But the band really did, and it shows. I dunno if they believe in aliens, either. They make no reference to them in their songs.

Critics marked the Dingees out for fans of Operation Ivy, Rancid, the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers–and all those bands white guys like, but there is plenty of Jamaican evidence all over this album. They could very well have drawn comparisons to Lee “Scratch” Perry or Desmond Dekker as much as any of those punk bands. More on their sound in part 2, a review of The Rebel Soul Sound System.

Rick Berman (not the dick who runs Star Trek, but the lobbyist) for The Daily Caller explores the semantic choices of the high-fructose corn syrup lobby, which has sought to change public perception of their sweetener. The lobby has petitioned the F.D.A. to allow their sweetener to be called “corn sugar” as opposed to “high-fructose corn syrup.” Berman considers this name an improvement, since the amount of fructose (what makes sugar sweet) is roughly the same as in refined cane and beet sugar. In addition, listing it in plain English as “sugar” clearly tells consumers what they are consuming. He notes the common view that anything sounding too industrial or scientific tends to scare people. He also explores the semantics of advertising and their word choices, concluding, “Americans want to know what is in their food, not which squares on the Periodic Table it occupies.”

***

In recent years, many have demonized high-fructose corn syrup. Sugar itself, in one form or another, has been a key scapegoat for America’s obesity debacle for even longer. The connotations attending to each product have shifted. In the 1980s, soft drink corporations replaced cane sugar with corn sweetener. They did so mainly because of high import tariffs and other government supports for the U.S. sugar industry (Yes, your tax-dollars support that foul miasma wafting over campus from Bay City’s sugar refinery.), which drove the price of imported sugarcane to artificially high prices. Domestic corn syrup, as a result, became the cheaper, domestic alternative.

Economics aside, the switch made advertising sense too. When the switch came, many—especially children—did not know what high-fructose corn syrup was nor cared to find out, because it is a mouthful to say and looks arcane enough to ignore. It made good marketing sense, then, to replace the word “sugar” with a word that looked like gobbledygook, because it replaced a word commonly associated with obesity with a word that had no negative connotation in the minds of consumers.

Twenty-five years later, the connotations have reversed. Enough talking heads and celebrity chefs have lambasted high-fructose corn syrup such that the word “sugar” seems healthier by comparison. The products have not changed, but the lobby intends to change its perceived health benefits. People associate sugar with greater health benefits—or at least, greater than those of high-fructose corn syrup—which, as Berman points out, was coined such because it had a greater amount of fructose than regular corn syrup, and not because it had more fructose than table sugar. While Berman maintains this switch of terms to be beneficial, “corn sugar” being a more to the point and accurate name, there is always an economic reason for these changes. This is an effort to change their product’s image, and like water, advertising tends to seek the lowest level. If one is stupid enough to believe high fructose corn syrup is bad because it sounds scientific, s(he) will be stupid enough to think cane sugar will be better for them. Only in advertising can the truth still seem like a lie.

Switching the names signals a greater trend. If the ingredient’s name reads as if scientists coined it, it must be bad, whereas, if it is natural, it must be okay. Still these assumptions break down under scrutiny. For instance, compare the processed xanthan gum with natural hemlock. Humans process kelp to make xanthan gum, yet it remains innocuous, but natural hemlock is a deadly poison. American Spirit cigarettes claim they are all natural, but they will kill just the same as cigarettes with additives. So too have words like “preservatives” and “partially hydrogenated soybean oil” become insidious, mainly because the name—often Latinate—implies, or lists outright, a scientific process. In the past, advertisers have listed these processes to distract the consumer from the basic contents of their food, even though chemically speaking, a preservative is just a salt and partially hydrogenated soybean oil is simply a fat. However, if the label lists the main ingredients as “salt” and “fat,” those products would be harder to sell.

If advertisers could convince the world that the sky is purple, they would surely try. It is disheartening that many in America gather a great amount of “truth” from advertising. Consider the Tiger Woods scandal. Why was it so scandalous? Charlie Sheen had just stabbed his girlfriend, but the media gave it scant attention in their scramble to uncover Woods’ many sins. Since Woods became pro, companies have pitched him as a mentor, a good citizen and a paradigm of racial progress. Years later when the scandal broke, the American public felt let down, somehow. Tiger Woods no longer commanded such admiration. Charlie Sheen had no such image to shatter, and in fact, he had the opposite reputation as a bad-boy with a record; so naturally, nobody was entranced with the scandal of his serious crime. They expected it.

The truth about Woods is obvious in hindsight. He plays golf constantly, and when he does not, companies use him incessantly to sell cars, golf balls, and clothing lines. All real evidence would suggest that he is too busy to devote adequate time to his family. Still many were deceived, because advertising has stamped this mentor image—and by extension, the image of a good father and husband—so indelibly into their minds. This deception not only illustrates the power of advertising to make one needy, but also its power to shape a person’s image. When that image shatters, however, we should not be so surprised.

Now, sugar has a good image—or at least not as bad. Even though the scientists at the American Dietetic and the American Medical Associations agree that cane sugar and corn sweetener are essentially the same, advertising still maintains a myth through the connotations of language. For a little while, the American public may believe corn sugar will help them with their obesity. However, whether a name seems natural or unnatural rarely denotes whether a product is processed or safe. Milk is regarded as natural, except for pasteurizing and homogenizing. Moreover, if you have smelled that sickly-sweet scent drifting from the Bay City sugar refinery, you might have guessed sugar cubes don’t grow in grandma’s garden.