You won’t need to buy another one. Always golden, soft and buttery. Everyone likes it, even the slow kid on the block. 300 horsepower. A favorite everywhere. All that you wanted, and much, much more! Never a dull moment. Can’t eat just one! Show them how far you’ve come. It’s everything you wanted, and more. You’ll never look so good as with — well, whatever product it is. We’re familiar, on a daily basis, with advertising bombarding us. What defines advertising? It makes us associate a product with a lifestyle or a success; the product is the sign, and what is promised is something far beyond it. Do you really imagine simply owning one type of car, shoe, watch or jacket makes someone without power or prestige into someone with those qualities?
Of course it does not. But advertising doesn’t work by appealing to the logical brain, but to our memory, which dutifully stores the association (a brand of beer, leggy blond hotties clustered around::a car, pulling up to a class restaurant and being recognized) and, when we’re exhausted or distracted and trying to make a decision, pops it to the top of the stack and we select it. Of course I’ll prefer that brand, or, maybe I can afford a nice big car. Advertising works by targetting the part of our minds that don’t get translated into clear “I’m buying this for the following logical reasons” discourse. It hits us below the level we can even put into words.
The same is true of politics. The best product in politics is one that links together a number of things we think of as good, and puts a symbol atop them that is something everyone can remember and agree is a “good thing.” We might call it hyperbole, or overstating the effect and importance of something, or we might call it a superlative, which is attributing to something a universal degree of power and worth, but really, it’s both, and more. Advertising and politics both use universal symbols that are not anchored at all in reality, but in images, in associations, in non-logical ideas that attract our unguarded emotions but not our critical thinking. This is the power of symbols, when redirected to a base level.
In literature and art, symbols abound, but usually, their purpose is complex: to associate a certain action with a certain abstract idea or tendency. Advertising and politics are much simpler: they want you to see a one-to-one correspondence between a symbol/product and a life you can leading, if only you select that one thing. It’s a good way to get led around by your nose, because you’ll notice that in advertising and politics, no promises are made. You’re allowed to make an assumption because the advertisers and politicians are vocal about the same assumption, but there’s no followup and no guarantee. Did they explicitly promise that if you buy a certain brand of beer girls will flock to you? No, but they showed you it happening in a certain case. Same with the car. You saw one guy buy the car, and immediately be thrown into a world of success. It’s not logic, but imagery.
The modern age has done away with magic and most of religion except the most dogmatic and unworldly type, the kind that promises eternal vacations if you just do what the god in question demands (note that older religions would encourage you to sacrifice to the gods, but there was no guarantee you’d get anything out of it; half the time they were still wroth with you, and the sacrifice was in vain). Modern politics, religion and advertising thus are quite similar in that they say that if you do a certain action in this world, forces from another world will make of you something in this world. Whether that other world is the realm of gods, of the political-economic machine, or of money and leggy bimbettes, really doesn’t matter. The unstated promise, based on assumption, is what keeps you coming back for more.
We’ll take an example symbol, not for the sake of assaulting it as illusion, but for demonstrating its effects, although it is clearly one of the more destructive illusions. Why did we go to war in Iraq? Why, because once the Iraqi people have freedom, they’ll be like us. They’ll see our way of life is the better one, and give up those primitive tribal superstitions. They’ll stop being unreasonable, and see it our way. What is freedom? It starts with democracy, but it includes economic competition and the ability to earn lots of money if you dedicate your life to it. It also includes emancipation of women, and of every ethnic group and in short, equality of us all, except in our competition for money, in which we assume the best will win. It’s a one-size-fits-all solution. Freedom. And doesn’t it just sound good?
You’ll note these are not promises; they’re assumptions. And they operate like magic. When we bring freedom to Iraq, all of its previous problems (which required a series of hardcore rulers until Saddam Hussein finally unified the place and began selling oil for a fair price to the English) will take a backseat. A life of prosperity will settle. Presumably leggy Arab bimbettes will gather around sports cars, and those who drink certain brands of beer can go home with the hottie daughters of Imams. Ignorance will vanish. But does adopting “freedom” really have anything to do with sex, ignorance, or prosperity? These can come from other sources as well, and obviously have, if the fecundity of the Iraqi populace is any suggestion. We’re not telling them freedom is a better way; we’re letting everyone assume it is, and promising our lifestyle in return.
Astute readers (good to see you again) will have noticed that advertising is amazing in that it predicts inward and physical changes in response to outward, symbolic options. There is no more nutrition in one brand of beer over another that makes you smarter, sexier, etc. Nor is there anything in one brand of car that makes your breath smell better, your muscles tighter, your testosterone more vigorous or your penis heartier (that’s another product, but read the two pages of fine print, in case it kills you). Advertising and politics redirect our belief in a thought process geared toward the right answer, and supplants it with something which suggests a universal right answer, but in reality, only sells a product. It methods is this same superlative hyperbole that we see in the belief that democracy/freedom will somehow conquer the world and make it a safe, Utopic place.
You can even see this merely in how we define “freedom” and “democracy.” Democracy means government by vote; it doesn’t guarantee that those votes are intelligent, or that intelligent solutions come from it. We associate it with “freedom,” meaning civil rights, but those don’t ensure that what is best is done; they only grant us a defense against government. In short, with democracy/freedom, we’ve gone from trying to do what is right to trying to do what protects us against wrong. Our only direction is defensive. But when you package that up as a perfect cure for all ills at once, it sounds good. And then when out of the forty thousand words spoken aloud you hear daily, the loudest voices babble on about “freedom,” you follow that carrot even though you haven’t been promised any real effect. Just an image, a shining image, one that tugs at your emotions. Have you been sold an illusion?