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Cheap symbolic gestures

An advertiser’s purpose is to appeal to as many eyeballs, in as many ways, as possible.

I rushed to the corner store of University and 10th Avenue (try their cheese curds) when I heard that one of my favorite writers, Christopher Hitchens, had been persuaded by his colleagues at Vanity Fair to set aside the scotch-filled lowball glass that clings to his nicotine-tinged fingers from the moment he rolls out of bed for a set of dumbbells and a daily oatmeal lotion facial treatment from one of Santa Barbara’s finest spas, The Four Seasons Biltmore Resort. The very idea that a habitual inebriate like Hitchens would comply to take any steps in self-improvement is inexpressible in and of itself, and I wanted to feel like I was a part of it.

There’s a Dutch proverb that says: “A handful of patience is worth more than a bushel of brains,” and it couldn’t be more pertinent than when paging through a copy of Vanity Fair. In order to find the magazine’s table of contents, I had to flip through 50 pages of the most statuesque individuals in the world promenading along beaches in haute stilettos, staring into space while leaned against brick walls, and dapper men who, by the sight of their acutely trimmed chest hair and cunning eyes, were supposed to convince me to buy the company’s cologne. If you’re going to advertise cologne, at least put a free sample under the fold.

Further, by the time I finally reached the table of contents, images of Oxford Shoes, exfoliating face crèmes, and colognes I had never smelled were obstructing my ability to focus on finding the article. I scanned the page for Hitchens’ column, but my eye wandered over to the ad on the next page. Apparently, Chanel’s fall 2007 line is audaciously boasting mammary gland top hats and a new style of underwear that resembles a collared shirt wrapped around the waist. I believe this was another advertisement for perfume; I would have remembered better had they included a free sample.

After I determined the listing wasn’t in the first table of contents section, I was forced to flip through yet another 10 pages of advertisements to find the rest of the article listings. All the while, my mind was in conflict over whether the advertisement on one page made me feel like I needed the product because I’m not as debonair as Mikhail Gorbachev in the back of a limo with Louis Vuitton luggage, or, because the Burberry boys with fanglike teeth and unkempt hair on the next page made me feel like Homer Simpson.

Like God, advertisements work in mysterious ways, effortlessly appealing to vulnerability. They create a sense of void in our life with cheap and symbolic gestures. A while back, I nearly lost sleep one night because of a diamond company’s asinine ad campaign to sell wedding bands to be worn on a woman’s right hand. They marketed these rings to singles and married women alike. It’s as if they were saying, “Women of the world, unite! Be a counter-culture, wear a wedding band on your right hand.”

I’ll admit it was a clever approach to reignite business with women who already wear a ring on their left hand. But it’s the pretenses that disturb me. This diamond company didn’t care about unifying women; it was their ploy to kindle dissatisfaction, for a satisfied customer is not a very profitable one. An advertiser’s purpose is to appeal to as many eyeballs in as many ways as possible, because eyeballs equal currency.

Take the Don Imus incident, for example. Actors, commentators and even presidents have made far more atrocious remarks publicly, and Imus’ station was well aware of this. Imus’ show was not canceled until a week after the offending remark was made. The day the show was canceled, Steve Capus, president of NBC, commented, “These comments were deeply hurtful to many, many people. And we’ve had any number of employee conversations, discussions, e-mails, phone calls Ö there should not be any room for this sort of conversation and dialogue on our air, it was the only decision we could reach.”

During the lull between Imus’ comment and the show’s cancelation, the radio executives were not confabulating about the social and moral boundaries they had overstepped. Rather, they waited to see how advertisers would respond, and when they did so by pulling their ads, Capus let the public know just how socially responsible he is.

The optimistic side of this incident speaks to the power beheld by consumers. In a market where advertising determines the fate of television shows, radio programs, and even the credibility of news (who else has noticed The New York Times’ decreased dimensions and increased advertising?) by choosing with whom to trade eyeballs for commerce, there’s a lot that a consumer can do to prevent the subversion of quality to quantity; or, as in the case of Vanity Fair, where something as simple as finding the table of contents is now a chore.

Jake Perron welcomes comments at [email protected].

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