How to Recognize an Advertising Lie

Lynne Murray says:

Make someone happy . . . isolated, anxious, desperate.

It’s a car commercial so of course it’s Auto-erotic, but it caught my attention because of the sound track. The camera tracks a luxury automobile (power, sex) traveling a serpentine road (control, dominance). There’s never any traffic on the road in a car commercial, it’s a driver’s wet dream of flying at will to any destination with no obstacles. The only sound is Jimmy Durante singing Comden and Green’s “Make Someone Happy.” Durante’s heartfelt, jazz-rough voice performing that song resurfaced in the public eye a few years back when it played over the end credits of Sleepless in Seattle.

(Here’s a somewhat unexpected video for Durante’s version of “Make Someone Happy”.)

I like the song and have heard it often enough that it echoed in my mind for a few days, filling in the lyrics that the commercial didn’t use, “Make just one someone happy, then you will be happy too.” When I saw the commercial again on TV, I paid closer attention and realized that they had snipped the lines about “Someone to love is the answer.” In the commercial the man driving the car (target audience) smiles as Durante, a wise old man figure, sings, “you can be happy too.” The commercial suggests that the man has made himself happy by purchasing the car. No other humans necessary. That’s serious auto-eroticism, and pretty much the opposite of the message of the song.

I have no problem with the car as a stand-in or catalyst for human contact (power, sex and control). I totally get the special relationship one can have with a car, having spent my teen years in Southern California, lost my virginity in the front seat of a car parked above Silver Lake in L.A. (not the back seat–long story omitted involving his mother’s car with bench rather than bucket seats, Freudian overtones, etc.)

I was even charmed a few years ago by a commercial where Etta James delectably sang “At last, my love has come along” (you can listen to it here) while a camera caressed the lines of a luxury sedan. Aside from romance in the days when private space was an unthinkable luxury, I’ve done self-help primal scream therapy in cars. Sometimes a car is the only place you can be alone in this culture.

But slicing up a lyric about reaching out to others so as to turn it into a prescription for self-indulgent isolation made me think about how often we are sold something that is the opposite of what we really yearn for–and how often cynical marketers use our desires and hot buttons to separate us from our money, our votes, and one another.

How can you tell what you’re buying when all you can see is the mirage of what you want? A friend having trouble getting a job after losing one told me her state has a “right to work” law. I’d never heard of that and she explained that in practice that meant that an employer could fire any employee on the spot with no explanation or excuse. Another friend who’s a paralegal confirmed that this was an anti-union law very common in Southern states.

I was shocked, “Right to work? Why don’t they call it “right to fire you for no reason”?” Oh, wait I get it, that’s how they could get working people to vote against their own self-interest.

So I started to wonder how can we decode the message when the highest-priced headshrinkers and advertisers are aiming at our groins, our hearts, and our guts. How can we tell if what we are buying or voting for will make us isolated, unemployed, broke, and altogether worse off?

It’s hard to think when a hired mercenary manipulator is lathering you up for the old brainwash and fluff dry. Here are three warning signs that you are being manipulated and should back off before you go deeper into the quicksand:

1. Does it empower you? Or are you signing yourself into something that gives away control to someone else? Sometimes this is necessary, for example, in apprenticeship or other learning situations but it never hurts to consider what you’re paying (in money or time), what you’re getting in return, and whether it’s really what you want. A moneyback guarantee in writing wouldn’t hurt.

2. Does it isolate you? Does doing or buying this cut you off from other people or from whatever things, situations, etc. keep you protected and grounded?

3. Does it violate common sense? Does it try to substitute some kind of “new, improved, secret” magical ingredient that may or may not exist, and which is supposed to make it work better than all the other versions of the same thing you may have tried that didn’t work. In other words, does it suggest impossible results? To expand on the old saying, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is, and you may be paying someone money to lie to you.” (I’m not totally opposed to paying for lies among consenting adults–after all I write fiction, which amounts to the same thing.)

Dieting to obtain health and social acceptance is an example of #3, and one I consider harmful. The desire to make one’s body acceptable in a world where most body types are considered “wrong/sick/ugly/life-threateningly dangerous” is so intense that women in particular can dive into a hypnotic buying trance, spend mightily and work insanely because the prospect of accepting our bodies as they are is so unthinkable.

2 thoughts on “How to Recognize an Advertising Lie

  1. I live on the Great Ocean Road, in Victoria, Australia, where a lot of car commercials are filmed. They film them early in the morning when there is no traffic, and they put up barriers to keep the traffic that there is, away. It’s quite disruptive to local people (especially as dawn is milking time) and encourages idiots to speed down a pretty but dangerous coastal road – and that’s the cost of that magical, illusory freedom. You will be alone, actively harming other people, and creating false messages for others who will want to copy your freedom/sexiness/power.

  2. Man, I just stumbled upon this website, and wow, what can I say. Your list of 3 things to avoid can also apply to obesity, to wit:
    1. Does it empower? Blogger, what has the power in your life – you or food?
    2. Does it enrich your life – How much money do you spend on overeating? Couldn’t that money be going into your 401K?
    3. Does it isolate you? Lots of obese people are isolated in that they can’t do the activities thin people do. How about you?

    Your site talks like it’s inevitable to become fat. I’m thin and I’ve weighed the same since Jimmy Carter was president. Don’t blame menopause, serious health issues, etc., cause I’ve already been there.

    Obesity is a completely illogical waste of time, effort and money. You’re robbing your future.

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