Advertising Contradictions: Icons of Our Jobs and Minds
Look at this spoof-ad I’ve created, on the left—a close replica of a real bank ad I recently and randomly encountered online.
Embedded in its innocuous-looking content are complex contradictions, analyzed below, designed to motivate and reflect our individual and culturally-defined dreams, while tapping into our fears—personal and professional.
At first glance, there is nothing special or revealing in this one or the original; however, the original ad, on closer inspection and reflection, provided a trove of insights—of the kind to be gleaned from this send-up—about who we are, what we want or are expected to be, and how our jobs are presented to and defined by us.
It was a very basic, conventional bank ad [which inspired me to create the fictitious one shown here, from a stock photo, to avoid trademark and copyright issues], depicting a solitary young man on the shore of a pristine lake, set against a majestic mountain backdrop, positioned next to a displayed bank package and savings interest rate.
As I hope to show, the same ad iconically sums up quite a lot about our job perceptions, values, expectations and goals. What I see most prominently embedded in that ad are iconic contradictions and confusions at the heart of our economy—including our jobs, culture, values and existential dilemmas.
Specifically, they include these:
1. Special as trivial: The bank ad is promoting special getaway experiences that, fortunately, thanks to easy financing, are trivially available to almost everyone (with a job, credit or savings).
Airlines do the same thing: ship herds and hoards of jam-packed cookie-cut tourists who fallaciously imagine that they will be special because they are going to special exotic or ancient places that are struggling to remain that way or any way at all, under the infestations of tourists and the modern infrastructure required to prop it all up.
This cultural-marketing message of mass-marketed specialness is as effective as it is entrenched—a paradoxical theme well-explored even as early as the 1950s, when Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders and The Status Seekers: Everybody is special—and special the same way!
As the chanting crowd in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” put it, when urged by “Brian” [a.k.a. “the Savior”] to accept their individuality, “We are all individuals!” [except for the lone dissenter, who was booed when he shouted out, “Not me!”].
The same “dialectic” between the special and the trivial, the sublime and the profane, the unique and the mass-produced drives much of the work and hiring we do—especially in today’s tough job markets. No matter how commonplace the job, e.g., café barista or telemarketer, in a tight job market, getting a very ordinary job—any job—can feel like an extraordinary, special feat and presented as such by the employer.
As a result, we experience production-side as well as consumption-side emotional conflict and confusion: There’s the production-side emotional conflict in getting a job in a sweatshop factory—special because I got the job; not special, because the job really isn’t. Or, I’m happy because I’ve gotten a horrible job.
That ambivalence is perfectly reflected in a kid’s feeling so special because he got his hands on a pair of mass-produced sweatshop shoes or iPhone all his friends have— that feeling of specialness laminated onto whatever tribal, clique, generational or gang solidarity the shoes or iPhones signify.
What’s more, even in less daunting job markets like ours with few jobs, the same contradiction finds its niche. It’s not just employees and consumers who have to do this dance without tripping over themselves; hiring managers experience the same thing when they undertake to fit a “special” peg into a mass-drilled one-size hole.
In the largest of companies, especially those with countless employees doing exactly or at least pretty much the same job, the HR manager is tasked with hiring a cog who, for at least the duration of the interview, really should be made to feel a little like a big wheel [especially in boom times, when demand for labor is strong and competition among companies is intense].
Just as a carrot-and-stick approach may be the most germane and effective after hiring, a big wheel-and-little cog sequence bait-and-switch works well in the pre-and-post-hire two-step designed to convince the recruit that [s]he indeed is a big wheel and not just a cog on it.
Expressed equivalently, the special-not special dilemma and contradiction is captured by the pressure to be special, yet conform—especially in our culture in which believing oneself to be special is so often equated as being exempt from the rules that govern the less special others.
It is also encapsulated in the healthy awareness that personal balance requires existing apart from others yet also as a part, playing a part among them. Unfortunately, the quest for that positive balance frequently deteriorates into frustration, conflict and confusion, once existing as a part of is perceived as the antithesis of existing apart from.
That unceasing contradiction and personal battle is well summed up in this schizoid dictum: “You are [the] only one.”
2. Non-commodity commodities: Because experiences are not grown, mined, harvested or manufactured in the literal sense, they can easily appear not to be commodities. Likewise, because personnel, a.k.a.”valued human resources”, also aren’t grown, mined, harvested or manufactured, they too appear not to be commodities.
Alas, that is an illusion, because the essence of a commodity is to have an exchange value. That’s what makes logs, experiences and staff commodities in modern markets. Each can be had for a price or otherwise drift out of reach.
Best-case exception: You aren’t a commodity; your labor is. However, to the extent that you are regarded as the sum of your talents and valued-adding assets, you become a commodity in a job auction.
Just as “trivial, yet special” requires Orwellian doublethink, so does seeing ourselves and what we buy as non-commodity commodities—whether it’s a placid glacial lake, an M.B.A., our flair for detail and organization, or a night at a rock concert.
3. Intrinsic exchange value: We like to imagine that there are some things that are “priceless” in the stricter, perhaps better, sense of the word—beyond the reach of money, rather than beyond the reach of most people’s money: the goofy antics of your dog, your child’s first steps, true love, dawn over a bank’s idea of a perfect glacial lake.
In both advertising and the workplace, this pricelessness is characterized as non-dollar-denominated “intrinsic” value—value inherent in what is valued, apart from any value added by extraneous rewards [which themselves have no intrinsic value, because they “buy” something else, as money and status do].
Your Alaska holiday and your job ideally offer you “things that money can’t buy”—e.g., the glow of ethereal spiritual communion with nature, the satisfaction from a job well done and, in many people’s reckonings, most of what makes life truly worth living.
The snag and contradiction is that to experience the intrinsic value of that glacial dawn, you have to pay for it, which then monetizes and exteriorizes its value in terms of cash exchanged for it.
Hence, its intrinsic value is “corrupted” into or contaminated by exchange value denominated in money that has only extrinsic value that is not inherent in the paper or plastic forms it takes. [Modern over-commodified, over-supplied and profitable pop-music is a transparent example.]
You may rightly protest that what is bought for and on that holiday comprises the flight, the guide, the accommodation, the camping fees, etc., required to get to that lake. Those all have a dollar value as means to the intrinsically valuable end, but not the lake and the dawn. Well, you’re right—and wrong: The accuracy and precision of such formal accounting notwithstanding, you’ve bought a package—a package that includes the dawn.
Moreover, because the cash was a prerequisite for the dawn, the entire trip is money-denominated—at least psychologically. The result is a commercialization of consciousness—specifically commercialization and monetization of the precious, previously “priceless” experiences of life.
The impact, even when unconscious or maybe especially then, can be powerful and akin to what one might feel upon realizing that a friendship has been bought or at least tainted and made suspect by money.
If this point and difference haven’t sunk in yet, ask yourself which you enjoy more: the intrinsic pleasures your house, land, art collection or job afford you, or the cash you imagine you can get for and from it?
As you perform that exercise, be aware of the peril in equating value with exchange value or in confusing intrinsic value with extrinsic value—the risk being a loss of the ability and sensitivity to enjoy things for what they are, rather than for what they [can] fetch or cost.
4. Competitive cooperation: An easily overlooked emotional bind is built into the bank ad—and most job interviews and jobs themselves. The bank seems to be working cooperatively in the interests of the traveler—to facilitate fulfillment of holiday dreams, but is doing so by offering the lowest savings account interest rates and the highest credit card interest rates it can to seal the deal.
[To get a feel for this, look at the fanfare and illusion of bank largesse accompanying savings account ads offering a whopping 2% annualized return.]
Job interviews, jobs and ads incorporate a similar dynamic: The employer wants to offer the least, while the candidate wants to get the most possible. That’s the underlying zero-sum nature of all (non-gift) exchange and competition.
Yet, these maneuverings are conducted in the prescribed form, if not spirit, of collegial cooperation. On some level, subconscious or otherwise, that has to be emotionally confusing and doublethink—much more than even “being good friends with the boss” is likely to be.
In my recent article “Paradoxical Competition: A Gopher Strategy for Agents?”, I delved into a unique form of animal “competitive cooperation” that is far subtler than the pro-cooperation clichés of competitive human “sportsmanship”.
The so-called “Pocket gopher” described there simultaneously combines competition and cooperation in one and the same action (rather than as sequenced cooperative and competitive behaviors of the sort exemplified by the “One World, One Dream—of Beating You!” Olympics or the give-and-take of job-contract negotiations).
The way the Pocket gopher accomplishes this through one action is to cry out when it spots a predator—thereby alerting all the other gophers [cooperation], but increasing its individual odds of survival at the expense of some other gopher [competition] by suggesting to the predator that it has been spotted by the alarm giver, who will not, unlike some other gopher, be pounced upon unawares.
[Presumably, merely silently ducking back into its hole offers worse payoffs, e.g., by emboldening predators to launch and expect highly successful future sneak-attacks].
Such an inextricable interweaving of gopher competition and cooperation is built into hiring and employment: The interview paradigm is competitive-cooperative, as is the subsequent employment, since both embody the collaborative accommodation of competing interests through negotiation.
If that’s not apparent, try to get your bank to make the dream of an Alaskan dawn come true by coming through with a lower credit card rate…
….or by asking your boss for a raise to pay your way there.