In case you haven't heard, there's a marvelously civilized—even polite—way to boil a frog to death.
Don't start with a rolling boil, either. After all, we are not savages. As fellow democrats (lower-case d) and marketers, we want the frog to cooperate. Putting it in Amway terms: We want to share an opportunity with the frog.
You place the happy little frog into a pot of slightly warm water. Then, degree by degree, you gradually turn up the heat. The frog won't ever turn frantic or try to clamber out. He'll be seemingly content right up to the moment of his death.
For the purposes of this article, the pot of water is the “mediasphere” or (what others have called) the “mental commons:” The public spaces, radio and television airwaves, phone lines, Web, magazines. These are the venues that immerse us in ever-more-harsh marketing messages from cradle to grave.
And we are the frogs. By and large, we are happy little frogs.
Though, come to think of it, things do seem a little bit warmer. Or is it just me?
Can You Speak Up? I'm Trying to Ignore You.
Yes—now that I mention it—it is irritating when the telemarketers descend upon you at dinner time on weeknights or breakfast on weekends. True, when you pick up the phone and get “dead air,” it's a bit, well, galling.
Spam? A problem, for sure. But, you can buy those Spam filters. And you've got to admit that there is some modest entertainment value in getting hit by no less than four Nigerian scam e-mails in one morning, plus an e-mail that discusses in great detail bowel movements—what to look for, what to be worried about, and how to make sure that 2003 gets off to a healthier start—in addition to a personal invitation to have sex with a teenager named Amber or Heather or Tanya or the ever-alluring Jessica, who just happen to have their own webcams and except all major credit cards.
(You should ignore this Spam garbage. But, once you fully engage the mechanical habit of ignoring—though it is as good a survival strategy as any—how do you ever stop it? And what will you have missed in the years of looking away? )
Good thing you read that article about disabling those annoying Messenger pop-ups that were pushing Viagra and online diplomas. (There is a kind of violence that is in the very structure of these pop-ups: The loud arrival tone; the domination of the screen.)
And did you notice that your daughter brought home some McDonald's fries from her high school?
Then, your 93-year-old Dad happened to mention that a stockbroker visited the family home to discuss investing in futures contracts.
And, there you were buying gas at a service station, when you literally picked up an ad (taped to the nozzle handle) for a 99-cent “Big Mouth”-sized soft drink while a tinny voice chirped, “Special on antifreeze. Just ask at the register.”
Does it seem that radio station deejays, when they're not laughing like hyenas because they found a new way to embarrass or ridicule someone on the phone, are all screaming?
No, the deejays aren't screaming. It's the din of the culture (and the riot of your own thoughts) they must raise their voices above.
Why I've Turned on Our Industry from the Inside
Then, in the middle of the night, you're roused by a noisy neighbor who got a little drunk and decided to howl at the moon from his apartment balcony.
At first, he sounded just like that dog you heard in the early morning hours of one November night some 30 years ago. The dog had been hit by a car on the nearby interstate. And he ran squealing then howling through your neighborhood. Some sounds you don't forget.
No worries. It was just the neighbor.
As fortune would have it, his howling served a purpose. It brought your gaze to the most perfect moon: stark, snowy white with dark blue patches. A moon with no meaning, no banner draped upon it, no logo, no call to action, no offer, nothing for you to process or do.
You see, it's all tolerable, little frog. You and I, we adapt. We're survivors. Remember September 11th. We were not heroes. We did not die. We must be grateful. We must savor every moment.
For there is always the chance that a neighbor howls and you are visited by a moon with no meaning—a moon that, mercifully, does not signify—and so you are redeemed.
But, sorry, though I just packaged that last sentence and did a workman's job, I'm not buying it.
Such moments of redemption, starring a perfect moon—though sweet and all—aren't nearly good enough. Not now. There's just too much damned noise.
I am sick and tired of participating in this lab experiment. As an owner of an advertising agency, I am not going to do anything that I or we perceive adds to the temperature of the water. If anything, we are determined to turn our talents and fierce advocacy against the noise, against the saturation messaging.
It's time for us all to start reclaiming bits and pieces of the mental commons. That's what folks like Adbusters.org are talking about. You have to pay attention to the structures and illusions that are being employed in the mediasphere. You can't just blithely keep swimming in this stuff.
This experiment in covering every surface with an ad (the Latin is, I believe, orror vaqui: the “fear of emptiness”), this filling each of our waking moments with dubious inferences and implications about what's handsome and beautiful and exciting and socially acceptable, and this constant quest for new, ever-more-clever ways to launch guided marketing missiles—there is nothing of virtue here.
(I'm sorry about this. But, for those in the advertising industry who've long had doubts about just what it is they have been doing, I can't offer any balm. Is there solace in not really knowing how to decode your own creations or not realizing the harm that can come from too much of a supposed good thing? What kind of solace is that? There is no such animal as a value-neutral advertisement. And, I would suggest, it is time for you to look squarely at those values.)
As to the effects of this experiment, I'm not qualified to comment. I can point to the dominant (and over-discussed) values of the mediasphere: immediate gratification, discontinuity, novelty, buying as the defining activity of life, the permanent sexual tease that is meant to spur commerce and achievement.
I can observe what I think is a kind of excitoxicity—a literally being “thrilled to death.”
I can theorize about a link between the constant advertising barrage and the coarsening of our culture: After all, it just takes so much more now to cut through the numbness.
But, who cares about my observations and theories? It's time to take action.
Doing Something: Steal This Idea
For those who have read the best of our culture critics, I don't blame you if you can barely stifle a yawn at this point. You've heard it all before. (Sorry, that's what you get when you read a marketer rather than a social scientist.) I make no claims of originality.
But, I'm putting my money where my lack of originality is.
We're launching an idea that has no business model and is virtually guaranteed to only cost us money: MentalGreen.org. The concept is simple. We're going to buy paid-for commercial media (like I said, this will only cost us money) and reclaim these public spaces (albeit briefly) for moments of tranquility.
There is no consensus on what a moment of tranquility will look or sound like. We do know this much: It's going to be quiet.
We're going to start small because we're a fledgling agency and don't have a lot of money to spend. But, we're going to start.
The idea is pure open source. Want to steal it? It's yours. Change the name, run with it—what do I care?
The point is, it's a good idea. And I'm not hung up on who gets the credit. (Not entirely true. I have this dream of shaking Charlie Rose's hand.)
Want to support MentalGreen.org? Contact us at www.mentalgreen.org
And, beginning now, start counting the particles that pervade the marketing miasma: the messages that you are swimming in and have, in all likelihood, become inured to.
With time, I think you'll agree that, like the frog on the way to his own soup, there is a point at which mere adaptation becomes your—and our culture's—worst enemy.