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Archive for March, 2010

BMW vs. Krasdale

March 27, 2010 4 comments

If you’ve ever watched TV with me, you have perhaps noticed that I have two basic modes of interaction with the frequent barrage of advertisements that one is subjected to during said activity.

My most basic mode is to ignore the commercials completely; to zone out and think about something else entirely. You will see that this is the case, for example, when you comment to me on a commercial that has just aired, and your words to me are met with a blank pause. This means I am accessing my immediate short term memory to see if I can recall enough relevant information from the commercial to venture forth a coherent response to your comment (this happens to me a lot–not just with commercials; I really need to work on this!). Usually the answer is no.

My secondary mode, however, is an attitude of active scorn towards the commercials that I am being subjected to. Here, I attempt to come up with humorous comments relating to the ridiculousness of the position put forth, implicitly or explicitly, by the commercial. Normally, I would consider scorn to be, spiritually, dangerous territory. Scorn is an infectious condition of mind. When one seeks actively to scoff and mock one thing, the attitude spreads and begins to affect all areas of life. One becomes a scoffer. So I try to avoid it. However, when it comes to advertising, I just cannot help myself. It doesn’t help that, in fact, I believe that scorn towards many commercials may be entirely justified, morally. Here is an example:

(I cringe, by the way, at the fact that Patrick Stewart allowed his voice to be used for this commercial)

The last line is what I would like to focus on: “At BMW, we don’t just make cars. We make joy.” Considered as a bare statement of fact, this sentence is completely and utterly absurd. How could a car company “make joy?” What on earth could that ever even mean in this context? Is it even remotely within their capacity to determine whether or not the people who drive their cars will be joyful or not? It would seem that that depends on a lot of factors completely beyond the control of a car manufacturer. And what, by the way, is wrong with just making cars? Isn’t that what you are supposed to do as a car company; isn’t that what society expects you to do?

Here is what I am not saying. I am not saying that a car company has no right to make cars that are fun to drive, and to have that be a guiding principle behind their efforts, perhaps as an idea that shapes the company’s approach to what they are doing. Indeed that may be a good thing. Car manufactures should think about the experience people have while driving, to consider how the lives of the people who use their product are affected by it. We could use more of that, in fact. But that is not what is going on here. We have, instead, an attempt at manipulation, an effort to sell a certain image. What is upsetting to me is the posturing, and the attempt at psychological manipulation. It is fundamentally dishonest, this dishonesty is easily perceivable to any thinking person, and the only reason we, as a society, tolerate such behavior is because we have gotten used to it.

By the way, a good way of measuring the honesty of a commercial is to forget that the appeal you are being given is the invention of corporation, or a marketing team, and imagine that the claims are being put forth by an ordinary human being. What if it was a single individual building your car, and he said to you before he began: “by the way, if you are considering hiring someone else to do this job, keep this in mind: I am not just making you a car. I’m making joy, for you!” Wouldn’t such a person seem to you to be completely nuts?

Now this commercial is not, by any means, out of the ordinary. I do find it frightening that we live in a mental climate where such absurd statements come to us day in and day out, and yet we rarely blink an eye. These sort of statements are the norm now; indeed advertisers are routinely expected to come up with such things, to brand their products in certain ways, to generate out of thin air a perception of what the product is like, simply so that people will buy it.

I feel bad now, because I know some people in advertising, marketing, or related jobs, and I believe that they would feel I haven’t given a fair portrayal of the sorts of things that they do. So I should say, not all such things are subject to my disapproval. Here is an example of what, in my view, is excellent branding, full of honesty:

Ah, Krasdale! The name itself suggests that this company has virtually no concern about its image. “24 Heavy Duty Pieces”–I love it! This is exactly what you are getting, and you are told right on the box exactly how much it costs. Wouldn’t it be great if BMW followed suit? They could say simply, “here is our new, luxury car, for 40,350 dollars.” They could even print the price on the car itself! That would be great. By the way, I got this price off of a third party website; the BMW website tried to sell me “lifestyle products,” and did not have a price tag in clear sight. I closed the tab after it started playing a video without my permission.

But the Krasdale branding is great because it reflects what the company actually is: a company that makes a variety of different cheap items that you can buy at the supermarket. You know, going in, that there is nothing spectacular about their product. It is cheap and generic. But they have what you need: spoons, coffee filters, etc. Now let’s turn the box over and see what else they have to say about this particular product.

Beautiful! Not a single statement there that I can honestly accuse of being false. See, with Krasdale, I know what I’m getting: I’m getting some cheap plastic spoons. That’s what I wanted, after all, when I bought them (actually, I didn’t buy these particular spoons, but you get my point). The product tells you what it is, lists its relevant attributes, and doesn’t claim to be anything more. The strongest push they make is simply in reminding you of what plastic spoons are good for: “For easy serving and cleanup, include Krasdale plastic cutlery at your next occasion!” That is, indeed, why someone would buy plastic spoons.

It tells us also that they are heavy duty, with a “large bowl, suitable for soup.” It is good that they point these things out, because these are legitimate points of reservation when purchasing plastic spoons: whether they will work well for soup, and also whether they will be sturdy. But there is no oversell. I can imagine a more audacious plastic spoon company perhaps making, in a complicated advertising campaign, some sort of convoluted appeal to self interest, by harping on the freedom that one gains by not having to worry about using the dishwasher. But not Krasdale.

But be forewarned, advertisers: don’t take this praise of Krasdale as in invitation to, in cynical postmodern fashion, make this “no-nonsense honesty” your image, or something like that. I’m serious: don’t. I can tell when you do that.

Categories: Uncategorized

The pearl of great price

March 9, 2010 4 comments

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46)

There is nothing of greater value in the whole universe, in all that exists, than Jesus Christ. Such is the conclusion anyone may come to, and stake his life on that conclusion. And at the moment of decision, it seems simple enough: what does the rest of reality have to offer, apart from him? Success, pleasure, fame? These will all die. You may think yourself above such things, above the pursuits of the rabble, (as I do, in my pride), but that makes no difference. Our more subtle and refined idols will die as well.

What can a man really give in exchange for his life? The principle is simple enough; it is absurdity to cast our hope on anyone else but he whose very self defines goodness, and who can raise us from the dead. Yes, that is a simple truth, accessible to anyone who really considers his state in life, but it is easily forgotten, as life goes on. As life goes on, Christ seems abstract and far away, whereas all the hopes and goals of this life are tangible and real. I have my life before me to live, and so often the goals I have set for myself seem to be all that matters.

What if I never get my degree? What if I never make a valuable contribution to human knowledge? What if I never find love? These things, which motivate me, which build in me fear and anxiety–what have they ever truly delivered to me? Have they given me a moment of real peace? Why is it so hard to listen to the simple promise, of the Lord God Almighty, who made all things, to simply rest in him, in what he can do? I think it is because, deep down, I believe that if this whole thing turns out to be untrue, if what I stake all my hope in is not there at all, I want to still have lived a good life. In other words, I am double minded and wish to serve two masters.

This is how the world fools us. It is utterly unreasonable to put our eternal hope in that which will inevitably pass away. Yet we come to think just the opposite. We think it unreasonable to do otherwise. The tempter says to us: don’t waste your life chasing after an illusion, an ancient superstition! This life is what matters. You know that you have the here and now. Don’t waste it.

Of course it is a lie. Nothing that does not endure can truly be wasted, because it has no ultimate future anyway. This is obvious. Moreover, living for the world’s promises will not make one happy in the long run, will not give us real peace or joy. It can deliver a semblance of these things. But they, not being grounded in their true, ultimate source, and not being in accord with all his ways, will pass away. But Christ tells us,

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14.27)

Not as the world gives does he give. Let us be glad in that.

Categories: Uncategorized

Money

March 1, 2010 1 comment

In my last post, I talked about the tragic misapplication of quantitative constructs, how our quantitative ideas become idols that break their promises and enslave us. Here, I would like to focus particular attention on what is perhaps the most universal and potentially destructive quantitative construct known to man: money.

Unlike most of our modern quantitative idols, money has been around pretty much forever, though we tend to relate to it somewhat uniquely today. What is dangerous about money? Well, I believe money is dangerous because it has no intrinsic value, but is nevertheless inextricably woven into the fabric of our society in such a way as to make it both highly desirable and essential to the very functioning of that society. The exchange of money is basic to the practical functioning of our society. Consequently, this valueless abstraction can take on ultimate value. This is the paradox of money: though it is worth everything to some people sometimes, there is no way to really say what it is worth. It actually has no worth–if we tried to describe what it actually is, we couldn’t. It is nothing. And yet, it can do for us practically anything that we want it to do. And it gives us power precisely because it is collectively recognized as being something that everyone wants. But the only fundamental reason people want it, initially at least, is because of the power it may give, because of what it can do.

This is not to say that people only pursue money for selfish gain, for an increase of individual power and freedom. Some people pursue money, at first, only to survive, because without it they will not have food or shelter or some other basic need. I only mean that the main reason people have ever wanted money at all, initially at least, is because it can purchase them something else, something else that they either want or need. And this is because money is a universally recognized mediator of transactions. This is not a deep observation, but it is still quite incredible, when you think about it. I can do nothing more than hand someone this little slip of paper, or swipe a card, and they will do something for me, or give me something. Because of this, we build an unconscious sense that the money itself has some sort of power.

Along with having this collectively acknowledged power, money compresses a massive amount of information–billions of human decisions and interactions taking place every day–into a single, linearly ordered concept. It mushes together a complicated and dynamic web of interactions into a single, measurable quantity which is then itself reused in the process of social interaction. Thus when we spend money, make decisions about money, and base decisions on money, we are engaging ourselves in a causal web–a dynamic web of interactions, with practical and moral dimensions–that we have very little information about.

Incidentally, one of the things that has always appealed to me about conservative economic philosophy is that it seems aware of this “dynamic web” in a way that liberal thinking (or at least, liberal rhetoric) usually seems to ignore. It is a wise thing to recognize that tinkering with something we don’t understand rarely results in the effect we intend, and that it is perhaps better to let money be what it naturally is than to try to force an “equal distribution of wealth.” In spite of this insight, the conservative approach to economics–with its adoration of the free market as being able to sort everything out in the best possible way–ultimately leaves me cold.

It is true that free markets preserve essential information about the economy in a way that a controlled market never could, and that this is most likely the essential flaw in all centrally administered “redistribution of wealth” ideas. But we still have, in a capitalist system, the problems of hording, of lack, and of poverty. We still have to deal with the fact that businesses fail, and that this has consequences for real people–we have to face the fact that in a “competitive economy,” some people will always lose things that are important to have. Liberal solutions to these issues usually do not work, but conservatives usually don’t have a solution at all.  They do, I suppose, have the “trickle down” idea. This is the idea that, when enough overall wealth is created, everyone will have enough of a share of it to cover their basic needs. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be what happens! If we just leave money to do its job, society doesn’t magically organize itself in an optimal way (despite what Milton Friedman might have you believe!).

Ultimately, I think that the root of social lack, of poverty, is clearly NOT the way we choose to organize our wealth. Poverty is not really a matter of whether we are capitalists or socialist or communists–these overarching organizing principles are scapegoats. Why does anyone starve, why does anyone go without? The fundamental answer to this cannot really have to do with how we organize our money. Really, I think that any organization of wealth structure can succeed if people are fundamentally honest and generous within it. So the lack of wealth for some people is only a symptom of a more basic flaw. It is fundamentally a lack of love, a lack of consideration for our fellow man, that drives poverty–how we think of money is tied up in this, though it is not the only factor, of course. But as long as our conscious minds assign to personal wealth a value that it does not have, poverty will exist.

The idea that there is a tangible and meaningful measurement of what is “mine,” that I can hang on to this and control it and rest in it, is one of the major things that causes me to neglect my neighbor. As long as I hold tight to such a concept, I will pursue my own good at the expense of others, and some people will go without. In line with this more basic problem, we have allowed an abstraction to become so deeply ingrained in our concept of what is valuable that we would turn our backs on our neighbor because of considerations related to money. Every day, thoughts of money cause me to make selfish decisions, to not consider my fellow man. This lack of consideration is tied up in the abstraction of money itself, in me assigning to it a value that is out of proportion to what it is, which causes me to think about it too much and in the wrong way.

Categories: Uncategorized