The Engine of American Unreason

Many wonder about the sources of the profound irrationality of contemporary U.S. culture and society. The main modern engine of this continuing trend has long bragged about what it does, and why, and how:

SAP Chief Marketing Officer Alicia Tillman made the point that this is also good business. She said “humans experience 27 different kinds of feelings and today consumers are using emotions more and more to drive purchasing decisions. In a study of 1,400 ad campaigns, those with purely emotional content performed twice as well as those with purely rational content.” But from there her message got a bit more, well, transactional. “We need to get experiential data to help us understand those 27 feelings,” she said.

Reported in Advertising Age, October 7, 2019

Paging Dr. Pavlov

drooling dog

Behind the scenes, big business marketers view their “targets” precisely as Ivan Pavlov viewed his laboratory dogs.

Jeremy Helfand, VP & Head of Advertising Platforms at Hulu, labors to figure how to get modern TV users to pay attention to sponsors’ ads. This requires, Helfand says, a trope that “rewards the viewer for this natural experience, this natural behavior that’s now happening in streaming television.”

It’s cute, of course, that watching television now counts as a “natural behavior,” but you get the point. Rewarded behaviors.

Sugar & Pets

Mars, Incorporated, which makes profits from selling candy and pet supplies and services, wants you to see yourself as a hero of human civilization for keeping a pet dog. Of course they do!

In the process, you are asked to forget that George Washington was a major slave-owner, a fact that rather overshadows whatever love he may have had for dogs, and that it was certainly not snowing on October 4 in Germantown, which is a suburb of Philadelphia. Ah, but in the ongoing reign of Patriotic Correctness, it was always snowing on our ragtag tepeed pure-of-heart Heroes, wasn’t it?

“Follow the flattery,” says Leslie Savan.

“How strong, deep, or sustaining,” wondered Robert Heilbroner, “can be the values of a civilization that generates a ceaseless flow of half-truths and careful deceptions?”

Consumer Vocab Note

marx According to the quasi-official English version of Karl Marx’s essay, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” hosted at marxists.org, Marx is supposed to have written this sentence:

“Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society.”

Here, however, is what Marx actually wrote, auf Deutsch:

“Jede einzelne Bauernfamilie genügt beinahe sich selbst, produziert unmittelbar selbst den größten Teil ihres Konsums und gewinnt so ihr Lebensmaterial mehr im Austausche mit der Natur als im Verkehr mit der Gesellschaft.”

Properly translated, “ihres Konsums” means “its consumption,” not “its consumer needs.”

If TCT is right that “consumer” is a capitalist bias that ruins clear thinking about reality, then this little over- and mis-translation is of some importance, despite its obscurity.

The translator responsible was Saul K. Padover, by the way.

The “18th Brumaire,” by the way, is the source of one of the most classic (and itself poorly translated) statements of sociology’s hard-won first insight:

People make their own history, but they make it not however they want, not under self-selected circumstances, but out of the actual given and transmitted situation.

Surrendering the Brain

Science fiction has hinted at such transitions, but they may be nearer at hand than you might presume, here in our market totalitarian culture. Check out the new brain substitute from your friends at Amazon.com:

Television, of course, could very justly be seen as another brain substitute. But it, at least, is generally used with the awareness of its idiot boxery. This Orwellian device invites its smiling victims to congratulate themselves for how cutting edge it is to surrender your last few scraps of self-directed inquiry and action over to the corporate behavior-programming/commodity-pushing nexus.