Protein, pastries, and Plato.

Under the terms of my month-long advertising purge, I can no longer drink milk or eat peanuts. I have also been forced to break my longstanding Subway sandwich habit cold turkey (ba dum ching).

At this point, I’m tempted to shield my eyes every time I pass a billboard, just to preserve a few pleasures. Over the weekend I was walking in my Brooklyn neighborhood with my love when I saw a hand-painted sign announcing that there would soon be a flea market.

“Ooo, let’s go,” said my part fashion-queen, part shopaholic, all butch companion.

“I can’t go now that I’ve seen that!” I wailed, pointing to the sign.

“But that’s not advertising,” she objected. And after a few moments of further deliberation, I was sure she was right (whew! now I can continue my hunt for the perfect sailor dress under $10). What I wasn’t sure about was precisely why this wasn’t advertising. Today I referred to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary, where “advertise” is defined as:

To give public notice of, to make publicly known, or call attention to, by a published announcement in a journal, by a circular, etc., as ‘to advertise the resolutions of a meeting’; and with various elliptical constructions, as ‘to advertise goods (for sale), a child or ring (as lost),’ etc.

Highly unsatisfying. Advertising is much more than a public announcement, and journals and circulars aren’t the half of it. And the phrase “various elliptical constructions,” while humorous, does little to convey the power of slogans (not to mention images, music, etc) routinely used to sell products.

I found this somewhat more thorough definition in the Marketing Dictionary:

[To] appeal to a mass audience through the communications media for the purpose of calling attention to a product, service, idea, or organization so as to arouse a desire to purchase or patronize, to give information or to modify the thinking about, to promote the concept of, to motivate behavior toward, or otherwise to persuade the general public to buy, approve, or support the product, service, idea, or organization.

Yes. Advertising seeks to modify our thinking and our behavior. It is not an educational announcement (like the flea market sign), because it’s aim is not merely to inform. It’s aim is to persuade, to create a new understanding, a new reality — one in which the product is irresistible.

To get a little philosophical on your proverbial asses: advertising is rhetoric.

Did anyone else love Plato’s Gorgias as much as I did? In these dialogues, Plato explores the difference between philosophers (who seek truth) and rhetoricians (who seek to persuade, irrespective of truth). Plato likens rhetoricians to pastry bakers: both produce something that is compelling to the senses but which has no real substance or value — no truth. Plato (or Socrates, the real-life character in whose voice Plato writes) felt that rhetoric was a destructive force — one which was chipping away at the foundations of democracy in Athens — and he committed himself to maintaining “purity of mind and soul.” It was Socrates’s insistence on truth that led to his eventual execution.

You read it here first, folks: no pastries = death.

On that note, I’m off to lunch, to find food I can still eat from a restaurant or grocery I can still eat from. Wish me luck!


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5 Responses to “Protein, pastries, and Plato.”

  1. Sebastian Says:

    Great post. I’ve read the Gorgias, but I wouldn’t have thought to apply it to advertising. Makes a lot of sense. Plato would be rolling in his grave if he could see how things look in our world today.

  2. undercoverpunk Says:

    Hahaha! I LOVE it when you get all philosophical on my proverbial ass!

    (What were you, a philosophy major or something?? Me too! 😉

    Yes, I read the Gorgias and I found it ironic because I think Plato was a rhetorician himself! Though he died for his beliefs, there was always some moment in his foolish Socratic dialogues that I could identify as the turning point from which point we no longer agreed. I always wanted to be like, no, no, explain!!

    The one thing Plato and I *do* agree upon is the equality (read: GREATNESS) of the female mind. Awwww, yeah!

  3. parnassia Says:

    You go girl!

    A good start is of course to try to avoid advertisements. Might sound hard, but it’s worth giving it a try!

    You could cancel your subscription to television receiving. I did so and enjoy it still everyday. Now, we use the tv only for watching movies. If there’s a program on tv which I want to see (which is rarely the case) I watch it online. Additional benefit: you can see the program without the advertising which is broadcasted before and after the program!

    Second, I don’t know about your place, but in NL we have a sticker for on the mailbox. It says something like “no thanks, no advertising please” and it really works. No more folders full of products that I don’t want to own! This sticker is quite popular in NL and the postmen respect it. It was designed for people to avoid creating waste, but it’s also perfect for preventing needs popping up in you – needs of which you never before realised you had them.

    Keep it up!

  4. peachy Says:

    I love this thought process – and I think you’ve also nailed why stuff that’s not supposed to be advertising is just about as exhausting as advertising. Such as the signs and recorded announcements on the London Underground with huffy, grammatically tortured notices like “doors when leaned on cause mechanical failures and delays”. Clearly this is not simple information. And I don’t want my behavior modified by someone who refuses to use the active voice.

    If I were on your diet, I’d have to forgo being considerate to strangers and relishing Britain’s place in the canon of popular cinema, as there are annoyingly ubiquitous PSA campaigns for both. But come to think of it, it would be a lot of fun to flout politeness, turn my headphones up loud and dig into some smelly food. (Yes, that’s one of the explicit taboos.)

  5. Malcolm Says:

    This is late, but just saw it and thought of your post:

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