Posts Tagged ‘Gorgias’

Protein, pastries, and Plato.

April 28, 2009

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 Answers.com 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!