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Placebos and ads

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Saturday, Sep 24, 2005

I’ve just taken a few ibuprofins for my headache, and now I’m indulging my magic faith in medicine, expecting the headache to go away. It isn’t. Perhaps if I watched a few ads for a branded placebo I could take, my headache would be more responsive. The placebo effect has always fascinated me because it seems to me the essence of advertisements. The psychological methods to sell goods flow directly from the placebo effect. The placebo effect shows that there’s a raw power in simply believing what we read or hear; it underwrites and vindicates a faith in the face of rationality for the sensational claims advertisers make for sham products. The histroy of consumer capitalism is closely bound up with that most durable and profitable of commodities, the patent medicine. I’ve recently argued that pornography might be the commodity ne plus ultra of modern American society. The patent medicine was arguably the quintessential commodity of the nineteenth century, the commodity that consists of nothing but what ad copy attributes to it; it literally doesn’t exist as commodity without its marketing component. It’s the anti-durable good, it preys entirely on ignorance, credulity, and desperation on the consumer’s part.


I used to wonder if the efficacy of placebos was reliant on the activity of one’s imagination. In other words, does having an active imagination makes placebos work better for you, or make you more susceptible to believing marketing promises? I sometimes think that entertainment’s function is to strengthen the imagination to make ads work better, to make us more willing partners in constructing ad discourse’s fantasy world of perfectly efficacious and emotionally nourishing products. Imagination becomes the alibi for our being duped—we like being duped (as PT Barnum knew) because it has worked the muscles of our imagination, because in being fooled we broaden our inner world even as our scope of action in the real world is curtailed. Because we like being duped, because this enables our placebos (the gizmos and tchtchkes of consumer culture) to make us feel better, we embrace ad culture and invite it to structure more of our lives and identities. (This is sort of what James Twitchell argues in his books, but he gives it all a positive spin.)


Ads posit a person we want to be, not merely a rich, attractive, forever youthful person, but a person who is open, optimistic, trusting, not cynical, susceptible to spotaneous warm feeling, and quick to accept intimacy. Our culture works hard to make those traits that make one vulnerable to ad exploitation seem desirable traits, to be signs of our “feeling heart”—this is why 18th century sensibility, the discourse of spontaneous warm feeling and trust, of imagining another’s feelings, was so critical to kicking off ad-driven consumer culture. By not being skeptical of ads, we can demonstrate our feeling heart, our good nature. If we’re bitter, skeptical, resistant, we prove how deviously calculating we are, how miserly and suspcious. Irrational behavior is made, via entertainment, to be seen as pleasurable, de facto. Rational behavior is on the other hand suspicious. Eighteenth-century sensibility first codified these oppostions (with its key tropes that become proto-brand-names capable of evoking a predictable emotional response that bypasses reason), which were extended as commercial entertainment developed. Advertising adopts the function popular entertainment thinks it has to itself, providing the medium through which people comprehend their own feelings and desires.


Customarily we celebrate the imagination in our culture as this unquestionable force for good, as if more imagiantion automatically equals a richer life, a healthier culture. But the broadening imagination tends to be in the service of making us adapt ourselves to consumerism, to make more of what mass culture serves us. Niche marketing and “productive” consumption ruses expand our imaginations but along what seem like the wrong channels. The expansion of our mental world through consumer goods and what we can do with them inhibits our ability to imagine alternatives to consumerism, to conceive of alternate pleasures to shopping, pleasures that afford richer and more lasting satisfaction.

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