Handy Travel Packets
Lord Vader, Maul, and all things Sith have arrived from a galaxy far, far away intent on conquering a brave new world... the world of Advertising.
I come to South America to escape the Sith. But there is no escape. Obi Wan and Anakin, like so many consumptive, hacking, library patrons, are omnipresent. Riding high on every billboard and placard, they enter my mind with talk of sales promotions and Slurpee tie-ins. With Buddha-like detachment, they invade my soda pop and metastasize into my tacos; they make mixed metaphor and frolic about magazine pages, crossing light-sabers under the faux-pensive visage of their multi-chinned creator. Throttle further my churlishness, Jedi does, hmmm? I come to Peru to force the Force out, but it lingers on my skin like alcoholic sweat, wafting into my nose and down my throat. The veracity of the Sith is inescapable; I run across continents but it is never far enough. ¡Dios Mio!
There is a ritzy mall dug into a three-hundred foot cliff across the street from my hotel in Lima. It is called Larcomar, and in it Darth Vader and Sancho Panza (clad in a Storm Trooper disguise) drum up business. They alternately twirl, charm, connive, and threaten passersby with the power of the Schwartz (see: Mel Brooks' Spaceballs) and promises of an upsized popcorn-soda combo. I am jet-lagged and upon seeing them, I weep. I have come to Peru to escape conspicuous consumption and I fail, miserably at that.
Armed with my Yankee dollars I contribute to an otherwise cocaine-fueled economy with the purchase of Inca Cola T-shirts and useless, eh, how you say, knick-knacks. I thrive in functional disparity as I travel to an iffy part of town where I spend less than two bucks for a huge lunch and haggle with an artisan over a 50 cent handicraft that took him a month to make. I feel glorious basking in my thrift. The guidebook I hold elevates my feelings of self-importance as I look with disdain upon the urchins, wondering why they're not in school, then lament the allowances of the second-and-a-half world. I embrace my status as an American tourist and eat a Big Mac. Like the Millennium Falcon in technological hyper-speed, the cultural imperialist thrives. The infiltration is complete, the Empire struck back. It is as if I never left, but I know I must have. I remember
In my last column I discussed the internet as it effects librarianship and the role of the researcher, while also noting the primarily financial motives of the content provider (who/what runs/pays for the website). In this installment, I would like to continue in much the same vein, that of the concept of advertising as editorial content and vice-versa (AKA the Sith), though expanding my characterization beyond the internet to include all forms of consumer media, even (aghast!) the printed page. The necessitated continuation of the theme crystallized itself amid the truly offensive pages of my American Airways in-flight reading material. And lest you think "Bad Librarian" deigns to "vacation reading", it was not some GQ-Maxim shit-rag. Alhough once, on a flight some time ago, through sheer desperation I read an issue of Maxim cover-to-cover. It was as insulting and vapid as I imagined it would be Bitches & Bling: content as marketing frat-boy self-improvement) but the venerable mag of liberal elitist (read: discerning) snobs like myself what but Thy New Yorker.
The advertisements in The New Yorker are usually inoffensive enough, humorous if anything in their completely missing the mark on any estimation of my disposable income: ads for Rolexes and Lexuses (or is it Ro(Lex)i?) mostly. But in the last few issues a new type of encroachment into my personal No-Ad zone has begun. In the particular issue I read on the flight to Miami (the first leg to Lima), it was the "article" on the machinations of what makes a bestselling book. I mockingly quote "article" for buried within the fine print of this six-page monstrosity were the words, "Special Advertising Section". And clearly, to any regular reader of the magazine, it was just that: an overblown infotainment bought and paid for by some unnamed publishing behemoth namedropping the hopeful big summer hits.
To those less familiar with The New Yorker style guidelines, it was perhaps a reasoned article of the kind one might find in People or Time, except longer. With no clarification whatsoever (aside from those few brief and minute words setting it off as advertising copy) an article-ad-thing masqueraded as quality information in a magazine I bought at a fair price. In exchange for my hard earned dollars I held the expectation that I would be reading quality journalism and not rubbish more akin to Flowbee-master inventor Ron Popeil's spew on late-night television. I assume the ad people figured those previously mentioned discerning readers of The New Yorker would prefer feature-length advertising to the normal BUY THIS (It'll get you laid/skinny/happy/re-laid) full page glossy. The editorial staff though, to their credit, did have the courtesy to stick it in the center spread; I harmed a mere staple removing the perverse eyesore from my magazine and person, though it is true that my row-mate was more than a little alarmed at my display of righteous indignation.
The sad truth is that most everything these days is some form of advertising: puff "personality" articles, a goodly percentage of pandering music and movie reviews, and lame-ass "features" about this or that "star" (just like the more obvious 30-second spots on television or radio) are all the same: some guy out to make a buck shilling for some other guy out to make a bigger buck. As consumers, viewers, readers, and clickers, we must remain vigilant (Dear God, I sound like George Bush) to the source and purpose of the content or risk further indoctrination into a consumer sentiment naturally conditioned to what is already an ad-heavy environment. Just think of any woman's fashion magazine and the 100+ pages of ads that precede the table of contents; the intent is clear: the articles serve the advertising and not the other way 'round.
When I worked at Entertainment Weekly, I used to get every magazine put out by the Time-Warner Empire delivered to my desk on a regular basis. Once, while flipping through In Style, Entertainment Weekly, Time, and sundry other tree-killing periodicals, I was shocked by the profusion of Pokéman stories. "What's up with all the Pokéman?" I asked myself, "Have the little rodents done something untoward? Are they rodents? I don't even know."
I then turned to my colleague, "Hey, what's the deal with Pokéman?" "Beats me," my copy-running compatriot responded with a shrug. My words once again turned inward, "Does Time really feel the need to cover Pokéman when Entertainment Weekly is already doing such a bang-up job? This is indeed peculiar. Why the media saturation?" It was then that I realized that the Pokéman movie, a Warner Brothers Studio production (that is Time-Warner), was coming out that following week, hence the increased coverage hence the Pokéman related "news".
I was appalled by the breach of my editorial trust and, needless to say, my office surliness increased tenfold and I was dismissed shortly thereafter. Some here might respond to the contrary (along with calling me a naïve fool but, but, but had you stayed you could have met J-Lo!) with statements proclaiming the democratization of media through blogs, alternative websites, and lots of other shit all of three people read. Duly noted, but watch a blog get a sizable readership then witness the march to pop-up ads begin.
As I recall, rather painfully, the example I used in last month's "Bad Librarian" to illustrate the manipulation of media to advertising ends was a medical website who's content, i.e. the "factual" information contained therein, was designed and written with the intention of selling a cure to the ailment being researched. This form of clever duplicity is becoming increasingly commonplace. The internet, by its very nature as a user-controlled medium, along with other technological improvements such as TIVO and XM Radio, make the "not locked into network four-channel monotony consumer" a harder-to-reach audience. Courtesy of this new dynamic, advertisers and their respective producers of consumer goods and services are forced to try that much harder, and work that much more insidiously to get into our minds and wallets. As a result, advertising has merged with content to create a Frankenstein of propagandistic "entertainment", and like so many caged hunks of veal, we gorge ourselves on George Lucas' X-Box sponsored saccharine teat and wait for the axe to fall.
I realize it is nothing unusual or particularly original to rail on consumer culture or the advertising monstrosity that stands with it, or the countless people who actually buy into the notion that by consuming shit, their lives (which will end just as they began, alone and dead), might be a little more bearable that Charlie Sheen will somehow make them okay, or at least make them forget about how bad things suck for a half an hour (including ads) once a week. And I realize that many consumers are in all likelihood aware of how deeply instilled advertising is in visual popular culture, but I believe that when it comes to the written word (Bad Librarian's purview) consumers are still, for the most part, blinded to the fact that they are being manipulated.
There is something about a book that ordains authority. This pronouncement (with mixed success depending on one's penchant for conspiracy theories and/or regular media-awareness coupled with critical thinking skills) trickles down to the books' cousins in the print media, namely magazines, newspapers and now, websites. But the simple fact is that they are just as reprehensible and profiteering as anyone else, even, as illustrated, the venerable New Yorker. Lifestyles magazines exist to sell a lifestyle; to think that the content would not be geared to the same end is fanciful. Georgie L.'s simplistic and childish Blockbuster blockbuster is merely the latest major Hollywood usurper of my free will (and free time); the marketing conceit the Sith typifies is pervasive and disturbing. Perhaps the most nauseating example during my seven hour exercise in forced mastication of sales pellets in foie gras airborne commerce fashion was the ad in my in-flight "meal". There was a tri-color fold out brochure for some plastic item, in the little plastic wrapped, plastic, plastic, bag of my (plastic) silverware. The flight-attendant's knowing words, "Buen apetito Señor Grievous," tightened my electro-jowls into a feckless sneer as it was confirmed to Bad Librarian that everything is in service to the Sith.
In the interest of a fair and balanced tone to this month's column, celebration of a small victory would now be appropriate. The House, in a surprise move, voted to do away with that nasty Section 215 mentioned in my first installment, "Bad Librarian Episode IV" (I ain't got to the shitty prequels yet). As a result, The Patriot Act will no longer give the feds authority over library or bookstore records (though they will still have access to library internet records). In an unprecedented display of wit and wisdom, House Republican leadership described the unexpected victory as, "the crazies on the left and the crazies on the right, meeting in the middle", as if there was something wrong with that in representative democracy. Though certainly a positive development, I'm not getting my hopes up, as Bush has threatened a veto.