Monthly Archives: May 2011

On advertising

Please note: this is the short version of a much longer thesis on the negative impact of advertising. I have spared you.

Recently I had a lively discussion with a young woman regarding the multi-billion dollar magazine industry, in particular fashion and lifestyle magazines, and their love affair with advertisers. Though I am neither particularly interested nor well-versed in the latest whims of the fashion industry, I am interested in the reasoning behind people’s choices, including those we perceive as perfectly mundane.
In this case I became annoyed, having casually flipped open a magazine of the high-end, high-gloss variety and being unable to find the table of contents. Having no vested interest in how to apply what make-up, or learning from the hallowed pages of a magazine twelve wonderful new ways to please my man, I was looking instead for the one and only article featured on the cover in which I had even the slightest bit of faith that it may contain some interesting information. Alas, to my utmost consternation, no table of contents was to be had despite having a general understanding of its approximate location in similar magazines: near the front.
In the magazine in question however the first 52 pages(!) were reserved not for such mere utilitarian purposes, but had been given over to the taloned clutches of the revenue department. They in turn had phoned up an impressive list of companies whose names and products now graced these first 52 pages in lieu of a table of contents.
Let me start by saying that I do understand the appeal of advertisement revenue for the magazine. I understand that when confronted with the choice of being merely rich and becoming inordinately wealthy, most of us choose the latter. In fact this behavior is tempered in most of us only by lack of availability and, in some cases, excellent morals. We can safely assume that people selected to generate revenue lack the latter so let us focus on the former. The magazine has ample space to place advertisements, and subsequently does so with abandon. I want to stress: this is their prerogative. Having said that however, the magazine company should consider that its customer base does not buy their magazine for the advertisements; they buy it for the content. Be it for entertainment, education, or otherwise, people buy magazines for their content, which relegates advertisements to the long list of things in our modern, capitalist lives deemed “necessary evils.”
What does that mean? To me a necessary evil is something that is devoid of merit, even a burden to others, but cannot be avoided for some reason. Hence ‘evil’ – a decidedly negative connotation – is affixed to the ‘necessary’ bit, the part that deals with its right of existence. It would stand to reason then that we, the people, would prefer to be subjected to the least possible number of these necessary evils. It would further stand to reason that the magazine company understands this simple truth about its consumers. Thus, it would make sense to have enough advertisements (a necessary evil) featured in your magazine to pay for the production costs, whilst generating the rest of your revenue through sales. Apparently, that is not the reality in which magazines are made however. Where I had naively believed magazines were about providing people with information, I have since come to understand that magazines are the vehicles of advertising for other companies, the magazine content being the limp worm meant to attract fish who are then subsequently caught by the razor sharp hook of advertising. The primary customers for magazines therefore are the companies using their glossy pages of shameless prostitution to revenues for their own gain. We, the people, are a secondary concern for the magazines, made important only by virtue of being able to sell more advertising space if the magazine itself sells well. After all, the more idiots buy these short-lived coffee table bibles, the more people will be subjected to less-than-subliminal advertisements. So eagerly these magazine companies suck at the teat of capitalism, that it has become commonplace to have to actively search through hundreds of pages to find the very thing which used to be central to the magazine’s purpose: information.
The girl with whom I was speaking was at first confused at my consternation and then appalled by my lack of fondness for the status quo in the magazine world. When I proposed that advertisements serve no purpose to the target audience of the magazine and should therefore be relegated to the back of the magazine I was scoffed at. “The back of the magazine – what they call ‘the well’” she added patronizingly “is where all the information is!”( I should mention that her working for a huge magazine company probably did not help getting through to her.) “Yes” I responded “that much has become painfully clear.” She wanted to know what the problem was. I told her in the simplest way I knew how: “I do not wish to be advertised to.” Her face first went white with shock, as though I had cursed the name of God himself, and then red with rage as she prepared to counter my blasphemy.
The conversation after that was lively. Had she been my physical equal, there would have been a massive fight I am sure. As it happened, the fight remained in the ring of words, but was no less heated as a result. My position remains the same as it did that day. I do not wish to be advertised to. I accept that advertising is a necessary evil and that it generates revenue that allows for things to be developed. I even admit that advertising helps keep the costs to the consumer down. Yes, I really do understand the basic precepts of economics – despite them being an utter bore – but I am unmoved by the willingness of people to forsake their principles in favor of that extra dollar. It is said that every man has his price, and if that is true than I believe most of you sell yourselves far too cheaply. Advertisements, in this case in magazines, should be relegated to the back of the magazine, at the end of the content, where it may be viewed at the discretion of the consumer, not the other way around. In a world where the advertising is more important than the content of the magazine, I state here and now that I am no longer willing to pay for such a magazine. By buying a magazine I become part of a statistic – sales figures – which are interpreted not to determine how qualitatively good the magazine is, but how well is sells. I am not interested in how well the magazine sells; I am interested in its contents. If the balance of content to advertisements is such that the table of contents is relegated to page 52 then I believe the magazine does not care about its content enough to tell the 51 advertisers who preceded it to go fuck themselves, take a number, and line up at the back of the magazine where they belong. Moreover, by insisting being in the front of the magazine, purposely placing their products where people will be forced to look at them on their way to the table of contents and the content of the magazine itself, these companies are admitting their products cannot be taken on their own merit. They are failing in their mission to sell me something I didn’t ask for, and are instead actively telling me that they believe that if given the choice I would not choose their product over that of their competitors. In their attempt to take this choice away from me they have made my choice that much easier: if given the choice I indeed will not choose their product – not because I believe it to be of inferior quality, but because they believed me to be of inferior intellect, unable to make up my mind for myself.
I can only hope that in my desire to be a discerning consumer by being selective in the products I buy I spark a hastily convened, emergency meeting of the great advertisers of this world where a dialogue will develop along these lines:
“The people are catching on! They know! They know we’re patronizing them by flaunting our disdain for them whilst simultaneously compelling them to buy the shit we’re selling! What are we going to do?” To which another shameless advertiser will say: “Calm down, Johnson! How many people know?” To which the answer will be: “So far only one, Sir, but if this free will and sense of awareness catches on, we could be in real trouble!”
I wish I could boycott all companies who force their advertising on me. I wish I would be taken seriously if I wrote a letter of complaint to these institutions within the church of money. I wish I could somehow award the companies whose advertising is subtle and understated, or better still: nonexistent in light of the quality of their products speaking for itself. Alas, I know that this is the world we live in, and that is the way it is – a necessary evil. Still I say if more people acted on information instead of on advertisement-driven impulse, this world would be a better place. What if advertisers gave their audiences the benefit of the doubt and said: “we were going to advertise in this space, but we don’t need to, you can make up your own minds”

I’d be all over that, not because the reverse psychology is less patronizing than greedily shoving pretty girls unrelated to the product you are trying to sell in my face, but because it is at least a nod in the right direction. Quality will always sell itself by virtue of being inherently desirable. The bigger, the glossier, the closer to the front of the magazine the advertisement, the more I feel like you are overcompensating for the lack thereof.


Home

When there is no immediate and automatic response to the question “where is home?” chances are you too have lived abroad most of your adult life. So what is home? “Home is where the heart is” the saying goes, doubtlessly in an effort to diminish in others their yearning for it whilst away. In my case home is not home at all. I live in a small, utterly unremarkable apartment in the largest city on earth and though I sleep there, the word ‘home’ implies rather more than that. Perhaps the reason for this strange detachment is that I spend endlessly more waking hours not being there than I do being there, and even whilst there I am not mentally there actively forging a bond to it as a place. Perhaps it is because I know this situation is inevitably transitory; just another place to sleep whilst I struggle to reach a point in my life where I could actually afford to create a true home – not a rented flat – and make it feel as such.
Nor do I feel particularly safe in my apartment. I must explain that my fear is not that a burglar will steal through my window in the night, but rather that although I pay rent to legally reside there, the apartment, the building it is in, the city in which it is in in turn, and indeed the very country in which I reside are not my home despite living and working there. I am a flying Dutchman, in the purest tradition of distant ancestors who, centuries ago, sailed unknown oceans in search of unknown lands. These men made their homes far away from “home” as well: South Africa, Indonesia, America, and as far as Tasmania – named for Abel Tasman – another flying Dutchman.
Home then for me, here and now whilst thinking about it, does not really exist. My parent’s home in the country whose flag adorns my passport as well as my birth certificate, is not truly my home – it is theirs. Whenever I return there I am hailed as ‘returning home,’ but the truth is that I am as much a guest as I am a family member – one of the idiosyncrasies of an adult familial relationship.
It is an odd sensation to be a visitor in one’s home country, but perhaps more odd still to be a guest (however loved) in your parents’ house. Still, theirs is the closest I now have to a home and a sense thereof. Thus arises a certain uneasiness – a feeling I cannot quite place – probably most akin to being lost at sea without a compass staring hopelessly at listless sails devoid of wind. I want a home. I have dwelt on the thought of a home, but for all my purposed creativity have never been able to imagine it just so. When I try to imagine it my megalomania usually seizes control in lieu of rational thought and I end up picturing a self-designed castle on a mountaintop filled to the brim with the most tasteful indirect lighting, marble statues of fictional warriors and a private harem of impossibly beautiful women. A realistic view, it seems, is utterly beyond me. Still, I have felt at home. I felt at home in a house which did not belong to us in during our time in Norway. I felt at home in my shitty apartment in the US. I felt at home even in Moscow in an apartment so perilously close to the head of government that a careless moment with a champagne bottle could have seen the trench-coat men of the FSB at our doorstep in moments inquiring as to the unusual attempt on the President’s life. Why then do I fail to feel at home in the first place I personally selected to live in? Is it that the four barren walls of my apartment are so close together than I feel trapped between them, or is it that Tokyo is too vast a city to feel at home in at all? What shameless decadence it is to be privileged enough to be able to afford a place to live in this world and yet not feel at home.


Shanghai – Part II

Daybreak is ushered in by the rousing of the city in a cacophony of sound. The chirp of the birds is drowned out by the raised voices in the street who in turn are drowned out by gratuitous use of car horns. It sounds like feeding time at the zoo where in our analogy the animals are the communist Chinese themselves and the keepers come bearing sweet capitalism. It would be ironic, but I am not easily phased.

The microcosmic nature of life for the Chinese I see – the tailor, the shop owner, the street sweeper – is understandable. In a country where you are amongst so many it is impossible to care about everyone and so, naturally, your sphere of interest is kept small. It is easy to imagine these people will never reach the edge of their own city, much less see the ends of their great country. I do not presume that my life is more rich in virtue nor that theirs is devoid of meaning. At first glance, I am simply struck by the interesting juxtaposition of such smallness in a country obsessed with doing things big.

One of the great experiences of life is being a complete novice, a stranger, or lost somewhere you do not know left from right. It is often lamented that we are limited to but one first impression of all things new, but I love that experience. That first experience which is made more memorable by virtue of it only presenting itself once for all things. A fleeting moment perhaps, but memorable.
To truly enjoy a first impression it helps to abandon all preconceptions at the door and wade in boldly with your senses piqued. For the forgetful among us – and I am pointing the proverbial finger squarely at myself here -taking notes and pictures really helps as well. To then formulate a first impression into something you can share with others without such torturously uninformative exaltations as “wow,” and “great,” it helps to compare and contrast.
China, and more specifically Shanghai, are easy candidates for this process, because China has been around a long, long time and as a result has had ample opportunity to define itself as a nation and a people.
From the moment the Qin Emperor united the feudal kingdoms of Eastern Asia the concept of ‘great China’ began to take root. Now, several thousand years and countless generations later*, that root has grown into a tree, appropriately colossal, which is evident in all China undertakes. Helped along by a vast labor force and convenient laws governing said force, China has a long-standing tradition of being able to operate on a scale ‘lesser’ nations cannot hope to aspire to even in their most ambitious of dreams. This ‘go big or go home’ attitude, this national megalomania, started by the dream of the Emperor Qin has left this world bearing the mark of China. From the Great Wall to the unescapably numerousness of “made in China” labels, China has no interest in the small. Freudian enthusiasts amongst you will note generational Oedipus issues and a rampant drive for overcompensation, but it is beyond that now; the greatness of China has become genetic. The Olympics of 2008 gave even the most apathetic of onlookers a glimpse of the Chinese aesthetic. Harsh critics cried of shameless propaganda and a surrealistic portrayal of the true face of China behind the mask donned hastily for the Olympic influx of foreign press. A mask which served not just to obscure the stark reality beneath, but to dazzle and impress in such a way that even those who knew the truth might be persuaded of a brighter future. In short: China is working on its image like an actress who has come late to fame, desperately injecting Botox into her wrinkled face to hide her shame. Meanwhile, behind the Hollywood smile she behaves like a teenager – insecure and superficial – who still cannot believe she is finally being taken seriously.

*the generations are not actually countless, I say that because I am too lazy to do so.


Wouldbephilosophy hits China!

Shanghai’s Pudong airport is a triumph – at least at a cursory glance – when compared to everything else in my life bearing those infamous words: ‘made in China.’
Pudong boasts front door parking, American style, except for 747s and lots of them.
In fact, looking left or right through the haze of smog I am so unaccustomed to in beautiful Tokyo, the terminal building appears endless – like a second great wall – ironically this one meant to let foreigners in.
Everything looks new and clean, as though this airport was built very recently, and indeed it was. China, so it seems, has a flair for the dramatic; a hint of megalomania evident in all it builds. I know better even as a first-time visitor.

China is large in a ways that are difficult to imagine. It’s vast landmass stretches so far West from Shanghai’s Eastern coast that were you to travel the distance you would cross more undrawn ethnic borders than most countries boast varieties. You would scale vast mountain ranges, cross endless deserts, and be confronted with sights as different as night and day, and than others besides. You would do all this meanwhile in the company of the Chinese themselves – some 1.5 billion strong. China, in a word, is endless.

I am not sure if it is a cultural idiosyncracy, or if it is simply lack of respect for rules, but wherever I look the Chinese are breaking them. From minor things such as speaking right beneath the sign that says “quiet,” to driving 120 where the signs say 80, the Chinese seem utterly apathetic to the rules. Perhaps it is normal, but again I must draw a paralel (or rather lack thereof) to my beautiful Japan wherr even jay walking is quietely frowned upon. The rather overburdening FAA would have had a field day on my flight over nit-picking the scores of actively disobedient Chinese using cell phones, laptops, and other black-listed devices.
Yet this wanton disobrdience strikes me not as similar behavior in the West – our pettiness embodied by rebellion against conformity – breaking the rules because we have something to prove if only to ourselves. Rather the Chinese demeanor speaks of apathy both of the rules and the breaking of them. I find it highly annoying but psychoanalytically fascinating; what better to stimulate the mind than the common notions of a billion people.

I had until today never been to China before. Although its long, rich history has intruiged me for years and its divetsity of landscape, through photographs and film, has beckoned me longer still, it simply never happened. Now that I am finally arrived I feel immediately at ease, not because I am simply on a brief visit in all the luxury of Shanghai tourism, but because I feel I have been heading here far longer than the three hours it took. A jet plane delivered me into a dream-come-reality, and now I have well and truly arived. From Shanghai I bid you good night.


On love and loneliness

There is a sort of tragic irony in feeling alone in the biggest city in the world. I cannot take a step out of my door nor look out of my window without being confronted by a city scape which seems to stretch on forever.
Tokyo is a city that never sleeps and I am sleepless in it; the comfort and warmth of companionship just another silent longing in the darkness beneath the twinkling red lights.
Perhaps it is a small wonder that people are able to meet a suitable partner in a city such as this. When confronted with quite so many choices, it is difficult to imagine the terrible odds of selecting with any semblance of timeliness the right person.

Personally I believe if only we all tried a little harder, this process might be made a lot easier. I have never understood how to stop loving someone. I have never come to terms with the entirely alien notion that love is transitory – at the mercy of external factors beyond our control. I believe love can overcome, if not by itself, when it bolsters our resolve, spurs our motivation, or blinds us with euphoria in the face of overwhelming negativity. Love need never be salvaged; it is love that salvages us. Love saves us from the worst in ourselves – the filter that us helps us see things from a less cynical perspective.
Love is, to me at least, not an emotion. Love is a force. Love is an intangible, unquantifiable, and utterly wonderful product which is greater than its component parts. For lack of a better analogy, love is a bridge – a bridge over the dark currents of ignorance and apathy – that connect people in ways no other force can.


After the Earthquake

It is a morbid fascination man has with the aftermath of catastrophy. We find the actual events, be they floods, earthquakes, or hurricanes to be frightful, disconcertingly random, and dangerous, but the destruction in their wake – the facts, and the images of death – are as irresistable to us as the flame is to the moth. Our desire to bring order to chaos sees us busily quantifying all we can: magnitude, distance, speed, and missing or deceased. Much like vultures, news agencies feast on the dead; each greedily trying to pick their way to previously unexposed pieces of the body, not long dead. We are responsible – the ratings do not lie – we are buying what they are selling. They are the merchants of death, and we are buying it wholesale.

I live in Tokyo, where the earthquake of Friday, March 11th brought the city grinding to a halt. I was on a subway train beneath the metropolis when the train too was brought to a stand still. An unscheduled stop is rare in Japan where anual delays are measured in seconds, but we were all of us only semi-conscious amidst the dull familiarity of routine. The announcer – privy to the alert from the Japanese early warning system – announced that we had stopped according to procedure regarding the imminent earthquake. The train began to shake in moments, slightly at first, then with increasing vigor. I looked around. People were calm. The shaking intensified and still people remained calm, albeit surprized. A silent uneasiness came over the train then – the car shaking and bobbing on its suspension just enough to worry its passengers. Still, no one cried out, no one clutched at the hand rails in desperation and the illusion of safety. The shaking lessened, then stopped, and relief replaced the tension. An announcement stating we would continue to the next station followed, and slowly the train resumed its familiar track as we sank back into the routine from whence we had come scarce moments before. The scene by the ticket gates spoke of a different earthquake – one that had induced the suspension of service of all trains in Tokyo. The street scene was more alarming still; crowds having gathered in the streets where once cars had driven, evicted from their homes and offices by common sense and the need for nicotine.
I was confused. There have been many earthquakes in my two-year exile in Japan. Some larger than others, but not one of them had produced this startling effect: all of Tokyo was on break.
Whilst walking home the first signs of damage became evident. At eye-level, over-turned potted plants, fallen bicycles, and broken glass could be seen. Tilting my head, cracks in buildings and partially crumbled façades confirmed that this had indeed been a larger earthquake than I believed to have experienced in the subway beneath my feet. The sudden and surreal thought that my own building – significantly taller than these – may not have faired well hit home hard. Turning the final corner home I was greeted by a crowd glued to a television set on display outside the door of the local shop. The news being related was incomprehensible due to the richness of earthquake-speciffic vocabulary I was not taught in school nor had overheard previously in idle converation. The images, in contrast, spoke volumes. I watched, still not fully aware of the scale of what was happening, as a tidal surge (to call it a wave would be a tragic misnomer) of brown water, debris, and the crumbled remains of all manner of objects surged across an unfamiliar land. Helicopter news footage – be it a high-speed chase on a freeway or tsunami rolling across the land – gives the entirely false impression of lethargy in the events portrayed. The water, and everything in it, was moving at an entirely unimaginable speed. It was equally unstoppable as it was devastating. I saw cars, trees, houses and schools, there one minute and gone the next, the water making a mockery of our modern engineering in the same way it would make a mockery of the straw huts of our distant ancestors. Mesmerized we watched as forces the scale of which few can truly grasp wiped away the lives of those beneath the camera lens.
There is tragic irony in the fact that the very planet that sustains us is also readily capable of wiping us from its surface, reminding us of our infintessimal smallness. This is not calculated malice, it is a natural process which grows more frightening with each passing year as our buildings grow taller, our cities grow more crowded, and our dependence on electricity, water, and food grow in turn. As terrible as earthquakes and tsunamis can be, it is the population density of Japan’s east coast that is the single largest contributing factor to the many problems in the aftermath of a disaster. Emergency services are not designed to provide support for entire populations nor are they capable of combatting fear, panic, or logistical issues on a scale such as this.