Selling Modernity


It’s hard to believe that there was a time when the idea of “modern living” had to be vigorously sold to us.  But there was, and in some parts of the world, the case has still not been made.

SELLING MODERNITY:  Advertising in Twentieth-Century Germany (eds. Swett, Wiesen, Zatlin, Duke 2007) is about the conversion (or conversions – it’s complicated) of Germany to the modern way of life by means of advertising.

It’s complicated because Germany has a complicated history:  World War I, Weimar, Nazis, Hitler, World War II, occupation, East vs. West Germany, capitalism vs. socialism/communism, the poor years, the Cold War, the rich years.  It’s a messy history, too, and nasty.  All you have to do to get a headache is to read about how the Nazis were anti-American yet pro-American when it came to advertising methodology, and both medieval in philosophy while being simultaneously a very modern, scientific regime.  The contradictions boggle the mind.

But you don’t read the essays in SELLING MODERNITY for the specifics of German advertising.  You read it to get the big picture.

And the big picture is that Germany, like the United States, had to be pulled, kicking and screaming, into the mass consumption and marketing of the 20th Century, as late as the 1990’s in the case of the former East Germany.  At the same time that citizens craved modern goods – TVs, washing machines, Rayon – their brains craved traditional tribalism and the comforts of old ways.

A professor once said that the Middle Ages did not end until the late 19th Century, or, perhaps, even as late as the 1950’s.  And some places still haven’t caught on.

I’ll buy that.  Because even as we love to jet to Las Vegas or curate our own TV schedules, we still get a kick out of making our own jams and jellies, listening to the blues, and pounding on our own drums.

And no advertising has been invented that can heal that split.


The Lie: “It’s For Your Own Good!”

ABTL_2015-Volkswagen-Golf-1.8T-SEL-Silk-Blue-Metallic-Front-Quarter-RightCompanies compulsively lie.  Not always with big lies.  With disingenuous half-lies.

It’s as if the heads of public relations staffers and advertisers would split open if they simply told the truth:  WE’RE DOING IT TO MAKE MORE MONEY.  NOW GET ON BOARD OR ELSE!

Above is a simple, current Volkswagen.  We had one.  It’s a great car.  Cheap to buy, cheap to run.  Very refined for a shitcan.  We loved it.

But “consumers love it” is no longer a good reason to make and sell stuff.  It never was a good enough reason.

The only reason to make and sell stuff is to make more money.

More money, more money, and more money, until the whole planet has been consumed.  And then we’ll start in on the asteroid belt.

Since the VW Golf is perfect, VW has to further perfect it by creatively destroying it by figuring out how to make more money off it, all while putting the best lipstick-on-a-pig spin on the whole story.

You’ve heard the expression, “Change is good”?  And, “Change is the only constant”?  And you’ve heard that you need to change continuously in order to be a happier, healthier, more vital, and still-worthwhile member of the human race?

So here’s what VW expects you to buy in a couple three years:

Teaser-m01-bg-largeThe yellow thing is called an “iBuzz”, I kid you not.  It’s basically an updated, electric VW van that your aunt and uncle conceived your cousins in.  (Or your cousins conceived you in?)

Why electric?  We’re told by VW and the greater automotive industry and by politicians of all stripes that electric mobility is the wave of the future.  We will adapt to it for our own good.  It will solve climate change, Beijing’s air quality problems, acid rain, whatever.  We’re told all about VW’s and Ford’s and Honda’s beneficence, their desire to save tadpoles and old growth forests and children and women.

It’s bullshit.  VW will go electric because the average internal combustion auto has something like 1400 parts that need assembling (by human beings called “workers”) whilst electricmobiles have like 200 parts that need assembling (by far fewer human beings called “workers”).

I have no doubt that an ancillary benefit will be cleaner air and a cooler planet.  But please tell the truth:  the main benefit will be to the automotive industry’s stockholders.

Understand exactly where I’m coming from, and why I’m writing this:

As someone who is sitting in a centrally-heated home while a blizzard rages outside, as someone who does not dig ditches for a living, as someone who has no desire to ever assemble a vehicle, internal combustion or electric, I would be okay with all this, if only, if only . . .

. . . corporations could treat us like adults and tell us the simple truth:  that they’re in this for the money and, oh yeah, by the way, there are on occasion good side effects to that approach.

I guess simple truth is too difficult.  I guess PR people and ad copy people need to feel creative, since the rest of their lives are so dismal.

btw, this is not new.  The 1939 World’s Fair was one orgiastic paean to capitalism and how it’s-all-for-you with no mention of profits.  That defensiveness was understandable at the end of the 1930’s, in a decade when capitalism nearly went under.

But now?  Why?  I think we’re all pretty cool with buying stuff and understanding how that works.  I’d admire a car company that says, “Boy, are we gonna make a shitpile of money if we can strong arm you enough to change and give up the stuff you like now!”

In the car industry, there’s another nasty trend that I’ve written about before:  autonomous vehicles.

Does this photo make you sweat?:


Cars that drive themselves are here now.  More are coming.  For various reasons, I don’t think they’ll become universal.

We’re being told that they’ll help Grampa get to the doctor when he’s in a cast and Grandma is blind and the grandkids are in Oregon – grandkids always seem to be on the West Coast nowadays, don’t they? – or when you have important business to conduct with the pornographer on the other end of your smartphone.  They’ll be safer than human drivers because as machines they’ll be as perfect as your DirecTV or your nav system or Windows.

Nonsense.  The simple truth is that we’re being asked to change our entire way of life so that car companies can make even more money.

VW and Ford and everybody else will be running their own fleets of autonomous vehicles.  You’ll call them up piecemeal or else by subscription plan – just like with the aforementioned lovely DirecTV or your smartphone – and order a vehicle to come around.

What does VW make as profit when they sell a (low-tech, old fashioned, cheap, polluting, un-hip)  Golf nowadays?  A couple three hundred bucks total if the customer doesn’t finance it?

Hell, you’ll be paying $500 a month forever when you subscribe to a car!  And the car will still be VW’s!  And we’ll believe it’s a good deal!  And far better than the old-fashioned and more dangerous way of life!

Let’s just be told the truth.

You are constantly being told that you must “change”.  Despite the nostrums, change hurts.  It upsets lives.  It ruins peace of mind.  It costs money.  It scares people.  It even kills some people.  It puts a lot of people (“workers”) out of work.

And when those workers lose their jobs and their physicians prescribe opioids, the workers, not the employers or doctors, are then blamed for their addictions and politicians call them deplorable.

It’s a lovely world we’ve created.

photo via ’56 Packard Man