Why You Should Watch Commercials

I didn’t actually see the Super Bowl commercial–we have two little girls, and we had friends over for the game, so watching each commercial was not a priority. But it’s been mentioned to me since. The Bud Light commercial where a random man plays ping-pong with Arnold Schwarzenegger, then lands in a One Republic concert (among other incidents).

It’s a take-off of the Hangover movies, or, I’m guessing, the new Las Vegas movie (which I will not see unless terrorists kidnap me and tape my eyeballs open and tie me down in front of it). In fact, it’s a take-off of Las Vegas itself: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Implying, of course, that something crazy and memorable will happen here.

What’s driving our culture to tell such stories? Is this what we aspire to–a night of craziness that we can talk about for years to come?

Like all good advertising, the message speaks to deep needs we feel every day. We desire to be part of something–consider this line from Fleet Foxes’ latest studio album, Helplessness Blues, from the song of the same name:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes/Unique in each way you can see/And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be/A functioning cog in some great machinery…

More and more, younger generations have rejected the “I am a unique individual capable of anything” mentality and embraced the opportunity to be a part of a group. We want to be part of something. And, in post-religious, post-modern, post-nationalist, post-9/11 America we don’t find commonality with humanity, or our nation: we find commonality with our tribe. Our friends. Our group–where we can function as a cog with others.

The loss of a metanarrative in the 20th century means that society isn’t moving somewhere great (modernism), and God isn’t moving the world somewhere great (religion), and even our nation isn’t moving somewhere great (nationalism). But maybe I can go somewhere great, surrounded by a few friends.

And if you watch advertisements, the greatness usually comes in the form of living deeply. We’re all embracing Thoreau’s words to “live deep and suck the marrow out of life.” But instead of moving to the woods, most of us drink Bud Light or buy an iPad (isn’t this commercial saying the same thing, if in a different way):

Whether it’s shouting that you only live once or buying an iPad, we seek to live more deeply. And we seek to do so with our tribe, whenever possible. But with the loss of a metanarrative, we aren’t cogs in some great machinery, we are cogs in a self-serving machinery. We join a tribe to benefit ourselves and leave when it becomes too difficult or uncomfortable. Unfortunately, our tribes have little more in common than say, our buying choices, which is what our late modern capitalist society says we create meaning through. Or, our tribes are collections of people who seek similar experiences–experiences that have no lasting effect beyond the moment itself, and are often absurd (and if you can’t remember the moment, did it happen?).

We’ve lost a metanarrative. But even more, we’ve lost work itself. When Henry Ford invented the assembly line, he enabled millions of Americans to buy cars. He also had to throw money at the workers because the job was so mind-numbing. Today, the modern worker instantly responds to an endless demand of mini-crises without truly thinking and engaging. We are versions of Henry Ford’s assembly line, focused on productivity and efficiency without considering how to recapture the virtues that humanity has honored throughout its history.

We value being effective over being courageous or just, and we wonder why men and women seek deeper experiences that can create some semblance of meaning and purpose. We’re desperate, in the words of Captain Ahab, to “strike through the mask.” We want anything that can break us out of our humdrum, efficient lives.

But we mistake activity for meaning. We forget Emerson’s line:

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.

It is not an intense experience that creates beauty or significance or meaning–we must find it in the here and now, in the everyday and mundane, or we don’t find it. We must look away from our computer screens and to-do lists long enough to discover what meaning is present before us, what depth of life is right now. Not in the things we buy or the absurd experience. Here and now. In the words of the modern artist Makoto Fujimura:

What makes us truly human may not be how fast we are able to accomplish a task but what we experience fully, carefully, and quietly in the process.

I’ll concede that this is a version of the popular mentality–party hard and live deep. And great parties are an aspect of a well-lived life (there, I said it). But well-lived lives–lives full of significance and beauty and thrill–cannot be so without meaning. Without significance to our actions. Without, in the words that Apple hijacked from Robin Williams, knowing that a powerful play is going on around us, and that we may contribute a verse.

To do this, we must recognize the play around us and see what we may say in its midst. This is where a society’s meaning makers come in–its authors and actors, reverends and rabbis, poets and painters, singers and sculptors. Almost always, the meaning-makers are consigned to the fringe: they speak into the society from without, seeking to help others see in a new way. Today, too many meaning-makers reach only as far as an absurd experience and say: here is the closest you can come to significance.

Too often we’re told that the right purchase, or being a little more effective at work, or going on a trip somewhere will fill the deep need for significance and meaning that we have in our lives. Seize life and you will have it, if only for a moment. And moments are perhaps the best we can do.

But here is Thomas Merton with a dissenting note:

We cannot be happy if we expect to live all the time at the highest peak of intensity. Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony.

Do we believe this? How do meaning makers show this–deep happiness not from one experience, but from a daily awareness? A rhythm to life, a harmony. The absurd experience leaves us at work the next day, simply remembering (or not) the past. The purchase leaves us empty a few weeks later. What must we do?

It is up to the meaning makers to forge a new way ahead–recovering some of what has been lost, throwing other aspects of it away for good. It is up to the meaning makers to not simply watch commercials, but to stand back and ask–carefully and quietly–what the commercials might be saying in the process*. Yes, we must watch them sometimes to see where society is going and what it is doing. As Jack London once noted to a young fan, we must always produce stories and songs and paintings that are marketable–that meet public desire. But real meaning makers also open new horizons to the public. 

Jesus. Gandhi. Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King, Jr. Buddha. Meaning makers are on the fringe–watching and critiquing and showing new ways ahead. They are within and without.

It is the meaning makers who can recite the play for others to hear, and to recite one that roots people in the here and now, the pain and beauty of this world. We give people companionship. Yet real meaning exceeds companionship–we cannot simply say that we feel the same. Real meaning stems from a guide, from someone who can show us through the tangle of life. A guide gives hope, even it is the hope of Camus or Sartre–a scant hope in the face of horror. 

So watch a commercial. Ask what it might be saying. And then seek for how you can say a different line, one that offers hope. For hope is only real if there is a taste of it here and now, in front of this pixelated screen, and if it is a hope that does not pull us away from the world but roots us firmly in it. May we give such meaning, such hope–not simply parroting what society is saying, but reaching into that society and telling a new story: one of being fully aware of what we are doing, of refusing the popular options that bring significance, and one that finds meaning in the relationships that define us, the play of redemption going on in our midst. 

*In traditional existential form, I admit that this is not a logical response, it is an existential response–one that asks what we do before it asks what we believe. But, since I have existentialist tendencies, I’d argue that actions generally precede belief. 

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