Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Advertising as way to fuel inefficiency

Humans are omnivores mainly by culture, not in the same innate way that other species are omnivores or carnivores. If you consider the innate desires of puppies and other meat eaters, you see that they get excited about eating their prey, they pounce on it, and tear it apart and eat it raw. Humans don’t have the hunting skills or desire to do any of that. The only way most of us can eat animals is by having them killed by someone else, cut up, and cooked so that the disgust that we would otherwise feel at seeing dead carcasses is as far removed from the dinner table as possible. If we were innate animal eaters, we would not feel disgust – we would feel happy and excited about tearing into living creatures. Yet a lot of people really want to believe that we’re innately omnivores. I believed it for a long time, until I learned otherwise.

The fact that I had always accepted that we were innate omnivores only proves I’m human, the only creature that can be so deluded about what we are by manufacturing beliefs and replicating them on a massive scale. When I think for myself, I find it is more gratifying than just adopting the beliefs transmitted by culture. There is a certain grace in the cessation of stupidity that I occasionally experience: things become so simple; I see them as they are without the imposed lens of culture. But I feel very silly for allowing myself to be deluded by the culture around me for so long on the question of eating animals. What kept me in the dark?

Generally speaking people replicate the beliefs of the people around them, except maybe the autistic, who, to various degrees, do not. I’ve experienced both extremes: thinking like everyone else, and being unable to think like anyone else. Another example is using toothpaste, which I’ve heard is unnecessary, but it never really seemed important enough to find out or even form an opinion one way or the other, so I just found it easier to go along with the toothpaste-using culture that I’m in. So I’ve gone through many tubes of toothpaste and eaten lots of animals because … most people do. On other other hand I’ve reinvented things, and it wasn’t because I was too obstinate to do it the normal way. It was because I couldn’t detect the normal way, or the normal way had so much apparent inconsistency or waste that it didn’t feel adoptable to me. I suppose people who acculturate even less than I do would copy fewer beliefs, and they would end up reinventing more things independently, or just failing to do a bunch of normal things.

The highly inefficient system of converting solar energy to nutrition circuitously via other animals is just one of many industries that thrives on waste and socially constructed needs. A lot of the media, pharmaceuticals, makeup, sports, cars, and sugar are in that same category. These are products that people have no true need for, and therefore do not even want innately. People want these things based on convention, but not innately. We have to learn to want them. Because of our inherited culture, we spend a great deal of our lives in highly wasteful pursuits that don’t actually make us happy or fulfill any true need.

Something has to work to keep us in the dark, and keep the waste going. If there was no force sustaining the waste, it would dwindle over time and we would adopt more efficient ways to meet our needs. We would harness the sun to heat buildings rather than drilling for oil and all the complications that go with that. I mean we would do this out of sheer laziness, not for any ethical reason. If the reason for doing the complicated and inefficient thing were to go away, that habit would extinguish. This is similar to a fundamental point in genetics: If the advantage of a trait goes away, then the trait will gradually extinguish. Nothing sticks around indefinitely for no reason.

My proposition then is that all these inefficiencies are sustained in large part through money and advertising, which are the socially constructed means to keep power imbalanced, and falsehoods alive, respectively.

I’ve wondered a lot about advertising because it doesn’t seem to work on me, and so I’m surprised that it works at all. But when I found out about autism, it started to make sense, because non-autistic people believe things simply because they are repeated so many times. And to some degree I do to (like the idea of being omnivorous) but noticeably less.

Advertising pairs something that people innately want with something that costs money, creating an association. For example, it pairs a field of wildflowers on a spring day (an innate attraction) with an oil company. Or, it pairs sex with a car. The main things appearing in ads are either (1) something you already want, or (2) something they want you to want.

Ads also exist for things that people truly need, like food, shelter, and exercise – and are just claiming that one supplier is better than another. To some extent advertising is just part of the information exchange needed in a market system. But consider a tomato. The tomato gets a starring role in so many food ads, yet it is hardly ever the product being advertised. That’s because it is something we already innately want – so there is no need to push it. Instead it is used as the innate need that pairs with the hamburger or other food being advertised. You see the tomato (an innate attraction) and a hamburger (a culturally constructed, highly inefficient means to meet your needs), and the brain makes an association between them, so with enough repetition, you want the hamburger. When you were very little, you probably didn’t like hamburgers – little kids are often not attracted to meat. If you like them now, it is because your tastes were molded by cultural learning, and importantly, the tomato continues to play a lead role in reinforcing that association. Without a force sustaining the cultural, non-innate, and inefficient habits, they might gradually extinguish.

Here are the top advertisers in the US, starting with the highest spender: Procter & Gamble, General Motors, AT&T, Verizon, Johnson & Johnson, Time Warner, Toyota, General Electric, Ford, and Pepsico. Procter and Gamble makes a lot of things, like toothpaste, makeup, razors, detergent, and diapers. The other companies sell cars, communications, pharmaceuticals, media, appliances, and sugar. Other top ad categories are for meat/diary, cleaning products, and alcohol and other drugs. In general the things that are advertised the most are actually needed the least.

I wonder what would happen if those vast concentrations of power could somehow be evaporated. The forces maintaining cultural beliefs in the necessity of all these products would be weakened, and the desire might gradually extinguish. Is it possible that by simply not telling everyone day in and day out to consume sugar, that our taste for it would gradually be forgotten? Would movies fail to entertain us if we weren’t told over and over to watch them?

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On continuous trauma

I’m working out how to talk about trauma when it is continuous in a person’s life. The vocabulary we have is misleading: the typical definition of trauma states that it is the emotional response to an “event”, and so we have this image that we’re going along in life, and something bad happens, like an accident, rape, combat, or a natural disaster, and then for some time afterwards we have flashbacks and other stresses caused by the original event. But what if it was a continuous condition rather than an event, or it didn’t appear to be horrific – at least as seen from the outside? What if the things that trigger (awaken) the original trauma are not just specific things (like a gunshot for example) but are composed of the whole environment, the culture, the way we are treated all the time, or the wind blowing?

I feel like a lot of people have “continuous trauma” like this – the trauma that a person’s life is made of, rather than a trauma that is an interruption of life. Some of us (like me) can’t really clearly identify what the “original” trauma is. We supposedly had a nice childhood with no dark secrets or anything that we know of, but yet we’re living in a state of high stress all the time, defending against attacks that we can’t see, or being ineffective at moving on in life from the emotional blocks.

I’m guessing the consciousness of continuous trauma is expanding, as I see more writing that brushes on it or acknowledges it, more trigger warnings in writing, and feminist circles making it more central. So much is being painted by its language, but still the language is incomplete, if you think there had to be a identified causative “event” for a person to be in “real” trauma.

 

Continuous trauma appears to often be connected to:

  • Disability: Disabled people are sometimes co-labeled with PTSD, and it could be misleading to suggest that the PTSD is something separate from the disability. Being disabled is being powerless and that is what is continuously traumatic.
  • Minority status: Being or a member of a minority is possibly in itself a reason why we live in continuous trauma, although maybe not all minorities do. It could come from being consistently devalued or marginalized, hiding, thinking of ourselves as not normal.
  • Objectification: Growing up thinking about ourselves too much as objects (how we appear and whether we fulfill the needs of others) rather than subjects (what we want for ourselves) can lead us to be so out of balance that it becomes a powerless state, and is continuous trauma. (“Who am I if he doesn’t love me?”)

 

Most people are minorities in some way, and most of us are not represented by the tiny slice of highly privileged people who control public discourse. So perhaps most people have this condition, the same people who are relatively powerless, and those people are not getting their needs met very well for safety and healing. It’s hard to imagine someone not having a significant continuous trauma if they are in all three of those categories.

For any individual, it is a matter of how your life actually is now, not just what happened to you before. As an example I know someone who, for a long time, could barely confront the shame that one adult, once when she was a teenager, had been sort of creepy and touched her. It was an event that might seem mild from the outside but for her was central and traumatic. Someone else might have brushed it off and not been burdened by it. I wonder if the reason it got so heavy for her is that she was living in a state of continuous trauma from life in general (for other reasons), and that incident assumed extra large proportions because of those other things. Maybe if we accept that there is continuous trauma, we might not feel we have to find an “event” to pin things on.

The basis of continuous trauma might not even be something “bad” or illegal. Maybe someone did something that was even considered normal and nice, and it still contributed to trauma. Or maybe no one did anything at all, and the trauma comes from not getting the attention that you hoped for or some other twisting of the ego. No one can fix it if nothing was really ever done wrong, but I think that is the point too: continuous trauma isn’t about what happened in any specific way. It’s not something that can be prevented by policy.

 

Despite it being unlinked to a causative event, I still think what I’m talking about is still a kind of trauma because it has triggers. We talk about being “triggered” which means going on high alert or high stress, while also being (possibly) aware that the trigger is not a real threat. Unlike event-trauma which theoretically has specific triggers that interrupt life, continuous trauma can have more continuous triggers. And I don’t think there is a clear line between what’s a trigger (something mentally associated with a threat that isn’t a real threat) and the actual threat. Being triggered puts us in stress, and if we’re constantly in chronic stress, then the triggers are unhealthy for us to be exposed to. In that sense the triggers are a real threat.

So are triggers “bad”? If a person happens to trigger you and they didn’t do anything wrong – like, they happened to be wearing a triggery shirt, or whatever – they are not guilty of anything, and it is not about them, in the same way that it is often not about any original “bad” event. Going after the triggers is missing the point in a way; we can’t make the world safe by being free of triggers for the same reason we can’t prevent trauma that isn’t caused by illegal events.

On the other hand, triggers continue to fuel ongoing trauma when you’re in those categories of disability, marginalization, or objectification. So the triggers are re-traumatizing in a way that triggers for event-trauma might not be. I’m just hypothesizing here but I wonder if you were hurt with a weapon that had blue stripes and blue striped things became triggers (in the classic definition of trauma), then you might be able to gradually expose yourself to blue stripes and neutralize it (exposure therapy). On the other hand if you’re a woman and you’re triggered by men who look at you a certain way, then could you (or would you even want to) expose yourself to it to neutralize it? I think it is different because the trigger reminds you that the condition of being marginalized is still present, and is not just triggering but is also reinforcing that condition, unlike the blue stripes example where you are no longer in any actual danger of a blue-striped weapon.

 

I feel like traumatized people are everywhere, maybe even most of us, and yet we (society) have too little recognition of it and hardly any answers. Our society is so phenomenally bad at safety, even within groups of people who are ostensibly safe to be with. We have no socially recognized reliable way to actively shelter each other. We seem to know at some level that so many of us need safe spaces – places free of mysogynist or racist remarks, free of the other -isms that are continuously re-triggering, and free from fear of being victimized. There’s so many of us that know that, but even so, we can’t seem to make the safety happen on any scale beyond small groups of friends. It feels like some people can only associate with others who are equally traumatized, because everyone else feels “dangerous” in their inability to sense the needs of others, but for some reason that association can’t be shown in a public way. So when we’re in public, we just have to assume everyone is a danger, even though mentally we know most of them are probably safe. It’s the feeling that “even though probably most of these other people are safe, someone will probably take advantage of me if I’m not vigilant, and no one will stand up for me.”

Can we make places safer for the continuously traumatized? Imagine going places and being confident that there will be people standing up against dergatory and insensitive language, who recognize and protect us. Imagine being allowed to be unguarded, admitting weakness, and not being taken advantage of for it. Imagine an uprising of care.

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Corporate America

An exchange between my brother and the marketing department in the nightmare part of his head as he concocts a greeting card.

Happy Birthday!
[Too simple. Needs more "pop" - VP Marketing]
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We wish upon you a joyous anniversary of your birth!
[Lose "anniversary." Sounds too old-fashioned. - VP Marketing]
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Joyous greetings to you on your birthday!
[I'd like to try not to use the word "birth" if possible. 
Possibly offensive. - VP Marketing]
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Wishing you joy on this special day!
[I think we've gone too far -- sounds too generic. Needs to 
convey a personal touch. And more pop! - VP Marketing]
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Blam! Pow! What a day! It's your day!
[Need to make them aware that it could be other's day as well. 
Let's not be exclusive. - VP Marketing]
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Blam! Pow! What a day! Happy day to you!
[Sorry, should have mentioned this before. "Blam" and "pow" don't 
fit the mood. Keep it classy. - VP Marketing]
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What a special day! Happy day to you!
[Thinking we've lost focus, this isn't a children's book. 
Let's go in a different direction. - VP Marketing]
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We wish you a merry day, and all the best.
[Avoid "merry"--connotations with Christmas. Needs to be 
non-denominational. Little more "pop" - VP Marketing]
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We wish you a happy day! All the best to you.
["You" is in there twice. Simplify. - VP Marketing]
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Wishing you the best on this happy day!
[Talked with HR. They feel "birthday" is far enough removed 
from "birth" to not offend. Let's go back to that. - VP Marketing]
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Wishing you the best on your birthday!
[Just thinking that this may need to be personalized and may 
not be "from" someone. Let's lose the "you" altogether. - VP Marketing]
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Happy birthday!
[Perfect. Let me run it by the board and i'll get back to you. 
- VP Marketing]
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