In the TV advertisement that has become something of a malign obsession to me, a man of no exceptional appearance walks purposefully through an empty city — a city that has that charming, genteel appearance of historic authenticity, but no grime or pollution, which is to say it is an idealized city built for marketing and tourism. Alone he strides on empty sidewalks, crossing streets with no traffic, sipping with assurance from his large coffee cup, checking his phone for messages. Then, we viewers hear in voiceover how he has arrived at this picturesque fulfillment. He designed a shirt that he does not have to tuck into his pants. This has been a gnawing problem, he explains, but now he has achieved his goal, and because it is done we viewers are better for his vision and determination.
If I am exaggerating it is only because I am maintaining the tone of blissful self-absorption that our hero puts forth to persuade us we have that problem too, and we should reward ourselves by paying $75 or $100 for some of his shirts without tails.
He is welcome to his vision and his success, but to me the presumptions of the ad — that a heretofore unknown problem has been solved, and our lives can be improved if we embrace the change here available to us — is a capsule of this moment in time. Trivial things are presented with great style and substance, seeking our deeper engagement with the promise of fulfillment. Substantial things with obvious, far-reaching importance are treated as unending pageants that either amuse or aggravate, the true importance of which is only how they make us feel: What is best for me? Why should I care about some complicated issue if it does not offer any gratification to me?
Now, this may sound like I’m describing a moral problem, and it certainly is that at some level: if someone truly believes that their stylistic choices define them, or that fashion can bring fulfillment, they are not going to be dissuaded by any reason or ridicule I can address to the matter. But, what concerns me more generally, and more seriously, is the social problem this portrays — the problem of a society that has no system for setting values other than consumer approval or disapproval.
Consumers want to consume, and so they acquire things. But, the more things they acquire, the more they consume, and then the more they feel a need for something else. Nothing satisfies them for long, and they go in search of something else to consume. The unsatisfied need may signal some emotional or spiritual emptiness (thus, the clever, and repeated, appeals to individuals’ “passion,” “vision”, or “commitment”) and yet a society shaped and built on consumption is not one that can effectively define personal or civic virtues, build and develop institutions that foster learning and preserve and document scientific and artistic achievement. Those efforts take time; the reward, if any, is too distant to command much commitment.
It is not that a society shaped by consumption cannot recognize things of deeper value; advertisers and marketers prove they grasp the situation by filling their messages with appeals to spiritual enrichment. And yet, in imitation of those values they reveal the emptiness we have fostered.
Am I placing too much importance on a television commercial? Maybe so, but in a free society everything is open for consideration and evaluation. We must evaluate more, and learn to value things and ideas that we can hold on to longer. We’re not doomed because we demand too much, but we’re in trouble because we don’t demand enough good things, truthful things that will last and by which we can improve our legacies. We should demand that opportunity.