Every Picture Sells a Story
by Chris Dashiell

I saw four commercials play before a film recently. (Actually they played before the previews, which are themselves commercials for other films.) At the third commercial my partner turned to me and said, "I come to the theater to get away from commercials, and now they've taken that option away."

It's hard to say how much her comment corresponds to a general feeling among the public. Nonetheless I find it revealing in its attitude and implications. No one would deny that the experience of watching a movie in a theater is different than watching television. But that the intrusion of an advertisement into the former feels like a betrayal of some sort, says something interesting about our relationship to both.

Trailers have been around since the early days, and of course there have also been promptings to go to the lobby and buy candy and popcorn, which have been with us a long time as well, and have never been controversial. But these have to do with the business of movies themselves - a theater's bid to make more money off the audience, as it were. The ads I'm speaking of are just like TV ads - for Toyota, Coca-Cola, and so on - without reference to the movies. Another point is that television is free - the non-cable programming, at least - and therefore advertisements have been accepted as part of the territory. At a theater we're paying anywhere from $7.50 to ten bucks to get in, and then we're being subjected to commercials. I paid to see a movie, not an ad for M&Ms.

But all this begs the question of why commercials are annoying in the first place. It seems to be the general consensus in American society that consuming is fun, and that the range of products and services offered to Americans is an indicator of our good fortune, or even our superiority to the rest of the world. So why should we grumble at sitting through an ad? Shouldn't we be enjoying them?

For a while there have been signs that we are enjoying them, or at least some of us are. At one time or another I've heard people describe commercials they considered funny or entertaining. "That was actually a good commercial," they would say, making a distinction between this artful example and the common ones that we would have to assume are not good. Part of the hype surrounding the Super Bowl has been the unveiling of new commercials by high profile companies - if we are to believe what we read, these commercials are anticipated by the public with an interest comparable to that of the game itself.

The technique of the commercial has reached a level of sophistication that is light years beyond the old methods of early radio and TV. The advent of the music video brought awareness of fast-cutting, fine coordinaton of sound and image, sleek photographic style, special effects, and other innovations designed to better hold the attention of the viewer. The ubiquity of these new approaches indicate that they must be succeeding - people keep watching and keep buying. Is the idea, then, that commercials are annoying, simply a complaint that they're not entertaining enough? If one's relationship to visual media is consistently superficial, I would say that the answer is to a certain degree, Yes. After all, some of the people in the theater laughed when they saw the M&M commercial - not derisive laughter, mind you, but regular ha-ha-that-was-funny laughter. In other words, they seemed to find it entertaining - not greatly so; it's not why they came to the theater, but it snuck in there.

I believe, however, that it is rather more difficult to maintain this superficial relationship to visual media than one might think. There are, in the end, different impulses at work in watching a story unfold than there are in watching a commercial. The two forms are different in essence rather than just form. But there is also, I would maintain, an element in human nature which resists the commercial, an element that is not overtly recognized as existing at all in the general parlance of advertisers or marketers. I don't have a name for this part of us yet - or to be more accurate, I'm not ready to give it a name until I explore the world of the advertisement, which has become in many ways our only public world, a little further.

Try listening to a TV commercial without watching it. In particular, listen to the ad's main voice - there usually is one - the announcer, the pitch-man or pitch-woman. In the slicker advertisements, this voice is relaxed, confident, laid-back. In the more common type, the voice has an excited, declamatory feel - like the stereotype of the fast-talking salesman yelling at you to "Buy now!" except with variations in tone and modulation. Across the spectrum from mellow to hyper, the voice shares the characteristic of self-satisfaction. There is no expression of doubt, limitation, or mortality - the speaker possesses the truth, calmly or not, about the product, and his only purpose (I will stick to the male pronoun for the sake of convenience) is to impart this truth effectively to you in order to motivate, agitate, inspire, or impel you in some way to buy whatever it is.

As far as the content of the message goes, the basic theme (the voice wants you to buy something) can be expressed in many different forms. You should buy in order to be like everyone else, or like other people who are smart, successful and good looking. You should buy to be different from everyone else, because you are so much smarter, more successful, and good looking than they are. You should buy because you have a need for this product, even if you don't know it. If the product is something that in fact everyone needs, then the educational approach can come into play - the voice will educate you as to why this brand is better than any other, and once you are educated, you should buy. Then there's the testimonial: ordinary person tells how he or she tried the product and it worked, so you should too. (The ordinary person is never the same as the main voice, because the voice needs to project the tone of self-satisfied omnipotence, while the ordinary person is there for you to identify with.) Then there is the idea, relatively recent in origin, that the commercial needs to simply make you laugh or get your attention in some unusual way, and by that means cause you to remember the product, which will presumably lead you to buying it. In this case the voice is often humorous, even silly, but without losing its self-satisfied tone or admitting the possibility of error or limitation. This last approach is very popular. There are many other variations. But ultimately it is the tone, the form, the implications hidden in the voice, that matter, and not so much the content.

Even if the word "you" is never spoken in the ad, it is the most important word. "You" are being addressed by the voice, and "you" are being asked to do something. In point of fact, you are being told to do something - rarely does an ad stoop to asking, which would imply some sort of need - but I say "asked" because there is a decision that you are being presented with. Now, when somebody rings your doorbell and you open the door and he starts trying to sell you something - a subscription to a magazine, cable service, salvation through the Lord, it doesn't matter - there's an uncomfortable period when you need to decide what to do. Maybe you want to buy whatever it is; maybe you're afraid to hurt his feelings so you buy it even if you don't want it; most of the time you would just like to close the door and be left alone. With the commercial, however, you don't have the pressure of an individual standing in front of you, so the decision is only implied in the experience of watching it, and therefore can be easily dismissed. Yet the element of annoyance is still there, less obvious but still present - because of the very fact that there is somebody, something, a voice, that is appealing to you for something.

An appeal implies the need for a decision. Conversing with a friend rarely involves an appeal. One shares one's experiences on a more or less equal footing. We enjoy one another's company because of an appreciation of each other and because of the pleasure and personal meaning of our shared experience. In the exceptional case of an appeal - perhaps our friend needs help in some way - it would take the form of a request, in the same spirit of friendship. A friend doesn't say, "Come help start my car. It's an experience you won't soon forget." He just asks you if you would help him start his car. If you've ever had a friend who went to some seminar and ended up trying to get you involved in multi-level marketing, or the EST training, or some other thing, you know how disconcerting the combination of a friendly relationship with the relationship of salesman to customer can be. That's because they are essentially incompatible. The one is based on the assumption of equality (I mean this in a personal sense) and in some degree on freedom - if only the freedom of ordinary civility, which assumes a co-existence of independent purposes. The other relies on persuasion - it is always trying to get somewhere, and in trying to get somewhere, even if we really believe that it's the right place to be, even if it's a good product, there is a sense of unfreedom. One must either say Yes and go somewhere, or say No and reject going there - the ease and freedom of just being OK where you are, and with who you are, is not present.

Persuasion is very close to control. When reason is not involved, or only minimally so, the two are practically impossible to distinguish. And despite all the advances in the "art" of advertisement, there is something in human nature that resists control. A certain amount of social control is necessary in order for any society to function, but even in that respect there is psychological resistance. People enjoy doing what they please, and thinking how they please. To have one's doing or thinking directed by an authority is unpleasant. Commercials annoy us because they attempt to control our behavior. The annoyance increases as the presence of commercials increases, to the point where our culture has become annoying in itself.

Advertising has succeeded in dominating the culture to the degree that people have acquiesced and participated in advertising as part of life, and as a way of seeing and experiencing life. If you hear a noise all day, your mind will eventually learn to live with it, not notice it as much, in order for you to function through the day. You can even shut out the noise so that you don't really hear it. The commercial, however, doesn't want you to shut it out, not completely, so there is always a certain tension between the need for the commercial to get your attention, and the ubiquity of commercial culture, which works against attention.

The public has become more tolerant of the noise, but there is still a general perception that commercials are stupid, trivial, and a waste of one's time. After decades of progress in advertising technique, isn't it remarkable that this should be so? Let us listen to the voice again to find out why.

The voice's self-satisfaction, its most constant element, is also the most salient evidence of its stupidity. "Everything is fine the way it is," the voice says. "There are no real problems other than what to buy, what objects to acquire, and how to acquire them." The commercial's persuasive appeal, the need to buy the product, is always set against the background of an essential acceptance of this situation as the only reality, the only happiness. Whatever elements are present from "human values" - smiling kids playing with puppies, someone calling up grandma to wish her a merry Christmas, friendly neighbors helping each other with the flag waving in the background while we hear uplifting music - are there to support the commercial appeal, are identified with the appeal and made to seem indistinguishable from it, so that the voice ultimately presents itself as the spokesman for our way of life. This glow of acceptance, this complacent tone of affirmation, is like the grin of a fool. People know this instinctively. No reasonable being talks the way a pitchman talks when he's extolling the product, or urging you to run to the latest sale. No matter how sophisticated the voice becomes, evolving from the lower form of the yammering car salesman to the smooth delivery of a commercial for Buick, the idiotic element is always there, and the thinking being, no matter how ignorant he or she may be, resists it at some level, because it insults his ability to think without being urged or persuaded. We don't want to be treated as if we're dumb, but that's exactly how commercials treat us. For an ad to do otherwise would be to admit the possibility of refusal.

To say No is one of the basic abilities of the mind - without the negative there is no thought. But to have to say No all day long to an importunate voice - that is a wearying and humiliating experience. Commercials tend to wear us down after awhile, like any obnoxious person who won't leave you alone. But we've come to live with it, to shut it out the best we can, and to try to think and relate to one another in a decent way in the midst of it.

When advertising was just a sign in shop window, or an ad in the newspaper, or even just an interruption of a radio or TV show, there was still a sense that it was only an aspect of business, and that business was only an aspect of life. Now advertising dictates the campaigns of political candidates, and the methods by which government leaders communicate their actions and intent. Its methods have to a large part absorbed more traditional ideas of journalism - the "news" shows seek to agitate, inspire, and distract us, rather than truly inform. It would seem, then, that the issue is not really advertising per se, but a way of thinking and perceiving, a way exemplified by advertising but now influencing all aspects of society. I have no name for this "way" of life that is not attuned to the actual lives of people. But I do have a name for the quality in human nature that resists it - it's called honesty, the impulse to truth.

This thought brings us full circle, back to the movie theater. Does it seem trivial somehow, inconsequential in fact, to turn the subject back to film when we were examining something with such a wide-ranging effect, so full of warning and significance? But that's just the problem. The "art" of advertising trivializes art, changing everything into its own form, until we begin to believe that art itself is unimportant, only a distraction, or a means of excitement, like pornography.

The greatest films, both the greatest artistic achievements and the best entertainments, allow for the mind's greatest freedom. They come to us from a vantage point that is, as Joyce said of tragedy, above desire and loathing. Renoir's Grand Illusion, to take a well-known and relatively uncontroversial example, meets us as free human beings and tells its story in such a way that its meanings are discovered by us without the element of persuasion. Whether the truth of the tale is new or as old as the earth, it unfolds in our minds naturally, and with the distinct pleasure of discovery, through the basic respect of the artist for our abilities, our potential, our inherent limitations, and for the human as such. The range of human feelings is fully present - we may even feel desire and loathing, but these are not in the service of selling the experience to us; they are merely part of the experience of the story, with its human elements of injustice, the thirst for freedom, rebellion, nostalgia, and so on. We can understand the German commandant, the artistocratic French captain, the working class soldiers; and we can comprehend their relationships, the meanings that they give to them, and the meanings we perceive as viewers; and further, we can take in the social and political significance of the story on each level and as a whole - all without didacticism, special pleading, or abstraction. An honest film, or work of art, possesses these virtues in varying degrees. The degrees are determined by the craft, the level of artistry. Even if the artist fails to be honest at all times (which is almost inevitable), dishonesty is not and can not be the very foundation of the work, its reason for being.

If we consider film only in its aspect of entertainment, we still notice the most beloved entertainments are those in which the pleasure is shared in a spirit of freedom and essential honesty, with the excitement or laughter or dramatic involvement arising from the inherent nature of the material, and the artistry of its composition, with every potential allowed for the richness of human experience, emotion, and thought. This is the secret behind the oft-heard complaint that a film is "manipulative." Of course every director manipulates the material to create the desired result. What someone in this case is really saying is that the manipulation is not just part of the form or technique, but is the actual intent - the artist is selling a message, or an effect, to the viewer by an appeal (just as in a commercial) rather than creating a work of art that will have its effect in the free operation of the viewer's mind. The manipulative director, like Spielberg at his worst, doesn't respect the freedom of the viewer, but wants to predetermine every response through an act of cinematic persuasion, combining the visual and aural techniques, just as advertisers do, in the effort to produce the effect in what is essentially conceived as a passive spectator rather than a free individual.

I have sought for a long time to understand exactly why modern American films are so mediocre, so much like one another; and I have also wondered how they came to be this way. Laziness combined with the profit motive usually seemed a good enough explanation. It is easier to follow a formula, and to maintain superficial genre conventions, than it is to create something new or challenging, and there is seemingly less danger of losing money that way as well. But this has been true since the beginning of Hollywood. The studios have always tied formula and genre conventions to the art of film like a ball and chain. Yet the prestige films of those days, and many of the middle-level pictures as well, usually attained a level of artistry that we almost never see in a mainstream American film any more. Why should that be? I think that it is due to a shift in the way the filmmaker views the artistic purpose of the work, and not just the craft, so that now the purpose of advertising has become the purpose of film.

I now believe that the techniques of advertising that have advanced so far in the last twenty years have come to dominate cinematic style in our time. We have fast cutting, spectacular special effects, fine coordination of sound and image, in short, all the accoutrements of the commercial "style." But a true artist can use these elements in a way that is beautiful and honors the human as such. What we have here is more than just a technique, it is a way of thinking. Films are being conceived and created as ways of selling themselves to the viewer rather than as works of art or entertainment that are to be freely enjoyed and participated in by the viewer. The reliance on effect, the use of visual and aural strategies designed to create an excitement or reaction that is essentially separate from the film's meaning (if it has any at all), the very creation of "meaning" itself as determined prior to any form the film may take - a formulaic element that is given and explained rather than discovered - all of this betrays the surrender of the art form to the imperative of the commercial form. It's not merely that product placements align a film with the consumer culture that promotes it. It's that the film itself, its narrative, its visual style, its editing, has the purpose of selling itself - on the crudest level, of persuading the viewer that the film is worth the money paid for it and that you should see it again; on the most subtle level, as a mindset or modus operandi of film aesthetic - the commercial form subsuming the old-fashioned form of storytelling into itself.

It makes sense that the techniques that were so effective in selling products, indeed in selling films, would then be used in the actual making of the films to sell the experience of the film to the viewer. There's only one problem - the advertising aesthetic is actually an anti-aesthetic. Just as the relationship between friends is essentially incompatible with the relationship between salesman and customer, so the "art" of the commercial is incompatible with true art. In order to make films this way, one has to appeal to stupidity, triviality, and the desire for objects rather than to the freedom and honesty in the human character. Most adult viewers, no matter how ignorant, will at some level, eventually, feel a certain emptiness after viewing these kinds of films. Their capacities have been untouched and their minds unregarded. The films end up seeking an undeveloped audience - aiming at the pre-teen and teen viewer, who are more susceptible to the aesthetic of mere sensation. (Even this grossly underestimates the intelligence of young people.) The causes, of course, are economic, and if it seems a commonplace that commerce has undisputed sway today over art, it doesn't alter the disturbing fact that art itself is being transformed into something inimical to freedom, in short, into something that is not art, and can never be.

What applies to film applies to all the arts. The way of seeing life which is based on the persuasion to buy threatens the life of the mind, and indeed the life of heart, the inner life of the human as such, which is expressed most completely in art. The only hope I see, the light that shines through if one is open to it, is, oddly enough, the seemingly trivial feeling of freedom and honesty we all have that causes us to turn the sound off on a commercial, or get pissed off like my partner did when we were subjected to commercials in the theater. When someone picks up a Don DeLillo book rather than Chicken Soup for the Soul, it indicates that there is still part of us that resists the idiotic pitch of the salesman, the mindless comfort and self-satisfaction of the commercial announcer's voice. And that part of us, I hope, will go on to write books, make movies, continue to create works of beauty that will find readers and audiences and responsive minds, and preserve something of ourselves that can't be sold.

©2002 Chris Dashiell