Another Week Ends

1. If you, too, have wondered where all the moral messaging has been coming from […]

1. If you, too, have wondered where all the moral messaging has been coming from in advertisements—whether it’s Amazon, Barbie, Budweiser, or 84 Lumber—why all those Super Bowl ads were so heavily imbued with political and philosophical truisms, well, you’re not alone. This week, Megan Garber of The Atlantic wrote an article called “Selling What They Preach,” which is an observation of the kind of morality flag-bearing happening during a lot of primetime TV commercials. She’s extremely aware of the irony of this endeavor—that so many of these enormous, consumer-focused businesses are spinning messages of “empathy” or “togetherness” or “love,” themes which are often (or always?) antithetical to personal gain or competition.

We used to look to other things to anchor us as the world churned. And we still, to some extent, do. But what does it say about us—the “us” that the commercials assure us we still can be, together—that brands are now helping to fill that role? What are we to make of ads that engage in the kind of discourse once reserved for pulpits and art and books and op-ed pages? When marketers act as arbiters—of goodness, of rightness, of us-ness—does that suggest something profoundly optimistic, or profoundly cynical, about what it means, at this moment, to be ?? to each other?

In other words, what does it mean that our sales people—the people who give us what we want—are also giving us the truth we need? I’m going to guess the last question for Garber is a rhetorical one: because we have no objective moral voice in our everyday lives, and because we love having what we already think mirrored back to us, this is a beautiful way to brand an ad campaign, but it’s also a beautiful way to say nothing to no one. Garber notes how these messages, all said and done, are extremely transparent windows into how we’d like to view ourselves as a people:

Ads are the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. They are nakedly self-interested, which is also to say extremely honest. So when InterContinental insists that buying a hotel room doubles as an endorsement of empathy, that is revealing—not just about the brand, but about the rest of us. Just as it’s revealing when so many other commercials make the same rhetorical move… Selfishness tempts and taunts. Empathy is the easy and obvious solution—the moral rebuke—to that. And Hyatt, after all, is completely correct: What the world needs now, as always, is love, sweet love. The question is what it says about that world, and its current occupants, that a hotel brand is the voice trying to remind us of that.

Speaking of “empathy,” how would you rate yourself? Odds are, if you’re a closet optimist, you’re actually not as good as you think you are. A new Science of Us article points out that glass-half-full folks tend to have a harder time (for obvious reasons) understanding the suffering of their neighbor.

Researchers asked the participants both how happy they tended to be from day to day and how empathetic they considered themselves. The cheerier volunteers tended to tell the researchers that they were more empathetic, too, when compared to their not-quite-so-happy study subject counterparts. Alex Fradera, in a post at the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, describes what happened next:

The researchers next studied videos of people giving a monologue about an autobiographical event. For each of the videos (two positive events, two negative events), participants rated, second-by-second, the level of negative or positive emotion they thought the speaker was currently feeling.

Participants with a more upbeat personality believed their accuracy on this task to be higher than others. However, the speakers had conducted an identical rating process on their own videos, and it turns out the happier participants were no closer to the true feelings than the more downbeat participants. In fact, happy participants found it harder to judge the emotional tone of a highly negative monologue, in which a participant described the death of a parent.

2. And speaking of studies, The Onion’s most recent study was a doozy. So good: “Study Finds Average American Hopes No One Saw That 12 Times Per Day”

Over the course of a 24-hour period, a typical American prays to God about a dozen times that nobody noticed what just happened,” said the report’s lead author, Dr. Sheryl Rasmussen, adding that such events might be evenly dispersed among one’s waking hours or concentrated in a shorter, intensely mortifying time span. “Approximately every other hour, the average American will worriedly look over their shoulder and dart their eyes to make sure that no one caught a glimpse of what just took place, although it’s not uncommon for people to casually pull out their phone like nothing whatsoever occurred or simply stare straight ahead.

Also see: “Man Keeping Running Total Of How Many People In Gym In Worse Shape Than Him

3. The Atlantic had a great interview with Melissa Febos, the writer we had on the Mockingcast just a couple months ago, about her writing style, which she describes as a freedom by way of constraint. Reminds me of Connor Gwin’s piece on sobriety in the most recent issue of the magazine. A couple great pull quotes from an entirely great interview:

When I was younger, I mistook complication for sophistication, or intellectualism, or deepness, or profundity. But simplicity is a very sophisticated way to live, if you can manage it. I learned this most clearly as I recovered from heroin addiction, because I only needed to do one thing, just one, to survive that experience: and that was to stop. To not take heroin. It was so hard, in part because it required letting go of all the unnecessary, complicated, rationalizing ways that I had managed to maintain doing it. I had to let go of all that and just accept this one simple thing, and it was the thing that would save my life.

If there’s a thesis to what I’ve learned in life, it’s that pursuits that appear self-destructive or self-sabotaging are, at their core, often misguided quests to find comfort, or wholeness, or healing. Drug addicts get this reputation for being self-destructive and out of control, but the use of substances in an addictive way is more like a failed attempt at control. Addiction is an attempt to manage your own feelings and everything else inside you. I don’t want to quash that impulse. I just want to take, for its object, something that can actually meet that need.

And speaking of self-sabotage and the wounds we walk with, our friend Nadia had a sermon on the woman at the well that was equally prescient. Here’s a tweetable taste:

I mean, I think that if shame could be bottled as an energy source it could easily replace fossil fuels. It’s weird how many novels we can read and films we can watch where a character’s behavior is finally explained by some damage from their past they are trying to make up for and yet it is so hard to admit this in ourselves.

4. File this one under “Technology’s Not Always A Bad Thing.” (Do we have a file for that?) Apparently, Yik Yak, the sketchily anonymity-based chat software used for hookups, gossip and other dark teen social matter, has become something of a haven for comfort/honesty for those struggling with depression. The anonymity, rather than providing an avenue for spite, became an outlet where nothing could be held against them. A teacher who once hated the software described her surprise to see what she was seeing on the app: a way for her to reach a hand out.

Yik Yak is often the subject of legitimate concern and criticism. But this app and its users have also created an unlikely safety net. Beyond the lessons I can give my students — in the classroom or outside it — mining a smartphone app for their desperation can feel like the most helpful and least hopeless thing I can do.

This is not, of course, how we should be monitoring the health of a student body. This is not how we should be ensuring the safety of our children. But in the absence of anything better, late at night on the app, I’ve decided to engage. I adopt user names and write to them. “It’s going to be O.K.,” I say, among the smattering of smut. “There’s someone you can talk to. You can talk to me.”

And speaking of loneliness/alienation, and hope in such places, I haven’t listened yet, but I can’t wait: this article says the Missing Richard Simmons Podcast is the next binge-worthy one. And for good, perhaps inadvertently pastoral, reasons.

5. Jia Tolentino hits the nail on the head with this piece in the New Yorker about the service economy and its new face of shameless workaholism. If our lead-off piece above was correct, that advertising mirrors (and justifies) the way we’d like to see ourselves, one of those aspirational mantras is, as she quotes from (a very creepy ad from) Fiverr: “In Doers We Trust.”

This is the jargon through which the essentially cannibalistic nature of the gig economy is dressed up as an aesthetic. No one wants to eat coffee for lunch or go on a bender of sleep deprivation—or answer a call from a client while having sex, as recommended in the video… At the root of this is the American obsession with self-reliance, which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system. The contrast between the gig economy’s rhetoric (everyone is always connecting, having fun, and killing it!) and the conditions that allow it to exist (a lack of dependable employment that pays a living wage) makes this kink in our thinking especially clear.

6. An op-ed in the New York Times this past Sunday talked about the entrenched nature of divisive thinking in liberal college campuses, and how such campuses—in the hopes of bolstering the liberal ideal in young thinkers—instead provoke the opposite of their intentions. This is not new territory for us, especially as of late, but it is the law: tell me how to think, I’ll tell you how what you’re thinking is wrong.

P. Freire, a spokesman for Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, said his time at Cornell more than a decade ago made him “more fastidious about constructing my arguments and it made me more aware of what the other side of my argument would be.” There was another aspect to the experience: “I think that it did make me dig in a bit more when I’d see how flippantly people would treat people with my perspective.”

7. R.I.P. Chuck Berry. Peter Guralnick reminds us why his legacy is so important. And the Robbie Robertson video is a side of him I’d never known about.

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3 responses to “Another Week Ends: Chuck Berry, Preachy Ads, Yik Yak Help, Optimist Empathy, Missing Richard Simmons, and the Relentless Gig Economy”

  1. Sean says:


  2. Cuban Sandwich Crisis says:

    Selling a product by assuaging consumers felt needs for empathy, inclusiveness and justice, while not talking about the actual product and why you need it is how mega churches are built. Has the InterContinental’s podcast done a series on marriage yet?

  3. David Zahl says:

    Amazing weekender, E. And I can’t get over that Chuck Berry spoken-word thing! What a find. I dug around and apparently it was the final new composition he released in his lifetime (back in 79).

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