Dear Robert: Super Bowl commercials, NARAL, Doritos, and why you need to read Neil Postman


Amazingly, NARAL loves abortion. This is not news. Or perhaps it is "news", and yet more evidence for "news" being worthless.

Amazingly, NARAL loves abortion. This is not news. Or perhaps it is “news”, and yet more evidence of how the “news” is worthless.

Dear Robert,

Re: the withered sentiment expressed by NARAL:

“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’” – St. Anthony of Egypt1.The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward, (Cistercian Publications, 1984), 6.

I can’t usually take the time to respond at any great length in such email threads, but I have some time today, and so I will offer a few thoughts, for whatever they’re worth. I don’t expect that they’ll be applauded by all in the thread, even though we are all friends.

NARAL is evil, and the ideology they give voice to is, in two words, insane and Satanic. I hope no one will take my comments as somehow lessening the severity of my judgment on that point. What I have to say does not concern the issue of abortion at all, really. I did watch the ad on YouTube, though, and I will say that as nice as it may have perhaps been to see an unborn baby grasping at corn-chips from the womb, and to think of all that this implies for the pro-life cause (I must confess, I think the answer is “nothing”), my first thought was that there was something kind of grotesque and degrading about the whole thing, especially the implication at the end that the pre-term baby shoots from the womb in pursuit of the thrown Dorito™. Is nothing sacred? What of dignity? I don’t think this is going to “change hearts and minds” to rethink the humanity of the unborn; I think it’s going to get people to buy Doritos™, which was, after all, the intended purpose of the $5 million, thirty-second spot.

I find it deeply disturbing that television commercials are regarded as deeply meaningful and somehow important, whatever the cut of their ideological jib, rather than recognized as crass attempts to incite unthinking appetite in potential consumers. This is not to point the finger at Breitbart per se. I simply hope we all can agree that our culture’s facile acceptance of various commercial media as the arbiters of what is important, significant, or even noteworthy is profoundly distressing. To recur a bit to the NARAL tweet in question— what does it tell us that we didn’t already know? What do the various news-stories and pundit soap-box yammerings empower or motivate us to do that we would not have otherwise done? Nothing and nothing. It all simply clutters the mind.

It’s fair to say that the commercials aired during the Super Bowl constitute fully half the appeal (if not more) of the “Super Bowl event” for many viewers— commercials, and the prurient hope of seeing a “wardrobe malfunction” during halftime, or at least a nice gyrating crotch. The commercials both mirror and project the latest pop-cultural values, cliches, memes, and shibboleths, all while galvanizing proles to buy crap they don’t need with credit cards they can’t afford. This is what all commercials do, of course, but Super Bowl Sunday is a veritable hedonists’ feast-day when commercialism as such is celebrated for its own sake. That it should have fallen this year on Quinquagesima Sunday, three days before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, is, I suppose, yet another irony of our perpetually-secularizing age. And we wonder where Western Civilization has gone.


Neil Postman

Perhaps it’s just my curmudgeonly nature speaking here, but I do not see any of it as harmless nostalgic fun to which we all might a-chuckling go, liberal and conservative alike nestling into our sofas. Self discipline, moral imagination, and a quiet mind are elusive enough for me as it is without the additional snare of television. I won’t attempt to make a virtue out of necessity here— I truly cannot watch such things. They depress me.

Thanks for bearing with me, and reading what I have to say. Again, I do not wish for this to come across as a personal criticism of you, Robert, nor of anyone else in this thread. I simply wish to add my two cents.

Apropos of this conversation, I cannot recommend highly enough the late Neil Postman’s diagnosis of our cultural addiction to television and “news”, his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I have two long-ish excerpts to share, which I won’t be offended if you don’t read.

In the following excerpt, Postman comments on the phenomenon of the television commercial:

The television commercial is the most peculiar and pervasive form of communication to issue forth from the electric plug. An American who has reached the age of forty will have seen well over one million television commercials in his or her lifetime, and has close to another million to go before the first Social Security check arrives. We may safely assume, therefore, that the television commercial has profoundly influenced American habits of thought. Certainly, there is no difficulty in demonstrating that it has become and important paradigm for the structure of every type of public discourse. My major purpose here is to show how it has devastated political discourse. But there may be some value in my pointing, first, to its effect on commerce itself.


By bringing together in compact form all of the arts of show business— music, drama, imagery, humor, celebrity— the television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. To understand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like science and liberal democracy, was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Its principal theorists, even its most prosperous practitioners, believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. If greed was taken to be the fuel of the capitalist engine, then surely rationality was the driver. The theory states, in part, that competition in the marketplace requires that the buyer not only knows what is good for him but also what is good. If the seller produces nothing of value, as determined by a rational marketplace, then he loses out. It is the assumption of rationality among buyers that spurs competitors to become winners, and winners to keep on winning. Where it is assumed that a buyer is unable to make rational decisions, laws are passed to invalidate transactions, as, for example, those which prohibit children from making contracts. In America, there even exists in law a requirement that sellers must tell the truth about their products, for if the buyer has no protection from false claims, rational decision-making is seriously impaired.


Of course, the practice of capitalism has its contradictions. Cartels and monopolies, for example, undermine the theory. But television commercials make hash of it. To take the simplest example: To be rationally considered, any claim— commercial or otherwise— must be made in language. More precisely, it must take the form of a proposition, for that is the universe of discourse from which such words as “true” and “false” come. If that universe of discourse is discarded, then the application of empirical tests, logical analysis or any of the other instruments of reason are impotent.


The move away from the use of propositions in commercial advertising began at the end of the nineteenth century. But it was not until the 1950’s that the television commercial made linguistic discourse obsolete as the basis for product decisions. By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not test of truth, the basis of consumer decisions. The distance between rationality and advertising is now so wide that it is difficult to remember that there once existed a connection between them. Today, on television commercials, propositions are as scarce as unattractive people. The truth or falsity of an advertiser’s claim is simply not an issue. A McDonald’s commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama— a mythology, if you will— of handsome people selling, buying, and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it.


Indeed, we may go this far: The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products. Images of movie stars or famous athletes, of serene lakes and macho fishing trips, of elegant dinners and romantic interludes, of happy families packing their station wagons for a picnic in the country— these tell nothing about the products being sold. But they tell everything about the fears, fancies, and dreams of those who might buy them. What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer. And so, the balance of business expenditures shifts from product research to market research. The television commercial has oriented business away from making products of value and toward making consumers feel valuable, which means that business of business has now become psycho-therapy. The consumer is a patient assured by psycho-dramas. (pp. 126-127)

It’s astonishing to think about, but Postman’s book was published in 1985, so you can adjust his figures accordingly. I can’t imagine what he would have said about today’s media morass. Some seventy pages earlier, he gives some thought-provoking commentary on the nature of advertising in general:

If we may take advertising to be the voice of commerce, then its history tells very clearly that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries those with products to sell…assumed that potential buyers were literate, rational, [and] analytical. Indeed, the history of newspaper advertising in America may be considered all by itself, as a metaphor of the descent of the typographic mind, beginning, as it does, with reason, and ending, as it does, with entertainment. In Frank Presbrey’s classic study The History and Development of Advertising, he discusses the decline of typography, dating its demise in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s. He refers to the period before then as the “dark ages” of typographical display. The dark ages to which he refers began in 1704 when the first paid advertisements appeared in an American newspaper, The Boston News-Letter. These were three in number, occupying altogether four inches of a single-column space. One of them offered a reward for the capture of a thief; another offered a reward for the return of an anvil that was “taken up” by some unknown party. The third actually offered something for sale, and, in fact, is not unlike real estate advertisements one might see in today’s New York Times:


At Oysterbay, on Long Island in the Province of N. York. There is very good Fulling-Mill, to be Let or Sold, as also a Plantation, having on it a large new Brick house, and another good house by it for a Kitchen & workhouse, with a Barn, Stable &c. a young Orchard and 20 acres clear land. The Mill is to be Let with or without the Plantation; Enquire of Mr. William Bradford Printer in N. York, and know further.


For more than a century and a half afterward, advertisements took this form with minor alterations. For example, sixty-four years after Mr. Bradford advertised an estate in Oyster Bay, the legendary Paul Revere placed the following advertisement in the Boston Gazette:


Whereas many person are so unfortunate as to lose their Fore-Teeth by Accident, and otherways, to their great Detriment, not only in Looks, but Speaking both in Public and Private:— This is to inform all such, that they may have them re-placed with false Ones, that look as well as Natural, and Answers the End of Speaking to all Intents, by PAUL REVERE, Goldsmith, near the Head of Dr. Clarke’s Wharf, Boston.


Revere went on to explain in another paragraph that those whose false teeth had been fitted by John Baker, and who had suffered the indignity of having them loosen, might come to Revere to have them tightened. He indicated that he had learned how to do this from John Baker himself.



The ad in question from Quaker & H-O, 1896. A bit more ghoulish than I originally thought when I read the description.

Not until a hundred years after Revere’s announcement were there any serious attempts by advertisers to overcome the lineal, typographic form demanded by publishers. And not until the end of the nineteenth century did advertising move fully into its modern mode of discourse. As late as 1890, advertising, still understood to consist of words, was regarded as an essentially serious and rational enterprise whose purpose was to convey information in propositional form. Advertising was, as Stephen Douglas said in another context, intended to appeal to understanding, not to passions. This is not to say that during the period of typographic display, the claims that were put forward were true. Words cannot guarantee their truth content. Rather, they assemble a context in which the question, Is this true or false? is relevant. In the 1890’s advertisers adopted the technique of using slogans. Presbrey contends that modern advertising can be said to begin with the use of two such slogans: “You press that button; we do the rest” and “See that hump?” At about the same time, jingles started to be used, and in 1892, Procter and Gamble invited the public to submit rhymes to advertise Ivory Soap. In 1896, H-O employed, for the first time, a picture of a baby in a high chair, the bowl of cereal before him, his spoon in hand, his face ecstatic. By the turn of the century, advertisers no longer assumed rationality on the part of their potential customers. Advertising became one part depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory. Reason had to move itself to other arenas. (pp. 58-60)

​I will leave you with that, dear friend. Maritza and I send our love. Baby is due March 2, so we would appreciate your prayers.


Under the +Mercy


References   [ + ]

1. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward, (Cistercian Publications, 1984), 6.