Friday, February 29, 2008

Curb Your Cynicism

I was listening to a podcast of The Advertising Show the other day and the guest was a gentleman named Chuck Underwood, author of The Generational Imperative: Understanding Generational Differences In The Workplace, Marketplace, And Living Room and he was discussing how to advertise for and to specific generations. He put people in my age group into the "Gen-Xers" category and stated that one of the main attributes of 'our' generation in regards to advertising was skepticism and cynicism.

Firstly, I'm glad that my generation is no longer referred to as the "MTV Generation," because I've never really liked or even identified with MTV. Secondly, and personally speaking, I can hardly disagree with Mr. Underwood's claims, regarding both advertising and the world at large.

But in trying to make a career transition into advertising, I've had to suppress my cynical inclinations. Thankfully, It hasn't been hard.

Over the years, I've busied myself reading books like No Logo, which is, to put it mildly, skeptical of advertising and pure capitalism in general.

It wasn't until I read a book called Nation of Rebels that I was able to come to grips with my role in a consumerist society and finally accept the advertising that goes along with living in such a society.

Don't get me wrong, advertising deserves scrutiny, just like anything else. But it is my belief that many people are skeptical of certain kinds of advertising and cynical because they don't understand the necessary role that advertising plays in our society, not to mention its function in providing entertainment - both as a medium and financier.

The simple fact is, much of our entertainment is driven by and underwritten by advertising. I don't think people realize this. Some people consider advertising intrusive and insulting. Few seem to view it without at least a modicum of suspicion and even less see advertising as a legitimate source of entertainment.

Various advertising philosophies are at odds about the necessity and function of advertising as entertainment. Few disagree that the purpose of advertising is to sell products.

However, advertising is also a service. Without advertising, many products would never enter into the consumer's consciousness and, as a result, many consumers would miss out on products that can be beneficial and even improve quality of life.

If the main goal of consumerism is to improve quality of life, then, by extension, the main goal of advertising has to be the same. Improving quality of life can mean many things. The improvement can come in the form of indispensables like garbage bags or it can come in the form of entertainment. The good thing about free market capitalism is that the importance of goods in the context of life-quality is purely at the mercy of the consumer. The consumer decides what and how much of any product is necessary to improve quality of life. And these traits will vary by consumer and by generation. In other types of markets, these decisions can be made by the government, economists or other figures of academia and power.

So we should all be thankful for the benefit of choice. The opposite in current American society would be unthinkable.

Granted, the fallout of unchecked free market capitalism can be devastating. Many developing countries are at the mercy of so-called "free trade". Globalist economies have even hurt America's once vast manufacturing industries. There are some who will tell you that free market capitalism in its purest form allows for such unrepentant economic Darwinism. But free market capitalism is an idea. And ideas don't have the benefit of conscience. But people do.

I would argue that my generation is skeptical because it is a generation of consumers with a conscience.

Those who would seek to justify prioritizing profits before the welfare of the people with an idea such as economic Darwinism aren't helping to curb the cynicism of socially and environmentally conscious consumers. And this must be reconciled.

The current presidential administration is transparently pro-business and anti-poor. But perhaps these people should themselves be considered cynical and lacking in conscience. After all, it would seem that President Bush and his advisers believe that competition is the only way to succeed in a free market and that any benefits should go to furthering competition and widening the gap in favor of those who are already successful, as opposed to leveling the playing field so that all can compete on even terms. This isn't just a cynical way of thinking, but nihilistic as well.

You could say that Gen-X is cynical about such cynicism.

It may actually be incorrect to claim that Gen-X is skeptical of advertising. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we are skeptical of what advertising represents. I have learned not to blame advertising, but rather to see it for what it is and even appreciate it on many levels.

I've finally been able to curb my cynicism.

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