The engine in 2000 will be beautiful and shining, will be fast and quiet, it will be a delicate engine, made of precious metal, the exhaust will be calibrated and its smell won’t pollute; it could be breathed from a little boy or a little girl. lie
(Il motore del 2000, a song by the Italian singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla)
– “Mother, what is language?”
– “It’s the house in which a person lives”
(Jean-Luc Godard, Two or Three Things I Know About Her)
I’ve not got “Jo Condor” written on my forehead!
In the last decade, in Western countries, we have seen the spread of a new kind of private vehicle: the SUV. SUVs are designed to be a mix between an off-road and an urban vehicle. SUV sales have been successful almost everywhere. Nevertheless, they are not suitable to the roads of every country. Take Italy for example. Italy is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. It follows that the width of the streets, except for motorways, is quite reduced. Besides, Italy is full of historical towns, often with medieval street plans, where it’s difficult to drive a vehicle which is more akin to a van than a car. You know that episode of Night on Earth by Jim Jarmush, with Benigni whizzing in the streets of Rome? Imagine if he had driven a SUV. And finding a place to park those vehicles…
Every SUV advertisement insists on the sense of freedom, on the importance of going beyond one’s limits, on adventure, on travel. Most of them show us these cars facing dirt roads, deserts, mountains, impetuous streams and beaches. Even when it’s in town, the SUV shown by commercials flashes down empty streets without traffic. Is that information? Of course, on the one hand we cannot deny that SUVs were designed especially for difficult terrains; therefore, we cannot say that those commercials lie. Nobody would find fault with SUV advertisements if those cars were a prerogative of a small number of people who love sporty driving or live in places with arduous roads.
On the other hand, we see that SUVs are bought by business owners, self-employed professional men and women, representatives and executives: all rigorously city dwellers. They’re all people who split their free time between the city and their beach house, and their greatest difficulties behind the wheel are traffic jams or a hole in the asphalt. So why do they buy SUVs? Do they feel so much pleasure in driving them, that all difficulties disappear? Are there any advantages that we haven’t considered yet? Logically, considering the characteristics of Italian roads, and given that a very limited number of people live in wild areas with difficult terrains, in Italy the sales of such vehicles should have been a failure. SUVs are heavy means, hard to maneuver and to park, and consume a lot, in a country where excise taxes on fuel are extremely high. Therefore, choosing a SUV in Italy means facing considerable problems and costs that we would not have if we bought any other car.
Courtesy of song zhen (www.flickr.com/photos/songzhen)
It seems reasonable to say that whoever buys a SUV in a country like Italy, at first sight looks like that who has “Jo Condor” (click here to read more about it) written on his forehead. As we will see, however, he or she is likely to be an unconscious victim of the ideological propaganda promoted by advertising. A nice 2006 documentary film, Who killed the electric car, tells about one of the epic fails of the 90s’ car industry: General Motors’ EV1. This car, placed on the market twenty years ago for a little more than three years, had an electric engine powered by batteries (completely rechargeable by means of a simple power outlet in 5-8 hours) and could travel 250 km at a speed of 130 km per hour (just because it was limited electronically). Despite some technical problems due to the development of more efficient batteries, the sales of EV1 should have been a resounding success. An electric car able to compete with traditional internal combustion engines on medium distances, at last! Although the realization of the car was made possible by state investment of Clinton administration, the distribution took place only in California and Arizona, where state laws were imposing lower emission standards. General Motors provided rental companies in just these two states with EV1 models, even if the average distance between major urban centers exceeded the granted autonomy (restricting their use) and have never tried to hire them out on the East Coast, where towns are much closer to each other. However, the project was abandoned a few years later, because it was so uneconomical and disappointing that California relaxed the laws against car emissions. Let’s say things had gone differently.
Imagine a world where the problem of car emissions was solved twenty years ago. Imagine how much money and how many human lives we could have saved in some areas, like the Po valley, affected by respiratory disease. Imagine how much we could have saved in terms of climate change effects. It’s a pity that things didn’t go this way.
But why didn’t they? Who killed the electric car twenty years ago? The Seven Sisters? Car companies? All these subjects have surely contributed, but the answer is simpler: the real culprits are car buyers. A large part of them preferred another kind of private vehicle: the SUV. Why? There is a suspicion that the advertising magic must have much to do with the commercial success of SUVs. Advertising agents prove themselves excellent at determining the success of cars opposite to EV1; SUVs are tall, scarcely aerodynamic, heavy, polluting and consume a very great deal of energy. Nevertheless, they became a global Status Symbol.
The question is: how and why so many people have been convinced? In the movie The pervert guide to Ideology, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek explains that ideology is able to make you see one thing for another, for example a dangerous invader instead of an immigrant, or a miserable, desperate person instead of someone who has decided to change life. Ideology can, above all, be invisible. Sometimes advertising agents seem to have understood better than anyone else the meaning of “what is essential is invisible to the eye”, a sentence of The Little Prince. Indeed, advertising is not only terribly ideological, but also crypto-ideological. If the real power of ideology is making invisible to the eye the essential of things, so that either the essential can get round our mental defenses, or the inessential pretends to be essential, then advertising agents are better ideologists than Goebbels.
Let’s observe what happens in a SUV commercial. Almost all of them insist on the sense of adventure, on freedom, on difficult terrain in wild landscapes. And yet, as we noticed before, the target is urban upper/middle class. So, what’s the point of overwhelming consumers with images of cars whizzing in the desert or through the forest, as if the driver is training for the Camel Trophy? An advertising agent would say that the aim of the commercial is to show the consumer that these cars can face difficult, not urban, terrain, and that we should buy them because driving off road is funny and desirable. But in the meantime, another encrypted message passes: “buy this car, because if it is suitable for extreme environments, it will be also perfect to face the Far West of our urban streets.”
Tarzan Escapes Lobby Card (Via Wikimedia Commons)
The message in SUV commercials is far from being informative, rather it is ideological. This message exerts leverage on freedom and adventure to remove the stone from the cave in which we left our wild side. SUV commercials tell us that our streets are jungles where institutions are absent or powerless: to survive, we should drive cars which are not only fast, but also big and heavy, so that they can protect us from the madman who could bump into us at any time. Tanks would be perfect. It doesn’t matter if the madman bumping into the others could be us; in fact, it would be better! As weapons dealers know, the best antidote for fear is feeling that we could scare the others.
The distinction that we’ve seen before by Annamaria Testa, based on the observation that advertising conveys positive and emancipated messages, seems to be totally wrong. SUV commercials are effective exactly because they convey positive messages, but these positive messages are used for hinting at dark forces, therefore casting the shadow of insecurity on the streets. All in all, the more distant from the language of propaganda, the more ideological the advertisement. Does the commercial talk about freedom? People get: anarchy. Does it insist on driving in a forest or in extreme areas? People understand that our streets are full of wolves and wild beasts. In short, commercials display a concept, but hint at its complementary concept. Like Plato said, there’s nothing better than waving dark shadows in front of people to make them do whatever we want: generally, anything. Or get them to buy our products.
Magritte’s shadow lie
The human being is essentially a social animal, hence a communicative animal. While the majority of animals has specialized physical or behavioral skills and has evolved so to occupy a precise ecological niche, the human being doesn’t seem to have developed any natural talent (they can’t run, fly or swim fast; they haven’t got claws nor the sense of smell or hearing; they don’t secrete poison, etc.); it seems they do not prefer any natural environment: they live in any climate, at any latitude and they are onnivorous. The human being has been – and still is – the neglected son of Mother Nature, who she has dedicated the least attention to. Actually, the human being has always admired the power of nature, but his actual greatness comes from his weakness. Without such a lack of natural skills, the human being could have never achieved what Leroi-Gourhan calls the exteriorisation of natural faculties. Hasn’t the man got claws? For this reason they made knives, lances, ect.; by the same token they built motor, wings and fins. Instead of growing claws, wings and fins they built them out of themselves. Even the communication has been exteriorised. A whale communicates with its own kind better than a man does and a lions’s roar is heard for miles, where the scream of a man will never get to. However, not only has the human being built the sonar and the radio to overtake animals, but they did much more: they invented the symbolic language.
Let’s imagine what happened. Men were making sounds to count themselves, as all animals do. Then they may have started to make sounds to signal the coming of some animals, maybe by reproducing their cry as best as they could: it was like giving the alarm, making a sign, communicating. At some point the sound, the auditory image of the tree or the animal, beginned to count as the thing. Using our imagination, we can think of Adam, the first Man, as a kind of lowest of the low in the social and natural hierarchy. Once, because of his greed for a food or for having just a little of it, he must have raised a false alarm (“Wolf! Wolf!”), thus clearing the way for his meal. From this to, “take out the trash!” it must have taken not too long. Through this funny story we want to tell a simple concept: the invention of symbolic language has opened all the potentiality of the deceit to the human being. The first deceit of language is conjure up what does not exsist, what is not present, fantastic. It doesn’t make sense to talk about a thing or an event when we are in front of them; it is enough to point at them. Hence, we speak, we write, etc. only about what is not yet, what is not anymore , what could have been, or what we would like had happened.
Courtesy of omino71 (www.flickr.com/photos/omino71)
It doesn’t seem that whales or lions tell stories or play dramas. No animal seems to be aware of virtuality, of what is not, but could even be; Only the human being has this knowledge and occupies it. More than in communication tout court the human being has specialized in the communication of what is fictional and unreal. Animals live on the Earth, in the sea, in the Nature; but not the human being, or at least not only. The Human Being lives in two world at the same time: he lives in the nature and also in the representation of the nature. The Human Being has never left the Garden of Eden, so as he was never banished and has never lived in the desert of the people disowned by God. However, at the same time they lost forever the possibility of remaining in the original garden, at least to stay there in the same way they could before. By eating the apple – and acquiring the language – the mankind has gained the ability of turning the garden into the image of a garden and then of inhabiting it, trying to be at the same time painted character and painter, creature and creator, tree and fruit, bite and worm. This are the effects of the forbidden fruit.
This ability to translate the reality in images, to make connections between different things, the existing and fictional ones, the possible and impossible ones, to connect, to pretend, to foresee – which is to see thing that do not exsist yet, etc. – are all skills developed and sharpened thanks to the language, which in fact is the actual environment of the human being. Thanks to the ability to represent what is real as well as what is not real, the human being could shape the nature and inhabit it in the form of culture. The poetic justice to be paid is that language and communication cannot escape lie and fiction simply because lie and fiction are intrinsic to human language and communication. It can be argued that not all communications are false. But when the man is honest he never communicates, he expresses himself at best. He cries if something hurts him, he laughs if he feels pleasure, etc.. Indeed he uses language as an animal would use it. Expressing yourself is the exact opposite of making a sign. To express yourself means to reveal a presence; to make a sign means to conjure up an absence. All this explains what is the innate danger in language. Language is the habitat where the human being took shelter, but also where he kind of lost himself; until one day he found himself being an advertiser.
Advertisers are men perfectly conformed with the communication Era. Their task is to launch a signal, in other words to communicate. What does communicate means? Communicate is nothing more than the transubstantiation of bread. We communicate only when what we want to communicate is absent in order to make it magically present through a ritual symbol – the picture of a pipe indicating a pipe, or meaning a pipe on a billboard that indicates where to find a tobacco shop (follow the arrow direction). To make present what is absent, real what is unreal, known what is unknown, this is man’s greatest magic and no man nowadays is more magician than the advertiser.
Thankfully, there are painters such as Magritte who, in his C’est ci n’est pas une pipe!, reminds us that the painting of a pipe is not the pipe itself, but only an artificial shadow. If it sounds wierd to you that a surrealist can remind us such an ordinary, but true thing, it is because you don’t take into consideration that, as we will see, surreal is the culture in which the human being has evolved.
In the allegory of the cave Platos states that the philosopher can break free from the world of shadows, from the world of lies and illusions to conquer the light of reality and then come back, free the others and drag them out. While two thousand years later, according to Heidegger, “no one can jump over his shadow.” Who is right? Both are, given that this shadow is the implicit fiction in every act of communication. Pretending is the shadow of language, but it is also what makes us the animals that we are. The problem is not denying our limits, instead is admitting them and remembering them even in order to go beyond them. Advertisers, the experts of communication and mass media, do exactly the opposite. They keep linguistic fiction hidden, they make the essential invisible to the eyes, just so to better fold themselves in a cloak of invisibility and go around as if they were Harry Potter, but just to sell us SUVs, not to fight the evil.
QUID, DAISY & JUPE
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