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Zen and the Art of Advertising Copy

Philosophy for Sale! Slashed 50 percent!



Advertising runs in cycles. One year it sings of Honest Workers, the next it extols the virtues of Triumphant Capitalists. These frightening archetypes still pop up, but 1989 saw the birth of a peculiar new fashion as well: meaninglessness. Having discovered how profitable it can be to sing the praises of both Young Babbitt and the horny-handed son of toil, admen this year wised up to the value of inane, lofty-sounding babble.

In the magical world of fetishized speech, a simple rule applies: the more incomprehensible the utterance, the more enticing the commodity.

The most horrific utterances of 1989 were Nissan's Infiniti ads. These were not small-budget affairs. In the most memorable of them, a four-page spread run in serious national magazines, the reader was startled to behold a double-page photo of three large . . . boulders. This was followed by a page of inscrutable text and finally a full-page photo--of one of the three boulders.

These were deep and murky waters. Many avid consumers were eager to know what jewel of meaning they concealed. The answer seems to be the following: The three rocks are a kind of granitic shorthand for the big three of the Luxury Car Universe, representing--one assumes--BMW, Mercedes, and, uh, Nissan. The Infiniti's unique and superior status is symbolized by the single rock in the last photograph.

Even more important, however, is the "natural" theme evoked by the rocks and by the "transcendental" name "Infiniti." These are hints to the prospective car buyer that owning an Infiniti is an act in harmony with the universe--a kind of Wordsworthian vision quest. Here we have a subtle attempt to trade on the prestige of Japan's fabled enigmatic culture. The Germans--the ad seems to tell us--are cold, authoritarian maniacs in lab coats who march in goose step. Japanese, on the other hand, are mystics and aesthetes--a people who love sex, and death, and rocks, and luxury cars.

These ads were noble efforts, but several glaring errors were made. The word "Infiniti" may have been intended to conjure up the cosmic void, but the cute "i" at the end recalls preadolescent girls named "Debbi" or "Terri" who dot their names with big circles. And the stone motif reminds the reader not of romantic poetry or the freedom of the wanderer, but of Fred Flintstone's car--a ponderous and outmoded vehicle with rock tires.

The text of the ad is even odder. It appears to have been aimed at status-conscious Zen masters. This is not a large demographic group even in Japan.

"Can the average driver tell the difference between an Infiniti and a traditional luxury car?" begins the text. (Before you read further, it is only fair to warn you that this question will not be answered.) "There are differences of philosophy between a car designer raised in Bavaria and one raised in Kyoto. Not so much on fundamentally good engineering, but on what luxury is. Here's the view from Kyoto: Infiniti cars are designed for the driver. Its [sic] luxury personality [sick] is fully experienced at highway speeds as a touring sedan. . . . The key idea is 'the will of the driver.' For it says that a car is designed to make the driver's experience more enjoyable. . . . These things we believe, [sic] show a difference in approach to luxury. Differences [sic] which are easy to discern and which depart from traditional standards. The point is not to make a case for which brand of luxury is better. Only to say that you can judge Infiniti cars on their unique character as luxury-class automobiles."

No one has succeeded in deciphering the meaning of this ungrammatical, meaningless, and basically psychotic prose. (The last two sentences, and their relationship, are particularly choice morsels, worthy of lengthy study.) Indeed, only a linguistic masterstroke could have created this miasma. The copywriters on the Nissan account apparently hit upon the ingenious expedient of imitating the illiterate syntax of early Japanese attempts at English-language advertising. Those embarrassing mid-60s productions, with their split infinitives, dangling participles, and off-kilter colloquialisms, are generally considered a humiliation to the trade and are never referred to in public. But now that Japaneseness is a much-sought-after quality, illiteracy--which connotes it--is solid gold. By babbling pidgin English profundities, Nissan has elevated the concept of Luxury to quasi-mystical status.

Almost as peculiar as the Nissan campaign was the interminable Germanic sermon on the meaning of life offered up by the head of Porsche, an aging gentleman named, if memory serves, Mr. Porsche. As grainy black-and-white film clips of racing cars rolled by on the TV screen, Mr. Porsche spoke gravely, and for what seemed an eternity, of the endless search for human perfection and meaning in the universe. His attempt to link automobile engineering and Aristotelean theoria failed miserably, leaving the hapless viewer to stare in confusion and impotent rage.

In general, advertising this year took the high, the abstruse, the conceptual road. Statements of an obscurity so profound and impenetrable as to make Wittgenstein gag droned from screen and glossy page, selling such un-Socratic objects as cars and beer.

The syllogisms linking Porsche and the pinnacle of the human spirit, or Nissan and the nature of luxury-in-itself, may have nauseated consumers across America, but they had an unsuspected and positive side effect. They finally rendered philosophy comprehensible.

There's no point in denying it: ever since neo-Kantianism, philosophy has been utterly baffling. Who even pretends to understand such intractable doctrines as logical positivism or deconstruction? Who can paraphrase Schopenhauer?

But thanks to advertising, this lamentable state of affairs has now come to an end. Now everyone can be a sage. Since copywriters took up wisdom, the price of epistemology has been slashed by 50 percent. There's no longer any need to rack your brain trying to remember Spinoza's critique of teleology. Just bring the wife and the pink slip and come on down to Western Culture Repo-Land, where everything must go!

Here are a few philosophical doctrines and their advertising updates.


Traditional Boring and Incomprehensible Meaning: Ideal forms, which are the essences that lie behind individual objects, are more real than those individual phenomena.

Miller Beer Version: It's as real as it gets.

Sartrean Existentialism

Traditional Boring and Incomprehensible Meaning: Man's existence is radically contingent and his consciousness is nauseated by its own absurdity. He is condemned to circle endlessly around the ultimate questions of his existence.

Porsche Version: It is of the essence of the human spirit to seek a reason for being.

Kantian Categorical Imperative

Traditional Boring and Incomprehensible Meaning: Built-in limits on his capacity to know mean that man can never grasp the "thing-in-itself." But by acting ethically, man can nonetheless attain his highest nature.

U.S. Army Version: Be all that you can be.

Lenin's Critique of "The Withering Away of the State" and the Theory of Class Struggle

Traditional Boring and Incomprehensible Meaning: The state is a special organization of force. In its bourgeois version it must of necessity, and by definition, suppress the proletariat. Thus it will not "wither away" but must be violently overthrown.

Audi Version: Every revolution starts in the streets.

Epicurean Theory of Pleasure

Traditional Boring and Incomprehensible Meaning: In order to attain ataraxia, a state of being "unshaken by the world," man should recognize that the gods are not interested in earthly affairs and should pursue simple pleasures.

Black Velvet Version: Feel the Black Velvet.

Hegelian Dialectic

Traditional Boring and Incomprehensible Meaning: The Absolute works itself out in history through the opposition of concepts.

Miller Lite Version: Thesis: Less filling. Antithesis: Tastes great. Synthesis: Less filling and tastes great.

Frankfurt-School Marxism

Traditional Boring and Incomprehensible Meaning: Capitalism, being both symptom and cause of a repressed consciousness, insidiously infiltrates all of reality.

Michelob Version: The night belongs to Michelob.

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