Wednesday, January 27, 2010


*Note: The following article was written by Milton Glaser and appeared in the AIG publication: "The Truth Issue". I have reproduced it here without permission. Mainly because I could not find it anywhere else online and because I wanted to share it with all of you.

Some of you know that my day job is in the field of marketing and advertising. I work as a copywriter and penning headlines, taglines, corporate advertising slogans and compelling editorial copy is what I do to put food on my table.

In this world of advertising and marketing, Milton Glaser is something of a legend. All you need to know about him is that he invented the "I (heart) NY" graphic which has since become synonymous with the city of New York. He's a genius. He's also something of a philosopher of advertising (if you can imagine such a thing) and at times his articles and interviews even take on issues of ethics and conscience - something sorely lacking in most marketing firms around the globe.

Because of this, I reprint this article by Milton Glaser on something quite rare for this field: The Truth.

See if you find any parallels to modern culture or christianity.


I went to Las Vegas for the first time to participate in the AIGA conference. I was booked at the Venetian – a hotel whose vast vistas of painted, cloud-filled skies had required the skills of more mural painters than had ever existed in Venice during the entire 15th century.

On my first day at the hotel, I noticed a sign that said, “Grand Canal.” I asked the concierge at the reception desk where it was. “One flight up,” she said. The earth reeled beneath my feet. A canal one flight up; what a concept.

The canal was, in fact, upstairs, complete with gondola and gondolier who would cheerfully take you around a bend to the Piazza San Marco. Later that same day, the hotels plubming broke down, and suddenly the entire ground floor began to smell like Venice on a warm day. I actually found myself wondering whether the hotel had planned it. Is there such a thing as virtual smell?

On the Dallas leg of the flight from Las Vegas after the AIGA conference, the hostess entered the aisle with a vigorously steaming tray of hot towels. I noticed that a wine glass filled with water was the source of the steam.

“What is that?” I asked the hostess, pointing to the glass.

“Dry ice and water,” she replied.

“Is that for drama?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

Even to a dormant mind, a trip to Las Vegas inevitably raises the question, “What is real?” and, by inference, “What is truth?”

Obviously, “What is truth?” is one of humankind’s most persistent questions, but it seems ever more insistent at this moment than at any other time. What can it mean when a freezing glass of dry ice is used to simulate a steaming towel on a plane trip? Can this modest deception benefit either the airline or its passengers? Where was the decision made to do it? In the boardroom? In the advertising agency? On the flight itself? Does the airline believe that the drama of the steaming towels will suggest a policy of concerned service? What happens to the customer in the last row of the plane when he is handed a cold towel while the tray above his head is steaming madly? Doe he doubt his own nervous system? What makes me uncomfortable with all of this? Why do I believe that harm is being done? All of which leads us in a convoluted way to the question of professional ethics.

“How can we tell the truth?” can be thought of as two separate questions. The first part asks why we believe what we believe; the second, where ethical questions begin, involves our responsibility to others.

One must start with the presumption that telling the truth is important for human survival, but at this moment of relativism and virtuality, I’m not sure how many would agree on what truth is or how important it is in our private and professional lives.

But we must begin somewhere. The question becomes a professional one, because as designers or communicators (the preferred current description), we are constantly informing the public, transmitting information and affecting the beliefs and values of others. Should telling the truth be a fundamental requirement of this role? Is there a difference between telling the truth to your wife and family and telling the truth to a general public? What is the difference?

In a profession that defines itself by effectively persuading others, it’s impossible to consider our work outside the context of advertising, an activity that is so fundamental to our economy and so pervasively influential that it may have informed our idea of what truth is, more than any other single thing.

We drown in the sea of relentless persuasion that we help create as well as receive. There are now ads under our feet in supermarkets. I opened a fortune cookie the other night and found that an advertisement for an e-commerce company had replaced my fortune. (I am not kidding!) And some weeks ago, we were informed that the pauses in Rush Limbaugh’s talk show had been electronically eliminated to gain six more advertising messages per hour. All these messages intend to sell rather than inform, and tend to distort or modify the truth in ways that we can no longer see. Our brains and sense of truth cannot be unaffected by this onslaught.

For years, I have struggled with the question of whether the designers, by virtue of their positions as communicators, should have more ethical responsibility than the average citizen. Perhaps a better questions would be, “Should they have less?”

ABOUT MILTON GLASER – Creator of the iconic “I Heart NY” image, Milton Glaser helped revive illustration in the 1960’s when photography was thought to have swept the field. After studying at the High School of Music & Art, then Cooper Union in New York, Glaser studied etching in Bologna with the painter Giorgio Morandi.
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