Thursday, January 28, 2010

THE ROAD TO HELL by Milton Glaser

NOTE: One last article by Milton Glaser. A nice follow up to yesterday's essay on Truth.

Keep in mind that he's writing this to designers and writers who work in the advertising industry.

The Road to Hell by Milton Glaser

I once created a test called The Road to Hell, ... a series of questions that become more difficult the deeper you go. The first couple are easy, would you—

1. Design a package to look larger on the shelf?

2. Do an ad for a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy?

3. Design a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it’s been in business for a long time?

4. Design a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent?

5. Design an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring?

6. Design a package for a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content?

7. Design a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer who employs child labor?

8. Design a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work?

9. Design an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?

10. Design a brochure piece for an SUV that turned over more frequently than average in emergency conditions and caused the death of 150 people?

11. Design an ad for a product whose continued use might cause the user’s death?

When I gave this test to students between the ages of 21 to 28, I discovered that in a group of 20, three or four of them were willing to go all the way — That is, participate in advertising a product whose use might cause the user’s death.

These were generally idealistic young people as yet seemingly uncorrupted by money or professional life. However, they drew the line at harming their family, friends or neighbors.

The other day in the country, I thought I’d make a Greek salad for lunch. Tomatoes are not quite in season but I had some good onions, peppers, cucumbers as well as a small square of feta and some excellent olives, olive oil and Greek oregano.

As I was adding the feta to the salad I checked the nutritional label; it read 70 calories per serving. “Not bad” I thought, and crumbled the cheese into the bowl.

Something made me examine the label again. Under “number of servings” it said 7. I had just added 490 calories to a diet-conscious lunch for my wife and myself.

I wondered how did a thimbleful of feta become a serving? You all know the answer.

After lunch I turned on the TV to watch the ball game. A commercial for a nasty-looking green salve to treat arthritis was on, showing a smiling young woman testifying to the efficacy of the medication.

“I was barely able to move my fingers” she said, “and now I can type for hours without any pain.”

At the bottom of the screen in 6 point, barely visible type, were the words “results may not be typical”.

Could I have picked any more trivial examples to indicate the lies we experience in daily life? Perhaps not, but the truth is we are subjected to a thousand of such misrepresentations every day of our lives.

So pervasive is the culture of small distortions that we can no longer recognize them as lies. To quote Mc Luhan, “The fish in water doesn’t know it’s in water”—nevertheless the assault has changed our brains and our view of reality and truth.

Most of us here today are in the transmission business. While we don’t often originate the content of what we transmit, we are an essential part of communicating ideas to a public that is affected by what we say. Should telling the truth be a fundamental requirement of this role? Is there a difference between lying to your wife and friends and lying to people you don’t know? Certainly one thing that makes lying easier is thinking of the audience not as citizens but as consumers—the consumer is another species, and in professional life they are often thought of as the “other”.

To quote Elaine Pagels in her book, The Origins of Satan, “The social and cultural practice of defining certain people as ‘others’ in relationship to one’s own group may be, of course as old as humanity itself.”

While marketing is obsessed with the way groups behave it doesn’t generally conceive of those groups as being our fathers, mothers, sisters or friends, this would make the job far too complex. Rather, these groups are thought of as ‘markets’ with generalized characteristics that make manipulating them seem ethically acceptable.

One thing seems consistent, the greater the psychic distance the easier it is to persuade people to act against their own self-interest. The issue seems more significant than ever. Today, given the aggressive distortion of truth and reality that pervades our civic and business life. It is not a coincidence that Karl Rove, a brilliant marketing man is, next to the President himself, the most important man in Washington and perhaps the world.

What is truly frightening is the degree to which lying has become acceptable in our public life. I’m not sure when the word “spin” replaced “lie” but it is characteristic of how our language has become a way of deflecting or distorting reality. We seem to be awash in lies from business, the government, and almost every institution we have traditionally looked to as a source of belief. Our government has embarked on an investigation to determine whether the atrocities performed at Abu Ghraib were aberational or systemic. What would be equally important is an examination of whether lying has become systemic in our nation and the way our government speaks to us. The relative lack of public outrage as government and business lies are revealed is troubling, and may indicate how the American sense of what truth is has been profoundly shaped by our most pervasive educational medium, advertising.

Actually it works two ways, advertising influences our relationship to government and government influences our view of advertising. A recent somewhat homophobic ad by Anheuser-Busch (no relation), in addition to characterizing Miller as a “sissy” beer, “outed” the Miller Beer Corporation as being owned by a South African company, paralleling the outing, by unknown government insiders, of CIA Agent Valerie Plame.

As you all know, that event was triggered because her husband told the truth about whether or not nuclear materials were being shipped from Niger. In my memory this is the first time that the patriotism of a competitor has been questioned in order to promote beer sales. Marketing can be shameless.

Politicians and businessmen have re-discovered the power of Lenin’s old idea that a lie repeated often enough, becomes the truth. This dark assumption throws a pall over America as well as the entire world and endangers democracy itself. When people believe that their government systemically lies to them they become cynical.

Cynicism breeds apathy and a sense of powerlessness that causes people to withdraw from public life. It is not coincidental that less than half our population votes.

If only 44% of our country vote and we are equally divided ideologically, it means that 20% of the electorate control the fate of our nation—this has become a profound threat to the future of our republic and democracy itself. We can only call this a systemic scandal and observe that those in power have done very little to change the condition. Which raises one last question. From our government’s point of view, have we become the “other”?

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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