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David Cowles

Nov 17, 2022

“Madison Avenue knows us. It knows that our deepest longing is to be ourselves, to be what we are, to lose our absolute freedom in the security of an identity....'Never happening!”

Once upon a time, advertising was information – ok, ‘spun information’, but still, information. Is anyone old enough to remember “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is?” 

And what a relief it was! It soothed many an upset stomach and aching head back in the day (i.e., back when we used to eat and drink). Truth in advertising! Ok, truth packaged in a catchy jingle sung by a loveable cartoon character but ‘truth’ nonetheless. Now, fast-forward to today.


Take drugs! (Well, only if they’re legal…and safe, of course.) Today’s ads for drugs (Rx and OTC) barely mention what the drug does (positively), but there’s plenty of attention paid to potential complications and contraindications. Some of my personal favorites: heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, and that old chestnut, death. But my all-time favorite, yes, trumping even death, is “Don’t take this drug if you are allergic to it.” Duh!


Anyway, nobody cares. Today, ads are all about who you’ll be if... That’s weird. Won’t I still be me? No, you won’t! You’re not yourself now; you never were, and a new car or a designer drug isn’t going to change that. You know, and you have always known, that there is a disconnect between who you are and what you are.


You felt it when you were 3, and 13, and 33; you’ll still feel it when you’re 66…or 99! Alienation (‘being other than you are’) doesn’t go away; you don’t outgrow it, and there’s nothing you can take for it. 


At every moment of every day of every year of your life, you are, you have been, and you always will be someone, just not yourself. Life is like an old 8MM home movie: you can see yourself crawling, walking, off to school, getting married, etc., but you can never see ‘you’. You’re not there (it’s cellulose for cryin’ out loud!). In film, as in life, there are always only images of you, never you


We’re taught that we are shape-shifters: there is some mysterious ‘substance’ that defines us and that remains us even as we, like Proteus, assume a million different personae. It is one of the many things we’re taught that are not true.


Deep down, you know that you’re unmoored, untethered, that you are an exile, a stranger, an imposter. You are like Shakespeare’s actor who “in his time plays many parts.” Yet, the actor is none of his parts, and none of your parts is you.


What about all your parts taken together? Still not you. Don’t waste your time pushing this envelope, the result will always be the same. Being someone (or something) is irremediably different from being you. A persona is not a person!  

Hang on, it gets better! It is not just that you are unrelated to your personae – you are the negation of those personae. Neti, neti! You are not this, or that. In fact, not being them is who you are! You are a verb. You negate, therefore you are! Non sum ergo sum. You are ground for the figures of the world, or they are ground for you, but either way, never the twain shall meet.   

So what? So, everything! Not being who you are is who you are! Are you lonely, anxious, scared? Of course, all the time…you should be. Welcome to existential angst

So, what does any of this have to do with advertising? Today’s ads don’t tell us about a product, about how it works, about how it can benefit us in our lives. Today’s ads are about who we are. They promise that you can become your persona du jour…if only you’ll drive a certain car or take a certain drug. 


Madison Avenue knows us. It knows that our deepest longing is to be ourselves, to be what we are, to lose our absolute freedom in the security of an identity. Who wouldn’t want to be a doting parent, playing ball in the park with your child, or a beaming child, riding shotgun in your parent’s brand-new pick-up? Never happening!


We can never be ourselves in the way Madison Avenue intends. (I may have a family, but I cannot BE spouse, father, etc. There’s always a thin film between myself and my roles.) Today, most ads promise just that – but falsely, because nothing could ever do what they promise, not even when Hell has finally frozen over. We are not who we are and that’s all there is to it, madmen (sic) notwithstanding!


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