“Shock can become familiar. Shock can wear off. Even if it doesn’t, one can not look. People have means to defend themselves against what is upsetting.”
“There is nothing wrong with standing back and thinking. To paraphrase several sages: ‘Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.’” – Susan Sontag, Regarding The Pain of Others
(Ash over shoulder as if you’re mind is too weighed down with all the injustice and inconsistency in the world to worry about the state of your carpet = Generic Philosopher Pose No. 7)
This post has been incubating for over two months. Bloggers will be familiar with those odd pangs of guilt that come from not writing for a while. For those who don’t blog, it’s a bit like putting off your full-body (and eventual personality) transplant whilst continuing to scoff yourself silly, sloth about, smoke like a small chimney and haemorrhage money at your local boozer on a
daily weekly daily basis. We are masters of procrastination and of cheating ourselves in the process. I suppose the general theme of the next few posts is about how we can know what the right thing to do is but don’t feel like doing it. It’s about how we are masters of ‘legitimising’ our actions or inactions to make ourselves feel better.
Susan Sontag is perhaps the broodiest philosopher I can feasibly tolerate. Of course, she’s a lefty (as in left-wing, not left-handed), as let’s face it, there are very few philosophers who come from the right. She’s an activist. She says the wrong thing at the wrong time (evidenced by her comments on 9/11) and her ramblings are riddled with contradictions. I tolerate her because these contradictions are undeniably human. She knows that only self-awareness and humility allow her to reassess her personal views and experiences. Such self-criticism prevents intellectual and moral conservatism. More importantly, I tolerate her because she rubs people up the wrong way, as all intimidatingly intelligent women do.
Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ ponders on the effects of emotionally engineered and manipulated photographs on society at the hands of the media. She examines how we can sloth-out in front of the 10 O’clock News, get terribly upset about Ebola’s grip over West Africa, compare the scenes to a zombie apocalypse or a medical dystopian thriller (like Contagion) that we saw on Netflix last week, then cynically berate the American media for it’s histrionics and wind up posting an article on Facebook about how you’re more likely to spontaneously combust than you are to catch Ebola.
Sontag identifies that photography’s claim of ‘eye-witness’ authenticity is false – after all, #nofilter wouldn’t have caught on if Instagram snaps were more likely to be un-filtered than filtered. Photographs are manipulated to be more effective emotional tasers. Sontag considers our growing immunity to photography-as-emotional-taser as we are exposed to more and more of it’s ‘shock therapy’ and we are more savvy as to the methods engineered and used to elicit an emotional response.
Sontag explores how and why we crave the emotions aroused by shocking and horrifying images of suffering (so often used in those “for just £2 a month” adverts). Why do we simultaneously wallow in guilt, pity, shame and disgust whilst displacing and alleviating this plethora of negative emotions through media-cynicism and pointing (rather than lifting) fingers? She believes that such a craving for shocking images has led to their commodification and this in turn is lessening their emotional impact. The mass production of such images has degraded shock into cliche. Perhaps the manufacture of ’emotionally engaging’ pictures, films and adverts is also degrading a whole plethora of emotions into cliche?
Sontag’s book has never been more relevant. Emotion is the advertising buzzword of the decade, followed closely by ‘engage’ and ‘content’. Selling moisturiser to women now entails making them cry about their low self-esteem and body image as a not-too-subtle-reminder of why they should buy the product. Emotion is incredibly important in brand building. Unless you have forged an emotional connection between consumers and your brand then you don’t really have a brand. The whole point of brands is to justify a price premium for that emotional connection. However, I have three problems with how ’emotion’, in the broadest sense, is used in Adland:
1.We tend to just pull out the above graph from the infamous IPA Databank, nod knowingly, then reiterate to our clients how important it is to be ’emotionally engaging.’ Emotions are complex, and one big fat descriptor, ’emotional’, is hardly adequate. In advertising we have a morbid fear of complexity, of nuances. As a result we often swing violently between gormless positivity, cracking jokes or (usually for Christmas) we try and make people cry. With charity adverts, we tend to know only one emotion: guilt. I am privileged to work with creatives who create great adverts with fantastic emotional range. There are, however, too many adverts out there that have the emotional range of a teaspoon.
2. Sometimes we confuse emotion as a ‘input’, when really it’s an ‘output.’ Showing a lot of happy smiley faces and people dancing around elated or crying african children does not constitute emotional advertising. If anything, my emotional response to this kind of advertising ranges from sheer indifference to overcome with annoyance (and the desire to throw the nearest object to hand at the telly). Sometimes rational inputs have a more emotional output, as is with the case with the UN’s Open Defecation campaign.
3. We assume that ’emotional’ is diametrically opposed to ‘rational.’ It’s not that simple. It’s the connection between our emotions and our rational thoughts that is currently under-explored and under-valued. Although our emotions often lead the way when it comes to decision-making, we’ll dismiss our emotions as ‘irrational’ if we cannot post-rationalise them and make sense of them. We need to feel that our emotions are rational to justify any actions they have led to.
Emotional disengagement is perhaps a rational response to advertisers going whole hog emotionally. My boyfriend argues until he is blue in the face that he is immune to advertising’s emotional manipulation. He’s part of a growing population of advertising-cynics who are willing themselves to be emotionally disengaged. People are consciously emotionally disconnecting and this is disconcerting. I loathe to be a portent of doom, but when you deal in emotional manipulation somebody needs to ponder on some potential consequences of such a manipulation:
1. Is the emotional one-up-manship going on in advertising inadvertently fostering a coldhearted cynicism? Does shock therapy work well enough for us to keep administering it despite our continual desensitisation?
2. What if we came to think that love had to be “like the movies”? What if we came to think that love was just a concept manufactured by advertisers to sell De Beers diamonds and boxes of chocolates? What if the media owned our perceptions of what emotions should be like?
Part II: What is ‘Real’ and What is ‘Represented’ Emotion?
3. What would the world look like if we never thought about our actions and just went on emotional autopilot, reacting to everything without thinking? What if, in wallowing in guilt, pity and misery we feel like we’ve done enough when in fact we’re just relishing in the spectacle of it all from our couches?
Part III: Apathy is Not The Only Cause of Inaction
As ever, as much as I loathe to be a portent of doom I loathe more being unprepared for that potential doom. Here are some ‘ways in’ to the ‘ways out.’
Part IV: The Known Unknowns