Editorial Note (7 March 2015):
This post has been edited from its original form.
Basically, the original post triggered a year of rampant, but off-and-on, trolling and discussion derailing (some of it under bizarre pseudonyms, a lot of it passive-aggressive, some of it quite lunatic) by the person whose own blog post prompted the thoughts here. It was bewildering, and not fun. In the end, I decided to negotiate a peace with the nut: I’d erase the evidence of his crazyass trolling, and he’d take down ridiculous slander he’d posted elsewhere. Despite not liking that — I don’t enjoy helping people be nasty with impunity — it was totally worth it in terms of making the guy leave me alone.
Still, I found myself wanting to refer back to this post years later (in 2015). Therefore, I’ve removed all mention of the original post that got me thinking about it, and the material cited from it, so that I could leave my observations public without triggering a new round of crazed attacks. (The degree of his obsession a few years ago was such that he may well have set up some kind of automated alert for mentions of his name, or this post.)
So, anyway, that’s why it was edited. I’ll try copy over the all the comments except his, so they can stand too. They are a little lacking in context at points, however: Julia and I both respond to things he’s written, which I cannot make public according to our agreement. Anyway…
Some people might be thinking all I ever post about is my writing process. It’s true, I’ve been posting about that a lot recently, since I’ve had my head down and been pushing hard on that front.
But I do have other thoughts bouncing around in my head.
Recently, someone I know online posted about buying a diamond engagement ring for his wife. The post was sweet, though I have to admit I wondered at first whether the guy was lampooning the diamond industry’s advertising for a few moments. Actually, I assumed the post was a joke at first, since it begins with his receiving a credit card and then proceeded directly to him buying the biggest rock he could afford. His choice of language really does look very close to the kind of voice-over I’d expect someone to write for a De Beers commercial, targeting a cynical Gen-X audience.
Which isn’t a judgment, obviously: I’ve made consumer decisions that are bad for the rainforest; I’ve used a credit card in this way, for other things. The poster I’m discussing knows as well as I do that the diamond industry cooked up the “tradition” of using diamonds in engagement and wedding rings — and the size of the diamond being a metric for love and devotion — in relatively recent history. When I got Lime her engagement ring, my research showed a bunch of far more interesting traditions had survived right into heritable memory (ie. back just two generations), such as traditions involving birth stones — sometimes of the bride or groom, but also of the parents on both sides.
When we got engaged, Lime and I talked about getting her diamond ring for a long time — and yes, we thought about it, and discussed it together — and though I still hadn’t seen the De Caprio movie, I noticed that whenever I asked about diamonds mined in environmentally friendly methods, Western gem dealers would go off about how Blood Diamond was inaccurate, and all those problems had been solved long ago. (Though this is a credit to Canadian consumers, since they actually care to ask with some regularity; the Korean gem dealers we talked to had no idea what we were asking about, and insisted that the diamonds we were looking at had originated in Belgium. Uh, yeah. Right. And when I asked, “But where does it really come from?” they looked at me blankly and repeated, “Belgium!”)
Those problems haven’t actually been all that well solved, if you actually look into it — the UN definitions are really easy to get around in terms stones from blacklisted countries being smuggled into their neighbours’ countries and sold that way, and very few diamond-mining operations anywhere (especially in the developing or not-actually-developing world) don’t screw up the local environment — but that’s beside my point.
What I want to look at is the question of how advertising relates to the decisions we make. Like most people I know, I find that webvertising doesn’t seem to have much effect on me in most areas — I don’t feel the need to go and buy products that are pictured in the sign-in ads at Salon, for example — yet money is still being spent on ads. For all that I reject the Whorf-Sapir idea that language shapes cognition, I do think that in the realm of culture, advertising indeed does have a more pervasive influence than people are willing to admit… at least in some industries, it does. I think looking at why is worthwhile.
Language is interesting, no matter how you think of Whorf-Sapir. Take, for example, the line in the post that inspired my musings, “I purchased the biggest rock I could afford, because I love [her], and she deserves nothing but the best.” That really interested me, because I also love Lime, and she deserves nothing but the best. The difference is in what each of us considers “the best.” The guy who wrote that line understands that a heavy expenditure is often understood as an expression of love, because spending a lot of money on someone entails a kind of sacrifice. (And any evolutionary psychologist can tell you the male of the species is predisposed to be more generous to mates and potential mates; it serves the purpose of signaling ability to aid practically with offspring, which is attractive to the female of the species.)
But I suspect that for Lime, my rejection of the diamond hype signaled something else to her: a kind of useful shared ability to recognize and reject scams. While aquamarine-mining is likely no more environmentally-friendly than diamonds (it’s often open-pit mined), aquamarines are relatively abundant and so they’re not used to fund the kinds of devastating warfare that diamonds so often have (and sometimes still do) underwrite.
The decision not to get her a diamond ring was hard for me, honestly. Sure, I reject the idea that massive expenditures of money — of a kind specified by the very same business that profits from that expenditure — as a sign of love. I mean, if she deserves the very best, period, I would have to buy her the most expensive bed I can afford, the most expensive laptop PC, the most expensive kimchi fridge… that way lies madness, even if I’m just getting her the best of things that she actually will use.
The fact that DeBeers and their pals have convinced us that, instead of all that, their product is the perfect, true, eternal emblem of love is deeply curious, and part of me wants to resist that as much as I can. Yet I also am not sure I won’t get her a diamond ring for our wedding. Environmentally friendly mining, yes, probably from the Yukon. (Because no matter what your gem dealer tells you, if it’s African, you can’t be sure it didn’t come from a hellish tunnel dug by one-handed slave children, or that it didn’t buy a crate of ammo for some genocidal group of idiots, and I’d rather know it didn’t.)
And if I do get her a diamond ring, even knowing what she knows, I imagine she’ll be happy about it, too. She and I are not immune to the effect of De Beer’s creation of an industry, creation of a “need,” and even their wholesale manipulation of modern culture so that diamonds are metonymous for love.
What is the cause of their success? And why, on the other hand, do Choco-Pies (the Korean equivalent of what were called “Wagon Wheels” when I was growing up — marshmallowy chocolate snacks for kids) not resemble love worldwide as they do in Korea — why does that specific trend stand very little chance of catching on? Why don’t running shoes as a gift convey the meaning, “I love you and care about your health and fitness. I give these to you to help you pursue a long life to live with me”? The temptation is to claim that under capitalism, culture takes on forms resulting from the very conscious exploitation of people. But if it’s so easy to convince people to make massive expenditures on a very specific bit of jewelry, how come we can’t get them to stop wasting energy, or polluting, or eating fast food? How can we explain the specific successes and failures of various industries to inundate themselves in our world culture?
The fast food example is a good hint in the right direction. Fast food has all the qualities that we humans seek out: high fat, high sodium, rich flavour. It’s kind of like the evolutionary equivalent of crack cocaine, and if you gave a serving of it to Neolithic humans, they’d turn up time and time again to club the servers and make off with burgers and fries and as many cups of cola as they could carry. I suspect that if the Chinese had invented deep-fried chicken, or french fries, the world would be eating Chinese fries. The impact of that kind of food on the human senses is pretty much universal — an artificial food high.
Why? Well, we’re all Neolithic humans, basically. In terms of what how food affects us, what we’re programmed to enjoy and desire in food, fast food is still the nutritional equivalent of crack cocaine. My sister and brother-in-law criticized me for pointing this out while eating a buger at Fuddrucker’s in Saskatoon once, which is amusing since, while Fudd’s food is much better than most other comparable places — it’s real meat, for starters, and not some preservative-loaded meat/soy/heaven-knows-what combination — but they missed the point that in eating this kind of food, we’re behaving exactly as programmed by natural selection. My point is not that fast food restaurants sell food nobody should like, but rather that they sell food that is highly attractive on the short term. It’s a very clever trick, to manipulate this instinct — and court cooks have been doing so for ages– and it seems to me that De Beers and the other diamond companies have simply chosen another, comparable part of the human mind to exploit: human mating instincts.
Understood this way, it’s easy to see why the big social-engineering experiments of the 20th century failed — it’s not because humans cannot be manipulated into behaviours that aren’t good for them as individuals, because if that were true, fast food would be a bust, but rather because those experiments started with a largely unsophisticated understanding of — or, in most cases, an outright antipathy towards — the basic facts of human nature. We care about food, and sex, and safety, and social status. We care a lot about our peer groups. I suspect it’s arguable we care about those things more than we even care about about lofty ideals like peace, or freedom, or justice. While the roots of big abstract notions like peace, freedom, and justice can be found in deep-rooted social instincts — after all, we are a gregarious species — I suspect that the roots of our urge to mate, to eat, and maybe even to fit into the herd probably go much deeper. I suspect that reason we believe marketing and advertising work is not so much because they do work, but that they appear to work when paired with products that exploit a niche in our evolved, instinctual make-up. Nike is tied to the male and female drive to be sexually appealing, as well as the male drive to compete publicly for status and, presumably, better availability of prospective mates. Like fine jewelry, expensive clothing — clothing that’s desirable because of its cost, like Armani suits — rely on the male instinct to show off his ability as a provider, which is tied to the psychology of mammalian sexuality. Fast food is a worldwide hit because it delivers tons of everything that we’ve evolved to crave, because it was so much less available to us back when we were hunting and gathering.
Perhaps the great tragedy of our era is that this insight, however consciously or unconsciously, has been turned almost exclusively to short-term profits. (Perhaps, because I’m not sure these kinds of instincts can be manipulated in such a way to benefit us collectively, or ensure the continued existence of our species, and so on.) In each case, the combination of the”killer app” itself and the way the product exploits the niche, combined with powerful advertising, is what results in the success of the cultural hack. However, it seems some hacks — desire for good health as accessing more capacities for breeding, or longer life (avoidance of death) — doesn’t seem so powerful; it doesn’t outweight the sugar/fat calorie hit, or a physical addiction to nicotine or caffeine.
Which is not to say that other factors don’t play into this. Last night, for example, Lime said that the (relatively small) stone on her (relatively small) engagement ring is “too big and heavy,” and wondered about getting a smaller one. Which is funny, when you think about it.
Hmm. Assignment to myself: what’s another niche in the human psychobiological complex that has not yet been fully exploited by the creation of a product perfectly designed for that niche, and advertising that suggests it as the killer app for that niche? That’d be one hell of a story, I think. (Or a business, though I’m lacking startup capital anyway.)