How did the human brain evolve to deal with language in the visual sphere? Search far and wide: you’ll never find words hiding in the forest, desert, or savannah, even if you act natural. Written language is presumed to have evolved from pictographic representations of the visual world, like hieroglyphics, into a standardized set of symbols capable of communicating non-visual ideas. It’s this transition from the world of experience to that of the mind that serves as a metaphor our progress: it’s why we send our children to schools and our charity dollars to the developing world, in pursuit of a near universal belief in education as the key to ascendance. Out of nature, we find our freedoom.
Sometimes, though, our brains get confused about how to comprehend written language. Sure, cup of tea, comfy chair, roaring fire, hardcover book: a clear indication for intellectual processing. But STOP signs? Beverage bottles? Bumper stickers? These seem to relate with a different part of our brains – a part trained for recognizing, not processing.
This is what makes me so angry about advertising these days. By displaying emotionally loaded words – ”you”, ”change”, ”happy”, ”joy”, ”better”, ”dreams”, ”love” – in large type and short sentences, advertisers deliberately bypass the part of your brain attuned to logic, intending instead to appeal to the emotionally-oriented recognizer. The combination of words need not make grammatical or logical sense so long as it contains the key triggers. That it is effective and profitable, at least in the short term, is not in doubt. But flowers aren’t always for joy (!), brain trash can’t always be easily emptied, and change isn’t always what we can believe in. It’s lying, and it hurts to be lied to. That it is has become systemic makes it all the more intolerable.
If there is an encouraging side to this disturbing trend, it’s that it’s occurring in the most litigious society on Earth, and these promises are being clearly enunciated in black and white. Perhaps someday someone will be brave enough to challenge the corporations to stand up for what they claim. Is Walmart really focused on helping people ”Save Money. Live Better.”? Is Coca-Cola really helping people ”Open Happiness”? Does Apple really believe that the iPhone ”changes everything. Again.”? Can they defend those claims?
Or, more importantly, perhaps the corporates will begin to take their claims seriously. Maybe Coke will perform ethnographic research and learn that what people are desiring is connection and community, and do some deep soul searching about how they can participate in truly opening happiness. Maybe Apple will realize that changing everything means encouraging people to get off their iPhones and into real human relationships with one another. Maybe corporations everywhere, inspired by their own rhetoric, will begin to create the impacts on society that they so often claim.
Maybe. We can dream on Valentine’s Day, after all. If not, I’m going back to the forest.