‘Because it seemed true’ is how Truth in Advertising by John Kenney starts. We are in trouble. That is the wrong linking verb. It should be ‘Because it is true.’ Fin, the narrator of this novel learned early in school that he could make stuff up and get an A. He figured it was true somewhere, just not where he was. You can see how easily he slipped into advertising. “The irony of advertising – a communications business – is that we treat words with little respect, often devaluing their meaning.”
My dad was in advertising from 1955 to 1972 in all the good firms on Madison Ave. We had a good life. I can’t watch Mad Men because of my early life. I remember so much horrendous stuff that the show dredges it all up. One of my dad’s very good friends is a consultant on the show and my younger sister, who watches it, swears she recognizes many things from our life in the show. I told her I agreed after watching the first few shows and couldn’t sleep, so I stopped watching it. This book is different it is more about family than advertising. It is about truth. The interchange between characters is hilarious and nothing my dad would have experienced. Draper is more like my dad than is Fin.
Language is a funny thing and Kenney takes advantage of this fact. In a typical day, Fin must deal with all the complications of language and the growing political correctness and sensitivity people have to words and context. The classic nursery song of ‘Old MacDonald’ has to be censored because of the roster refrain and the use of ‘cock.’ In focus groups the pigs and cows drew a condemnation because it was suggested they were calling fat mothers ‘pigs’ or ‘cows.’ No wonder commercials are so stupid; they have to be simple and stupid so people don’t take them seriously.
We learn about Fin slowly. We know he has a tough time with his dad who hasn’t been a great dad, didn’t help with early projects, humiliated Fin, often drunk on holidays, berates his wife, and on and on. Fin aborted his wedding a month before it was t happen. He doesn’t get on the plane for a vacation. He lets another pair of first class tickets expire. Instead he goes to see his sick dad in a hospital on Cape Cod. Fin is in a good business, advertising where you whore yourself out, tell lies, live lies, and generally you are a hollow man. Even the pleasure of good puns and irony elude him.
‘Here’s what I don’t understand. I’m going to buy mayonnaise anyway. Why does someone need to go to all that trouble to advertise it? I’ve bought the same brand for forty years and not once do I remember an ad for it.’
All the clichés in advertising and the misuse of language have always bothered me. During my first year of teaching, I remember getting agitated by the ad, “Winston takes good like a cigarette should.” I used it to explain a grammar rule and moved on. On parent’s weekend, I met the guy who created that slogan; his son was in my class. I was worried, but he assured me he didn’t write it that way, he told me he wrote it grammatically correctly. The client changed it, because they wanted to appeal to the middle class. It was at that point I really recognized why we needed advertising and not the BBC.
We see brainstorming in the office and in the family. I recognized that brainstorming was not successful early in my career. The big mouth laid down the gauntlet in too many cases or teacher would because of time quickly support and move on without letting other ideas emerge as quickly nix an idea because it wasn’t the direction sought for in this class. In short, class discussion involved too few students and usually the same ones all the time allowing the many to simply sit, take notes, let the few do all the work and then regurgitate on essays and tests. When I first developed CyberEnglish, the result was that each student developed an idea in an essay on a webpage and then shared it with the class. Each student has invested in the essay and each came to the discussion with an investment. Their best work was done in isolation, not in group work. Years later I read an essay that confirmed my belief in The New Yorker about the brainstorming myth.
This book isn’t about advertising; it is about family. Truth. ‘What narrative do we choose to live by?’