Capital Q(uality)

This is a musing about my relationship between my work and the Market Economy. It's an exploration and therefore isn't intended to be 100% internally consistent or highly researched, and is full of sweeping generalizations.

Robert M. Pirsig states: Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a nonthinking process. Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking, quality cannot be defined. Let's not get hung up on the formal language. In simpler language, it means: there's something about life that we all sense and know as fulfilling and meaningful, but we can't tell each other (or ourselves) exactly what it is. Things of Quality are simply sensed as such by the vast majority of people. I'm not writing a discourse on Pirsig's work. I'm using it as a background to a discussion regarding advertising, marketing, and the market economy, and I'm going to just go ahead and assume Pirsig got it right.

In the Beginning

Until very recently, there wasn't room for advertising, marketing or the market economy. Oh sure, if you're working on your PhD thesis, I'm sure you could make an argument that the principles of the market economy applied just as clearly to Mr. Neanderthal's community as they do to ours. But that's too much of a stretch for this post.

In general (excluding the Hellenistic Greeks, who appear to be a strange anomaly), we're now able to spend less time enslaved to pure survival than we used to. Some would call this progress, and would trace it like this:

  • Mr. Neanderthal was too busy surviving to worry about quality of service.
  • Mr. Ancient (pre-Greek) had a little time, but was too tightly tied to the heavens to worry about the first-to-market advantage.
  • Mr. Middle Ages might have had a bit more time to himself than Mr. Ancient, but he had local fiefdom ruler, Church, Pope and burning stakes to worry about.
  • Mr. Victorian had significant time to himself in comparison with Mr. Middle Ages, but he had King and Country to consume his time and the rest of society to make sure his thoughts were in line.
Enter Mr. Modern Man. He has enough time away from basic survival to contemplate meaning, Self and other knotty problems. They're really just problems of the rich, but face it: if you live in America, odds are you're incredibly rich compared to your predecessors. And they really are problems. Point to any period in history in which the ruling aristocracy behaved in an incredibly petty and bizarre way and you're pointing at the behavior of the rich who no longer need to worry about real life.

So Mr. Modern Man has time on his hands, but more importantly, he has also been given his freedom: no Church or Victorian society to tell him exactly what he can and cannot think or feel. What earlier societies considered an affront against Eternity -- "sin" occurring in one's mind and heart -- is no longer under their purvue. In essence, Mr. Modern Man is free.

And that's where we stand: Mr. Modern Man has freedom and time, and it turns out that together, they are a curse: he now has enough time to contemplate just exactly how alone he really is.

We have found Pandora's box, and we each have one.

Box Lunch

Progress, both technological and societal, has provided us with machines and societal systems that allow us to spend more of our time doing what we want instead of simply attempting to survive. We've become accustomed to the right to think and behave any way we want as long as we're not hurting someone else by doing so.

But the strange paradox is that we both long for and fear freedom. Freedom intoxicating to contemplate; we feel we are cheating death itself. But it's terrifying to deal with the responsibility of being unique. When attained, free men suddenly long to fit in.

The hole filled by survival, Church and society is now empty and we are left with angst. It's hard to come up with a better metaphor for this paradox than Fight Club, though there have been memorable philosophical treatises on it.

People naturally seek to bring relief to pain, and the rich are most capable of that search. What do we use to fill the hole? Stuff. Products and services offered by other members of society. Lots of them. The more we have, the more distracted we are and the easier it is to ignore the pain of being human. Sound overly dramatic? Maybe so. But that doesn't make it any less true.

Up until ... let's say the 1940's, rich people had enough genuine needs and enough Victorian hangover that those selling products and services simply had to make sure their potential customers were aware of a solution. During this time, advertising and marketing were relatively noble professions with a clearly defined goal: help people with clear needs find the solution to their needs.

But the march of progress turned into the sprint of progress, and it was soon so inexpensive to produce products and to provide services that those doing so began to compete with each other for the same need. Yes, I know. This has happened since the dawn of time. But not like this.

But what is a need anyway? Especially to rich people? If we can buy anything we need to survive plus a lot more, the need itself becomes mixed in with what we want, and it compresses our perspective. Yes, food is a need, but good food is better. Great food is even better, and if we can find the best food, available to a very select few, then we have something to be proud of, some way we're better than the next guy without tripping over that angst-about-being-unique problem.

The problem is that we're all rich. A vast number of us in America really can spend $200 on a single plate of food. So the search for being unique without the pain continues. It's a constantly rotating search light, seeking out anything to ease the pain and to keep us busy. It's what we refer to as Consumerism.


So we have rich people who want to buy stuff to convince themselves they're worth something. We have other rich people selling stuff. But progress marches on and we end up with the same stuff. And to rich people, same is boring.

What do we do? We travel.

Deep down, we rich people know that everyone is essentially the same. Therefore, we reason, if people from a different part of the world have something we don't have, chances are we'll like it just as much, as long as it's packaged correctly. We intrepid marketers travel to different cultures looking for what these foreign people value. We look for Quality, since we know our fellow rich people really do like Quality. When we find it, we stick it in a box, put a ribbon around it and ship it home.

It doesn't work very well for the simple fact that by doing so, we rip the meaning out of it. How? By removing any possibility of seeing the individual or culture behind it. To us humans, Quality has mostly to do with genuine connection with other humans. For that is the antidote to our Box Lunch conundrum: we can be unique and yet accepted at the same time. This is the perspective the great teachers, philosophers and preachers have been telling us all these millenia. The problem with it is that it requires too much faith and too much effort for us rich people to embrace. We want to buy relief, not work for it.

When we get back home to check on sales, we discover it's not doing as well as we thought it would. So we hire an advertising firm to help us "get the word out". What that really means -- due to the fact that it has been completely devalued -- is that we want the advertising firm to "create a market" of people who will buy it anyway. So what does it take to create a market?

The Great Manipulator

Since there are so many rich people running around throwing money at this incredible variety of products and services, everything tends to take on the same appearance. Those selling products and services end up using the same words to describe their offerings, and eventually end up using the exact same parts (which are products in themselves), essentially ending up selling exactly the same thing as everyone else.

Advertising firms then step in with an offer to manufacture need. Most of them don't actually use that phrase. Instead, they talk about "really getting to know your customer" and "straight talk" and "value proposition", calling what their process "the art of persuasion". But what they really mean is that they want the buyer to see Quality in the product where there isn't any. They do this by making a connection between something the buyer views as having Quality and the item being sold.

Here's how it works: Company hires advertising firm. Firm researches the type of person most likely to buy Company's offering. Firm then determines what this type of person responds to. Firm then associates Company's product or service with what this type of person is already attracted to. It's even more effective if Firm finds something to which this type of person has good memories attached, such as a song, movie or place. Firm then fashions words and pictures into a message, called a "campaign", which subtly evokes this type of person's attraction. Firm then attempts to pop this campaign in front of this type of person as often as possible.

Is it truly manipulation? Probably not; manipulation this brazen requires cooperation. There's even some really good advertising which is both artful and accurate without being manipulative. But it's close enough to be a major contributor to the current apathy in this country. There is so much advertising, and so much of it crosses the line into pure manipulation or patently false association that people routinely assume everyone is out to "take" them. Cynicism sets in, and quickly afterward, apathy.

Here's an example. Morgan Stanley recently ran an ad campaign selling how interested and committed its financial advisors are. The commercials started the same way, with a genuinely excited, caring and involved person. For example: the owner of a business giving a rousing speech celebrating a major milestone achieved. Right at the end, we discover the speech is being given by the advisor, not the business owner. It's supposed to convince us that the advisors have our best interest in mind and really want the type of genuine connection displayed in the commercial, and it's very clearly attempting to make us feel that way about the firm itself. It's manipulative and very clearly false, if you've ever met with a financial advisor. Here's a more accurate portrayal of the concept:

It's not evil. In a sense, this is exactly what everyone does in one way or another in any relationship. But what is being sold cannot take the place of how it's being sold, and when done on such a scale with absolutely no chance of connection, we turn it off. The sheer volume of advertising is a problem, yes, but the deeper issue is that we know the promise of connection put forth in these commercials is simply false. In fact, commercials with actors who emote and words that evoke and moving images that inspire actually serve the opposite purpose because they're all about an impersonal entity: a company, a product or service. Somehow we've all forgotten that it's a truly strange concept to talk about trusting an non-human entity.

Granted, there is some absolutely brilliant -- and effective -- advertising. But face it: when was the last time you've seen a piece of advertising that plucked at your sense of the Universal and not felt a little sad? As if Jack's golden harp was thrown in a pile of manure?

As for me and my house...

I'm not saying the entire system is broken. In a way, people are providing genuine, true feedback by simply voting with their dollars. It's very egalitarian, and is so fundamental that it's difficult for us to conceive of anything else that might work. In fact, the science behind economics and the free market economy is definitely on to something. Progress, as viewed above, has provided us with the Bill of Rights, women's rights, workplace equity and ethics ... many things of true Quality that could not have come into being otherwise. All of it -- with very few exceptions -- has been in the name of the almighty dollar, but change requires an engine, and the almighty dollar fills that role.

The difficulty I'm having is my growing distaste for this type of manipulation. I seem to see this issue everywhere. From people who are perfectly content selling other people really inferior products to advertisers who really believe what they're selling, to the insistence that I must contribute in this way to the problems in order to feed my family.

But do I?

Let's say I want to make a living doing the creative things that are most fulfilling for me:

  • Painting: to make a living doing so, I have to market myself as a painter. I really want to let the paintings stand on their own, but I still have to live within this market economy.
  • Acting: same thing, but probably worse.
  • Making movies: same thing, but definitely worse.
Even so, when I compare the options stressor for stressor, I continue to end up feeling that I'd rather be making a movie, acting, painting, being creative. Preferably all at once. With one absolutely stark, unavoidable caveat: I need to make ends meet.

Moving On

What do I want? Pretty simple, actually. I want to work with people who care about what they're doing as much as I do. Who are also Creating. Who are interested and open and passionate. The problem is that it seems the people who are passionate are also overbearing and difficult, the ones who are open are not passionate or bright enough and those who are interested don't have enough follow-through to complete anything. And the rest are cynical. Perhaps my standards are too high ... but I don't think so.

I want Quality the way I define it: as having mostly to do with true connection. And I feel like the only way to get that is to tell stories and hope at least one person connects to one of them. Just like Kierkegaard.

So how about it? Anyone solved this yet?