Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Salesmanship of Fear

Impending fatherhood has rendered me emotionally sensitive to a host of new triggers. Babies, mostly. And pregnant women. And the birthing of babies by pregnant women. All of these things are, without warning, liable to shatter my steely shell and leave me a blubbery trembling mess. This can be dangerous for myself and others if I happen to be driving down the highway at 7o mph.

Therefore, I would kindly ask GM to deep-six their current radio campaign for On-Star.

The ad portrays an On-Star operator responding to a car crash involving a pregnant woman. The ad opens with the operator talking to the woman immediately after the crash. The woman is alright, but she is worried because she is pregnant. The operator contacts 911, and then connects the woman with her husband, and the add closes with his panicked concern for her and her tearful assurances that she's alright.

I had to scream at the radio--transmute all my fear and sadness and relief into anger--in order to keep some semblance of my wits about me.

Look, I know that advertising always plays on the passions. And usually the sad passions, at that. Getting people to feel a need for your product frequently involves activating anxieties and then offering the product as a balm for those anxieties. (Even thought this appeal to fear and anxiety is usually, and most effectively, subtle and mediated; the insurance commercial that directly says "You will die and then your family will be poor and helpless" is the exception, and recognized as such.) But this experience brought this home in a particularly forceful way. Rather than enabling us to confront our hopes and fears and live with them, advertising encourages our fear by offering up a savior. You should be afraid of losing your spouse or child in a car crash. You should buy a GM car with On-Star to allay that fear. The fear doesn't actually go anywhere when it is allayed in this way. Rather, it is preserved as a dark background behind your new attachment to your GM car. Should something happen now, should the On-Star fail to save your loved ones, you are left completely unprepared. This isn't what was supposed to happen.

Aristotle distinguishes optimism and courage. Optimism is the expectation that you will prevail, that things will turn out as you hope. Courage, on the other hand, is the ability to act beyond any hope of things turning out well. I know that I am congenitally prone to optimism, but, as the birth of my child nears, I am more and more aware that optimism is not what is called for. It is grossly insufficient to the moment. I'm no less ruled by fear just because I always tell myself everything will turn out alright.

But this just points up the falseness of any attempt to bring about "freedom from fear" by means of such optimism. Hope and optimism do not free you from fear. They silently preserve its dominion.