Dictionary.com defines the word “freedom” as “the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint.”
But what is a definition, anyway? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “definitions” delineates seven different varieties of definition. “The philosophical quest for definition,” they write, “can sometimes fruitfully be characterized as a search for an explanation of meaning.” So even definition itself is fluid. And so, by extension, is freedom.
What does all of this have to do with the new Chase Freedom Unlimited card, and a form of psychosis known as “The Truman Show” delusion?
We’ll get to that. Right after this message about “freedom” created by global ad agency Droga5 for Chase, the nation’s largest bank.
Droga5 creative partner Duncan Marshall knows, probably better than most, that “as consumers, we are bombarded daily by thousands of selling messages on every conceivable media.”
Because we’re clearly all cool with that, Droga5 decided to use this as the theme for a product that literally pays you to spend money (provided you have the money to pay off the balance before the variable rate of 14.24-23.24% kicks in). “With the help of the delightful Ellie Kemper,” Marshall tells AdWeek, “as well as several enthusiastic brand partners, we played with the world of the sell to promote our own.”
A study by market research firm Yankelovich made news nine years ago when it announced that the average city dweller of 2007 would see around 5,000 ads per day. Though both the accuracy and the relevance of this study have been disputed, even the disputing studies admit that the number is at least around 360, which still amounts to 22 ads an hour in an 18-hour waking day.
Critic Emily Nussbaum has written about TV’s ambivalence toward advertising integration. There’s “a common notion,” she says, “that there’s good and bad integration. The ‘bad’ stuff is bumptious—unfunny and in your face. ‘Good’ integration is either invisible or ironic, and it’s done by people we trust, like Stephen Colbert or Tina Fey.”
But Nussbaum’s position is that the more clever and seamless the integration—the more harmful its potential. “It’s a sedative,” she writes, “designed to make viewers feel that there’s nothing to be angry about, to admire the ad inside the story, to train us to shrug off every compromise as necessary and normal.”
And what is this new normal? How do we get to even 360 messages a day? Through a seamless integration of advertising that—as the Chase ad makes clear—is not just limited to TV. It’s outdoor advertising, of course, and movies, and social media, and even guerilla marketing.
Honda Motors recently sponsored an entire episode of the Yahoo! series Community, in which the show’s college campus was disrupted by a clumsy guerrilla marketer from Honda itself. Though the episode plays this clumsiness for comic effect, it’s pretty tough to tell where the line between ironic wink and earnest promotion is to be drawn. As the episode’s Mephistophelian marketing director puts it: “Do you like billboards and commercials?…They are unmanned bulldozers rolling over everything in their path. What Rick does is surgical. He finds that part of each life that Honda can improve and gently bathes it in the most helpful information possible.”
“The weaker an industry gets,” Nussbaum warns television makers, as well as the music and journalism industries, “the more ethical resistance flags.” Consumers—struggling to pay off those monthly balances and maintain middle-class status—aren’t paying for shows, or music, or news anymore. If we want to keep consuming those things, we’re probably going to have to cope with the consequences of the total penetration of commercial messages into our lives.
And while it could certainly be argued that no one is forcing us to watch, as our working lives increasingly shift to take advantage of our fast-forward culture, one begins to wonder whether “tuning out,” as the Sixties’ exhortation put it, is still a realistic choice.
If you doubt that this is having an effect—benign or otherwise—on our psyches, consider the emergence of “The Truman Show” delusion. In over 40 recorded cases, sufferers come to believe that their entire lives are elaborately staged reality television productions, or similar contrivances.
Such delusions, of being at the center of a manipulative system, are quite old. During much of the past century, for example, such delusions tended to center around CIA plots. Some researchers have suggested that this new delusion results from media’s increasingly pervasive place in our lives, a cultural transformation that’s also transforming the warped and peeling wallpaper of our brains. A psychiatric clinician at a public facility in London estimates that more than ten percent of the patients they see each week exhibit some symptoms of the new disorder.
In a fitting sort of irony, the Netflix show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which stars Chase spokeswoman Kemper, makes frequent comedic use of the dissonance that’s developed between the new cultural landscape and that of recent history. The title character Kimmy, who has recently been rescued after years as a prisoner in an underground bunker, moves to New York City, where she attempts to restart her stalled life amid seismic cultural changes and rampant economic inequality.
As with the Chase ad, the show is witty about a lot of genuinely troubling issues, but in a way that seems as much like a twist of the arm as an elbow in the ribs. It sometimes feels as though, by laughing, you’re also signing away your right to complain.