Friday, July 29, 2011

The History of Advertising

I was going to start this post with a joke about scientists discovering cave-painting billboards advertising the biggest, heaviest, clubbiest club guaranteed to kill a wooly mammoth in seven bludgeons flat.

Then I looked it up, and scientists have actually found cave-painting advertisements dating back to 4000 BC. Advertising what, I don’t know—but I’m sure I can’t be too far off the mark.

Essentially, since people have existed, and things have existed, and people have needed things, people who have those things have developed ways to let people know that there is a place to find those things they need.

You still with me?

Purportedly, the initial function of advertising was merely to proclaim to others that you could provide a necessary good or service. In the Middle Ages, the vast majority of people were illiterate, so shops had pictures over their doors to display their respective offerings. In the first half of the 19th century, advertisements in newspapers came on the scene in France. As more businesses took this route, the more people were needed to manage it. By 1900, advertising was considered a legitimate profession.

Then came World War I and a man named Edward Bernays.

You’ve heard of World War I, but chances are, you haven’t heard of Edward Bernays.

Have you heard of Sigmund Freud?

Edward Louis Bernays (1891 - 1995)
Of course you have. Meet Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, the revolutionary psychoanalyst. 
During World War I, Bernays was employed by the US Government on the Committee of Public Information. He was so good at his job that President Wilson invited him along to the Paris Peace Conference. Bernays was amazing at the way the European populace embraced Wilson as a hero—the American rhetoric of “making the world safe for democracy” had worked. Bernays was struck—if propaganda could be this effective in war time, then surely it could be just as effective during peace.

Upon returning to America, Bernays began thinking about how governments and businesses could manipulate the masses, and he opened up his own firm to help them do just this. Since propaganda had taken on a negative connotation, he crafted his own term: public relations.

Uncle Freud had long been saying that people were driven by subconscious desires, and Bernays realized that companies could play to these desires with enormous benefit. The Century of the Self, a BBC documentary about Bernays, puts his realization this way: “You can get people to act irrationally by linking products to their desires and feelings.” That is, you don’t say, “Buy this car because it gets the best gas mileage and will get you to and from work efficiently.” Instead, you create an ad that hints, “If you buy this car, you will feel free and independent and as though you are in charge of your own life.”

Bernays’s PR firm was extraordinarily successful, and I was shocked to discover how many run-of-the-mill advertising strategies came from him. He fundamentally changed what people viewed the primary motivator of consumerism to be.

You know what they say—harness people’s irrational, subconscious desires, and you harness their wallets.

Special thanks to Ally Tschannen for suggesting I watch The Century of the Self. The whole thing is free on YouTube—I recommend watching at least the first twenty minutes. It’s fascinating.
I also referenced Wikipedia. Judge away.

As always, I’d love to write what you’d love to read. Keep it coming.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Man Chat

This week I am invoking what I call The My Blog, My Rules Clause.

I’ve had some people ask me how I go about choosing a topic each week. Here’s my high-tech system:

I write all the suggestions I get onto little slips of paper and stick them in a cup that features Rapunzel, Disney’s latest princess. So earlier this week, I drew out a slip that read, “The history of advertising.” I’d been looking forward to this one, since it was something I knew absolutely nothing about. I googled books on the history of advertising, and then on Monday I stopped by Barnes & Noble to see if they had the books. They had one, so I left and made plans to come back on Wednesday and dig into the research. Remember, I promised you more than just regurgitating Wikipedia.

But on Wednesday, my plans were foiled. I got to Barnes & Noble, set up shop in a corner, and cracked open the book.

It was completely useless. I frantically scanned the rest of the shelves in the business section, but it was filled with how-to books and individual biographies of successful business.

What was I going to do? I briefly considered making something up, but figured my business-minded friends would catch on. I then thought about reading Wikipedia and whipping something out, but I couldn’t bring myself to settle. Finally, I thought about what I would want my theoretical high school English students to do when faced with a similar situation. I’d want them to ask me for help. So I asked me for help, and I told myself, “Write about something else this week, and keep researching advertising for next week.”

My Blog, My Rules, right? Today I will use the rest of my 500-something words to answer a question that has been plaguing four young men who attend Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford.

For next week—does anyone have books on advertising I could borrow? And, as always, you can leave challenges/ideas/questions/suggestions in the comments box.

And now, without further ado, Man Chat’s controversial debate:

Cuddle, Marry, Tranquilize, Dress up like Little Bo-Peep. William Barns-Graham, Ross Jones-Morris, Oliver Sheerin and Oli Watson. Choices and why.

These guys were some of my best friends during my year in Oxford. They’re some of the funniest people I’ve ever known, even when their cutting remarks are aimed at me and my accent. For reasons still unclear to me, they dubbed me an honorary member of Man Chat. Every so often, we’d go to the pub around the corner, drink Guinness, and chat. It was an uproarious good time.

Cuddle: Ollie Sheerin.
Reasons: He’s tall. He has good banter. He owns snuggly sweaters/jumpers.
Marry: Oli Watson.
Reasons: I want to live on a farm, with nine ginger children hanging about my person as I try to carry on the day’s work.

Tranquilize: Ross Jones-Morris.
Reasons: He can’t ask for his shirt back if he’s unconscious.

Dress up like Little Bo Peep: William Barns-Graham.
Reasons: It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen Beej dressed as a woman, and I suspect his nails may already be prepared for the occasion.

Want more Man Chat? I highly recommend TheModernCultureBlog—written by more than one of the founding members of Man Chat—where you can read their fantastically written reviews of, well, modern culture.

Beej and Ollie
Rojo and Oli

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Heartache Waiting to Happen

The worst day of my life was a long time in the making. By some counts it was twelve years, by others it was six months, still others may argue it was only one day. By my count, it was twenty-one years.

Ever since I could connect the concepts of “want” and “dog”, they were a permanent fixture in my hopes, daydreams, drawings, and scribbled stories.  Shortly after my ninth birthday, we took home a little Blue Heeler puppy we named Shania.

After a failed attempt to herd an uncooperative, oncoming motorcycle, she was a three-legged wonder dog, and when you added her ever-sweet personality and impressive catch-the-rubber-steak-off-her-nose trick, she became even more of a celebrity in our circle.

By the time I entered college she was entering her twilight years, becoming more interested in taking naps than in traffic control.  Every time I left for school I knelt to pet her, memorize her beautiful face, and say goodbye—well aware that it could be our last moment together.

Soon after arriving in England, I spoke to my sister.
“Today, I was upstairs,” she said. “Shania came hopping up and went straight into your room. She just looked in and started whining.”

A few months later, I was talking to my dad on the phone.
“I just want to give you the heads up,” he said. “Shania’s not doing very well. She hasn’t been eating much, and she doesn’t have any energy.”

She rallied that time, but on a Tuesday in October I was sitting at Sonic with a friend when my phone rang.  I answered it mid-laugh and was greeted by my dad’s shaky voice.

“Hey,” he started, then paused to clear his throat. “Um, Shania took a turn for the worst last night. Her nose won’t stop bleeding, and her eye is so swollen she can’t close it. I think tonight is the night.”

I put my head in my hands, but no tears would come. I spent the rest of the day in a daze, unable to shed more than a couple tears, and feeling all the worse for it.

That night, I drove to the Apple store to get my laptop fixed. On the way, my dad called. The vet was on his way. I could hear my mom and sister sobbing in the background.

The man helping me at the store commented on my wallpaper—a picture of Shania—saying, “Now that’s a good-looking pooch.” I tried to maintain composure as I told him what was happening instantaneously with our conversation. With compassion in his eyes, he told me Apple would cover the hundreds of dollars necessary to fix my computer.

As I exited the store, my sister texted me: “It was awful. He had to keep giving her more and more. It was like she didn’t want to leave us. I carried her body to the vet’s car. I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else doing it.”

Buckling my seatbelt, reality dealt me a crushing blow, and suddenly I was gasping for air, tears flowing down my cheeks and steadily dripping off my jaw. Back in my dorm room, I curled in the fetal position in a chair, sobbing until I thought I was going to throw up. Head, eyes, jaw, throat, heart—everything hurt.

While on a visit home about a month later, I came home from church one Sunday morning. When I opened the front door I was stunned by the absence of jingling dog tags I instinctively expected to announce my return. It was the silence that hurt the worst.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

On Discipline. Or, why I'm posting this entry an hour before the deadline passes.

The challenge I drew out of the fishbowl this week comes from my dad. It read, “Big girl things you want to learn, how to cook specific stuff, race car driving, etc.” I’m going to rephrase the question slightly.

What do I need to learn before I can consider myself an adult?

This was the question I mulled over all week. I thought about typical things adults do that I should probably learn, like cooking, writing thank you notes, calling my grandparents on a more regular basis.

And then I had this scary thought: I’ll never stick with it, anyway.

I say that thought was scary, because I immediately tried to think of things that I’ve tried and have stuck with.  Nothing came to mind.  I’ve piddled around with various hobbies-- knitting, drawing, the guitar, reading the entire Bible in a summer, the ukulele, learning another language, running. Still, when people ask me what I’m interested in or what my hobbies are, I usually hem and haw for a few seconds for saying, “Uh, I really like to read.” Or when people ask me what I want to do with my life and I say I want to write, they ask if I wrote for the school paper, or they ask what kinds of things I like to write. Once again, I falter, offering lame excuses and vague theories.

The solution isn’t to begin yet another project or pick up yet another trendy hobby. The solution is a lifestyle of discipline-- a lifestyle that leaves no space for procrastination or excuses. I could give you a whole list of reasons why I’m posting this blog so late on Friday, but it comes down to this: I lack discipline.

Even today, it was the prodding and pestering of my family and my boyfriend that got me to finally sit down and type out these embarrassing admissions.  It wasn’t my own inherent drive to stick to a deadline I have set for myself for every Friday for an indefinite period of time. Sure, I was going to be slightly ashamed that I missed a deadline only one week after making a big deal about getting serious about writing, but I was already formulating a pithy excuse to post alongside the link to this blog whenever I got around to putting it up. Instead, I’m slightly embarrassed that this entry is substandard, but I’m also slightly proud that I’m posting it on the day I’ve committed to.

There’s a theory that it takes two weeks to form a habit. I can tell you that last year, I ran on a consistent schedule for 9 weeks, only to drop the habit when I inevitably found other things to occupy my time. To be an adult, I need to learn discipline, and no formula or prescription is going to make that happen overnight. And to be honest, I don’t know what it’ll take to permanently change, but I think this blog will be a small lesson every week-- either forcing me to grow and develop in a disciplined life, or reminding me of how far I still have to go.

As always, I’d love to hear your ideas and challenges for future topics on this blog, and this week, I’d also be interested in hearing how discipline plays a role in your life. How did you learn it? In what areas of your life have you seen the benefits of discipline?

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Concept.

A few years ago I read Stephen King’s On Writing, which I recommend to anyone with any passing interest in writing. King’s basic advice is this: If you want to be a good writer, you have to read a lot, and you have to write a lot.

Since then, I’ve certainly done a lot of both reading and writing—but almost entirely for the sake of academia. When dreaming about my future, I’ve always wondered how writing will play a part. Will it be my job? Hobby? Claim to fame? Some day I’d love to teach high school English, and I’ve had fantasies about what my syllabus would look like. But my ultimate lesson plan was this: The Friday 500. Every week, my students would turn in 500 words of original writing on anything they wanted. Naturally, certain parameters would keep the smart-alecks from turning in 500 words of, “I’m looking at a tree. Now at a desk. Am I at 500 words yet?” They’d need a topic, or at least a cohesive theme, and I would outlaw the word “very”. Other than that, it could be fiction or non-fiction; it could be an individual product each week or part of an all-encompassing work. For kids struggling to come up with something to write, I’d have a fishbowl filled with paper slips of ideas.

As you’ll find below and in the Archive to the right side, I kept a blog while in Oxford but quit upon returning to the States. To start again, I need some kind of purpose or challenge, one that will stretch me as a writer, but that will also be enjoyable for my readers. If I’m serious about wanting to be a writer, I need to get serious about writing.

The idea: Why don’t I be my own writing student? If theoretical 16-year-olds could turn in 500 words every week, so could I.

The catch: I need a fishbowl of ideas. I want people to enjoy reading my blog, and what better way to do that than to ask you what you want to read? I’m asking you to send me your challenge for the Friday 500.  It could be a topic you want to know more about—I’ll do the necessary research and come up with 500 words on the basics of the topic. You could ask me my opinion on something (current event, book, movie, fashion fad), and I’ll give it to you. You could challenge me to a short story or personal anecdote.

Whatever you want to read, I’ll write. I promise you at least 500 words every Friday.

Leave your challenge in the comments section, or get in touch with me at melodyrowell [at] or on Facebook.  You could send this link to a few people who could have good material to throw at me. But even if I don’t hear from anyone, I’ll continue to write 500 words every week—your help will just make this much more interesting for everyone.

You can find King’s On Writing here.