Speaker Smarts

November 1, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

In his essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction personifies a collective population sitting at home alone watching television. His essay is a novel consideration of mass viewing which, among its many points, works to suggest that television viewing is a paradoxical experience where advertising wishes to draw the viewer out from an existence of passive viewing to one of consumerism. Wallace’s presented paradox lies here, tucked snugly with these figures locked at home, as the marketer’s work to attract customers, perhaps literally birth them from their ignorance, occurs while they remain alone at home. Ads exist in the private sphere to draw us outward and yet depend on us to be at home to take them in.

Wallace coins a term for this collected mass. He refers to them as “Joe Briefcase” and carries the character through consumerist experiences. He explicitly uses Pepsi to demonstrate the means of television advertising and presents a situation now well-considered in media studies. Beyond an exposure to branding which suggests the perks of drinking Pepsi: fun lifestyles, social populaity, etc…, Wallace also suggests that Joe’s interpretation of the advertisement is also well-crafted. For Wallace the best ad and one most reflective of our contemporary zeitgeist (mid-1990’s for Wallace), is one most richly bathed in irony. The ideal ad is one whose vapidity and stupidity make Joe question its validity. Joe feels good because he is capable of critically evaluating the ad. He breaks down the ad, he tears apart its rhetorical attempt by identifying its failures. Joe Briefcase enjoys this experience; it gives him a sense of intellectual pleasure as his critical skills give him the ability to not only recognize but tear apart its aims and goals. In essence, the ad is so dumb that Joe can break it down. He feels good because he does this and Pepsi accomplishes it’s intended goal: grab the viewer’s attention, plant the seeds of brand awareness and wait for him to shop. Wallace ends the example with a sense of personal awareness that it works- suggesting his own purchase patterns to be influenced by a daft use of irony.

Much can be taken from this observation. One might simplify the observation as nothing too profound: after all we all know that complimenting a listener is the fastest way to win them over. The best conversationalists are those who do the least amount of talking; instead, they are the one who asks the questions and sits back as the listener starts to speak. Irony rules again: ourĀ  greatest speakers, like our ads, are never those that speak the most; instead we listen most those who let us ramble on.

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