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Two American Myths

What We Believe('d)

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, May 02, 2001.

There are two stories to choose from here. You decide.

One is that the advertising industry and the web magnates have admitted that banner ads on websites are dead, and that they do not work and are not worth the money and that internet commerce is going to have to strive to come up with something as effective as mainstream advertising has done.

The other is this: Senator Bob Kerry of Nebraska, who made headlines as a Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam and lost a leg in the process, and who brought his home state some social status it badly needed over the years by dating rock stars and actresses, as well as being a highly competent and resourceful Governor and Senator, is now revealed to have been, by the current standard of the term, a war criminal, a murderer, and a hypocrite. Which story to you is the most important? To me - weird, weird me - it is the same story. Because the American public is caught in the falsity of its own myths again, and cannot construct a story to contain both facts and fantasy on either of these subjects. The public doesn't want to know the truth in either of these stories and the media - which is financially dependent upon the first and content dependent upon the second - is trying to bury them in gauze as much as possible.

The seemingly more trivial thread is about banner ads. The conclusion about their ineffectiveness is because there is only a five percent click-through rate, which may indicate direct interest by the public in that product. The advertising industry claims much more glorious successes than five percent. But there is nothing to compare that to: this is really the first, sustained public testing of an advertising method, and it may not mean what the nay-sayers claim. It may mean that advertising, as a rule, doesn't really work much better than five percent of the time anyway, and that the stupid, annoying banner ads may get more customers for the buck than the pretentious, forced, and unfunny advertising the same company buys on television, for which there is no interactive effectiveness meter at all.

Suppose that a full investigation proved that, say, Taco Bell's only really effective advertisements were coupons in the paper and a banner ad on AOL. And that all those annoying television ads were worthless to the stockholders. Think of what that might portend for an industry that has convinced us for years is not only necessary but inculcated in our blood. You can see the fear in the way that all those who have much to lose are piling on the banner ad issue. And the investigation into the actual effectiveness of advertising remains limited to which ad is better, rather than if they actually inspire purchase or even interest at all, which taints the results. This is an underpinning of capitalism, the Madison Avenue Given, and if it turns out to be a vapid concern to advertise beyond price and availability, well, there's a trillion dollar economy re-calibrating and unsure of itself.

Really, when you think about it, when were you last positively affected by a commercial to buy something above a competing product? People buy Ford and Chevy trucks, for example, almost exclusively because of long term family allegiance rather than the virtually interchangeable units themselves. I seriously doubt a farmer buys one truck over another because it makes him feel more virile than the competitor, but that's the advertisement slant.

And what about Kerry, who may or may not have ordered a dozen or so men ,women, and children into a hut to be shot in alleged retaliation for enemy fire as his SEAL team struck a village at night? The Vietnamese woman who buttressed the accusation of a member of Kerry's own team has either recanted her story or been the victim of bad translation, so it is one SEAL vs. eleven. Suppose it comes out that Kerry did it, lied about it in writing, and that others had as well, and that later it turns out many did. That would be a boost for our numerous enemies. But suppose it came out that virtually every army - British, Israeli, Russian, Cuban, Chinese, American - tortured prisoners, fired pointlessly out of fear and self preservation and that a large percentage of any army's casualties were friendly fire. Suppose it turns out all medals are not awards for valor but to keep the mouths shut. Suppose it turned out that in battle, men became terrified and killed anyone who crossed their sights because it was emotionally satisfying to kill under stress and the mission was easier. Suppose it turns out that war really is hell, physical and ethical, reducing everyone on both sides to slathering cowards raping and killing those who cannot harm them out of a cerebral cortex reaction to actual, primal stress? Suppose war actually is something beyond an ultimate Xsport and self actualization program for alpha males and their remora?

Recall, please, the last few years of Armies of One commercials, and the Marines slaying dragons and trolls in their recruitment efforts. Aren't those frank admissions of deceit, pandering to little boy values of simple good and evil in a world in which such is rare? Suppose we are confronted with the prospect that we are as bad as we sometimes think we are, and no better than our enemies when it comes to blood?

It isn't a new debate, but it never gets discussed in or by the public. Few know that during World War II the SS, the Japanese, and the Allied Armed Forces in our Greatest Generation routinely killed each others' prisoners, shot survivors of sunk ships, tortured for information. That is hardly ever admitted, though the truth is unassailable. It is childish and foolish to think otherwise, or that you or I would do different in the same situation. War is something to get done ASAP, by whatever means necessary. Few choose to recall that during that war, Life Magazine's cover featured a soldier sending the skull of a Japanese back to his girl friend.

Any re-opening of the advertising debate, examining its actual merit and point, especially an honest one, would crash the economy quicker than fresh video of Allan Greenspan racing for the airport with a duffel bag full of gold coins. Any actual revelations of how armies conduct themselves in real life in real war would prove too frightening for the American Public and too painful for our warriors, actual and alleged.

They are the same story, America dealing with its myths.