On Target

CLOSED TEMPORALLY, says the sign on the door of an Abercromie & Fitch – “a prime example of how the wrong word can sometimes be so absolutely right,” Karrie Higgins notes.

But sometimes the right words can be wrong. Trying to leave a Target store the other day, I was confused by the set of doors marked ENTER | DO NOT ENTER. A little unintended koan, it probably captures the feelings many people have about shopping in big box stores. Or, heck, about shopping in general, mixed messages being so much a part of mass marketing culture. Drink beer – be athletic. Lose weight – feel good about yourself. Feel secure – buy a new burglar alarm system. Be uniquely yourself – or risk total unhipness. Like, whatever, you know?

I had stopped in to use the bathroom and get a drink at the water fountain. I was looking for a pay phone, too, but the near-ubiquity of cell phones has virtually eliminated phone booths from the American landscape. Given the new, inexplicable popularity of bottled water – often more contaminated than tap water – can public water fountains be far behind?

THERE IS NOTHING HERE WORTH YOUR LIFE, says the sign on a derelict building in an almost-ghost town in western Utah. Would these words seem as appropriate on the front door of a still-thriving Target store? Clearly, somebody’s life is at stake. Who’s wearing the bull’s-eye?

There is nothing here… With our thinking so conditioned by decades of mass marketing, such straightforward assertions sound hopelessly outdated, derelict. I used to smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes, a once-popular brand with a red-and-white bull’s-eye logo virtually identical to Target’s and a slogan that betrayed its dinosaur status: “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.” The problem with that kind of claim is that it’s too easy to disprove – though perhaps if delivered with the appropriate level of apparent conviction, it might qualify as truthiness. From what I hear, none of the more sophisticated tricks of the marketer’s trade hit the mark anymore; nothing short of product placement seems to work with the youngest and most desirable demographic. So maybe advertising should follow the lead of political discourse and return to its origins in the bald-faced lie. It might have a certain retro chic.

People always tell pollsters they want straight-talking politicians, but then people never tell pollsters what they really think, only what they think they should think. Because in fact the rare political candidate who speaks the truth pleases no one. Who wants to be told that they can’t eat their cake and have it too? We want to hear that there will be enough of everything for everyone forever.

Truth is like water: necessary, yes, but bland, and nearly impossible to over-indulge in. A marketing challenge! And you know that the marketers are winning when you start to find discarded water bottles floating in the creek. True, the water in the creek probably isn’t safe to drink anyway. It’s most likely aswarm with giardia cysts, thanks to our favorite hoofed consumers of the forest. “Deer Park,” says the label on the bottle. Indeed.

O monks, there are two paths which seekers of Truth should not follow. One is the path of habitual devotion to passion and sensual pleasures, which is base, ordinary, leading to rebirth, ignoble and unprofitable. The other is the path of self-mortification and extreme asceticism which is also painful, ignoble and unprofitable. Thus the first words of the Buddha’s first sermon at the Deer Park in Varanasi. “Unprofitable”? Hardly!

Have Deer Park Brand Natural Spring Water delivered to your door from about $1 a day! IT’S NEVER BEEN EASIER! Thus the home page of the Deer Park Brand Natural Spring Water website. Believe that, and I have a municipal water privatization scheme to sell you. Change the shape of what kids drink… with the all new Aquapod bottle! It’s not just water, it’s differently shaped water.

What would a marketing campaign for truth look like? Not truthiness, but real, virtually tasteless, hard-to-get-a-handle-on truth. Could a crack marketing team make it palatable again? Given its current scarcity, creating demand shouldn’t be a problem. I’m guessing the words “pure” and/or “natural” would have to be featured; images of happy, healthy white people would be optional. Would this truth be “unvarnished”? Probably not. But whatever, you know?

Because with truth, you can have it your way. Truth: whatever works! Unknowable… naturally. Temporally closed.

20 Replies to “On Target”

  1. Lovey – If you’re looking for nice, tidy, coherent arguments, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. The point is not to convince anyone of the rightness of my views – Lord forbid! – but simply to challenge, provoke, and (I hope) entertain.

  2. I think Lovey McSlough (inadvertently?) points out the difficulty of the speech act.

    The only thing worse than saying nothing is saying something.

    One of my favorite disses in the Bible is “the people of the lie.” That’s what we’ve become in America, the people of the lie. And more often than not, those among us who have an idea that truth exists must respond with stunned silence. Truth has been quote-marked to death.

    It occurs to me that one good truth act is to go to the place were poetry happens, and to attend, and draw deep from there. One good poem is worth any number of policy positions.

    Anyway, good post, sensei.


  3. Water is not bland! Just look at it first of all. Clear, totally transparent, constant yet varying according the container, light conditions, background etc. What other liquid can do that except for one that looks like water? Notice how adverts so often use water droplets or vapour in close-up to make something look sexy.

    Then drink it! Satisfying without creating a desire for more, the very best thing on a hot day, no after effects and free from strong taste as opposed to tasteless (savour it and notice there is a really subtle fresh taste).

    All the flavoured water, coloured water, brewed, fermented, chemicalled and otherwise treated waters cannot come near to it for satisfaction, but our minds have been conditioned to say it is bland and boring. But if we let our bodies have the pleasure of water and water only for a week, they will not complain and will actually find the first taste of the treated waters to be unnatural and not too good.

    If you can’t bring yourself to do it, then at least give your kids a chance to do it. Give them a chance to drink pure water and keep them off the rest for as long as possible. But I am biased, the water out of my tap is very good, thankfully.

  4. St. Ant.: You’re quoting me about truth and poetry, right? Hence the gratuitous “sensei” to cover your act of blatant plagiarism?

    I like “truth act,” though – halfway between a speech act and a sex act.

    Peter – Welcome! Thanks for the comment. I don’t disagree with any of it in substance, but I will defend my choice of language, which was partly ironic. I love water (beer, too, but that’s another story). And I love the fact that it can be bland and tasteless but also delicious – it stretches our conception of what thoose words ought to mean. It’s the most common and important compound on earth. Yet wars have been fought over access to it.

    Here on the mountain the water is hard and very good. In the limestone valleys hereabouts, though, it can have quite a taste.

  5. Heh?

    Tell me you’re kidding about me quoting you about truth and poetry.

    Oh, and I’m with Peter. Water actually tastes good to me, almost all the time. I know water is supposed to be this neutral thing, but for me, it’s active. Maybe there’s another liquid out there that’s clean and tasteless and inactive (maybe some carefully calibrated saline solution, or saliva with the bacteria taken out or something), but water is not it. The thing with water is that it doesn’t leave an aftertaste (as Peter points out), and so the memory of its taste vanishes quickly.

    Sensei, I call you “sensei” because the wisdom speaks through you, the way intestinal gas speaks through a sphincter.

  6. because the wisdom speaks through you, the way intestinal gas speaks through a sphincter
    Well, gosh, if you put it like that…

    Water actually tastes good to me, almost all the time.
    It’s true that I don’t have the world’s most sensitive taste buds. But it’s also true that we can’t know how another person exeriences things, and how s/he correlates those experiences with words. You’re right – water is supposed to be as I’ve described it. Could we say that the conventionality of my thinking on this point is precisely what distinguishes it from an authentic truth act? After all, the principle criterion of a good poem is surprise. Plus, I can much more easily imagine writing a poem about the taste of water than about the tastelessness of water.

    That’s a good point about no aftertaste. Kills any possiblity of an analogy with sex, though.

  7. Oh dear, I must be doing it all wrong. I don’t turn on the television, except to watch the odd video that doesn’t have ads, listen only to CBC radio without ads and am stuck drinking water that I get from a nearby spring. What am I missing?

  8. And entertain you did, Dave. This made me laugh a lot.

    I note that Lovey McSlough snipes from linkless anonymity. Don’t they all…

  9. Ontario Wanderer – Thanks for the comments. You’re wise to live without TV. I don’t have one either, for the simple reason that I was raised without it and thus haven’t built up much resistance. What we are missing, I think, is a few great shows and a lot of crap.

    Target is a big chain store that competes for the Wal-Mart niche (if “nearly everything” can be accurately described as a niche).

    Hi Dick – Thanks! Actually, I don’t mind sniping – it’s better than spam. And let’s face it, some of my most regular commenters, such as St. Antonym and the sylph, are also anonymous and linkless.

  10. Water, of course, tastes of its occasion. Places have a flavor, a cup from which we musn’t taste, ENTER/DO NOT ENTER. I will neither kiss nor swallow. I’d lean against tree, but I wouldn’t suck a creek. To think the Scarlet Tananger uses no prophylactic! Dirty bird!

  11. Water, of course, tastes of its occasion.
    I like that! Not so sure about the rest of the comment. Your mind seems to be running in other ditches…

  12. I write so poorly.
    I mean to muse on what the effect of most naturally occuring water being proscribed for drinking might be having on me.

    In Colorado last summer I ate when I mountaintop snow a Coloradian promptly told me I risked giardia from birdshit, from an eagle, I suppose. It is very important to know what is clean and what is unclean, but if the only thing that is clean comes in a plastic bottle (prophylactic), the all of nature then must be dirty. I think inadvertantly, when I carry my plastic water bottle on a springtime walk over a the hill and to a river, and I drink nothing but my plastic water I am insulting nature, or perhaps, dangerously, not “getting it”. You hang the “There is nothing worth your life here” sign at the Target door. For me it has been hung over most of the waters of nature.

    I threw in the Tananger just as thought on how I might look down on a bird because it doesn’t drink sanctified plastic water. I might feel differently toward a Tananger if I drank from its leaf or puddle. Can one ever hope to be possessed by a place’s or creature’s spirit when seperated under a such a system of apartheid?

    Perhaps a foundation of xenophobia is a reasonable fear of the drinking of strange waters.

    Sorry my previous expression came came out lowdown and dirty. I thought it amped things up a bit.

  13. Thanks for the clarification. I think I share your angst. There are portable filtration systems for backpackers, though I don’t have one. On rare occasions when I go backpacking, I rely on iodine tablets or boiling. And sometimes I’ll take the risk and drink from a spring. I’ve never heard about being worried about snow, yet! I’d be inclined to ignore that warning.

  14. I saw a sign on a juke box recently that said, “This machine is alarmed.”

    I would have been too, I suppose, given the environment in which the poor thing was working.

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