Truth Be Told

The writers who craft ad copy have learned well from poets. But the words they wield have a different intent and power.

Author: Samuel Hazo '49

Who was it said that advertising is the poetry of capitalism? Regardless of attribution, advertising’s debt to poetry comprises a few superficial crossovers and frequent borrowings, but some essential differences remain.

First, the crossovers and borrowings. Advertising, like poetry, relies heavily on images. Advertising, like poetry, depends on a quick impact. Advertising, like poetry, frequently uses mnemonics — memory-aiding tokens or techniques. And advertising, like poetry, often deploys rhythm and rhyme — occasionally to musical accompaniment — to achieve maximum effect.

Now the essential differences, beginning with imagery. The image in poetry is rooted in inspiration itself, as we see in Shakespeare’s aside about jealousy: “It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” Poets by nature think not in concepts but images, which might best be described as sensations in language. The novelist Norman Mailer even thought this way when he described Lester Maddox, a former governor of Georgia, as having “the face of a mean baby with glasses on it.” But the advertiser’s image is different. Its intention is to portray products or persons not as they really are, but as the advertiser wishes us to see them — “What’s in your wallet?” “Subway: Eat Fresh,” “Make America Great Again.” This is simply the language of spiel or hype.

Advertising’s reliance on brevity of expression is almost synonymous with advertising itself. Part of this, of course, is due to cost. Thirty or 60 seconds of television airtime can run hundreds of thousands of dollars. A full-page ad in The New York Times exceeds the sticker price of a fully equipped Mercedes Benz. But the most compelling reason for concision in advertising is to capture roving attention spans in a flash, fix or byte before it is again distracted. Advertising reduces the person to customer, client or “seductee.”

Because being remembered is the ultimate purpose of any spiel or pitch, advertisers use a variety of mnemonics. Automobile ads, for instance, concentrate on logos — the Cadillac crest, the L of the Lexus, the Honda H. Catchy refrains and repetitions — Chevrolet’s “Like a rock,” Aflac’s talking duck and Mazda’s “zoom, zoom, zoom” have served the same purpose.

And because rhythm can usurp our attention whether we are aware of it or not, advertisers write rhythmically — with occasional rhyme — whenever possible. An influential 1940s cola commercial exemplified this tradition: “Pepsi-Cola hits the spot. Twelve full ounces, that’s a lot. Twice as much for a nickel, too. Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you.”

The advertiser’s aim to present things as clients want them to be seen — in place of the poet’s aim to reveal things as they are — is simply the difference between pseudoreality or nonreality and reality itself.

Why are these tropes of prosody so attractive to advertisers? The answer is that imagery, lyrical brevity, mnemonic aids, rhythm and rhyme engage and focus our attention. They draw us into the present tense and keep us there for as long as our attention is so entranced and concentrated. At such times we are at the mercy of the moment.

When an enchanted moment is truly poetic, we explore perceptions, feelings and visions of which we would not otherwise believe ourselves capable. However, if the moment is an advertiser’s moment, the feelings and visions are nothing but inducements — and the more sweet-sounding, the better for the advertiser. We might be sold on anything from laundry soaps with daydream names (Surf, Tide, Cheer) to relief from the discomfort of urinary urgency (“gotta go, gotta go, gotta go right now”). And, of course, all this immediacy is part and parcel of the platforms of national political parties, the enlistment enticements of the military and the idealistic prose of the college recruitment catalogue, which, as Robert Kibbee, late former chancellor of the City University of New York, once said to me, “ranks high in the romantic literature of our time.”

Advertising scabs on poetry. It enlists poetic techniques because they get attention, and attention is the pathway to increased curiosity and sales. It does not matter if the thing to be sold is a commodity or a candidate. Advertisers capitalize on whatever needs selling, and the motivation is always profit of one kind or another.

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The advertiser’s aim to present things as clients want them to be seen — in place of the poet’s aim to reveal things as they are — is simply the difference between pseudoreality or nonreality and reality itself. The same line divides fashion photography from photojournalism and “sofa art” from the paintings of Goya, van Gogh or Hopper.

Because capitalism rests on the bedrock of profit, advertising has a vested interest in perpetuating the system and its “poetic” place within it. Nor does advertising’s influence stop with the marketing of things. It is a habit of mind. Its influence in electoral politics is rampant. Viability in political campaigns today is invariably measured in terms of candidates’ war chests. The campaigns themselves rest mostly in the hands of advertisers, public relations firms and “spin” specialists, so that candidates too often seem like minor characters or marionettes in the competitive drama of election and governance.

The ultimate danger to a free society happens when spiel passes for verifiable fact. This is not the language of truth but of illusion. We confront this danger more and more today as newspapers, which have the means to correct error, go out of existence, one after another. Roughly one in four newspapers in the United States has closed since 2005. Those that survive often function with minimal newsrooms. People who still read newspapers typically focus on advertising, sports and obituaries. The demise of the verifiable fact in public life means that the possibilities of distortion are infinite, that media outlets eventually transmit little more than the worldviews of their owners. This is where we find ourselves today.

The ersatz poetry of advertising and fake news overwhelms our lives at every turn. A social critic once figured Americans receive thousands of onslaughts a day in which they are told, inveigled or otherwise persuaded to buy what they don’t need, desire what they don’t really want and see what they are cajoled to see. The devaluation of such currency requires everyone to have the plain honesty of Diogenes, who retained his own judgment in the face of Alexander the Great.

In this effort, poetry becomes a true ally. Unlike advertising, which is a means to a desired end, poetry is an end in itself. It supports no system, capitalistic or otherwise. It is in fact our true speech, which reveals the face behind the world’s masks, which makes us wonder why we all too rarely see the obvious “until someone expresses it simply.” This creates for us what Robert Frost called “a momentary stay against confusion,” and which, finally, safeguards not our sales but our souls.

Sam Hazo is a poet, essayist and novelist who lives in Pittsburgh. He is the author most recently of The Less Said, the Truer: New and Selected Poems, 2016-2022 and I Want It to Happen, a novel.