On Walker Percy and those ridiculous Apple ads

Oh my goodness, what warm baths are these new Apple adverts! Candles and incense! And is that harp music?

Does Apple have no shame?

Apple is not the first company to take itself too seriously, of course. And it is no stranger to over-the-top ads, but they’ve always seemed disciplined somehow, by humor or irony or some such. But this latest wave of ads is way too much. I wonder: Is this because Jobs is gone? That dear man knew that restraint is a virtue that carries a high rating. Has his strict minimalist approach kept this nonsense at bay all these years?

The above ad came on during a Braves game a few nights ago. It made me think, as so many things in this life do, of Walker Percy. For those who don’t know, Percy was a Southern writer with a wry view of life. The theme that runs through all his work is the displacement of the self in an increasingly technological age. (He died in 1990. I often wonder what he would have to say to us about the Internet.)

Perhaps his strangest book is Lost in the Cosmos. In it, in contrast to his novels, he treats his theme directly. He says that we each have a self. Further, he says this self must be conceived and located. Doing so successfully is one of our major tasks as human beings. Traditionally, religion has made this possible: totemism (Aleut Indian: “I am Bear”); Eastern pantheism (Hindu: “I am Atman, which is Brahman”); theism (Christian: “I am a self with you under God, both created in God’s image”). In all three cases, the self is reconciled to the world by being located relative to it, and this location defines and eases the self’s interactions with the world and with other selves.

We have a need for identities, is the terribly simple point.

But, Percy writes, “in a post-religious technological society, these traditional resources of the self are no longer available.” What alternatives do we have? Mainly, to just be in the world, Percy says, immanent and inherent to it. But how to do this? There are two extremes:

On one extreme is Homer Simpson: “the compliant role-player and consumer and holder of a meaningless job… the anonymous one in a mass society.” This one pretty much reacts mechanically without thought or understanding to the automatic forces of the society in which s/he is immersed: “the backfence gossip or the Archie Bunker beer-drinking TV-watcher.”

At the other is found what Percy calls “the autonomous self, who is savvy to all the techniques of society and appropriates them according to his or her discriminating tastes, whether it be consciousness-raising, consumer advocacy, political activism liberal or conservative, saving whales, TM, creative cooking, moving out to country, moving back to central city, etc.”

With this one I always think of The Most Interesting Man in the World from those (hilarious) Dos Equis ads. He appropriates the world to himself and never makes a wrong choice: “He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels.” He is a man of the world: “He speaks French — in Russian.” He has the best of everything: “Cuba imports cigars from him.” He knows when to say no: “He has never filled up on chips.”

The thing about this Apple ad is: It suggests that buying an iPhone makes you the Most Interesting Man in the World, when the truth is it makes you Homer Simpson. You feel as if you have truly discriminating taste to select such a fine piece of technology but you’re just reacting automatically to this feeling, this urge to be saved, post-religion, by anything, anything at all. You’re being manipulated, plain and simple. It’s not new to advertising, which is probably the deadliest (legal) industry in America, but rarely is it this silly or this obvious. These ads are so bad I can hardly believe they’ll work.

(BTW, in Percy’s view there’s not much difference between the extremes: both Homer and the Most Interesting Man in the World are drowning in the immediate and the immanent, fully in it and of it, “sunk in everydayness.” That one has better taste is neither here nor there. D’oh!)

I am typing this on a MacBook and I have an iPhone in my pocket. But these ads, along with that nice roomy Microsoft outlet at Lenox Square, make me wonder how long I’ll be sticking with technology “Designed by Apple in California.”

Comment Pages

There are 3 Comments to "On Walker Percy and those ridiculous Apple ads"

  • Curtis says:

    Hi Paul,

    Good to see you back. Strong writing and spot on as always. Your Apple ad piece made me think of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” Also, Abraham Heschel’s “Who is Man?”

    Heschel from “Who is Man?” (1965),  I’m speculating his response to the Apple ad.  ” The sickness of our age is the failure of our conscience rather than the failure of nerve. … Stultified by its own bankruptcy, staggered by the immense complexity of the challenge, it becomes subject to automation.”  My translation. “Monkey see monkey do” now has the added demention of “monkey feel monkey decide.”

    He has an interesting section on “The eclipse of humanity” and later has this to say about manipulation.  “A life of manipulation is the death of transcendence.”  

    I would submit that the Apple ad challenges that statement by wedding at least their understanding of transcendence to manipulation. Moving from “desire/sex sells” to “the etherial/transcendent sells” is a crafty move.

    I suppose, by submitting to the manipulation and making a purchase I have presumably participated, at least by implication in their interpretation and application of the transcendent. If that is the case, these guys have moved an Ad beyond corporate ego and into the realm of the diabolical.  But, then again, Corporations have personhood. The Supreme Court said so.

    Maybe I’m just getting cranky. But, I like my gurus with lots of gray hair and plenty of scar tissue. Apple need not apply.

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    • Paul says:

      Curtis, if that’s you being cranky, please stay cranky. Interesting take re. manipulation and transcendence. I will clip and save that gem.

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  • Tom Harkins says:

    Paul, I think this post raises a good point–what is left to us when we abandon or deny the supernatural and spiritual? The mechanical, in which case the greatest invention becomes the greatest thing. So, why not “worship” Apple technology, based on how it has improved communication more than any prior advance? I would argue that the Apple ad is merely the culmination of a society that no longer focuses on God and the things of God. We “worship the creature rather than the Creator,” as the Apostle Paul states it. So, perhaps the Apple ad is not such a great surprise as it might initially appear.

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