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Good Letters

20090210-no-logo-by-santiago-ramosI can’t quite pin down why I can’t stand Pepsi’s new “Refresh Everything” ad campaign, which makes commercial use of the nation’s bad luck and blue mood by making happy, colorful signs with positive words on them. Every morning, I walk past buses with “JOY,” “TOGETHER,” and, most annoyingly, “OPTIMISMMM” emblazoned on their sides, like giant metal cows branded by a giant valley girl.

But the sign I hate the most is the one in the metro stop near my apartment, that reads, “HOPE,” the letter O replaced by the Pepsi symbol.

Is it because it’s in the nature of a shaggy-haired twenty-something to be righteously cynical of peppy ad campaigns? No, I think I loathe it for deeper reasons than that, though I’ll allow that I am already predisposed to hate this type of ad campaign.

Or perhaps it has to do with the embarrassment I felt once walking past the HOPE sign with a friend of mine, a Spaniard. Upon seeing it, he gave me a haughty European look, his eyebrows curled in condescension. I know what he was thinking: “Americans think they can manufacture everything they need.”

Or because I often see a homeless man walking along that part of the metro stop, always right after I see the sign.

Or because the sign will give somebody the occasion to say, “Look at the signs of the times!”

Hope is certainly the preoccupation of the times. The president campaigned on it and the pope has written an encyclical about it. Alfonso Cuaron made a brilliant film about hope in Children of Men (based on the P.D. James novel), Cormac McCarthy, less explicitly, made a novel about it in The Road. I recently wrote about the subject as it appeared in a recent episode of Battlestar Galactica.

There is a way in which the concept of hope focuses all the concerns that are usually lumped into the more difficult question of “the search for meaning” and the dicey question of “faith.” Those questions are easily handled in a theoretical way, and their answers tend to be abstract, or to come in the form of theory, which isn’t always useful when somebody needs a reason to get up in the morning.

But hope is a concern that unites the present and the future, and, when dealing with the latter, it unites the future in this life and what future, if any, we have after this life. It is social and personal and, therefore, philosophical and political. And if you want to get up in the morning, the only compelling reason to do so is if you expect that a future happiness awaits you after you plant your feet on the floor, and that future happiness is what you hope for, and it better be an experience and not a theory.

The father and son in McCarthy’s The Road are stripped of everything and they live the question of hope in a radical way. Cuaron’s version of Children of Men makes a child, and not an idea or a social movement, the harbinger of hope. Since stories progress in time, they are useful vehicles for gauging the importance of hope.

But the Pepsi sign…it does nothing for me. All it reminds me of is H. L. Mencken’s definition of democracy, that is “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

I don’t buy into Mencken’s anti-populism, and in this case, what the people want is a good thing; but the advertisers sure want to give it to us good and hard. I don’t see the sign as provoking a question as much as anticipating it and distracting us from asking. I don’t think that, in this case, advertising works like art.

Then again, I did just write this post, so the ad did provoke me.


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