Tuesday, June 12, 2007


This is a book for our times.
“In a world where practically everything can be manufactured and where faith in God is often hard to find and hold on to simulations seem easy. We may believe the world could be a better place, yet ingredients like security, acceptance, dignity, etc, don’t materialize with the flip of a switch. God promises these valuable items, but sometimes it feels like he works too slowly. We want goodness now, and we’re willing to settle for second-rate options if the good stuff is hard to get. Combine our human longings and lack of patience with the motivation for companies to sell products, and what we get is SimGospel.”
Sam Van Eman’s take on commercial hype and its hold on our consumer society pops some darling bubbles. The promise of hope, packaged for instant gratification, and then sold through the media – especially TV commercials and ads - is what the writer calls SimGospel. If you have ever played SimCity (and The Sims) you get the picture; you write your own script, you play God. It’s “goodness borrowed” as he goes on to say, because SimGospel is really a simulated version of the familiar biblical narrative.

Of course, students of mass media and sociology, will immediately recognize that Eman’s thesis can be traced back to Marshall McLuhan (‘the medium is the m(e)ssage”), and fellow cultural critic Neil Postman, best known for Amusing Ourselves To Death (1985). It’s easy to dismiss Postman as a throwback, a remnant of post-war conservativism. But he’s sharp as well as eminently quotable. That writers like Eman pays him tribute tells how relevant Postman remains. The message may not be original, but at least the voice is all Eman's.

For instance, what Eman calls SimGospel harks back to Postman’s acute observation of tv ads as pseudo-parables: i.e, The Lost Traveler’s Checks, The Phone Call from the Son Far Far Away. Indeed commercials as metaphor deliberately offer visual symbols about how to live one’s own life, and how to find instant solutions to complex problems. After a while, the stories they tell no longer come across as silly or odd, but as an acceptable way of looking at life. As Postman wrote,
“There is no more disturbing consequence of the electronic and graphic revolution than this: that the world as given to us through television seems natural, not bizarre. For the loss of the sense of the strange is a sign of adjustments, and the extent to which we have adjusted is a measure of the extent to which we have been changed.”
On Earth As It is In Advertising acknowledges that yes, we have been changed, we are being changed, and yes, it's not all for the better. Few things, if any, shock or surprise us as unnatural, or unreal. As media junkies fed on an incessant supply of SimGospel, this generation must choose to turn heretic (Eman's word) and renounce its subversive allure.

While Eman isn’t saying go lock yourself in a monastery, he does think there’s a need for a reality check, a sort of “reacclimating” so we know what’s real and what’s pseudo in our Sim-saturated world. Besides, the extent to which we accept unquestioningly the bizarre values of consumerism suggests that we not only are in the world, but that we now are of the world. If we are able to appreciate this, we have taken the first steps away from hype to hope, and towards reclaiming life as it was meant to be lived.

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