In between normal books, I am reading Bill Clegg’s Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. Clegg was a promising young talent in the New York publishing world. He was also a crack addict, who hit, in the parlance of recovery, a very “low bottom.” He’d reached the “jumping off point,” where one can no longer imagine life with drugs or without them.
It’s not that Clegg’s book is badly written or uninformed it’s just that I’ve heard/read/seen it all before. I know the subject matter. Regardless of the drug of choice (crack, heroin, booze, pot, pills, coke, etc.), addicts are all hopelessly and painfully alike. They cannot stop doing something that will send them to a hospital, prison or the cemetery, not necessarily in that order. There’s more to it than that but, frankly, not much.
These stories are as predictable as they are blunt. First the addict recounts (in harrowing detail) his or her mind-numbing, soul-crushing descent into hell. Then there’s rehab, where we usually get a pain-filled description of withdrawal and afterward the melodramatic tale of the addict coming back to life. Unfortunately, this is usually followed by relapse. God knows why, the addict throws away his new lease on life and goes back to a place even worse than before. Finally, he and we get our reprieve, at least for the time being…enough time to write the memoir. The addict is saved and tries to stay saved, “one day at a time.”
I’ve read dozens of these memoirs and will probably read two or three a year for the rest of my life. Why? Let’s just say I need the reminders. Yet, personal reasons aside, I have a professional curiosity about addiction.
After all, is not addiction the secret fantasy of every client: that their products, brands or services become an integral part of as many people’s lives as possible? And by integral I mean critical and indispensable. The end user simply cannot or will not imagine his or her life without it…whatever it is.
A senior-most planner once told me that in order to change consumer behavior advertisers must establish, what he coined, “the routinization of belief.” I don’t know. Sounds damn close to the definition of addiction to me. I mean if you truly believe you can’t live without something you’re likely addicted to it. While this seems obvious when it comes to beer, wine and spirits the argument holds up elsewhere, too. People are addicted to coffee, cell phones, fast food, computers, chocolate, fashion, TV shows, social networks, sex, other people, diets, working out and countless other things savory and not. And all of it comes nicely packaged as brands (Starbucks), products (Ipad) and services (Equinox), which, in turn, become drugs of choice.
In this metaphor advertising is obviously the dealer. The product is always new and improved, better than before, life changing. If an ad can’t talk you into using, he’ll let you have a taste: buy one get one free, 50% off, one day only. Whatever it takes to get you hooked. “We make you want what you don’t need,” reads the headline on this blog, until, perhaps, you do need it.
Toward the end of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker the main character makes a disturbing, little speech to his infant child, essentially stating he’s lost the ability to feel love for anything except defusing bombs. It’s a poignant scene to say the least. Addicted to the adrenalin high of war, the officer becomes hopelessly caught up in it, forsaking his wife and baby boy.
A lot of stories about war portray it as hell on Earth. Hence the phrase “War is Hell.” Not so many assert war is a drug. Apocalypse Now is the other movie comes to mind that took this route. Here we got the ultimate line of dialogue: ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
I believe most of us at least comprehend how and why some people become addicted to booze and drugs. Those things make you feel good. Most folks also get how gambling works on the psyche, same as extreme sports, even sex. The risk and reward is tied together. It becomes irresistible. Literally.
The pull from something dire as war is another matter. The risks far outweigh the rewards, unless, of course, you believe –really believe- in what you’re fighting for. God bless those that do. But, in fact, the main characters in both the movies I’ve referred to do not. These soldiers have become obsessed with war –killing and saving blur together. For them, it truly is a journey into the heart of darkness. There is no turning back. We know this addiction will kill them. And we know that they know it too. That’s what makes both these movies so compelling and intense.
Being drawn to something that will kill you is one hell of a paradox. Yet, addiction is commonplace. Putting my own demons aside, I’m drawn to the concept for pragmatic reasons. As copywriters, when we exploit addictive properties from the brands we work on we are doing our jobs. When we actually create addictive properties for the brands we work on we achieve the penultimate. We become, if you’ll pardon the expression, Gods of Advertising.
Indeed, we make you want what you don’t need. Not just want, but covet. As in can’t live without it. Think Apple, Starbucks, Nike, Play Station, American Girl to name but a few. And while only precious few achieve indelible, cult-like status, many more obtain phenomenal success for periods of time. Fashion brands are notorious for this: Guess. Juicy Couture. Von Dutch. Either way, creating belief systems for places or things is a lot like starting a cult.
As many of you know, this is one of my favorite themes. Cults can be attractive when they’re built around dolls or smart phones. Potentially, they may also turn dangerous as when youths steal and spend precious dollars to acquire products they crave, like gym shoes. Defusing bombs in Iraq more perilous still.