Infinite Jest II? If only David Foster Wallace wrote about advertising!

July 27, 2009

And I thought the porn industry was crazy…

Per sometime reader and longtime creative director, Jim Schmidt’s recommendation, I have begun reading David Foster Wallace. For those more ignorant than me, DFW was an exemplary essayist, professor and novelist best known for his profound and, at times, confounding prose. Time magazine named his 1994 novel, Infinite Jest one of the 100 greatest novels ever written. Suffering from acute depression, Wallace took his life on September 12, 2008.

Rather than Jest, I began reading DFW’s book of articles and essays, Consider The Lobster. So far it’s an extraordinary read. The opening piece (pun intended) on the Adult Film Awards is worth the book’s price.

My intent, however, is not to review DFW. Frankly, Wallace’s powers of analysis, precise wit and mastery of words are well out of my league.

Inspired, I decided to look at the advertising business as if through his eyes. Sadly, through that filter, there is nothing enlightening to report. Only foolishness. Between the experts and critics, the practitioners and teachers, and obviously the trade press, all has been said. David Foster Wallace would tell us…

As an industry, we’ve explored our own inadequate naval ad nausea (pun intended). The body cannot take another probe!

For an extended argument, he would blithely take on the dull saw topic of “integration.” We say above and below the line marketing need to come together, seamlessly. “Enough already,” he’d say. In summation: Some networks and agencies do it better than others. None are brilliant. Stuck inside silos, huffing their own hubris, most are bumbling along. Yet, their clients do not deserve a hall pass either. They, too, struggle bogged by politics and history. (This dysfunction is too irresistible for Wallace to leave alone! Here would be the fun part of his essay.)

Then: “You have enough praised and criticized (mostly the former) Crispin Porter & Bogusky. You have enough praised and criticized (mostly the latter) Draft FCB. You have exposed and deposed Martin Sorrel. Maurice Levy. John Wren. The other names and entities representing this small world are tiresomely ubiquitous.”

“Ads,” DFW, would tell us, “do little but sell (if that) and mean little to anyone but their vain and insecure creators.”

For the finale, he would have at our corrupt and overblown awards shows, revealing –(at last!)- Cannes for the weeklong cocktail party and fixed election it really is. Talk about infinite jest.

Infinite Twitter


17 Responses to “Infinite Jest II? If only David Foster Wallace wrote about advertising!”

  1. Check out the story “Mister Squishy” from his collection of short fiction “Oblivion”. He has crazy fun with the launch of a new snack cake by a “cutting-edge market research firm.” He may not have ever straight-on tackled the industry as he did porn in “Consider the Lobster”, but as a child raised on big brands and a pop culture aficionado, much of his amazing work is brilliantly informed by advertising.

  2. SRP said

    I cannot wait to read “Mister Squishy” and, for that matter, your new book!

  3. scottRcrawford said

    Wow. Talk about walking out in front of a speeding bus. Quick, save yourself, change the channel to Louis CK.

  4. DFW does knock advertising quite a bit in Infinite Jest and in some of his essays.

    He was a smarter man and a better writer than I’ll ever be, but I think it’s highly suspect for anyone to claim that advertising is insignificant or ineffective.

    Looking at our consumption-driven culture, I’m not sure how anyone can conclude that advertising has been any less than spectacularly effective. By the way, I’m not saying that’s a good thing. In fact, it’s quite shameful.

    Religions, political parties, belief systems, and brands are all essentially myths. We are storytellers and mythmakers employed by corporations. We create myths that drive consumer behavior.

    However, I do believe that our skills can also help us create positive change. Whether that is through pro-bono work, or finding clients with some progressive ideals, we can be a help.

  5. Glad to hear you’re enjoying DFW. An interesting thing going on this summer is a group-read of Infinite Jest at a website called Infinite Summer. Thousands of folks around the world are reading 75 pages a week and discussing them online. Wallace critiqued anything he viewed as a distraction from what living was truly about: friends, love, thinking, etc. And, lets face it, advertising is usually nothing more than a distraction. But as rough as DFW was on our industry he was much kinder than the late BIll Hicks who implored marketing and advertising people to kill themselves because of the effect they had on society.

    • I was recently at a spirituality & meditation gathering in Southern Utah.

      One guy told me about Bill Hicks’ statement, and said he agreed, the minute i told him what i did for a living.

      Kind of a dicey way to make acquaintances in my opinion.

  6. golublog said

    Advertising is ripe for satire, and perhaps tragedy.

  7. SRP said

    Kill ourselves for what we’ve done?
    Wow. Even I haven’t gone there. Although I’ve been in some meetings…

  8. Here’s Bill’s rant:

    By the way if anyone here is in advertising or marketing… kill yourself.

    No, no, no it’s just a little thought. I’m just trying to plant seeds. Maybe one day, they’ll take root – I don’t know. You try, you do what you can. Kill yourself.

    Seriously though, if you are, do.

    Aaah, no really, there’s no rationalisation for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers. Okay – kill yourself – seriously. You are the ruiner of all things good, seriously. No this is not a joke, you’re going, “there’s going to be a joke coming,” there’s no fucking joke coming. You are Satan’s spawn filling the world with bile and garbage. You are fucked and you are fucking us. Kill yourself. It’s the only way to save your fucking soul, kill yourself.

    Planting seeds. I know all the marketing people are going, “he’s doing a joke…” there’s no joke here whatsoever. Suck a tail-pipe, fucking hang yourself, borrow a gun from a Yank friend – I don’t care how you do it. Rid the world of your evil fucking makinations. Machi… Whatever, you know what I mean.

    I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now too, “Oh, you know what Bill’s doing, he’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market, he’s very smart.”

    Oh man, I am not doing that. You fucking evil scumbags!

    “Ooh, you know what Bill’s doing now, he’s going for the righteous indignation dollar. That’s a big dollar. A lot of people are feeling that indignation. We’ve done research – huge market. He’s doing a good thing.”

    Godammit, I’m not doing that, you scum-bags! Quit putting a godamm dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!

    “Ooh, the anger dollar. Huge. Huge in times of recession. Giant market, Bill’s very bright to do that.”

    God, I’m just caught in a fucking web.

    “Ooh the trapped dollar, big dollar, huge dollar. Good market – look at our research. We see that many people feel trapped. If we play to that and then separate them into the trapped dollar…”

    How do you live like that? And I bet you sleep like fucking babies at night, don’t you?

    “What didya do today honey?”

    “Oh, we made ah, we made ah arsenic a childhood food now, goodnight.” [snores] “Yeah we just said you know is your baby really too loud? You know?” [snores] “Yeah, you know the mums will love it.” [snores]

    Sleep like fucking children, don’t ya, this is your world isn’t it?

  9. SRP:
    Very nice post.

  10. A nice summation of DFW’s work–and how our business related to some of his themes.

    Wallace’s method was rooted in the conviction that literature ought to address the paradoxes and confusions of its moment. His moment was late capitalist America, which he knew from his own life manufactured nothing so surely as a sense of fraudulence and despair. This was especially true for the young and jaded readers of literary fiction, a demographic whose acute discomfort with meaning, emotion and value Wallace considered symptomatic of a broader unease in the culture. He saw how we despised ourselves for being persuaded by the same advertisements we parodied and ridiculed; how we settled for pleasure in lieu of fulfillment; how our achievements tended to multiply our dissatisfaction. Of all the people writing fiction in the 90s, only Wallace spoke directly to us. His characters, like his readers, were educated, affluent, dissatisfied and lonely. Articulate to the point of catatonia, they seemed incapable of saying what they meant. Likewise, Wallace’s prose rambled over and through meaning like a sputtering motor trying to compensate for some broken inner part. Though he once complained he could “never seem to get the clarity and concision” he wanted, this failure held the key to his fiction’s uncanny impersonation of the educated American mind—a mind choked with manipulative jargon and self-conscious prattle.

    • SRP said

      Sing it loud, Brother Jim…
      But also: Say it ain’t so!
      Wallace reveals the great paradoxes of our time,so well I’m afraid, that they ultimately undid him.

  11. tim reardon said

    Hi Steffan,
    Started IJ in 95 and never finished it. Am going to start again after reading your post. I did finish DFW’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” It’s hilarious. He is missed.

  12. surelyujest said

    Wow. Before you write a post called Infinite Jest II, you might want to read Infinite Jest I. The biggest running joke in the book (subsidized time) is about advertising.

  13. SRP said

    You’re right. I got to that essay after I wrote the post. My bad…

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