David Foster Wallace on advertorials

In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (which also appeared in Harper’s Magazine as the essay, “Shipping Out”), David Foster Wallace discusses an “essay” he came across discussing a cruise, but which was really an advertisement.

In other words, Celebrity Cruises is presenting Conroy’s review of his 7NC Cruise as an essay and not a commercial. This is extremely bad. Here is the argument for why it is bad. Whether it honors them well or not, an essay’s fundamental obligations are supposed to be to the reader. The reader, on however unconscious a level, understands this, and thus tends to approach an essay with a relatively high level of openness and credulity. But a commercial is a very different animal. Advertisements have certain formal, legal obligations to truthfulness, but these are broad enough to allow for a great deal of rhetorical maneuvering in the fulfillment of an advertisements primary obligation, which is to serve the financial interests of its sponsor. Whatever attempts an advertisement makes to interest and appeal to its readers are not, finally, for the reader’s benefit. And the reader of an ad knows all this, too – that an ad’s appeal is by its very nature calculated – and this is part of why our state of receptivity is different, more guarded, when we get ready to read an ad.

He continues…

An ad that pretends to be be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles at you warmly only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwills’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.
- David Foster Wallace
(full essay on on Harpers.org)

You can also always count on The Onion to provide some perspective.

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