Feel good about yourself, don't you? Of course you do. You've been watching television again.
Television tells you that you can't feel too good about yourself.
All the political commercials aired in recent weeks got to be tiring and repetitious, and we can be grateful an election came along to end them. But one thing can be said for political commercials; at least they're trying to sell you something besides yourself. They're trying to sell you somebody else for a change.
If a political ad had been designed according to the prevailing motif in commercials today, it would be resulted in a slogan like this:
"Voting for Sen. Kickback makes you feel good about yourself."
Perhaps never in history have so many been urged to feel so good about so little.
That's because TV ad men, who have always been involved in the politics of self, have discovered a new tool for moving merchandise. It's the feelgood ad - the ad that tells you to feel good about just being you and about anything that will bring you closer to that goal, whether it's deodorant pudding or a new set of steel-belted radials.
The most spurious dictum to gain credence in the selfy '70s holds that until you first love yourself, you cannot love anybody else. Some people stop with the first part and become incredibly proficient at it. The philosophy has filled bookstores to overflowing with selfhelp and self-improvement epistles, the "self" being - in the Me Decade first diagnosed by Tom Wolfe - something upon which too much attention cannot be lavished.
A lot of TV commercials are produced now on the assumption that you can't sell somebody something until you sell them themselves. And so we have a new breed of feelgood ads that promise not just the usual social and sexual rewards but also an inner peace through purchases, a nirvana of self-aggrandizement.
"I feel good about serving C. W. Post to my family," says a contented Mom in a cereal commercial, to which an announcer redundantly responds, "You feel good about serving C. W. Post."
"Newport is a car you can feel really good about," says Hal Linden in an ad for Chrysler Newport. With a generosity befitting Sportin' Life he also says, "Now you can have it all. Now. Right now."
A celestial choir sings, "It's nice to feel so good about a meal, so good about Kentucky Fried Chicken."
And the best reason for buying Haggar slacks, a voice declares, is that "Looking good makes you feel good."
Even the U.S. Army boasts that it "can make you feel a lot of ways," notably, toots a happy chap, "feelin' good, feelin' strong, feelin' good." The regional Gino's fast-food chain built a campaign around people for whom one bite of cheeseburger is transportation to an exalted plateau of euphoric self-satisfaction: "Feelin' good, feelin' good, feelin' good, at Gee-nose . . ."
And an area drug rehabilitation program lures converts with a role-model satisfied customer who testifies that, having kicked drugs, he is now "feeling good about me."
We are not just being promised spritual balm through products and services here. We are also being told that each of us has the right to a perpetual state of feelgood - to feel good about ourselves all the time, to live a painless, doubtless and guiltless life. Who could resist a cheeseburger that does all that?
Feelgood ads are not saying, necessarily, that we will feel physically better after consuming this or acquireing that, but that we will feel emotionally rejuvenated and pass on to a higher consciousness of total self-acceptance.
Unquestionably there is a religious fervor to these spiels. Richard Simon, a University of California associate professor, sees modern advertising as in fact the new religion, a mercantile theology in which products are turned into gods and materialism becomes the ultimate karma. Thus does Datsun advise us to "Rejoice!" over "a totally new Z-car."
And a number of companies propose that we give thanks to those from whom all blessings flow, namely, them:
"Thank you, Paine-Webber."
"Thank you, Tasty-Cakes."
We needed that.
But what's really being deified in the new ads is the viewer-consumer himself, the soul to whom television addresses all its cajoling, imploring, coaxing and adulation. No other people in history have had such ready access to warm and encouraging words about themselves. It's like going to the tap for water, except that what you get is a heap o' lovin.'
The whole nature of television is strictly Stroke City. At almost any hour we can find someone in the little box trying to woo, influence, amuse and impress us and, hey, we must be pretty important! When the hot blather dispenser specifically and repeatedly tells us how good we should feel about ourselves, TV becomes the true Selfmobile, the perfect Me Machine.
Not even national network television addresses itself to the nation; it addresses itself to each of us individually. "Take off your coat, America," is really a personal message. TV may be watched in groups, small ones at best, but it has an isolating effect nevertheless, largely because pitchmen are repeatedly singling out and speaking to that all-powerful critter known as "you."
Sanka is "the coffee that lets you be your best."
"Sego!" shouts an announcer, "great for your ego!" He is followed immediately by a chic, slim woman who verifies this truth; "Sego! Great for my ego!" Even fat people watching are supposed to identify with this contented string bean.
The litany of the new ad says there is no one as important as oneself. So Reggie Jackson confides that, despite his millions at hand, he owns a Volkswagen Rabbit: "The only person I have to impress is me."
A woman peddling L'Oreal hair color says with no shame, "If I pay more, I get more, and I'm worth it." And Colony Wines invites us to "choose a wine that says, 'You Know.' Impress yourself with Colony Wines."
Ford "wants to be your car company" and Whirlpool "knows how you feel about fingerprints" on your refrigerator door (it does?). It's "me and my R.C.," "me and my Arrow" and, of course, "You, you're the one - you better watch your fries."
"You asked for it, you got it - Toyota." "Have it your way." "Who's got the best cheeseburger in the whole wide world? Burger Kind and I." "Let yourself go - to Pizza Hut."
Much TV programming endorses the hedonistic and solopsistic slop of the ads, but it is not a conspiracy as such. It's just that many of the writers and producers who create TV programs have been through one or more of the myriad self-awareness operations that thrive in Los Angeles, the Self Center of the Nation. The ideas filter down into the scripts partly because the wirters want to convince themselves their money was well spent.
In a way, then, American TV viewers are getting for free the kind of voluptuous ego smooch that Porsche and Mercedes drivers pay oodles for cut in Hollywood. How grateful we should be for this bequest is another matter.
Besides, the commercial, and not the program, is what really delivers the message. Unlike programs, commercials are cleverly, elegantly and scientifically designed to drive home a point. They are driven.
When the dominant point is that extremism in the worship of self is no vice - is in fact a virtue - it does seem that television would be more likely to keep us apart rather than bring us together. Why be brought together when this intimate appliance whispers sweet nothings just for each of us from dawn to dawn?
TV does not bring people together even when they watch it together, according to Dick Ozersky, a professor at Stockton (N.J.) College. "Unlike film or the theater," Ozersky wrote in a journal called Et Cetera, "television as a medium has a fragmenting and isolating effect both in its structure and in its content. Those watching it are separated from the social body within which they ordinarily function and enter into a personal, individualized transaction with the medium."
This encourages a reordering of priorities. "In the television age, the only test of any significance is the personal, the intuitive and the existential. All value is reduced to a question of pleasure, and any significance not immediately apparent is deemed illusory or irrelevant."
Today's students have never known life without television and it isn't surprising that they expect life to be as easy as TV makes it seemand says it should be. At regular intervals, one errant or truant kid will tell a reporter or social psychologist that education is "boring" and does not supply any immediate wants or needs.
And around them they have a total feelgood environment. Radio stations promise them "music that makes you feel good" (WKYS, Washington) and their local dope dealer has a similar sales pitch. On TV they get feelgood drama and even feelgood news, which is news delivered by people whose smiles are unbroken by murder, mayhem, chicanery or carnage.
Isolationism is encouraged and it spreads. Disco dancing, for instance, isn't really the sublime performance of two people moving as one, but more like twin solos, with each partner, male and female, parading respective pulchritude and plumage and saying, "Hey, look at 'me'".
In the '30s, Vaselineous dandies could be heard to croon, "You are, the promised kiss of springtime, that makes the lonely winter seem long . . . " In the '70s, the tune has changed, and so have the lyrics: "I don't care what you say any more; this is my life, so get out of here, and leave me alone."
Then: "You're My Everything." Now: "I Just Want to be Your Everything." The message of "The Wiz" is, believe in yourself and trust your own feelings above all else.
TV has such a direct pipeline to the nation's psyche that other media and other influences are hard put to compete. Certainly they have trouble being as sooting and forgiving. Mystery writer John D. MacDonald, ruminating in New York magazine, saw television as the perpetual, private absolver of antisocial behavior. It become a Tube Confessor that does all the talking for you.
And so, remarks a character in a MacDonald story, a kid goes to TV for snap approval even when he's done something wrong. "He . . . comes back and turns on the set, and he discovers that Johnny, Merv, the Muppets, Kojak, Captain Kirk - they all want to please and entertain him.
"The men and women who sell things strain to sell him something nice. They are all his big family that he has grown up with, and they all still treat him just as they did before. They direct all that charm and talent right at him, in his room.
"And in the unlikely event he gets caught and serves time, they'll follow him right into prison and entertain him there as well."
Television tells you to grab for all the gusto you can. It never suggests that your gusto might infringe on somebody else's gusto. It just says, go ahead, grab, or you'll be sorry.
Compared to this, the navel-gazing of the phychedelic '60s seems virtually outer-directed. Television, the greatest salesman ever invented, may have done too splendid a job on selling us ourselves. If we were plunged pell-mell into a really serious economic disorder, would we be equipped to cope with anything so unthinkable as self-denial?
The prospects and portents are not precisely utopian, unless one accepts TV's revisionist definition of Utopia: me, myself and I, alone together at last with the lube tube by our side. And feelin' good - just feelin' good about just bein' us.