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At Home in the Woods-What Kind of Truth?


Fri, Dec 6th, 2002
Posted in Columnists

My recently published book "At Home in the Big Woods," has taught me the importance of advertising--media coverage, press releases, fliers, book signings and books placed in windows of stores. I enthusiastically joined in the promotion of my book, but soon something began to bother me. I began to worry that the book was selling well merely due to advertising. What would happen when people actually read the book? Did it merit all the attention? Would people like it? Would they identify with it? Would they find errors? Was the writing clear and interesting?

It seems today that advertising has become more important than products. A strongly promoted product by a big publisher can rake in millions for a mediocre book. Mediocre music can succeed merely because of a promotional campaign that tells the buyer he must have the music in order to be "in."

A well-advertised political campaign can elect a politician who won't or can't keep his promises. In the "Yellow Times," November 2002, Matthew Riemer wrote, "The candidates are mere actors who spend most of their time reciting platitudes from history's tired list, insulting one another's character, and making promises that are literally impossible to keep."

Perhaps the public deserves the politicians it gets. With our fast-paced world and short attention spans, many of us can only assimilate sound bites and slogans. All the better if they are delivered with great enthusiasm by a popular wartime president. Key words alone--patriotism, values, multiculturalism, the environment, corporate welfare, tax cuts, free market--seem to elect politicians more often than thoughtful speeches that describe the meanings and implications of these words.

In an Orwellian atmosphere of "Newspeak" and "Doublethink," the words themselves often become twisted and meaningless. For example, we need war to have peace; we need tax cuts for big business to stimulate the economy. We hear that ethanol is good for farmers and the environment, with no consideration given to soil damage and fertilizer-contaminated runoff from increased corn production, or pollution inherent in the production of ethanol. We hear that burning tires is an environmentally sound way to produce electricity even when the technology has never been tested on a large scale before.

It seems that advertising and spin are replacing quality and honesty. It's sad to suddenly realize that one has come to accept poor quality as a manner of course, as a new kind of truth. Last summer, my husband and I had trouble with our computers. It was time to order new monitors, motherboards, printers and modems. We had to return all of these products at least once because they did not perform as advertised. We also returned a new CD player that had a minor defect; when it came back to us after having been "fixed," it didn't work at all.

We may ask how those responsible can live with themselves, but responsibility doesn't seem to be part of the equation. Anything goes as long products sell, politicians win elections and CEOs make millions for themselves and their big shareholders. When we look at the recent corporate accounting scandals, such as the ENRON fiasco, we see that cheating has become okay, an accepted way of life.

On November 10, "60 Minutes" reported that cheating among students has increased dramatically. No wonder our children think cheating is okay. They see it all around them.

We also see young people accepting, as fact, the virtual reality of sit coms and video games. The borders between fact and fiction become blurred. What does this mean for the future?

So, why should I worry about the merits of my book? To me, it isn't enough that it sells well. It must also have quality. And I am not alone. There are still writers, artists and musicians out there who care deeply about the worth of their work. There are still doctors and nurses who care deeply about their patients; carpenters who care about the quality of their work; politicians, like Paul Wellstone, who care passionately about their causes; newspapers that offer in depth information about politicians and political issues; and voters who look past sound bites and slogans. What I'm worried about is that there aren't enough of them.

Nancy Overcott can be contacted at bigwoods@ace-group.cc

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