Tomorrow, I’m going to facilitate a discussion group of First Year Students around David Sheff’s memoir, Beautiful Boy. I liked Beautiful Boy, even though addict (or parent of addict) memoirs aren’t one of my favorite genres. Sheff really focuses on the details and specifics of his family, so I felt like I had a clear understanding of his son Nic–the music he liked to listen to, his favorite clothes, and where he liked to surf. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s discussion and hearing more from the new students. This week, I’ve fortuitously encountered a few articles that mention the Sheffs in light of Julie Myerson’s The Lost Child, which her son (the book’s subject) rejects as being an incomplete and unfair story. It certainly made me think that being a writer’s family member could be tough, particularly if you cling to your privacy. If anyone else has read Beautiful Boy, I’d like to hear your take too!
Mad Men returns for its third season this Sunday, on AMC. I caught up on the first season on DVD, and found it to be excellent in terms of interesting storylines and characters, along with great production values. A large part of what makes the show so interesting (and discomfiting) are seeing what’s changed and what hasn’t since 1960’s America. The show centers on a Madison Avenue advertising agency. I haven’t seen the second season, but the first at least, focused a lot on how the (m)ad men pitch their creative ideas to clients and eventually American consumers. The characters’ interpersonal dramas often dovetail with the product desires they are trying to stir up. Advertising is the subject of the great book I just finished by Jean Kilbourne, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think And Feel (it was originally published as Deadly Persuasion; Snell Library has both editions.) Her book focuses on the impact of the 3,000 advertisements we’re exposed to daily-while most of us think ads don’t affect us, Kilbourne demonstrates that they have a cumulative and corrosive influence. Her book was published in 2000, and reading it what was scary to me was recognizing so many ads from my childhood and adolescence that I wouldn’t have thought I remembered but must have been percolating in my subconscious. I had a middle school classmate who collected Absolut ads, and I even had one of “Absolut 24th” on my bulletin board as a kid. (I think I was more into shopping, Christmas and presents at the time, and didn’t really think of it as a vodka advertisement). She pays particular attention to issues of addiction-especially food, alcohol and cigarettes-and how advertisements normalize unhealthy and dangerous behavior towards these substances. She also concentrates on young women and I was startled to see a pre-fame Mischa Barton in a Calvin Klein Kids ad, illustrating the differences between how men and women are depicted, and it’s sad and troubling in light of Mischa’s history. I highly recommend the book, and bookmarked a number of startling and disconcerting facts such as, “Ten percent of drinkers consume over 60 percent of all alcohol sold…if every adult American drank at the ‘safe’ level according to federal guidelines, which is no more than one drink a day for a woman and two drinks a day for a man, alcohol industry sales would be cut by about 80 percent. As one researcher said, ‘Though problem-free drinking does exist for great numbers of people, it is at such picayune levels that it would sustain only a fraction of the present alcoholic beverage industry'” (156). Kilbourne does not see advertising as the root cause of these problems, but she does see it as an exacerbating force and one that focuses just on the individual’s responsibility (and the need to buy a product) instead of the broader social picture: “The wider world of discrimination, poverty, child abuse and oppression simply doesn’t exist in advertising. There is never the slightest hint that people suffer because of socioeconomic and political situations that could be changed” (296). It was also interesting to read about the collaborations between AOL and Time Warner on 1998’s You’ve Got Mail prior to their merger/purchase agreement in 2000. Also, in addition to the many regular ads she features, there are a few fake ones from Ad Busters-and one of my absolute favorites is for “Mammon” and I was able to find an online link. As one of the commenters notes, I love how it riffs sharply on both financial planning ads, and on the wish to see religion as a just another self-serving product. Kilbourne also draws the link between the unsuccessful War on (illegal) Drugs and the differences between how illegal drugs are treated and drugs like cigarettes and alcohol, which are legal but kill a greater number of Americans. She was formerly an alcoholic and Can’t Buy My Love, also deals with this addiction. I’m just starting Beautiful Boy, this year’s First Pages book for incoming freshmen that charts “a father’s journey through his son’s addiction” to meth. I’ll let you know how it goes.