The Danger of the Simple Narrative

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I used to work on a lot of Verizon commercials. Like most of my jobs, it was just the luck of the draw. One person I worked for fairly often worked for a production company fairly often that got the Verizon commercials fairly often, which tells you something about the tenuousness of our livelihoods as freelancers working in production. I should say some of the Verizon commercials, because there were a lot. Once upon a time, Verizon spent a lot of money on TV ads, enough that they had different lines of commercials the way companies have different lines of products — the James Earl Jones ones, the Test Man ones, the ones with The Network. There really was something for everyone, including me, for whom that thing was $$$$. Unfortunately, that’s not the case any more. Today, with many people cutting the cable company cord and no longer watching TV the traditional way (including us), corporations are having to look for new ways to advertise other than the traditional TV commercials that I used to work on. They’re spending less on those and more on whatever else they can think of, which includes Internet/social media ads that nobody clicks on except by mistake; “branded content,” which is basically just cheaper and sometimes longer ad-type things that they make for the web, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, which they generally shoot for a lower budget with a smaller, non-union crew; social media campaigns where they hire some underpaid millennial drones to operate the Verizon Facebook page, @verizon Twitter account, and @verizon Instagram account in the hope of drawing clicks and eyeballs there; and basically whatever else they think might stick. Which tells you even more about the tenuousness of all of our livelihoods, since I and many of my colleagues used to work on commercials almost exclusively, jobs that paid better, had shorter days and way better craft service than television shows, which is now what we’re stuck doing nearly all the time. It’s crazy how fast your lifestyle can change when you go from ten-hour-or-less fairly stress-free days, in which you have downtime to spend socializing or reading because you only aim to shoot maybe 30 seconds of airable footage, to 14-hour-plus ones in which you’re trying to capture five to ten minutes, and so you hardly stop moving for an entire day by whose end your fondest wish is just to sit down.

Anyway, I used to work for Verizon a lot, and so I worked with the Test Man a fair amount. That’s the guy who used to wear a Verizon jacket and walked around saying, “Can you hear me now?…Good!” He was, IRL, an actor named Paul Marcarelli. Paul was a nice and easy-to-work-with guy under a fairly draconian contract that nevertheless paid him a shit ton of money, apparently. He was required to do a certain number of commercials and live events per year, and he couldn’t take any other acting jobs that might besmirch the image of Test Man, despite the fact that Test Man didn’t really have any image or character to speak of. It was a pretty limited part, which got even more limited as time went on. Eventually, he stopped saying “Can you hear me now?” and he just said “Good!”, and then eventually, they even got rid of that so he was just nodding and smiling, and then they eventually got rid of him. He played Test Man for about ten years, though, and the commercials led to a certain amount of fame for Paul, who was always recognized on the street, and forced to listen to other people say his one famous line to him, as if that would ever be something he would want. People also apparently asked him about their bills, tried to pick him up, and hug him, and other random things that you do to people that you feel you know because you’ve seen them so often on TV (remember, a LOT of commercials). And it’s different, I think, with a big celebrity, because they are a name quantity, someone of whom you are generally at least somewhat in awe — even for me sometimes, and I work with them — for some iconic work they were in when you were 15 (like Michael J. Fox or James Spader, both of whom I’ve worked with a few times but would be hard-pressed to act normal around because they loomed so large in my adolescence). With a commercial actor who plays someone who just works for the company, it seems people don’t feel intimidated, they want to hang. But anyway, Verizon stopped doing his spots, and he disappeared from everyday viewing for a long time.

Given the way fame works in our culture, however, he recently reappeared, this time in ads for Sprint. In case you’ve been living in another country or under a rock, the American cell phone service carriers have been locked in a battle for domination ever since, well, cell phones, and even before, when they were conventional phone service carriers fighting over that (remember those days, when you paid for a phone that wasn’t your cell phone, and had to figure out who charged least for long-distance calls to the state in which your parents lived?). Verizon and AT&T have been on the top forever, with other carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile trying to chip away at that any way they can. So Sprint decided to hire Paul, five years later, to say he’d switched to Sprint because the networks are now close enough in quality that there’s no reason to pay as much more as Verizon customers do. That’s their narrative: that Paul was playing Test Man for Verizon but he’s being himself for Sprint: a real person who switched of his own accord and then decided to do ads for them. And you see that depicted across the brand, from the ads themselves (warning: YouTube has gotten to the point where you have to watch an ad in order to watch an ad??), to articles about Paul and the campaign, to nearly all of their Twitter accounts – because yes, there are several. Now that social media is a huge part of advertising and marketing in a way it wasn’t five to ten years ago, Sprint has @sprint (advertising), and @sprintcare (customer service), and @sprintbusiness (”business resource”), and @SprintSMB (small business), and @sprintnews (corporate “news”), and @SprintLatino (”Nuestra meta es proporcionar experiencias increíbles”), and @sprintforward (”here to unleash the power of mobile technology”), and then all the regional/local ones (@Sprint4NYC, @Sprint4Chi, @Sprint4SoCal – are you getting yet what a rabbit hole @sprint is????). 

Anyway, when I saw these ads, my first thought was sort of sad disappointment. Because I had a narrative in my head that said, This guy hasn’t done any recognizable acting gig since Test Man, and now he can get hired only to bash his old company? I thought it was especially sad when I saw the @thatwirelessguy Twitter account. That account has Paul’s face on it and tweets and retweets about Sprint wireless service and things related to Sprint wireless service — Sprint commercials, people in Sprint commercials, hashtags like #LoveWorkingWithSprint, #TheSwitchIsReal, #UpgradeSeason, #LiveUnlimited, and mobile phones, mobile apps, and…jogging with glasses, and pugs. In fact, its first tweet was, “My dog just slurped directly from my cereal bowl and I’m okay with it. #Puppylove,” which just doesn’t in any way seem like an advertisement for cell phone service. But it is: it’s an advertisement designed to look like a person. It was designed to look like Paul, who as we know, wears glasses, and also, apparently, has two rescue pugs of whom he is quite fond. I know this because he has his own Twitter account, which is not @thatwirelessguy, with a picture of him that looks like it’s from the red carpet at a film festival, with a more fashion-forward haircut and glasses than Test Man. He does occasionally retweet something about Sprint (that might be in his new contract), and he does use the glasses geek emoticon that That Wireless Guy does, and tweet about dogs, just to make it all more confusing — no doubt at least somewhat on purpose, because for That Wireless Guy to fulfill its function, it has to appear to not be just an account created by one of those underpaid Sprint social media drones to tweet and retweet things that might make you want to switch to Sprint. 

Because the real Paul is much more often tweeting about his own writing and producing projects, because, as it turns out, Paul does commercial acting as his day job to pay for his creative endeavors, like this documentary and this feature, kind of like, oh, me and almost everybody I know in the film business – a much more complicated but real story about who he is. Overall, being Test Man or That Wireless Guy was/is just one part of his life as a real human being, as you can also see from the way he responds to tweets calling him a “fake friend sellout” and “hoe” and other ridiculousness. And when I realized that, I realized that the “sad” narrative that I defaulted to in my head for Paul was actually one that I’d gone to not because it said something true about him, but because it was comfortable for me. It made me feel better about my life and the fact that I’ve been struggling away at this film thing for so many years with not as much as I’d like to show for it. Thinking Paul was just an actor stuck in his own rut made me feel a tiny bit less bad about my own.

Mind you, I’m not the only one who does this: substitutes a narrative that suits my needs for reality. If you look at Paul’s Twitter feed and the feed of That Wireless Guy, you’ll see that many people have their own narratives about who Paul is, and reactions like mine, only worse. There are dozens @replies calling him a rat, a bitch, a douchebag, a turncoat, a traitor, a fraud, etc, or tweeting things about his husband, or wishing well and ill on his real and unreal pets. Because his face is also on the Sprint Care account, you even get random tweet threads like this, which mix people’s strangely strong reactions to Paul’s defection with robotic customer service. Now, I recognize that partly, this is just Twitter and what Twitter does. It goes back to what I was saying about how, in the past couple of decades, we’ve built this crazy situation where we think we actually know these people who have appeared on our idiot box, some of them because they can act or sing or whatever, but others who have ended up there and thereby become celebrities for not necessarily any good reason other than that they know how to attract attention, often with bad behavior. Twitter gives us the opportunity to reach out to those people, and do it right now, thanks to the instantaneous nature of electronic messaging — which you would think at this point we would know better than to use without extreme caution, because who hasn’t at this point drunk-texted, or angrily and mistakenly replied-to-all, or sent late-night lust-engorged Ambien online dating site messages, or the like? (Not that I would know anything about any of those situations myself). And yet, so many of us tweet our worst impulses with abandon and foolishness and familiarity, and sometimes substance-influenced or temporary or not-so-temporary insanity or just plain stupidity, to strangers, who we somehow think we know or understand or have some claim to judge – not considering the fact that we may not actually be reaching them at all, but a social media team that tweets from their Twitter account pretending to be them.

But I I think it’s much bigger than Twitter. I think that, confronted with the many levels of bullshit that is modern media, where social media and corporate messaging and advertising and big media (all of which is now pretty much all corporate-owned or subsidized) have completely blurred the lines of interest and content between news and entertainment and promotion and self-promotion, more and more of us are all too often choosing the simple narrative: the one that we want to believe, the one that reinforces the view of ourselves that makes us feel the most okay. Add on to that the complexity of the modern world at large that this media insanity now brings into our living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens and offices. Is it any wonder that what I now see on Facebook (which is where I, like many of us, find a lot of my “information”), in the stream of lefty political posts that now dominate my feed, or the right-wing ones that I now have to seek out because I’ve unfollowed my few conservative connections because I find their posts so disturbing, and in the occasional arguments with some on both sides (I know), that more and more people seem to have stopped believing that any independent truth outside of their own world view matters, or perhaps even exists, and are just putting their efforts into supporting and defending their own simple narratives? That in the face of so much confusing information and “information”— and by that I mean advertising, opinion, bad science, rumor, all repeated and reinforced from the echo chamber of whatever community, virtual or IRL, in which we find ourselves — so many of us seem to be throwing up our virtual hands and saying, “Well, I can’t tell what’s real, so I’m going to just decide what is and make it so”? 

Not surprising, no, but that doesn’t make it any less scary. I mean, I did learn growing up about Kant’s “Truth” with a big “T” and “truth” with a little “t”; I was taught that shades of grey exist in everything, and that everyone has a point of view that affects how they see the truth. But that made me question more, not less, and certainly not stop questioning altogether if something I heard sounded good to me. If anything, I feel like it’s the things that sound good that you have to question the most, because somebody is making them too easy for you to believe, and the truth is not easy – because the world is not easy and never has been, despite what those of us over 40, who remember something pre-cell phone, pre-Internet, pre-9-11, might sometimes like to think. Have we ever had a war that was unequivocally “just”? Or had a president who wasn’t flawed, and who didn’t both cheat on his wife and/or sign into law some fucked up shit? Or lived in a country that didn’t make decisions, time and again, that made it difficult to see it as a very good country, let alone a great one? Of course not. It’s just more obvious how difficult and complicated the world is now, because we have access to so much more of it. That access can be a fantastic thing, but it requires more of us too: more reading and educating ourselves from more sources, more interaction and discussion, and most of all, more questioning. And that’s hard and often unsatisfying work, because our place in that complex world? Who the fuck knows? That’s why simple narratives that make easy sense are always going to be feel better. They comfort us by confirming everything we think we know already. That’s why they work, and the fact that they work is why we keep dishing them out. And I do mean “we.” I’ve spent all my years working in media learning how to create simple narratives, because that’s how Hollywood and the mainstream media teach us to tell stories: with the good guy and the bad guy and three acts and the dramatic arc and the happy ending. But in this era, when connecting and informing and entertaining and selling have become inextricably muddled into this syrupy-sweet cocktail of Give the Public What They Want, those of us who manufacture these narratives have to doing more too. We need to stop making the Kool Aid so smooth and easy to swallow – and then drinking it down ourselves, because we do, in spite of knowing what went into it, because it makes us feel good too – before we all lose the ability to handle anything else.

We may already be there. I feel like we have a candidate in this election who is truly willing to say anything because he knows a large constituency of people will believe him no matter what, with the implication being that if enough people believe something, that makes it true. The truth is starting to feel like a popularity contest, a crowd-source campaign, where if you can get enough of your friends to sign on and tweet and Facebook something, your “facts” win. If we don’t start thinking more critically on the one hand, and writing and producing and creating stuff that rewards people for thinking more rather than less on the other, we’ll become a culture of sponges who can only absorb the simple narrative, accepting and acting on the words of any orange demagogue who comes along and tells us what we want to hear. And we’ll all pay the price for that.

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