Deodorant Ads Help Us Learn About an Important Word: Incitement

A problem and solution all in one ad.
A problem and solution all in one ad.


Sophie Pollitt-Cohen writes:


Important ideas are all around us.  Just look at anything I’ve ever written—free and easily accessible right here on the internet.  But also, things in our daily lives are more than what they seem.  Commercials are full of powerful concepts, and they’re fun to deconstruct.  But then you realize what is really going on and you pretty much want to kill yourself.  On a lighter note, let’s read my fun essay!

The New York Times had an article this week about deodorant advertising. The photos show men with huge pieces of deodorant coming out of their armpits to spell words such as “evil.”  These ads touch on an important cultural idea even though they don’t name it and probably didn’t take Joel Pfister’s class at Wesleyan where we learned all about this.  This idea is called incitement.

The ads are based around the claim that the product won’t leave residue all up in your armpits.  There are two things that gross me out in this world: 1. food containing calories and 2. Deodorant pieces in people’s pits.  However, the problem is that most men aren’t that concerned about how much this disgusts me.  Men wear sleeveless shirts less than women do, so fewer people are seeing their pits.  “Our challenge,” said Jason Bagley, a member of the agency doing the campaign, “was how do we bring that problem of having antiperspirant clumps in your pits more to life and have it be more unacceptable?”

The ads had to both convince men that they had a terrible problem and that their product could fix it—they had to simultaneously sell a problem and a solution.  This is what incitement is.  It’s how a culture gets you to read yourself, so that you think you are just expressing and reacting to your natural, real self.  But hello, culture invented your self.  It’s not entirely natural.  There are few things in this world that are.  Birth without drugs and in the woods—which is disgusting—and my hair color.  That’s about it.

Literature also uses incitement to sell you on its ideas.  Ben Franklin mastered this with his Poor Richard sayings—many of which we still use today.  Ideas such as God helps those that help themselves, no pain no gain, early to bed early to rise, and there will be sleeping enough in the grave, all rely on the unspoken assumption that you need to be working harder.  Inventing a problem is a great way to have a monopoly on the solution.

Incitement is all about telling people their actions are just a part of who they really are and that doing what you say is in their best interest.  You’re not telling them what to do, you’re just helping them be who they really are. If you are planning on colonizing a bunch of people, you might consider using this concept.  The explorer Cabeza de Vaca gained thousands of native followers this way.  Instead of using violence and force as Columbus did—which often got negative feedback, since who knew people don’t like getting their hands chopped off—de Vaca subdued the natives of Florida and the surrounding regions by teaching them about Christianity and that he and his men had the power to make objects sacred.  He sold them a problem— hell—and a solution—himself—and it worked out pretty well for him.

Even though few things are actually necessary, as we all know from our Thoreau reading, I still love deodorant and the consumption of cool things.  But I figure it’s unrealistic for me to go live in my own private Walden, because I would miss things such as TV and other people.  Moral perfection is actually pretty hard and unfun even Ben Franklin attempted it and was “surprized to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined.”  (Apparently learning how to spell wasn’t on his moral perfection to-do list.)  But the point is, even the greats like me and Ben Franklin know that being perfect is unrealistic and boring.  The best we can do is try to be informed and  to think often about what we are involved in and what is going on around us.  That includes noticing if there’s deodorant in your armpits.

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