I am riding in the passenger seat of our car and I look up at the sun visor, which sports an applied label announcing, “Avertissement/Warning,” and, although I am taken aback by this parallel pairing of French and English (most phrases being bilingual in a more southern hemisphere way), I am particularly shocked by the similarity of the word to our word “advertisement.” Now, I studied Latin and French in school, but here I am, umpteen years later, making that connection for the very first time. And it gets me to wondering. Hmm…
Does the word “advertisement,” the one that defines and controls our Western culture, the one that causes our economy to flourish, that encourages excessive spending and, ultimately, pain and suffering – is that the same word as the Middle French origins of “avertissement”? Warning = ad, in other words? Webster’s says it is so. Ergo, the advertisers aren’t really lying when they call it advertising; their approach is, in other words, one of full disclosure – but because we are ignorant, we are the ones to blame for not knowing the origin of the word. Or have they somehow distorted the concept, turning an announcement of bad tidings (the root of its meaning) into one of neutral content, or even, good news? Rather like propaganda.
I find it ironic that a word can alter its meaning, or interpretation, like that. I know it happens in slang – a pejorative can become a compliment, such as in “That was sick!” meaning, “That was so great!” and thus inverting its description. I don’t think that that is what is going on with this word, advertisement – more likely, it has been undermined and distorted. Turned from a negative to a positive. The funny thing is, though, that it hasn’t at all been altered, in the sense that ads should be read as warnings instead of enticements. How did this happen? Do the French know way more than we do because they understand the meaning of the word? Do they filter ads based on this root of warning? Are they less likely to be sucked in by advertisers?
Every ad should be a warning to viewers or listeners, it should be suspect rather than accepted as something specific to you, paid for by a business to help you solve all your problems, magically! It’s the same old snake oil in a different container, a smelly rose by any other name, etc. Well, if you start to examine advertising, get beyond the glitz, the showmanship, the humor, the entertainment value, the shouting and hammering over the head with repetitive slogans – you will see it for what it really is: avertissement. Danger, Will Robinson!
Back to the sun visor. So, here is a pairing of words from two different cultures that has made me, enveloped in this one typically isolated culture, understand something about it. To examine, simply, a word. But to examine the greater issue of one of the driving forces of this culture, its raison d’etre (French, again) and the origins of its meaning. And, hopefully, now, a greater meaning and understanding of what it is about. It is frightening to think about the pervasiveness of this one word in our culture, the power that it wields, and ultimately, to the world, a definer of us. And, amazingly, its denotation is cautionary. I don’t know about you, but I find that kind of horrifyingly off-putting. That the American public is constantly fooled by something that, at its root, is a straightforward warning. It is kind of mind-boggling. The word has transparency, it is there as an obvious connection (suddenly for me) and yet, millions of people are systematically “taken in” and fooled by it on a daily basis.
Everything in our culture is affected by advertising (avertissement!), its smarmy underpinnings having infiltrated every aspect of society. The really scary thing is that it has laid the groundwork for our messed-up political system, a frighteningly similar arena for misunderstanding and foolery and advertisement. How can a warning become a way of life, and a perversion and demise of that very life? Every American should have that sign on their sun visor because, perhaps, it will help them to see more clearly instead of just deflecting the light. A pairing of words, potentially the placeness of a definition. In a car, no less.