Like millions of other people, I found the “First Time” video (20 strangers filmed kissing each other) on my Facebook feed, and spent a few heartwarming, vaguely life-affirming minutes watching it. The next day it turned out that there was more to the story than this: First off, this wasn’t a film-school project or a social documentary work, but a stealth commercial for a clothing brand. Not only that, but many of the “strangers” were of the acting and modelling professions, with a couple of musicians thrown in for good measure. I felt cheated. But actually, why should I feel cheated? As far as I know (and I’ll give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt here), nobody actually lied to me. The “strangers” were indeed strangers and hadn’t met (let alone kissed) before; the encounters were unrehearsed and took place as shown. The clip didn’t make any promises it didn’t keep. Any expectations or interpretations are entirely the viewer’s responsibility. Why, then, my uneasy sense of betrayal?
At the heart of the matter, for me at least, is the feeling that I was implicitly promised something. The word “strangers” implies that what we will be watching are more-or-less random strangers, whereas what we were getting were, for lack of a better definition, professional strangers: actors and models are people who, by dint of inclination and training, are adept at creating intimacy – or the illusion thereof – with others. Their reactions within this situation may be genuine, but they are nowhere near typical.
(leaving aside for a moment the fact that they also look way better than the average man-on-the-street).
This is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that it’s all a commercial. The warm and fuzzy feeling engendered by the video is just another route the advertising professionals try to take into our psyches. At the next stage, the emotional manipulation then goes meta: now that the truth has been revealed, the buzz grows even more, and so on ad infinitum (or at least for a day or two, until the next trending video comes along). And frankly, I don’t like people trying to sell me things this way.
But hang on. I’m trying to sell something as well, aren’t I? I’ve just written a pop science book about the immune system, and I’d like nothing more than for people to buy it in droves when it hits the shelves. Even just the one drove would be nice. What, then, is the difference between these people trying to get you to buy their clothes and me trying to get you to buy my book?
I’d like to think that the answer has to do with integrity. Although the “First Time” people weren’t lying as such, they weren’t telling us the whole truth. I, on the other hand, made it something of a point to come right out at the start of the book and inform the reader what the book isn’t. I list many useful benefits (health, diet, etc.) that the book refuses to confer. You know where you are with that kind of introduction.
…but then, that’s a sort of manipulation in itself, isn’t it? Like that guy in the 90s film “Singles” who admits to a girl he fancies that he doesn’t have “an act” he can chat up girls with, to which the girl replies “I think that, a) you have an act, and that, b) not having an act is your act.” I suppose that’s my act, too.
I’m not sure there’s any way out of this dynamic of constant manipulation. It’s certainly a fact of life in the natural world: just about every biological entity I can think of plays this game to some extent. You can certainly see this happening when immune systems and their infecting pathogens engage each other in their struggles. Watching this dance unfold endlessly within our bodies brings with it a sense of resignation: in advertising, politics, love or biology, ’twas ever thus.