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The fine art of bullshit

Years ago, a friend explained to me this about advertising: “You sell your soul in the hope you’ll get it back one day.” And there’s truth in that. Because if you’re good—genuinely talented—you will, indeed, climb very far, very fast. And after you do, it’s entirely possible to reclaim that once-sold soul.

Yesterday I heard that the same friend’s longtime creative partner quit advertising. “He got tired of the bullshitting.” So I spent most of the day fantasizing about what it would be like to be a seasoned, highly-awarded Creative Director who just threw in the towel because you suddenly became tired of being entrenched in your own bullshit. Maybe my friend’s partner would go the route of Alex Bogusky—get crunchy, and leave all the bullshitting and hot-shitting behind for some do-gooding. Or maybe he would move off the beaten path, hole himself up in a cabin and write his own Ted Kaczynski-esque Manifesto—maybe the new lack of bullshit would short-circuit his brain. 

Advertising is rife with bullshit but the fact of the matter is, the whole world revolves around bullshit. From the subway quartet who tried to charm me into forking over some cash this morning, to the guy who tried to take me home last night, bullshit hangs heavy in the air every day, especially in New York City. And no matter how genuine we aim to be, we all bullshit one another from time-to-time. That’s why keeping one’s BS detector fine-tuned is important. Unless, of course, one wants to just fuck it all and full-on go the route of wholesome naiveté.

Want to test your BS detector? Consider, for example, these two quick workplace scenarios. The workplace is also rife with bullshit, and if your detector is on the fritz, you're likely to get taken time and again.

Scenario One
A coworker with whom you’ve divulged your love of narwhals out of the blue shows up to the office with a seemingly thoughtful gift for you: an awesome book all about narwhals. Fuck, yeah! A narwhal book! The unicorns of the sea!

So is that bullshit, or sincerity (as in, you and your sweet, sweet office pal are now totally BFFs for life)?

Zero points for you if you picked sincerity. In fact, negative five points for you. Your gift-giver is most likely full to the gills with bullshit. Because an amazing way to bullshit someone into being wrapped around your finger is to give them a random, targeted gift. They will be so pleased and flattered. And they will subconsciously feel indebted. And then you can get them to do your bidding, or if they’re your boss, have them convinced that you’re a keeper. This is called reciprocity: We feel more compelled to reciprocate when someone offers us something first.

Scenario Two
You get back from a job interview at a high-profile creative company that's in the midst of an internal revolution feeling particularly pumped. You just interviewed with the Director of Dreams and Realities for a new sort-of change management position in a new department that will change the entire industry! And you nailed it. You can’t wait to inevitably learn that you got the Junior Dreams and Realities Director position and will be reporting to that special man you interviewed with. This is going to be awesome.

Bullshit? Or sincerity?

Okay, negative 25 points for you if you picked sincerity. I don’t know what “dreams and realities” is intended to mean. I’m not denying it—that’s a classy job title. But I’m challenged to ask, what dreams? And what realities? Maybe it simply refers to the dreams and realities of this creative agency, whose main reality is that they're floundering and in desperate need of change to survive—change that's not happening very well—in which case, we should probably translate the title to read, “Junior Aims and Failures Director.” Not classy, but more to the point. The title Junior Dreams and Realities Director is a good example of the triumph of style over substance. A hallmark of majestic bullshit.

There are plenty of other flowers in the lush garden of bullshit, but to keep it short and sweet  I'll stop here at just these two.

So how did you do? Are you two for two, or zero for two? If you’re zero for two (or negative 30 for two), your bullshit detector needs some fine-tuning.

Still, it’s never good to over-tune your bullshit detector. A cynical person is not a very likable person. As with anything in life, it’s important to strike the right balance.

But?

If you want to test, for example, a coworker’s sincerity, I bet one of the best ways is to tell them you love—not like, love—narwhals and see what they do with that information. Put a bunch of narwhal figurines and pictures up in your cubicle. Wear a narwhal t-shirt to work. Suggest they watch this great documentary on narwhals you’ve seen, like, a million times. And if the person you’re testing acts like that’s the coolest shit ever? Bullshit. Because a sincere person would say, "Dude, I know you like narwhals, but I feel like you should probably tone it down..."

I'll leave you with these observations made by a man named Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton, who has studied the art of bullshit academically. Frankfurt is the author of the New York Times Bestseller, On Bullshit:

People who produce, package, or sell bullshit are in some way comparable to slovenly craftsmen. They are not really paying attention to the quality of their product. There is some kind of laxity in their work, though this laxity cannot be equated with inattention to detail or carelessness in general. What is lacking in the prime examples of bullshit, to be found in the realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, is not concern for detail—political spin doctors, for instance, often dedicate themselves tirelessly to keeping every tiny thing under control—but concern for the truth. The essence of bullshit lies in a lack of connection to a concern with truth— [an] indifference to how things really are.’

To be sure, advertisements and political speeches may contain true statements but they will nevertheless strike us as bullshit as soon as we realize that the person who produces these statements could not care less whether his statements are true or not, as long as they have the desired effect. As such, it is a feature of the bullshitter’s state of mind, namely his indifference to truth, that is crucial to the production of bullshit.

In a nutshell that means bullshitters don’t care about the truth, they care about winning. But once a bullshitter develops a mindfulness for the truth—like my friend's creative partner—it becomes impossible to seek anything less. While the fine art of bullshit certainly has it's advantages, I look forward to a time when most of humanity, in the end, turns to the truth. Not only will the truth set us free, it is the starting point for real and lasting change.

Alyssa YeagerComment