There’s a flashy new billboard on a lightly traveled road between my house and town. “Unleash the wild in you,” it says, against the background of a tiger in a jungle. Finally what’s being advertised is a free cup of coffee with the purchase of a Sheetz breakfast.

A Sheetz cup of coffee will unleash the wild in you, make you feel more like a tiger than a pussy cat. Imagine. An out-of-the-way billboard taking this much trouble to put this ludicrous thought in our heads. Not the conscious part of heads, of course. The unconscious part. Human beings lived in a wild world like all the other animals for a couple hundred thousand years. What we call “civilization” came along relatively recently, just a few thousand years ago. That’s about one percent of the time we’ve been fully human.

In short, people — Americans, in particular — like to imagine themselves as still having a wild streak, or at least to think of themselves as radically individualistic — anything but cowed or domesticated. In actuality, we have become a nation of sheep. We’ve been tamed, and in our deep DNA we don’t like it.

There’s a great book by that title (A Nation of Sheep) written three generations ago, and it’s ten times more true now. We drive to Sheetz in our non-wild cars — though often named Mustang, Firebird, Voyager, Spirit, etc. –, wait our turn at the computers to order breakfast, wait our turn again at the chute called the cashier’s line to pay, drive off to our non-wild work places, and at the end of the day return to our non-wild homes and non-wild family life (though we still may have an unruly child or two to tame).

And if we bought that Sheetz breakfast with a free coffee, most likely it was scrambled eggs poured out of a box but originally laid by chickens leading the most dreadful lives imaginable, cooped up in a cages so small they can barely move, chickens not only devoid of anything wild left in their lives, but devoid of life itself.

Same for the sausage or bacon that went with the egg – the meat of a pig that has maybe lived even a more cursed life than the chicken, and would surely have been better off never to have been born.

And this breakfast will unleash the wild in you, the consumer of this breakfast?…. I’m thinking of that old saying, we are what we eat.

What impresses me this morning, driving my Jeep Patriot (in actuality, I’m not a patriotic person by most people’s measure) past this out-of-the way billboard is just how out-of-the way it is. Billboard ads are almost a thing of the past, yet they’re still out there, cluttering up the outer landscape as well as the inner, lest there might remain even the smallest bit of free space for a clear and honest thought.

(Then again, behind the above-mentioned billboard is an abandoned motel going to rot, like the very infrastructure of America. Apart from the inherent lies this particular billboard purveys, it may actually be an improvement of the outer landscape.)

It’s wincing to contemplate the billions of commonplace lies (ads) that have become so entrenched in modern life as to numb our critical faculties to the point that we no longer distinguish what’s real about us, our culture, life itself, from what we wish was real.

But the ads on TV and radio are where the real brain games are played nowadays. Talk about filling in every available nook inside our heads, listen to a major league baseball game. Now when a manager makes a trip to the mound, it is sponsored by something. “And this pitching change has been brought to you by [something stupid] … And this stolen base has been brought to you by [something stupid]…” In gas stations nowadays, there’s often a TV built into the pump, shouting out stupid ads. There’s never an empty moment where somebody’s not trying to sell us something we don’t need.

Of course these ads grate on people’s nerves no end, because they’re so goddamn everywhere, but what about the lying. Not overt lying, because false advertising is illegal, but the other kind of lying — hyper-exaggeration, ridiculous hyperbole — which ads do as a matter of course.

Oddly you don’t hear too much complaining about that — I suppose because hyperbole is supposed to be funny, not to be taken seriously. Hyperbole is the legal loophole though which by now quadrillions of lies have slipped into the very air that we breathe, lies like saying that a breakfast with a free cup of coffee will unleash the wild in us. Even if we consciously notice such lies, we assume they are just sad attempt at humor. They go in one ear and out the other, so we think there’s no damage done.

Think again. If they aren’t not true and not funny, or just go into one ear and out the other, why have advertisements been doing exactly this for a hundred years, and only getting more prolific. Again, it’s the unconscious mind that the hyperbolic ad is aiming for — to pound that brand name, like Sheetz, inside of us. It’s called brain-washing: getting people to think things and to do things and to buy things without really examining what our real needs or wants are.

But I labor the obvious. This analysis has been available to reasonably intelligent people for longer than I have lived (74 years), and nothing has changed. Ads are to be accepted as a benign form of brain washing, unlike what those Koreans did to our soldiers back in the 50’s, unlike what so-called godless communist countries have always been up to. Hyperbolic ads are inevitable in a capitalistic way of life. Put up with them. Complain if you must, but laugh it off. This is how products are sold, how profits are made. How the world remains free for “democracy.” (Read “capitalism.”)

Thus manipulative, deceitful ads continue to be an ever-present and ever-increasing part of our exterior and interior landscape, setting us up for full acceptance of deceitful lifestyles (you are what you own); deceitful institutions (what’s “higher” about higher education?; what’s “Jesus-like” about Christian churches?); banal entertainment, like soap operas, reality shows, Disney World, etc.

The damage already done is incalculable and probably irreversible. A fake world has taken over. An unbridgeable gap between who we are and who we wish we were.

The above described ad’s obvious appeal is to the consumer’s unconscious wish that he/she wasn’t a sheep. Or that if he/she was, it’s as easy as buying a breakfast at Sheetz with a free cup of coffee to be a sheep no longer. In reality, to not be a sheep would require great individual effort, heroic effort perhaps, like risking one’s job by standing up to a tyrannical boss, or extricating oneself from a dead or toxic relationship, or blowing up one’s TV, or standing up against mechanical patriotism, my country right or wrong. Not standing for the national anthem. Things like that. Hard, un-sheepish things to do.
. . .

There was a time, a few decades ago that I thought stupid-making ads would run their course. People would become in time so bored with their obvious manipulations and banal humor that ad execs would have to go for new tactics.
I anticipated the day that a truthful ad would thus become more eye-catching. An ad like this: “A Sheetz coffee, like all coffees, is a mild energy drink that most adults are addicted to, because it takes extra energy these days to face a morning without much intrinsic meaning. A little shot of higher energy can make a person feel temporarily better about his or her sheep-like life…. So buy breakfast at Sheetz and we’ll throw in the coffee for free.”

But that never happened, and now I see it never will. We have been too slow to act against this malignancy (false advertising — fakery in advertising) which has now grown too big to fail, and may well never be extricated from the collective human unconscious. Bombarded with banality after banality, as if banalities were something important; bombarded with lie after lie, as if lies were truth, now when something important comes up, when the truth become urgent, we can’t see it.

This may be the apocalypse by inches. Dying one false ad at a time. So often the enemy appears in guises we were never expecting.
. . .

John Prine wrote and sang the following lyrics in the 70’s

Blow up your TV
Throw away your paper.
Go to the country.
Build yourself a home.

Plant a little garden.
Eat a lot of peaches.
Try to find Jesus
On your own.

I wonder what John Prine is writing these days. I’ll have to check that out.


  1. Charles Sullivan

    Another well thought out, finely crafted essay, Jim. It is increasingly rare to encounter such works these days. It is heartening to know that somewhere in this insouciant absurdity we call America, there is clear thinking and a beating heart that is attuned to reality. Your observations are as astute as they are poignant.

    In a sense, we could define wilderness, I mean the kind of wilderness that is untamable, like that which Thoreau encountered on Katahdin, as a place where no one is trying to sell us something we neither want nor need. I wonder if the life of the average American is any better than those neurotic chickens in a cage.

  2. Deborah Thompson

    Wonderful essay, Jim.
    Best, Debbie


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