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NYC Advertising and Plato’s Tripartite Soul

I spent fall break in NYC, which means that I also spent a significant amount of time bombarded by billboards, posters, subway banners, and even commissioned street art, all insistent on getting their message inside of my head.

And the thing is, I loved it. Well-designed advertising – right now, concentrated in the densest cities – is stuff I want to look at. It’s a visual treat, and the messages more often recognize the dignity, complexity, and richness of people, unlike the shrill and simplistic advertising of television or malls. It’s refreshing to see advertising that doesn’t promise only pleasure, social status, and saved money. The advertising I love to look at recognizes that people want to make a difference, give back, grow, learn, and accomplish difficult and worthwhile things.

In the Republic, differing human desires are grouped according to Plato’s theory of the tripartite soul. The soul is divided into parts, each desiring different ends. The appetitive part of our soul desires what is carnal – food, drink, and pleasure. The second, spirited part of our soul longs for honor and is outraged at injustice. The rational part of our soul (and the one that, according to Plato, should rule over the other parts) desires the good itself, and the greatest good for us.

I think as one moves from smaller towns to great cities, as space decreases and crowds increase, there seems to be a shift from advertising that appeals to our appetitive and spirit-based desires to ones with elements that target our higher ambitions – our rational desires.

This is a subway advertisement with the face of a middle-aged man explaining that he meditates so that “running becomes more than just running.” This ad assumes not that runners want only to be more comfortable, perform better and become more successful, or win races and win praise (appetitive and spirit-based desires) but to reflect a purpose beyond the immediate action, to run deliberately, to strive for the good (rational desire).

There is even suggestion that running shouldn’t be just about running. There is an invitation in the message – if there is a subway passenger that runs to look good or to win races, Headspace offers him a platform to move beyond the activity to something more. It assumes that he desires more, and even that not all running should remain just running, that it is a means, secondary to an end.

There is another aspect of fine advertising that reflects our highest desires – the visual. The design shown above is masterful – pleasing, balanced colors, a flattering portrait, harmonious composition, and easily accessible text make this a visual treat. Advertising that acts as a positive aesthetic contribution to our environment is no less than art.

This hand painted mural in Bushwick, for example, displays an uncommon level of artistic mastery. Absorbing the colors, forms, highlighting, and realism evokes the same awe one would feel in a gallery. This work, with craftsmanship that encapsulates human achievement, that is conscientious of enhancing the beauty of our immediate environment, recognizes and respects the attention of the viewer much more than unreflective eye-candy.

If there is any value in art or aesthetics, the best advertising can be commended for reflecting it. Beautiful, masterful design respects the environment one is surrounded by – that shapes so much of one’s thinking – and is more conscientious of the impact it has on the physical and mental world of the individual. If there is an appetitive desire for liquor and a spirited desire for luxurious liquor, there is also a rational opportunity to marvel at human achievement, to search for value in art, and to appreciate the work’s thoughtful impact on the physical environment it is in.

There is a lot that is left out in these observations that I cannot explore here, and this attempt to distill what desires advertising appeals to remains severely limited. It is important to recognize that there are likely more sinister reasons that allow well-made advertising to exist at all:

Can design principles, craftsmanship, and beauty be reduced to a means of persuasion,  like any other manipulative advertising technique?

Would commendation be deserved if consumer preference or profit is the sole driver behind finer advertising, and not the ethical or aesthetic standards of advertisers?

What if elements of self-actualization in advertising are exclusive, benefitting only those who can afford to spend time and money chasing after their loftier desires?

These are valid concerns, and it would take another blog post to explore each one. Even so, it seems worth exploring what makes some billboards beautiful, what gives certain advertising value, and what in it, if anything, is worthy of praise. If it is true that advertising reflects what people want, it is also worth considering what our own desires are for.

December 3, 2018
Christina Barta