The Common Good

Watching Super Bowl Ads with the Little Prince: From Delusion to Freedom

There’s an absurd character in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who reveals more about our capacity for self-delusion than we might want to admit. He’s called the King and when it comes to desire, he is as deluded about his own power as we are about ours. The King’s delusion is this: he believes that the movements of the sun, moon, and stars are the result of his commands. That’s right – the sun rises and sets because the King commands it to be so. Our delusion is nearly identical: we believe that we are the source of our desires, that they arise and fall at our command. Because of our shared delusions, we and the King are quite out of touch with reality. Remarkably, the cure for us is also the same – spending some quality time with the Little Prince.

First, let’s spend a few moments with the King to see what we can learn from him. If you are familiar with this French tale, you will remember that the Little Prince and many of the people he meets as he journeys through the solar system are the sole inhabitants of their tiny planets. When the Little Prince arrives on the King’s planet, the King is seated on his throne unperturbed that he rules over a kingdom with no subjects. Convinced of his royal powers, the King tells the Little Prince that even the stars, moon, and sun obey him. Justifiably skeptical, the Little Prince asks for a demonstration. Here’s the scene as it is now being dramatized at The Lookingglass Theater in Chicago through March 16:

LITTLE PRINCE
Well, then, if you please, sire – could you possibly order a sunset? I should love to see a sunset.

KING
And so you shall!

LITTLE PRINCE
(after nothing happens) When?

KING
Oh, mm, I’d say – this evening about twenty to eight. You’ll see how well I am obeyed.

Clearly the King is delusional. He has convinced himself that he is the cause of the sunset, and his delusion cannot be overturned by reason. In fact, he has managed to construct a convoluted logic that appears to him to be quite reasonable. It goes like this: “I, the King, command the sun to set today. The sun set today. Therefore, I have caused the sun to set.” The Little Prince, to his credit, realizes that the King cannot be argued out of his delusion and begins to take his leave. But the King pleads:

KING
Wait! Don’t go, don’t go. I’ll make you a minister of justice.

LITTLE PRINCE
But there’s no one here to judge.

KING
Then you shall judge yourself. That is the most difficult thing of all…

LITTLE PRINCE
Judge myself?

KING
It is much more difficult to judge oneself than to judge others.

True enough. The King cannot see his own delusion, though it is plain enough to the Little Prince and to us. That’s the nature of delusion – it is much more difficult to judge the correctness of our own logic than it is to pass judgment on the flawed logic of others. But let’s try to judge ourselves anyway! We will let the Little Prince help us.

Let’s imagine that the Little Prince drops in unannounced just as we waiting for our friends to arrive for our Super Bowl party. Guess what absurdity he wants to ask us about? That’s right – the ads! He wants us to explain why a 30 second Super Bowl ad costs $4 million! Remember, he’s from another planet so it seems a bit strange to him.

LITTLE PRINCE
Is $4 million a lot of money?

US
You bet it is! And you won’t believe what they spend producing them, too – a fortune!

LITTLE PRINCE
Why do they do it?

US
Because they want us to buy their products.

LITTLE PRINCE
Does it work? Do you buy their products?

US
I guess it works on some people. But not me. I just watch them because they are funny sometimes. Entertaining, you know. Last year there were some real standouts – you should have seen the Volkswagen commercial! And I loved the Bud Lite one – they always do something memorable. And then there was the Oreo ad and the one for Doritos – the Old Spice ad was a killer!*

LITTLE PRINCE
(looking around at our snacks) Excuse me, but I should be going –

US
Hey, wait – don’t go yet. I drove my Volkswagen to pick up some Bud Lite, Oreos, and Doritos for the game. And seriously dude, you might want to try some of my Old Spice before the ladies get here.

The Little Prince can see what we cannot – that we are delusional. We have convinced ourselves that advertisements have no effect on us because we believe our desires arise from within us. Unfortunately, like the King our delusion cannot be overturned by reason. In fact, we have managed to construct our own convoluted logic that goes like this: “I could really go for some Doritos. I saw an ad for Doritos. What a coincidence!” As with his encounter with the King, the Little Prince realizes immediately that we cannot be argued out of our delusion. If he should try, we would probably say something like this:

US
Oh sure, maybe my desire for those things is the result of advertising, but those aren’t my real desires. My real desires are not given to me from some advertiser. They are mine, I tell you, all mine!

LITTLE PRINCE
(unable to restrain himself) Friend, can’t you see that the advertisers aren’t just selling you products? They are selling you identity and belonging and sexiness and popularity? You buy all those things not because there is anything inherently good or wonderful about them, but because the advertisers have convinced you that if you possess those objects you will possess a new and improved self.

The Little Prince quietly leaves as our guests arrive. He understands that our convoluted logic about desire leads us to falsely conclude that if our desires are not our own then that must mean we are inauthentic at the core of our being, more like puppets rather than independent, self-starting, self-reliant individuals. But hiding from the truth of our desires is what leads to false identity, to dependence on whomever is clever enough to catch our attention. We become the puppets of advertisers and marketers and cultural idols who crave our admiration so they can separate us from our money, and in the process, disconnect us from reality. The truth that our desires arise outside of us means that we are freer than we imagine, free to desire anything, free to shift the object of our desires as we learn and mature into who we will become. The Little Prince is right when he says what we really want isn’t the product for sale but the thing we can never buy – being and belonging. Cars, snack foods, and toiletries just can’t deliver on that promise because the advertisers and manufacturers and sexy models don’t love us – we are simply a means to an end for them. Learning what to desire from those who truly love us is what will ultimately set us free.

*These were among the top ten ads aired during Super Bowl XLVII in 2013.

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

Image: By Nicholas Wang, derivative work by Poke2001, via Wikimedia Commons

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