Please and Thank You
Entry for 2017-07-23


The mouth is located at the intersection of food and words. Like ancient Turkey, it lies at a crossroads of cultural and economic exchange and thus of political strife.

In normal times, foodstuffs arrive and words depart roughly at the rate of two words per calorie. This equilibrium, however, is not easily achieved without frequent intervention. Although you as sole owner and operator may appear to obtain food and produce words at will, the actual arrangement is more complicated and is considerably more ritualized.

Just as many agencies are involved in gathering and processing your food, many others are charged with putting words in your mouth. Since some of these agencies are advertising agencies, it is essential to review from time to time where the roots of their authority lie.

Oral Genesis

In the beginning is the word—the first word—ordinarily "Bap" or some such utterance, but Baby receives few smiles and precious little strained applesauce for that. Instead, Baby is given gentle, soothing, grinning suggestions from Mother and Father for alternatives to saying Bap. Say Ma-Ma? Say Da-Da?

Finally, Baby begins to learn: one is expected to say the expected, and that is what brings on most of life's rewards. Words other than the expected words are not words at all. They are noises. There is neither glory nor applesauce awaiting a person who merely drools and makes noises.

If Baby says "Glrrch" or "Syzygy" or "Cogito ergo sum," those are just noises—failures to pronounce Mama or Dada or Bawbaw—and thus education begins. Out of the mouths of babes, wisdom is recognizable only when it is the wisdom rehearsed there by prevailing adults: parents at one stage, teachers and preachers at another, and greater authorities later on.

First Principles

For the first few months of life, your immediate superiors are primarily concerned with putting food in your mouth. Through the following months, they are busy trying to prevent you from putting other things in your mouth: keys, coins, safety pins, finally a thumb.

At some time during the second year of life, the fundamental principles become clear: a) that you are not permitted to ingest any object which has not first been put into your hand or bowl, and, b) though other sounds are tolerated, none are desirable unless they have first come out of the mouth of someone larger.

This is the ancient protocol by which language is acquired and communication made possible. It is also a habit which must be acquired in order to succeed in school—where expected answers are right and unexpected answers are wrong—and, later, in making social small talk and in filling out tax returns or interviewing for employment. You are supposed to say what you're supposed to say and not some damned fool piece of weirdness you thought up on your own.

Soon you have learned to say Hi...How are you?...Fine...May I...Please...and Thank You. Say Ah? Ah. The very idea that you might spontaneously blurt out something of your own devising is considered so remote that only a federal judge or a network newsman dares even to suggest such a thing: "Now tell us... in your own words."

At all other times, the tacit understanding is that you have been trained to echo approved sounds put into your mouth by others. Having gone that far, they also insert an occasional tongue depressor, drill, tooth filling, then puffed rice, Chiclets, mint Toothpaste, Ora-Fix, antacids, analgesics, riboflavinoid, ascorbic acid, instant layer cake, synthetic potato chips, and finally a few more words (Stroft, Qiana, Uncola, scrumpdillyicious, etc.) so you can properly thank them for this cornucopia.

Gratitude by Platitude

They buy television time and use it to thank themselves repeatedly, until you get the idea. Pillsbury used to go on the air to declaim with contagious zeal, "Thanks, Pillsbury, for bringing no-bake cheesecake to the people!" AC Sparkplugs would dramatize its self-congratulations by showing a film crew barely escaping a herd of elephants in a quick-starting sound truck wired with AC plugs. "Thanks, AC!" Meantime, near Kansas City, a picnicking family is charged by a bull but escapes in an equally quick-starting station wagon. "Thanks, Delco!" the merry occupants shout, because without Delco it would have been, "Aetna, I'm glad I met you."

Paine Weber says "Thanks, Paine-Weber" four times in each commercial, just in case you're a slow learner. Dodge coos, "Merci, Dodge Monaco." Actors and athletes who used to be paid to endorse the quality of a product are now hired to help the manufacturer thank itself for the very existence of the product—a new breakthrough in slogan theory—cueing the viewers not just to purchase the goods but to say grace in humble thanks for the opportunity.

"Ah," you say, "but who would fall for such a sorry tactic?" Well, you didn't really say that. I did. And if I can get away with it, so can they.

The Ventriloquists

To see how it works, look at magazine advertisements that carry coupons. In the headline and text, the advertiser is speaking to you. In the coupon, it is your turn to reply; but the advertiser tells you what to say: "Please accept my application for membership in the Needle Arts Society"..."Please rush me a copy of"..."Please enter my name..." Most advertisers insist that you say please. A few allow you a bit of peer familiarity: "Count me in!"... "Okay, Famous Writers School, show me!"

In fact, some advertisers have you in the script for an extended soliloquy: "Yes! Please send by return mail my FREE trial copy of The Simple Secret Foolproof Formula for Earning a Six Digit Income in Your Spare Time. I understand that if I am not absolutely convinced your remarkable method will work for me, I may return the book for a full refund within thirty days and that I have nothing to lose! I agree not to divulge your confidential secret formula to anyone. Enclosed is..."

There is little point in bewailing this state of affairs. If you complain about advertisers putting words in your mouth, people will think you're just making noises. The truth is, advertisers are only saying what they're expected to say. They were babies once. They were raised to believe that if an advertisement isn't phony, no one will believe it's an ad, and they'll lose credibility.

The Things of a Child

Those who know better also know that prescriptive self-praise enjoys the blessing of higher authority. When the Chief goes by, the Chief's band plays "Hail to the Chief." Say Da-Da?

It would be idle to make speeches against the system on which speech itself depends. Still, what is necessary for an infant may be worth re-examining once childhood has passed. Diapers, spoon-feeding, and phrase-feeding become less and less suitable, as even babies seem to sense. From the start, they shut their mouths to unwanted food. During the second year, they discover the word "No" and proceed to use it abundantly until it is either coaxed or beaten out of them.

In the struggle for dominion over our own mouths, "No" may be worth another try in adulthood. Since all advertisements seek a Yes, few of the offending ads can endure a chorus of No's, nor can legislatures who seek dominion over not only your mouth but the rest of your body as well. So, next time, say No. Try to forget you were told to say it. And, by the way, thanks Alan Van Dine, for this wonderful suggestion.

(1977)