Why Advertising Won’t Ask Why


Days before Nike’s new commercials aired, they were already playing on TV. NEWSFLASH: “New Nike Slogan I CAN to Trump JUST DO IT.” “Sources Say I CAN a Return to Focus on Positive.”

Brilliant. Nike as the Little Engine That Could. Ad agency Wieden & Kennedy does it again–lifting a catchphrase (“Do it!” was a Yippies battle cry in the ’60s) and repositioning it. Talking heads may wonder, “Will I CAN be the next JUST DO IT?” but the real news is that it already is:

“Ever Talk Face to Face From a Hundred Miles Away? You Can.”–Intel. “Betcha Can!”–Merit cigarettes. “Why Do We Apply Mascara at 55 mph? Because We Can.”–Virginia Slims. “Why Fly Norwich, NY? Because You Can!”–Norwich Weather. “Create Your Own Series of Dodge Ball Trading Cards. Because You Can.”–Sony.

“Can” and “do” work so well in unison, it seems, that “can” has become its own reason for doing. Why do something? Because you can. Or as the T-shirts and bumper stickers put it, “Why does a dog lick his balls? Because he can.” Why does Crazed Biology Man on X-Files make giant spider legs grow out of eyes? “Because I can.” Why does evil Chad from In the Company of Men fuck over everyone possible? “Because I could.” When there’s no good reason, a nonreason will do. Capability equals justification.

That advertisers could turn this into an incentive to buy comes as somewhat of a shock at first. Surely Sony and the gang aren’t limiting themselves to targeting evil, ball-licking bastards. (At the very least, it’s a pretty safe bet that someone who relies on “because I can” would not make a good cop or babysitter.) And while Madison Avenue likes to frame questions, asking “why?” opens up a whole bag of worms. “Why create your own series of dodge ball trading cards?” Stupidity? Boredom? Got no friends? As an answer, “because you can” has plenty of competition; there is no shortage of bad reasons.

In part, that is precisely the point. Advertisers are fessing up with a familiar ironic wink, something akin to saying, “If I’m going to be an asshole, I can at least be a rich asshole. Har, har.” Yet the “because I can” of ad slogans is oft as earnest as it is ironic. The phrase has been bandied about so many times that it’s been transformed from a cheap punchline substituting for a reason to a three-letter buzzword for choice, freedom, possibility, power.

Of course, whether we need or even want to apply mascara at 55 mph is another question entirely, one advertisers can’t afford to raise. Better to steer away from anything that might provoke thinking. Don’t think, just do it. As a 1993 Coca-Cola campaign put it, “Some people live their life as an exclamation not an explanation.” In that fraction of a second it takes you to decide between the Friction Free Grip or the Easy Pour Spout, millions are at stake.

In fact, the only need involved is the advertisers’, who need to sell you not only more than you need, but now also more than you want: “Just buy this because you can.” What’s a little “anal leakage” and bloating when you can eat a whole bag of fat-free chips? Assuming, of course, that you have the money for all this stuff. Like “Just Do It,” “because you can” assumes the audience has privilege, money, and ability in the first place. To someone struggling to pay rent and put food on the table, “because you can” and “just do it” would rightly sound like a cruel joke. The ads aren’t directed to those people, though. They’re for middle-class managers, teens, and soccer moms. It’s as if advertisers are picking out those who’ve reached the top part of the hierarchy of needs (past physical and material and up toward emotional ones) and asking them to step back down.

“Because I can,” then, caters to our desire for self-actualization at the same time it denies it. Any 10-year-old knows the proper response to “because I can”: “So?”

Yes, you can buy 100 brands of deodorant, yes, you can throw yourself off a cliff, but that doesn’t mean you should. And therein lies the kicker: the only “should” “because I can” accommodates is the silent “should” the phrase itself implies. “Because I can” symbolizes freedom of choice and possibility (as the Levi’s campaign says, “it’s wide open”) while choking it. To wit:

“Why are you buying the gold watch?”

“Because I can.”

“Well, why aren’t you buying the silver watch? And why don’t you buy me a watch? You can do that, too.”

In other words, to do something because you can hides the fact that choice, however retarded it may be, needs “should.”

“Should” has gotten a bad rep lately. “Should” isn’t the path to purchase; it’s the path away, the barrier between buyer and product. “Should” is restraint, abstinence, gray areas. “Should” is the anti-“can,” Bob Dole’s “Just Don’t Do It.” But should is where true choice and power lie; should is what separates us from chimps. Intel processors and Sony digital cameras have no sense of should.

Naturally, “should” has its own ad campaign, playing the bad guy in PepsiCo’s Josta commercials. In one spot, an old man confides to a teen that he wasted his youth on “shoulda coulda woulda” when he coulda been out drinking and chasing women. “Shoulda coulda woulda…better do the good stuff,” the tag line advises, the good stuff being rebellion and Josta.

The message isn’t lost on a couple of Josta’s biggest fans. Azure Reznor, a 17-year-old in Virginia, has undertaken a consumer campaign to “save Josta.” PepsiCo hasn’t necessarily indicated that there’s anything to save–so why the effort?

“I remember Crystal Pepsi and how PepsiCo took it off the market,” says Reznor. “I’m not letting that happen to Josta. I’m doing something.”

Meanwhile, John Blaylock, a psychology graduate at Oklahoma State, has organized a Josta-themed scavenger hunt for his residence hall, edited movies and TV pictures to include Josta, and made a Josta clock and Web site, among other projects, as a tribute to the drink.

Via e-mail, I asked him what he thinks of the commercials. “Damn cool,” writes Blaylock, then explains, “If your conscience gets in the way most of the time, take the steel rod out of your ass and live a little. I mean, if you feel like dancing in class, do it, or if you feel like yelling in the middle of Wal-Mart, just do it.”

Why? Because you can.

“Can” is why we have technology to clone humans, why socially conscious software programmers end up creating technologies that invade privacy. We do what we’re good at. We create. And we do what we want.

Several months ago, I got into an e-mail debate with a sales rep at an online intelligence engine (my day job involves buying advertising for a record company). I asked him why we need to “automate the word-of-mouth process.” Why have robots recommend music? Why take a fun, interesting process–talking to people, record hunting, reading zines–and hand it over to machines? Mr. Sales Rep agreed, “It’s not that people need this. We’re just providing another option.”

Because we can.

Don’t worry about the consequences, just do it. Remember AT&T’s campaign from 1994? One ad read, “Ever tuck your baby in from the airport? You will.” Another: “Ever send a fax from the beach? You will…”

Should you tuck your baby in from the airport? Ever want to send a fax from the beach? These questions are irrelevant. Technology is inevitable. Only a chump would resist. And so it is with the market–essentially a machine–where the only “should” that matters is the buy-and-sell. “Because I can” is the mantra for a society that has so internalized the mechanisms of the market that we see ourselves as little machines. Capability equals justification equals destiny. If you can, you will. For some reason, when I think of “choice” and “possibility” and “freedom,” this isn’t what I have in mind.