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It’s just a freaking bank.

I enjoy Photoshop Disasters, a blog that is exactly what the name says, but this post struck me for a completely different reason than the freaky arms.

What struck me: the young woman’s look of accomplishment, of satisfaction, of sheer thrill.

In an ad for a bank.

Yeah, it’s just a silly ad. But really, it goes to the very heart of the modern economy. In the textbooks, we want things (food, shelter, shoes, banking services), and sellers compete to satisfy these wants. They compete either by making a better product or selling the same product at a lower price.

But more and more of our economy doesn’t work that way. Rather, sellers make a product that is barely distinguishable from its competition either in quality or price, and then they dress it up as something completely different in order to sell it.

So a Starbucks coffee, once it’s gone through the advertising machine, becomes a cup of meaning; a sneaker becomes an act of rebellion, a bottle of soap becomes pure, liquid elegance, and so on. I recently saw a car ad that said, in its entirety, “Misery has enough company. Dare to be different,” managing to sell happiness, daring, and distinction in a single sentence. [Edit: Or, um, two sentences. Sometimes I am a moron.]

And the fact is, these ads work. Look at the woman with the mutant arms again. Who doesn’t want to feel like that? And even though we know intellectually that all the ad is actually offering is ordinary ATMs, some of us really will switch banks, hoping on some level to get some of that woman’s ecstasy for ourselves.

Of course, switching banks will leave us no more ecstatic than before. Buying the car–which is, after all, produced in the millions–will leave us with the same amount of happiness, daring, and distinction we started with.

I have no grand conclusion here; my point is just that the economy is truly screwed up in ways that can paradoxically escape our notice because they’re so familiar. And the first stage in fixing the economy is seeing it for what it is.

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