This piece originally appeared in the inaugural issue of Caelum et Terra.
I walked into Wal-Mart the other day and one of the first things I saw was a big cardboard crate full of Keebler cookies being sold at some special low price. On the side of the crate, in big letters, were the words FRESH FROM THE HOLLOW TREE. As everyone knows, Keebler advertises its cookies as being made by elves who live in hollow trees.
Well, of course the cookies are made in a factory, not in a hollow tree, and if there are elves in the world they are most likely not punching the clock at that factory. And, as happens to me occasionally in the presence of this sort of commercial falsehood, I was momentarily outraged.
It might be said, and certainly the folks at Keebler would say, that I am a bad sport. The slogan is only fiction in the service of commerce, they might say, and I have no more grounds to complain of its falsity than I would have to complain that Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County cannot actually be found in Mississippi.
But I say it isn’t the same thing at all. A novelist creates an imaginary world as a means of illuminating the real one, or at least to entertain. An advertiser does it in order to manipulate, distract, and deceive. The fact is that the people who run Keebler do not want us to think accurately about where the cookies come from or why they are made.
ONLY A FEW WEEKS OUT OF THE FACTORY is not a description likely to entice cookie-buyers into the Keebler fold; nor is MANUFACTURED BY WAGE-EARNERS The cookies are made and marketed by a huge corporation which is, if it is like most huge corporations, much more interested in impressing Wall Street than in cookies. Keebler cookies, like many of the goods offered to us, are produced by a system, and for reasons, which most of us instinctively feel to be dreary at best. And so the advertisers make up stories which they hope we will like better—they show us Mr. Kraft in a horse-drawn wagon delivering cheese on a sunny morning, or a white-haired old lady baking bread in a wood-burning oven.
These falsehoods surround us; they are part of the mental climate in which we think and act. We take them for granted as a necessary or at least inevitable component of our way of life, and most of us do not think it strange.
But it is strange. And it does us no good. What does it mean that the sails of our economy must be filled with a wind of lies? If that does not frighten us, the fact that our political life is conducted according to the same rules ought to.
If these lies do not deceive us they are bound to make us cynical, on the one hand—unable to recognize truth when we see it—or, on the other hand, gullible, confusing sincerity, when at last we meet it, with possession of truth. And worst of all, as God is truth, lying is the essential and fundamental accomplishment of the devil.