Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why Are These People Smiling?

The world's most celebrated smile can be found in Paris' Louvre museum, protected by one or two
armed guards and half-inch bullet proof glass. Variously known as La Joconde, the Gioconda, or the Mona Lisa, Da Vinci's model with the winsome smile, elusive, mysterious, and perhaps amused,
has been tantalizing fans for more than four centuries. There may be something to the fact that the world's most famous painting reflects a very human expression. Only homo sapiens can smile. Animals, despite our best efforts at anthropomorphizing them, cannot. As a matter of fact, there is probably nothing quite so human as a smile, which serves to explain why ever since the first ad was devised, a smile has been used as a lure.

I subscribe to a half-dozen magazines--Time, New Yorker, Wired, Newsweek (which I will not renew since I don't like Tina Brown as an editor. Sorry, small, necessary aside), a couple of specialty
automobile publications and the Washington Post, and every ad featuring a human also features a smile. An ad for an HBO special on Jerry Weintraub? He's smiling. Siemens? Smiling woman. Young,
attractive. Geico has a smiling gecko. There are smiles for the relief of intestinal gas pain, depression, bunions, razor blades (both men and women); smiles for hand cream and condoms and expensive automobiles. Smiles from younger people for cheap automobiles, too. We are awash in smiles, not one of which has the charm of the original Da Vinci creation.

I’m not sure what this means other than a deep lack of originality in the advertising arts. Certainly the other photos, particularly those in my morning paper, are seldom smiling. By and large, the faces depicted there are anything but happy. There are tears, winces, exhaustion, disgust, severity and the
occasional empty affect, but there are damned few smiles. People whose homes are being taken away don’t smile. Neither do men totting guns for some African or Middle Eastern cause. Most American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq aren’t smiling, or at least they’re not doing so for the home-town crowd. There are a lot of smiles in the obituary pages, though, where the portraits of the
recently departed reign. Maybe they know something we don’t, or maybe they don’t know their photos would illustrate their all too-short lives.

The point, I suppose, is that at some point we learned that facial muscles can be used to show intent, and we somehow moved from displaying teeth as aggression to showing them as apparent subservience. A smile really is nothing but a snarl that’s undergone minor surgery, and it serves pretty much the same purpose—it’s an attempt to disarm the other guy, to make him leave us alone and
not challenge our turf ownership. We don’t try to scare the foe (although some folks have truly frightening smiles) so much as engage him in an attempt to bargain.  A smile says we’re in this
together, you and me. A smile leads to a handshake—another negotiating tool since the open hand denotes an absence of weapons.

That still doesn’t answer the original question. I don’t know why all these models in ads are smiling. Frankly, I don’t find it disarming. I find it creepy.


1 comment:

  1. With translation software (I do not speak English!) but very satisfied smile and wish for the script for "laughter. " Share with you opinions about man and his human laughter, the lack thereof which when displayed on the face is probably more grimace.
    However with that is the individual, the laughter inside the heart it can not be missing. Congratulations once who seeks finds!
    Luan Sinamati Albania.