AT&T and the Yang Complex

January 10, 2013
"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

Have you noticed the recent AT&T commercials that feature an adult asking leading questions to children, questions that have “obvious” correct answers? Which is better, big or small? Which is better, fast or slow? These questions serve the purpose of the ad  but also reveal a disturbing aspect of our culture. The immediacy of the children’s answers and the “no kidding, duh” tenor of the commercial reveal a pretty unreflective public, at least in the view of the advertisement’s creators. If we pause for a second to apply the same questions to other subjects  such as cancer or melting glaciers, we get some different answers. Which cancer is better, big or small? What rate of glacial melt is preferable, fast or slow?

Besides revealing a dim view of the public, the ad’s popularity confirms the “truthiness” of that perception. In other words, the knee-jerk response critical for its effectiveness bespeaks our real world perception, our socially constructed reality. This is what I refer to as our “yang complex,” our western preference for the yang elements in the yin/yang dichotomy of Taoism. Yang roughly translates as “the sunny side,” and I am reminded of the American standard Keep on the Sunny Side. Yang qualities include fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and aggressive. It is associated with the male gender, the sun, sky, fire, and daytime. Yin roughly translates as “the shadow side.” Yin qualities include slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive. It is associated with the female gender, the moon, earth, water, and nighttime.

The yang complex AT&T plays off of reminds me of the critique that  Ernest Becker offers of Norman O. Brown’s unrepressed man, the archetype for many similar New Age visions. AT&T’s approach puts us on the threshold of a very Beckerian question: “Which is better, repression or unrepression?” Rejecting this false dichotomy, Becker maintains that repression is necessary and it is the way in which the repression is managed that is crucial. As it stands, repression is a dirty word in our popular culture. Indeed, unrestraint is the premise of modern consumer culture. The yin qualities we need for balance are present but muted. I maintain that our cultural yang complex puts us in a dangerous position. Bigger, faster, and more more more have become the watchwords for a growth curve that is clearly unsustainable.

Yet, the lack of a yin perspective in our political discourse reveals the depth of the culture of yang. We appear unable to envision anything new, still opting for the obvious answers, just like the kids in the AT&T commercial. We need a new mythology, a new story that admits the insights of Becker, Rank, and Kierkegaard where the answers are not so obvious.


  1. Glad I don’t watch TV ads, or much TV for that matter. Our culture has been effectively brainwashed.

  2. […] AT&T and the Yang Complex […]

  3. Thanks Bill. I agree that we are in desperate need of a new mythology… but I think you would concur that it will not be full of personal insight… insight was not intended for the masses, but for the few. I think that the new story, if it will be one of our survival, will involve myths that denounce almost everything we currently cherish. It will necessarily be some form of nature-worship, while casting a suspicious eye on future definitions of human ‘progress.’

    • Disagree on what is intended for the masses. Every sentient being is free to pursue a meaningfull life, the only insight into human destiny there is.

      • Of course every sentient being is free to pursue a meaningful life… but they won’t, because at the end of that inquiry into meaning, if they are to remain true to reason, is the realization that life is ultimately absurd and meaningless. Dostoyevsky, Freud, Camus, and some of the most intelligent people to have ever lived, more-or-less conclude that the masses will not be persuaded to see reality for what it is… it is too painful. So as for this ‘insight’… it only reveals that we are destined to be food for worms. Intellectually, many people will come to know this, but a life seemingly consists of hiding that fact from conscious awareness and from feeling it in one’s belly … instead we engage in a flight into either drunken despair or ecstatic rejoice in name of some symbolic illusion or utopian future that only serves to obscure the truth from view while fortifying some psychological defense. In short, my statement is not meant to be proscriptive, it is I think a realistic assessment of the capabilities of the masses (though I admittedly wish it were not true).

  4. Great example of a commercial! Man, I feel so blown away by tv! I haven’t owned one since I started living on my own 6 yrs ago. It is such a turn off to be yelled at and expected to be entertained by the cheap, quick, goofy shit that is aired!

  5. >>>> repression is a dirty word in our popular culture. Indeed, reinforcing repression with inauthentic unrepression devices** is the premise of modern consumer culture.

    **Edited for clarity/accuracy.

  6. The daily paper in my city has each Friday a page, the front page of the second section, devoted to “The Kills of the Week.” Not long ago the page had six photos of hunters sitting or standing by the deer they had killed. Four of the pictures had children as the killers of the deer.

    Several readers, including me, have written letters to the editor objecting to what we consider barbaric exhibitionism, a celebration of killing. Not one letter has attacked hunting per se, but we who object think nobody needs to have his or her nose rubbed in the blood of the spectacle of hunting.

    Frankly, I just find it obscene that a daily newspaper would publish pictures of hunters posing with their dead game, do so weekly, show pictures of children standing by bloodied dead deer.

    In keeping with your ‘yin-yang’ analogy, one reader, obviously a fan of hunting and weekly pictures of the slaughter, wrote a letter to the editor in which he said that hunting kept the young off the streets, as if the choice is between that of hunting and killing animals or that off hunting and killing people.

    And animals die, all wrapt in ritual, the rite of the hunt, so that human beings can feel powerful, immortal . . . . . .

  7. Even beyond your critique of Yin and Yang, those ads don’t tell the consumer anything about the quality of the product advertised. So what if AT&T has more towers–what does this mean? None of these questions are asked or even prompted by the ad.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your observation that the ad reveals one of the dominant mythi of our age–“more is better.”

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