Some People Don’t Bounce: The Price We Pay for the Choices We Make

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller

'What is the key word today? Disposable. The more you can throw it away the more it’s beautiful. The car, the furniture, the wife, the children—everything has to be disposable. Because you see the main thing today is—shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn’t know what to do with himself—he’d go to church, start a revolution—something. Today you’re unhappy? Can’t figure it out? What is the salvation? Go shopping.'

Solomon, ‘The Price’

I recently saw an excellent production of Arthur Miller’s 1968 play, ‘The Price’ (Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 27 April).

Two brothers meet for the first time in sixteen years to sell their family furniture, which has been stored in the attic of a New York brownstone. Back in the 1920s their parents had been wealthy, but they were impoverished by the Great Depression. Victor, the younger brother, missed out on his education to care for his father. He became a New York cop and is now nearing cash-strapped retirement. Walter, the older of the two, broke free from the family and embarked on a career as a successful surgeon. 

‘The Price’ is a play about the corrosive effect of financial strife on family relationships; about a family at war with itself.

It draws on Miller’s own experiences of the Depression, which at its height saw one quarter of Americans out of work. Before the 1929 Crash his father owned a women’s clothing factory employing 400 people. He was wiped out and left traumatised, withdrawing into silent introspection. 

In the play Victor observes of the brothers’ father:

‘Well, some men don’t bounce, you know.’

Running through the drama is a conversation with an elderly furniture dealer, Solomon, who is carrying out a valuation of the attic’s contents. We gradually realise that the whole play is in fact a valuation: of choices made, paths taken, compromises reached.

In an interview in 1969 Miller explained:

'The play is about people who make decisions in life and the price they pay for those decisions. In this case, the price of being a socially responsible individual and the price of being a successful one.'

Walter has sacrificed his family relationships in the pursuit of career and status. He endeavours to make recompense now with financial and employment offers to Victor. But he comes to appreciate that forgiveness cannot be bought.

Victor, in his turn, has sacrificed his education and career for his father. But he has also deceived himself in the narrative he tells about the past. He and his father were, in fact, complicit in their co-dependency.

‘We invent ourselves to wipe out what we know.’

I left ‘The Price’ reflecting on the fact that all the choices we make in life come with a price attached. When in business we opt for one course of action, we leave another unrealised. For every decisive action, there is a road not taken, an opportunity not fulfilled. We promote one candidate, we disappoint someone else. We prioritise one function, we relegate another. We invest in one initiative, we disinvest in others. Decisions carry costs.

This suggests some questions.

Do we consistently face up to the price we must pay for the choices we make? Do we truly own the consequences of our actions? Or do we, like the brothers, deceive ourselves, avoiding ‘the truths we know but dare not face’?

Sadly it’s never easy to revisit missed opportunities after the fact, to remedy past mistakes, to make up for lost time. As Victor’s wife Esther observes:

‘All these years we’ve been saying, once we get the pension we’re going to start to live… It’s like pushing against a door for twenty-five years and suddenly it opens… and we stand there.’

 
'When love breaks down,
The things you do
To stop the truth from hurting you.
When love breaks down,
The lies we tell
They only serve to fool ourselves.’

Prefab Sprout, 'When Love Breaks Down' (P McAloon)

No. 222

The Divided Soul: Recognising the Particular Power of Appetite

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In the fourth book of Plato’s Republic, he tells the story of Leontius and the corpses.

Passing along the edge of Athens’ city walls one day, Leontius sees some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He wants to look at them, and at the same time he is disgusted by them. He dithers and covers his eyes. Eventually his curiosity gets the better of him and he rushes up to the dead bodies, saying, ‘Look, you wretches. Take a really good look.’

Plato uses this story to illustrate his theory of the divided soul. We are all driven by appetites and desires, and at the same time by our spirit and will. Occasionally appetite and willpower can go to war with each other.

I first encountered Leontius and the corpses at school, and, though of course it’s a rather crude fable, I’ve always found it rather helpful. People are driven by conflicting needs and emotions. They may want to pursue a particular path, whilst at the same time knowing it to be wrong. They often do things despite themselves.

Occasionally advertisers recognise this fact and show consumers caught in a dilemma. Famously in the 1970s Salman Rushdie, then working at Ogilvy, described fresh cream cakes as ‘naughty, but nice.’ But for the most part brands tend to characterize consumers as driven by singular motivations. And sometimes they underestimate the basic compulsive power of appetite.

Many years ago we won a pitch for the Swiss chocolate brand Lindt. We based our proposals on the fact that Lindt was the first commercial chocolate to melt in your mouth. The earliest forms of chocolate tended to be hard and to require chewing. But in 1879 Rodolphe Lindt discovered how to make chocolate that melts at body temperature – the key to chocolate’s very particular appeal.

We suggested that a melt-based positioning elegantly married rational and emotional truths about the brand: Lindt chocolate was the first to melt; it still melts deliciously in your mouth; and when you eat Lindt you melt in your soul.

Having appointed us, our new Client told us there was just one last hurdle to overcome. We had to prove in research that our new sophisticated positioning could outperform the incumbent campaign.

Classically Lindt advertising featured a bunch of eccentric ‘chocolatiers’ sporting toques blanches and joyously making chocolate in a kitchen. Pretty pedestrian stuff, we thought, and we approached the head-to-head with some confidence.

In the first round of qualitative research our route came off best. Consumers were impressed by Lindt’s authentic credentials and moved by our resonant evocation of ‘the melting moment.’ By contrast they found the incumbent campaign comically conventional.

But the research company also employed a quantitative methodology, which required respondents to indicate their engagement with each specific part of the film via a joystick. Unfortunately for us the incumbent ad had a good deal of chocolate in it: chocolate being lovingly mixed; chocolate being gently caressed; chocolate being sensuously sampled. And every time the chocolate appeared on-screen, the engagement scores went through the roof.

We lost the research stand-off and were politely released from our contract with Lindt. I think it was the shortest appointment we ever had.

I guess the lesson here is that, however smart your thinking, however elegant your concept, however much consumers may claim to be bored with convention, you should never under-estimate the power of appetite. People like to see cold beer in beer ads and great looking cars in car ads. They also like to see chocolate in chocolate ads.

Sometimes they just can’t resist their appetites.

 

'If your eyes are wanting all you see,
Then I think I'll name you after me.
I think I'll call you appetite.'

Prefab Sprout, ‘Appetite’ (Paddy Mcaloon)

No. 174