The Hungarians have turned a four-story stone building on Budapest’s grandest street into a high-tech multimedia museum. In recent eras, Nazi and Communist security forces interrogated, tortured, and killed there. Now the place is called the House of Terror. As we wind our way through the creepy rooms, assaulted by hundreds of blinking video screens and eery, discombobulating music, we keep running into big lies. We see “Papa Joe” Stalin waving shyly at multitudes, and we find ourselves surrounded by statuary, bas reliefs, and posters of heroic soldiers, proud women, and jut-jawed workers building paradise. Dozens of these ecstatic posters cover one wall, and no comment is needed. The propaganda that once served tyranny now damns it.
At some point in my tour of Terror House I began thinking that this is the nature of advertising: when it gets old it doesn’t simply become inert; instead, its cynicism shines through and it undermines the products and interests it was created to serve. Those old magazine ads that used to tout cigarets as gentler, milder, and preferred by more doctors — they’re worse than ineffectual today; they’re infuriating. Everybody’s on to advertising these days. Nobody trusts it. That’s why advertising no longer actually touts anything as qualitatively superior. Instead, it links products to attitudes that consumers might wish to associate themselves with.
So, has advertising come a long way from the days the museum’s posters were drawn of gallant liberators handing out bread to grateful masses? No. Because I don’t think anyone believed those posters in the first place. I think the posters’ terrifying real message was: It’s our bread and our tanks so associate yourselves with us or we’ll crush you. The Hungarians didn’t associate, and they got crushed.