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When Caryn James became a TV critic for The New York Times, people glanced at her with a mix of horror and sympathy, "as if," she wrote recently, "I had tumbled to the bottom of some cultural mine shaft." I felt an excited pang of recognition when she offered this simple explanation of why she likes her work: "What could be better than a job that combines art, pop culture and sociology?" She might as well have been talking about advertising.

On my first trip to the United States, some 13 years ago, I checked into a New York hotel and barely emerged for days. It wasn't that I was mortified by Gotham's then-soaring crime rate, by the lawless, snarling traffic, or by the radioactive alligators in the sewers (in a next life, I will be a writer on The X-Files). It's just that I couldn't tear myself away from the TV screen. Oh, I'd grown up on a steady diet of subtitled I Love Lucy and Kojak episodes, so the regular programming wasn't much of a surprise. But the advertising!

Tumbling forth in a grotesque, sad, magnificent, endlessly riveting parade, the spots attached themselves to my cerebral cortex like a quiverful of toy arrows sporting suction cups. Crazy Eddie raving that his prices were insaaaaane. Meineke customers insisting they were not going to pay a lot for a muffler. Muscle men working out on the slickest exercise machine I'd seen, something called a Soloflex.

At the risk of sounding like a superficial oaf, I learned more about America from spending 72 hours in that pressure cooker of commercial messages than I'd learned from reading piles of admittedly great books by John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger and Daniel Boorstin. It seemed that from all those commercials -- even the witless, shouty, awful ones -- could be cobbled together a picture of America's psyche: its dreams, ambitions, aspirations, and fears. It was a pixelated, low-res picture, for sure, lacking depth and detail. But those shortcomings added up to imperfection, not inaccuracy.

Ads are not a mere commodity, like the hairdryers and mouthwash they sell. Doing ads, and writing about ads, means thinking and learning about art, design, sociology, psychology, commerce, pop culture, and a dozen other things. It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it. Might as well be you and me -- and I'm not