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Toothpaste: How We Pay to Make People Smile

There’s a simple truth to the Entertainment Industry that many actors choose not to acknowledge. Their personal pushback to that truth gets in the way of career growth. It’s a truth that’s incredibly simple and obvious, and yet most of us are in some sort of denial around it. At least initially.

As with most things we keep hidden from ourselves, it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient insofar as it shatters some ideals we’d prefer to keep. It presents us with a decision. It becomes a self-imposed obstacle to growth, influencing us to choose comfort over cost of achievement.

Until we accept and shift our perception. At that point, it becomes freeing.

The simple truth is that first and foremost, this is a business, and the needs of the business rule the day. We are there to serve those needs. We are brokering our artistic selves to the furthering of the business goals of industry.

The purpose of a business is to make money through the commoditization of something. In our case the currency is the attention of the audience. This is not the first time I’ve pointed this out in writing, and it’s not the focus of this read. The focus of this read is what I see how to work within rules of engagement in this, the Engagement Brokerage Business.

The ‘Entertainment Industry’ is nothing more and nothing less than the buying and selling of the engagement of the audience.


To sell toothpaste.

Or cars, political ideals, cheeseburgers, ways of living, the stock of a celebrity, or simply the next story.

But that’s it. The industry is about acquiring the attention of a particular audience through a particular, defined range of engagement mechanisms, and then selling that attention to someone who has an interest in communicating with them.

For a little history on how that all came to be and why it works so well, have a look at Edward Bernays. Mr. Bernays (the nephew of Sigmund Freud) was cited by LIFE Magazine to be one of the most influential people of the 20th century. And for good reason. He invented the term Public Relations (before him we called it ‘Propaganda’). He made bacon and eggs the official breakfast of America and got Presidents elected. He even helped to overthrow a government.

He was the master of the manipulation of the masses, developing the scientific practice of opinion holding which he called ‘Engineering Consent’.

How? He figured out how to really get to people: emotionally, not rationally. Eddy’s Uncle Siggy suggested that we, the human animal each have deep rooted unconscious desires that we will never express and fulfill and thus we will never be happy. Bernays was a pioneer in using media to influence ’the herd’ (that’s us, the public) to purchase by stirring up one of these desires, and sating them with a product.

You don’t have to look very far to see truth there: Nike has become the solution to your ambition and drive (‘Just Do It’), Axe is the answer to your need to be sexually virile, and Kodak (for those of us in our 40’s and up) has hijacked meeting your children for the first time. Industry has “Kodak Momented” our humanity. One subconscious desire at a time.


Every time I work on a television program or in a commercial I have the opportunity to do so because it’s helping someone ‘Sell Toothpaste.’ There’s a value exchange at hand: I get paid very well to explore a craft that I love (if I’m lucky, I might just affect some change in my world or community). In return I help them sell. Distill that down and there’s that harsh truth waiting for us: as a television actor the sum total of my value to the industry is defined by how much toothpaste I can help them move.

Woah woah woah. Wait a second Jeb, that’s harsh. I’m an artist.

Yep, it is. Yep, you are. But being an artist has nothing to do with working in the entertainment industry. Working in the entertainment industry (or any industry) is never about anything more than the needs of the industry. Toothpaste. Your value to the industry is your ability to help them sell Toothpaste.

If you’re having a pushback, there’s an incredibly important clarification you need to make. It’s the reason I’m writing this. I see it as the door to collaboration and self-directed career momentum:

Your value to the toothpaste sellers has fuck all to do with your value as an artist.

Your value as an artist is YOURS and yours alone. It’s precious, one of your life’s great gifts. It’s pristine, flawed, joyful, living, breathing, true, personal and utterly YOURS. YOU define its value, YOU do with it what YOU choose.

The Engagement Brokerage Business happens to need the actor’s artistry and skill set to run. It’s a vital component. Actors are re-creators of real human experience. We affect our audiences with our behaviour and discoveries. We stir their emotions. We stir their desires…..and then….the advertises sate those desires with a product.

That’s the deal.

The key, as I see it, is to make a very clear personal distinction, and remind ourselves that our value as an artist has nothing to do with our value to the business. These are independent values and must independently developed and nurtured. All too often I see actors fuse the two together, making no distinction between the two. They seek artistic validation (another myth for exploration another time) by whether or not they booked their principal role on that cop procedural. Something the industry is not there to provide, so they are on a futile mission, and they usually get stuck there.

The reason THAT happens, in my experience, is usually that there’s a third self valuation being crammed in that group. The actor’s sense of personal worth.

Let’s be clear: Your value to the the toothpaste sellers has nothing to do with your value as an artist which has nothing to do with your value as a person. (There’s been a lot of great artists who were sons of bitches).

We must SEPARATE these values and remove them from co-defining one another. We must be good to ourselves. We must LOVE ourselves, so we can explore and grow as artists. So that we can show up to an industry, gift them with a piece of our craft, help them sell some toothpaste and play for a living.

Once we’ve got a healthy, working relationships between these three aspects to our professional actor selves, we are able to really see the industry from the macro to the micro. We lose our illusions about what we’d like the industry to be, and see it for what it is: A corporate sponsored playground for creatives that charges admission to the masses.

Now we can consider both our creativity and the needs of our benefactor. Now we can adjust to humbly serve the story AND the client. Now we can collaborate for THEM because we aren’t asking them for any validation.

If we do, we will get to scare people, make them think, make them yearn, make them cry, make them laugh, make them smile. And when they do their teeth will be bright and clean too.

Let’s sell some toothpaste. The show must go on.

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