My wife, Betty, had to pry "The Culture Code" out of my hands so I could write this column. I hate | and I love | when that happens.

The tension that's created between two extremes, like in the sentence above, is a running theme in the book written by Clotaire Rapaille, a French-born psychoanalyst who now helps global corporations sell their products by tapping into a "Culture Code, the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing -- a car, a type of food, a relationship, even a country -- via the culture in which we are raised."

According to Rapaille, "tensions define cultures. Every culture is composed of an endless number of archetypes and of the tensions between each archetype and an opposing one."

He uses the tension between America's love of freedom and our inclination toward prohibition as an example. While we consider freedom "an inalienable right that we've fought numerous wars to protect, we believe we shouldn't drink too much, play too much, or exhibit too much wealth."

Successful advertising campaigns exploit these tensions. The Cover Girl cosmetics company hired Rapaille to find the "Culture Code for beauty in America." Female participants "in discovery sessions gave the clear impression that a line divided being beautiful and being too sexy, and that if women crossed it, they put themselves in danger."

Rapaille then explains that one company, Victoria's Secret, "offers women an easy way to navigate" this tension between beauty and danger. "They can be as feminine and sexy as they want underneath their clothes, the secret side. Lingerie is the safe way to be beautiful and provocative at the same time."

The most interesting part of the book is the author's discussion of "cultural imprints" and that, as opposed to much older cultures like Britain or Japan, the United States is "in the full throes of adolescence because we never had to kill the king in order to become who we are. Every adult was once a child. Then we go through stages of adolescence and rebellion. In the American culture, however, our rebellion took an unusual form. Many cultures act out their rebellion by killing their leaders (for example, the French rebelled by beheading Louis XVI), after which their period of rebellion ends and adulthood begins.

"We never killed our king because we never had one. We rebelled against the only king who tried to rule us and threw him out of 'our room,' but we didn't behead him. We simply told him to stay out. Our rebellious period never really ended."

I've used this space many times to rail against what I describe as America's idiot culture. And now, thanks to Rapaille, I understand why tens of millions of us can't wait to watch Simon Cowell humiliate contestants on "American Idol."

It makes perfect sense when Larry King, and even so-called serious news programs, spend hour after hour detailing the latest misadventures of Paris Hilton and David Hasselhoff. Most of us are a bunch of screaming adolescents, in the midst of "dramatic mood swings, a fascination with extremes, and a strong belief that mistakes warrant second chances."

Rapaille also writes at length about the different Culture Codes for health and youth, shopping and luxury, and beauty and fat, among many others.

This book forced me to take a much closer look at the images and messages that bombard me on a daily basis, beginning at 5 a.m. when I'm running on a treadmill, because as an American, I know "it's not nearly enough to be an active old person." I want to "retain the illusion of invincibility that every teenager has."

And before I go to sleep every night, I watch another clip of our beleaguered president trying his best to weather another storm. But the Bush administration is unlikely to emerge from its funk because of the president's "inability to inhabit the role of Moses (the Culture Code for the American presidency), leading to a sense of pessimism in the country and approval ratings that are near historic lows."

"The Culture Code | An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do" is a fascinating read, but as an American, one question kept popping into my head | where is that king we never got to behead, now that we really need him?

John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead. His column appears Wednesdays in the Derry News.

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