Relentless Advertising Messages Are Fueling an Out-of-Control "Culture of Consumerism," and Kids Are Often the Target. What’s a Person to Do?
A few years ago, a company called Space Marketing, Inc. (SMI) came up with a plan to send a mile-long billboard into space. Coated with reflective plastic, the billboard would beam down a corporate logo that appeared as large as the moon, and as it orbited the Earth, would be visible to every single person on the planet.
To marketers, it was a dream come true: a truly inescapable form of advertising. It couldn’t be tossed out with the junk mail, hung up on, or zapped with a remote control. To the rest of us who’d heard about it, it seemed more like a nightmare. Amid howls of protest, SMI withdrew the plan, but not before several companies had inquired about launching their logos into space.
Space may be the final frontier for advertisers—because the Earth is already taken. In the last 20 years, advertising has become far more pervasive than ever before. Advertising budgets in the United States have doubled since 1976, and they’ve grown by more than 50 percent in just the last 10 years. Companies now spend about $162 billion each year to bombard us with print and broadcast ads; that works out to about $623 for every man, woman and child in the United States. It’s important to remember that we’re the ones picking up the tab for ad costs, in the form of higher prices for the products the ads promote. We also pay higher taxes, because advertising costs are deductible from the bottom line of corporate taxable profits, which would otherwise be higher.
Skyrocketing ad budgets are both a cause and a consequence of a phenomenon marketers call “clutter,” resulting from airwaves so clogged with ads already that it gets harder and harder to attract our attention. So, to prevail in this ad-cluttered world, marketers have become more intrusive than ever before.
They’ve also gotten more sneaky. In recent years, advertisers have pioneered many forms of “stealth” advertising—ads disguised as something else, or placed where we least expect to encounter them. One form of stealth advertising is “product placement”—paying to get brand-name products featured in movies. For a large cash payment, an advertiser can actually get the script rewritten to showcase their product (see sidebar).
Another form of stealth advertising is the “video news release,” or VNR, an insidious form of promotion indeed. Advertisers produce brief videotapes (VNRs) that look for all the world like regular news stories—except that they feature a product or a corporation. These are then distributed to news stations throughout the land, which typically air them without attribution. For example, a few years ago 17 million Americans watched a “news” story about the 50th anniversary of Cheerios cereal. It was a light-hearted bit of human-interest fluff, featuring a tour of the Cheerios factory and some footage of a giant Cheerio made specially for the occasion.
But few viewers realized that the story was conceived, dramatized, filmed and distributed by Cheerios manufacturer General Mills itself. VNRs give corporations an unparalleled opportunity to define and interpret current events, and they are cheaper than regular ads. So it is not surprising that VNRs have become increasingly common: A 1993 Nielsen study found that every single news station surveyed used VNRs—and less than half identified their source during the broadcast.
Also in response to clutter, advertisers have taken over more of what used to be ad-free (or at least ad-lite). Public broadcasting (PBS) stations now run sponsor acknowledgements (called “enhanced underwriting”) that are virtually indistinguishable from ads on commercial TV. Museums have become shrines to the products of their corporate benefactors: Upscale shoemaker Ferragamo, for example, paid for an exhibit of its own shoes at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Just about every cultural event has a corporate sponsor—and those sponsors have a lot of influence over their beneficiaries. Country singer Barbara Mandrell collected $15 million to promote No Nonsense pantyhose, and obligingly named her next album No Nonsense.
In fact, it’s now possible to sponsor an entire American city. In 1993, the city of Atlanta hired Joel Babbit, a former advertising executive, to help the city sell itself. Babbitt came up with a plan to rename streets and parks for corporate sponsors, implant ads in city sidewalks, and plaster corporate logos on the sides of city garbage trucks. To reassure those naysayers who thought he might be going too far, Babbitt announced that not just any corporate sponsor would be welcome—he would draw the line at firearms and sexual products. This was a great relief to those who envisioned products like “the official assault rifle of Atlanta” or condoms imprinted with the city seal.
Yes, it’s annoying and absurd—but advertising’s takeover of our cultural airwaves is more than an aesthetic affront. It also affords corporations significant control over the content of the media that shape our world view. The news and entertainment media are wholly dependent on ad revenues, and advertisers wield considerable influence. In a 1992 study, virtually all of the 150 newspaper editors surveyed said that advertisers tried to dictate editorial content, and 37 percent said they succeeded.
Appalling examples abound. In 1993, Mercedes Benz wrote to 30 magazines, requiring them to pull all Mercedes ads from any issue containing articles critical of the company, German products, or Germany itself. RJR Nabisco, the giant food-and-tobacco conglomerate, canceled an $80 million contract with a New York advertising agency that produced ads for Northwest Airlines’ no-smoking policy. And the cosmetic firm Revlon pulled its ads from Ms. magazine after Ms. ran a cover story about Soviet women exiled for publishing underground feminist books. The reason? The Soviet women on the magazine’s cover were not wearing makeup.
Often, censorship is self-inflicted by media decisionmakers fearful of losing their corporate sponsors. This has produced a curious double standard in journalism, in which the news media go easier on corporations than on the government. As Bill Lazarus, a reporter for the Hammond (Indiana) Times, explains: “When you write about government, the attitude of [editors] tends to be `no holds barred.’ When you write about business, the attitude tends to be one of caution. And for businesses [that] happen to be advertisers, the caution turns frequently to timidity.”
Is Nothing Sacred?
Advertisers have also invaded other important cultural institutions: public schools. Of course, there has always been some advertising in the schools. Remember those scratchy filmstrips (early VNRs, actually) with titles like Aluminum and You? Those were primitive versions of in-school advertising. But in recent years, advertisers have become more of a presence in schools than ever before: Ads are now plastered in hallways, piped in over public address systems and painted on the sides of school buses. And students are big target recipients of free product samples.
Some eight million kids are required to
watch Channel One, an ad-punctuated news show, in school every day. Channel One hooks its Board of Education customers by giving video equipment to schools that agree to broadcast its daily program. But its raison d’etre is to provide a vehicle for advertising: Channel One takes in about $800,000 a day in ad revenues. And the “free” video equipment turns out to be a Faustian bargain for schools, because it can be taken away if the school fails to deliver its captive audience for advertisers. Moreover, the satellite dish that the company provides is permanently tuned to Channel One, which limits its usefulness for educational purposes.
Channel One has received a lot of negative publicity, but it is not even the most egregious example of advertising in the schools. Corporations are now actually writing lesson plans that are used to teach kids in school. These corporate curricula, which are often slick and expensively produced, prove irresistible to cash-starved school districts and overworked teachers.
To marketers, these “stealth” materials are vehicles for reaching a captive young audience. One company that produces lesson plans for corporations effuses about the benefits of advertising to kids in school: “Let Lifetime Learning Systems bring your message to the classroom, where young people are forming attitudes that will last a lifetime…Coming from school, all these materials carry an extra measure of credibility that gives your message added weight.” Hundreds of companies and associations have hired Lifetime to peddle their wares (or ideologies) in schools, including the American Nuclear Society, Coca-Cola Company, the National Frozen Pizza Institute, even the government of Saudi Arabia.
Some corporate lesson plans have educational value, but they are mostly used to encourage consumption of companies’ products and support their interests. For example, a lesson plan designed by Georgia Pacific puts the best face on forestry and defends the company’s practice of clearcutting forests. A classroom science video produced by Exxon praises the company for its cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. And a lesson plan by Mobil Oil encouraged students to adopt the company’s favorable views on the North American Free Trade Agreement. A recent study by Consumers’ Union found that fully 68 percent of corporate teaching materials contained biased information.
Advertising and the Consumer Culture
Advertising, then, sells more than products. It also promotes the interests and ideology of its corporate sponsors. And it promotes a way of life; indeed, it might be considered the Ministry of Propaganda of the consumer culture.
Back in the early days of the modern advertising industry, advertisers had a kind of missionary zeal about promoting the consumption of commodities. Corporate leaders of the 1920s believed that a consumer society would serve two ends: It would quell labor unrest, and it would create larger markets for the surplus fruits of mass production. But many feared that it simply wouldn’t work; that workers could not be induced to buy products as quickly as they rolled off the assembly line.
That’s where advertising came in. Nineteenth century sales techniques, which emphasized the quality of the products being sold, were not equal to the job of creating limitless demand for consumer goods. So advertisers came up with ads that had less to do with products than with their audience. Their ads sought to make viewers feel self-conscious, inadequate, unlovable—and then offered a commodified remedy. As one marketer wrote in the trade journal Printers’ Ink, “advertising helps to keep the masses dissatisfied with their mode of life, discontented with ugly things around them. Satisfied customers are not as profitable as discontented ones.”
Over the course of this century, ads have drifted further away from describing the product, appealing instead to our deepest, unarticulated desires. An ad for Quaker Oats tells us to eat its cereal not because it tastes good, but because “It’s the right thing to do”—speaking to our need for moral compass in a confusing world. An ad for Jordache Basics consists of several mezzotint photographs of a playful young couple who are, almost incidentally, wearing Jordache jeans. The copy reads: “We share the same goals and directions. There’s no fighting for space and time. It’s a place to change, or not to.” In a market glutted with nearly indistinguishable commodities, advertising must rely on selling less tangible goods, such as mutually supportive relationships. But it is a cruel bait-and switch; commodities bought to gratify non-material needs inevitably disappoint.
The modern advertising industry has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its early proponents. In the ad-saturated world of late 20th-century America, we buy more and save less than any society before us. Advertising has won an important psychological victory as well: To some degree, most of us have swallowed the dominant message of advertising—that life’s problems can be solved by buying things.
There are costs—personal and social—to believing that life’s problems can be solved with a credit card. On a personal level, we have become a nation of debtors. The average American now owes $2,500 in credit card debt, and pays about $450 in interest every year. Personal bankruptcy rates are soaring, too: almost 900,000 people went bankrupt in 1992, almost three times as many as in 1985.
On a social level, the costs of the consumer society include poisoned air and water, the breathtaking destruction of wilderness areas, and landfills clogged with products designed to be discarded. Advertising, and the industries it serves, has fostered a culture of waste in which rapidly changing styles render products obsolete long before their useful life is extinguished. Earnest Elmo Calkins, a pioneer of “planned obsolescence,” once declared: “We no longer wait for things to wear out. We displace them with others that are not more effective but more attractive.”
The culture of waste means that contemporary Americans consume the Earth’s resources at a pace unprecedented in history. Between 1940 and 1976, we consumed more minerals than did all of humanity up to that point. Each American consumes about 18 times as much commercially produced energy as a person living in Bangladesh—and about twice as much as our counterparts in Europe and Japan.
Certainly, the industries that feed the consumer society could use resourcesmore efficiently and have less impact on the environment. Because we use twice as much energy as other industrialized countries, for example, it is safe to assume that we could continue to provide the same array of consumer bells and whistles while halving the environmental impact of our fossil fuel use. But many environmentalists, while embracing the prospects of more efficient resource use, believe that environmental sustainability is fundamentally incompatible with the culture of waste we call consumerism. As Alan Durning observed in How Much is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Fate of the Earth, “The furnishings of our consumer lifestyle—things like automobiles, throwaway goods and packaging, a high-fat diet, and air conditioning—can only be provided at great environmental cost. Our way of life depends on enormous and continuous inputs of the very commodities that are most damaging to the Earth to produce: energy, c
hemicals, metals and paper.” Durning concludes that the challenge before us is to learn to live “by sufficiency rather than excess.”
Finally, the ascendance of advertising has cost us the public space that is essential to democratic discourse. Advertising has infiltrated parts of our culture—such as public schools and public broadcasting—that once held themselves separate from commercial values and messages. That means that there are fewer places of refuge from the values of the marketplace. Without that refuge, we lack the distance and perspective we need to distinguish between the capitalist bottom line and the larger public interest.
The Road Ahead
So what can we do about it? Certainly, we can’t abolish the advertising industry with its global power and economic clout, but we can keep it in its place. Consumers need to understand their ability to force a corporate response. A major aim of advertising is to enhance a sponsor’s image, and even a small-scale consumer action in response to commercial exploitation—like a boycott or press conference—is threatening to that image. These tools have been used by both the right—through such conservative watchdog groups as Accuracy in Media (AIM)—and the left, which counters with Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR).
We can also rip the lid off phony “sponsorships,” endorsements and VNRs that are really thinly veiled commercials. We need to fight “enhanced” corporate sponsorship of TV and radio shows, museums and cultural events. And we can prevent corporate incursions into our public space by nurturing the nonprofit sector. To help insure that commercials and print ads bear some relationship to the truth, we can push for comprehensive Honesty in Advertising legislation, on both the state and federal level (with fines and the harsh glare of publicity for offenders).
We can also work to keep advertising out of the public schools. If you have kids, work with your PTA and school board to make sure their teachers are not using corporate curricula. Teach your children about the ways of marketers; watch ads together and help them understand their purpose and method. Even if you don’t have kids, you can work to ensure that local schools have the resources they need to resist the temptation of advertisers bearing “free” gifts.
On a personal level, we can organize boycotts of products whose advertising methods or messages offend us. Encouraging your friends to call a company’s 800 number or visit their Web site is a particularly effective short-term strategy. And finally, we can take a hard look at what we buy and why we buy it—to resist succumbing to marketing madness.