Advertising and the coarsening of American life.
It seems quite obvious to me that one major contributor to the coarsening of life in America has been the growth of advertising as a dominant form of communication. I only use the word “communication” for lack of a better one. Modern advertising has skewed the meanings of more than just a few of the words we once took for granted.
An ad could be considered an essentially harmless slice of life in a capitalist country when it was just the local grocer selling his wares, or a few lines in the back of a local paper. But with commercials now plastered on almost every available surface and blaring from radio and television, and internet the harmless slice has become a deadly toxin.
Worshipers at the altar of the “free market” sometimes facetiously (one has to assume) claim to enjoy advertising, but the popularity of the mute function on the TV remote control is proof enough of that they are in the minority. Of course ads are annoying. There’s a big difference between a friend calling you on the phone to visit and the call of an anonymous stranger who wants to sell you insurance. But the pretense of the advertisers is that there is no difference. And it’s only one of many pretenses permeating this dubious anti-artform.
The prominence of out-and-out lying as a commercial strategy is no secret, but even assuming that an ad’s claims about a particular product are true (quite an assumption, that), there’s something about the ad itself that will always feel deceptive. The company, doing the persuading will obviously say whatever it can get away eith in order to accomplish their objective of selling you the product. Only children and the overly credulous, to their misfortune, believe that the advertiser is attempting to communicate a truth, the rest of us recognize persuasion for what it is. And persuasion is annoying because it constantly presses us to make a choice. It pulls at our sleeve like an unwanted pest who won’t shut up and leave us alone.
In this imagined conversation, a burden is placed on you, the “consumer“. In other words, you are being asked to do something, or more truthfully, told to do something, since an ad rarely stoops to merely asking. In any case, there is a decision that you are being presented with. The relationship of salesman to “consumer“ is not one that is compatible with friendship. Friendship is based on equality in the personal sense. It involves dialogue. A commercial, on the other hand, talks at you, never with you.
The ad pretends to be sincere about the content of what it presents, but we all know that the salesman’s need to sell his product overrides any other consideration of content. The salesman may even believe in the product but that point is irrelevant because his act of persuasion in itself is inherently insincere.
Our society is deeply under the influence of advertising, and that is a significant aspect of why we have become surrounded and enveloped by false sincerity. The omnipresence of this false sincerity makes actual sincerity more and more difficult. The phony pitch gradually replaces rational discourse in the public sphere until many find themselves unable to tell the difference.
The voice of the advertisment is the voice of self-satisfied capitalism. “Everything is fine the way it is,” the voice says. “There are no real problems other than the problem of deciding what to buy next, what objects to acquire next, and how to best acquire them.” The commercial’s persuasive appeal, the need to buy the product, is always set against the background of an unquestioning acceptance of this situation as the only meaningful reality, the only happiness.
We can laugh at the blatant hard-sell techniques of old commercials from the 1950s. But the supposedly hip, humorous, smooth, ironic voice of the present-day ad campaign is no different in essence. Behind the slick veneer of the commercial is the grin of a fool. No rational person talks this way. People know this instinctively. Yet we have been conditioned to accept this language, this decadent form of speech, as an unquestioned and harmless part of our environment. Advertising presupposes stupidity as the normal, acceptable human condition. The ideal customer may wear a suit, drink the right vodka, and listen to indie rock, but his brain resembles that of the rube trembling with excitement when he gets the sweepstakes letter telling him that he “may already have won.”
There used to be a sense that advertising was only one small aspect of a well run business, and that business was only one of many aspects of a well functioning society. But now advertising dictates the campaigns of political candidates, and the methods by which government leaders communicate their actions and intent. Its methods have to a large part absorbed more traditional ideas of journalism. The “news” shows seek to agitate, inspire, and distract us, rather than truly inform. The blather about “values” that has been one of the favorite political dodges in recent decades ignores a basic truth—a society’s values can be easily discerned through the messages that dominate public life. Those messages, by a huge majority, can be summarized simply as “Buy now!” This has the effect of repressing true dialogue in the social, spiritual, educational, artistic, and political realms, and it does so without most of us being aware of it.
Do you remember what Mayor Giuliani’s advice was to a frightened New Yorkers just hours after 9-11? “Go shopping” he said. In that statement advertising was pushed to the level of geopolitical strategy. The important thing is to sell it, and when you succeed at selling it, the success of the “market” justifies everything.
The problem, then, is so much bigger than those horrible billboards blocking our view of the sunset. I’m not opposed to banning them though.The problem is really a new way of thinking and perceiving, a way exemplified by advertising but now influencing all aspects of society. It’s delusional because it filters everything through a paradigm of persuasion for profit, persuasion without reference to standards of truth and without a relationship to notions of the public good, the well being of the individual, or common good of society. The principle that opposes this new force is simple honesty. With the loss of this principle comes the inevitable destruction of culture and the gradual end of freedom.
To expose this way of thinking as false, then, implies the recognition that capitalism does not constitute a way of life, but only a single aspect of society. This aspect needs to be kept within bounds by an informed citizenry and a government that represents all of the people, not just the self interest of the salesman.
We can do better than we are doing.