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There are few paradoxes as strong as advertising--a form of communication so helpful to our economy and the well being of so many people, yet so destructive to our moral, physical, and emotional growth and fitness.  Advertising has helped us by creating an economy based on spending, which keeps money flowing, which keeps businesses alive, which keeps jobs available.  Yet how much damage has advertising done to our psyches?  The answer to that question may never be provided.

Advertising is based on creating dissatisfaction, on making people want more than they have, look different than they look, go places they've never gone.  It's based on the idea of creating a need where previously no need was seen.  A "Calvin and Hobbes" strip put it well, when Hobbes points out to Calvin that his emotional well being depended on a need that wasn't there until he happened to read an advertisement for a product.  This kind of dissatisfaction, though, is destructive rather than productive.  It's dissatisfaction based on ownership (or lack of), materialism, and aesthetic appeal, but not dissatisfaction based on the truly productive ways of improving ourselves.

Dissatisfaction isn't necessarily a negative trait.  If I'm dissatisfied with the way I treat other people, then I look for ways to improve that treatment.  If I'm dissatisfied with my job, I work harder to try for a promotion or I look for a different job.  But advertising depends on creating dissatisfaction on a material, aesthetic, or sexual level.  How many people in the world truly look like the men and women in the ads and commercials?  Look around--you know the answer.

Yet how many young women (and increasingly young men) end up with eating disorders because they're trying to present an image just like one they've seen on television or in their magazines?  They don't listen when their friends and families tell them that they're too thin, because they're just where they want to be.  The problem, of course, is that they don't realize why they want to be where they are.

They've bought into the reality offered by advertisers, the reality that says you'll be more popular if you look a certain way, if you drive a certain car, if you wear a certain brand of jeans or t-shirt.  It seems so obvious that it's almost painful to see it, but try telling them that they're wearing a certain brand name because they've been victimized by advertisers, and they'll deny the possibility completely.  The tragedy is that wearing those clothes or buying that car won't have the effect that the advertisers have promised, and disappointment will join the dissatisfaction, just adding to the problems that we all have to deal with in our lives.

Advertisers often work at eroding our moral character, also.  One of the more offensive styles of advertising shows that lying is acceptable if we get what we need or want through it, or if it can help us save face.  One example of this is a current Dunkin' Donuts ad, in which a pregnant woman pulls up to the drive-through, pretending to be silencing kids in the back.  She buys four of a certain product, hushing the kids the whole time, but it turns out that all the children sounds are on tape, and she's deceiving the drive-through person in order to buy four of the product for herself without being embarrassed.

Why lie about that?  What's wrong with going through a drive-through and buying four of a product, even if it is for yourself?  The advertisers are implying there's something wrong with that, and there isn't.  What are kids learning from this?

I can think of two more ad campaigns that focus on lying as a means to an end; both of them, though, concern people on the job.  First, there are two "traffic reporters" working for a radio station.  We see their bird's-eye view of the highway, we hear them giving the traffic report, and we hear the sounds of the helicopter they're supposedly in.  Then they pop the tape of helicopter sounds out of the tape player, and they drive off from the hilltop they're on.  The ad is for an SUV that can take them to such places easily and quickly.  I guess it's supposed to be funny, but it's simply dishonest.  Ask yourself this: what would happen to you on the job if you pulled a stunt like that?  But again, what are kids learning from seeing such behavior on a regular basis on the parts of adults, who are supposed to be role models?

The other one was from Pizza Hut, and three or four people from the same office are in a car when they drive by the Pizza Hut.  They see an advertised special, and they decide to stop and eat.  Then we hear them calling the office on the cell phone, and they tell their boss or co-workers that the traffic is horrible, and they're not going to make it back for quite a while.  They're lying, for the camera shows the car on an almost-empty residential street.  Again, someone in an ad firm thought this type of dishonesty is funny, and made a commercial showing lying as one of those funny little quirks of people.  Why couldn't they get on the phone and say, "Hey, we're starving, so we'll be about a half-hour later than we planned.  We'll work an extra half-hour when we get back"?  But that would be honest (do I answer my own question?), and the "humor" would be lost.

So what do we do?  Ban advertising?  Absolutely not--that would run against everything that we hold dear, our freedom and our economy and our ability to choose.  But we need to start teaching kids early just what advertisers are trying to accomplish, and how.  We need to help them build an immunity to the wants and needs that are being created by people who don't even know who we are, and who don't even care, as long as we spend our money on their products. We need to show kids the results advertisers are looking for, and teach them the methods they're using.

Advertising can be very positive, and there are many positive advertisers out there who are doing great things with the ads they pay for.  We applaud them. But we have to be aware of how they're manipulating us--and advertising is a form of manipulation--if we want to be satisfied with our lives.  Let them do what they will, but let us see through their methods and deal with them on a personal basis, keeping ourselves and our minds healthy and whole, not becoming dissatisfied with who we are and what we have simply because someone's trying to sell us a product or an idea.  Live your life--be you, not what someone who will never meet you wants you to be or thinks you should be.

  

  

The cumulative effect of initiating our children into a consumerist ethos
at an even earlier age may be profound.  As kids drink in the world
around them, many of their cultural encounters--from books to movies to
TV--have become little more than sales pitches, devoid of any moral beyond
a plea for purchase.  Even their classrooms are filled with corporate logos.
Instead of transmitting a sense of who we are and what we hold important,
today's marketing-driven culture is instilling in them the sense that little
exists without a sales pitch attached and that self-worth is
something you buy at a shopping mall.

"No one ad is so bad," says Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist and author
of The Shelter of Each Other, a best-seller about family life.  "But the
combination of 400 ads a day creates in children a combination
of narcissism, entitlement, and dissatisfaction."

David Leonhardt and Kathleen Kerwin
Hey Kids, Buy This!

   

There are huge advertising budgets only when there's no difference between
the products. If the products really were different, people would buy the one
that's better. Advertising teaches people not to trust their judgment.
Advertising teaches people to be stupid.

Carl Sagan
Contact

  

Isn't it possible that advertising as a whole is a fantastic fraud,
presenting an image of America taken seriously by no one, least
of all the advertising people who create it?

David Riesman
The Lonely Crowd

  

   
  
It is really not so repulsive to see the poor asking for money as to see
the rich asking for more money.  And advertisement
is the rich asking for more money.

G.K. Chesterton
The New Jerusalem
  

Advertising treats all products with the reverence and the
seriousness due to sacraments.

Thomas Merton
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

  
The paradox [of advertising] is that we get two sets of messages coming at us every day.  One is the "permissive" message, saying, "Buy, spend, get it now, indulge yourself," because your wants are also your needs--and you have plenty of needs that you don't even know about because our consumer culture hasn't told you about them yet!  The other we would call, for lack of a better word, a "puritanical" message, which says, "Work hard, save, defer gratification, curb your impulses."  What are the psychological and social consequences of getting such totally contradictory messages all the time?  This is what you would call "cognitive dissonance," and the psychological consequence is a pervasive anxiety, upon which the political right has been very adept at mobilizing and building.

The puritanical message comes to us from a variety of sources: from school, from church, often from parents, and every so often from political figures when they refer to "traditional values."  Hard work, family loyalty, the capacity to defer gratification--these are supposed to be core, American values, the traits that made our country great and so forth.

But the permissive message, as I said, comes to us chiefly in the form of advertising, which is a force to which family therapists should perhaps devote more attention.  Advertising is inescapable; it is fed to us in dozens of forms and in more and more settings.

Barbara Ehrenreich
Spend and Save

   

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I just saw an ad the other day that I couldn't believe.  There was
this woman--and I think it's degrading to womankind--she was going
out of her mind over a new product called "A Thousand Flushes."
Here she was in her toilet, saying, "Oh, I love this product!" and,
"My life is complete!"
  
Good God--if your joy depends on "A Thousand Flushes," you're sick!

Leo Buscaglia

 

If a person had delivered up your body to some passer-by,
you would certainly be angry.  And do you feel no shame in
delivering up your own mind to any reviler,
to be disconcerted and confounded?

Epictetus

   

All the papers that matter live off their advertisements, and the
advertisers exercise an indirect censorship over news.

George Orwell
Why I Write

 
 
One of my favorite students from a few years ago was named Ramon.  He was a great person--he tried his best at all he did, he worked hard at learning from everyone he met, and he was a very giving soul.  There was one thing about him, though, that I was always able to give him a hard time about: his clothes.  More often than not, Ramon would be dressed top to bottom in Nike clothing, and the swoosh and the brand name were on his hat, his shirt, his pants, and his shoes.

"How much is Nike paying you to advertise for them?" I used to ask him, and he used to tell me that Nike wasn't paying him anything--he was paying Nike for the "honor" of advertising for them.

This is one of the sadder tendencies of our commercial culture-- advertisers are recruiting people to live life with their logos on their clothing, their cars, their uniforms, their backpacks.  You name it, and it's probably got a highly visible logo on it.  If you're an athlete or actor or any other extremely popular person, they'll pay you an awful lot of money to wear their clothing, but the rest of us have to pay for the privilege.  Tiger Woods gets paid millions of dollars every year to wear Nike clothing, but Ramon has to pay inflated prices in order to be able to advertise for Nike.

How do we get so wrapped up in the desire to have certain clothing that we're willing to pay to wear their ads?  I know what the psychologists and psychoanalysts would say, but their explanation is rather long and drawn out.  As simply as possible, it seems that we're trying to send a message about our own tastes and preferences to other people by deciding to wear certain logos.  In theory, this expression should attract others with similar tastes and preferences, which should help us to make contact with other people who are like us.

In practice, though, the wearing of logos acts more like a barrier on both ends--sender and receiver.  Many people read the logos to mean "If you don't like what I like, stay away."  This isn't an unjustified interpretation of the message, as many people (especially high school students) actually use logos in this way.  Much of their self-esteem and self-image is wrapped up in that logo and the message it sends, and which person who wears an over-priced Tommy Hilfiger shirt to school wants to be seen hanging around with someone who's wearing a shirt from K-Mart or Wal-Mart?  The student wearing the Nike clothes feels somewhat superior to the kid wearing the no-name shoes from a department store.

This seems to be a rather natural symptom of a society that is increasingly fragmented, among people who more and more have to SEARCH for an identity, for their parents aren't sharing theirs any more.  Unfortunately, the ad campaigns teach them to search outside themselves, to try to find identity (and thus fulfillment) in things that have nothing to do with their real lives.

Bill Watterson, in one of his typically perceptive "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strips, says, "A good shirt turns the wearer into a walking corporate billboard.  It says to the world, 'My identity is so wrapped up in what I buy that I paid the company to advertise its products!'"  He ends the strip with the line, "Endorsing products is the American way to express individuality."

It's a rather scary thought--our young people are learning that their identities are somehow connected to what they buy and what they own, despite thousands of years of wise women and men pointing out that this attitude is harmful to us as human beings, for it keeps our focus on external aspects of our lives.  And as we focus more on the external, we're less and less able to see clearly what we need to see internally.

There's no way to control the wants and needs of others, but there certainly are ways to educate people.  When my stepdaughters want clothes with a certain label, we'll buy them if they're reasonably priced, but we'll always let them know that their choice of clothing simply because of the brand name is exactly what the corporation wants of them--free advertising of their products.  And we'll never pay a high price for any clothing when more reasonably priced clothing is available in the next rack.

I don't know if Ramon loved his Nike clothing, or if he thought that the clothes contributed to his identity.  I do know that Ramon didn't need the clothing--he was a great person, and his personality spoke volumes on its own.  I also know, though, that the clothing acted as a barrier to some people who might otherwise have found him to be much more approachable.  Ramon was not Nike, and Nike was not Ramon, but Nike sure had shoved itself into his life and his consciousness.

   

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The newspaper ad showed photographs of two boats:  One was an extravagant cruiser splashing boldly through a small wave.  The other was a simple rowboat with two oars.

The cruiser, indicated the ad, was what you'd have if you did business with that financial service provider.  The rowboat was what you'd have if you did not.

Though deceptively simple, the ad illustrates the materialistic equation that tugs at our hearts, minds--and souls--each day:  the idea that bigger is better.  The idea that something garish is better than something simple.  The idea that something fast is better than something slow.  And--no pun intended--the idea that if we do not choose big, garish, and fast, then we're somehow missing the boat.

At its root, the ad wants you to feel unhappy, discontent, lacking, inferior, temporary.  Because materialism--in essence, the doctrine suggesting that things, not relationships, make the world go around--is a replacement for something else.  And when we're content with that something else--the something else you can't buy with a credit card--we won't need to adorn our lives with the unnecessary goods and services being flashed before us at every turn.

Bob Welch
The Things That Matter Most

  
Half the work that is done in this world is to make things appear what they are not.

E. R. Beadle
   

As the wall between advertising and content erodes, the aptitude required to
understand the functions and design of media content becomes more complex.

Matthew P. McAllister

  

What editors are obliged to appear to say that men want from
women is actually what their advertisers want from women.

Naomi Wolf
The Beauty Myth

   

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What is the difference between unethical and ethical advertising?
Unethical advertising uses falsehoods to deceive the public;
ethical advertising uses truth to deceive the public.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson
   

Let advertisers spend the same amount of money improving their product
that they do on advertising and they wouldn't have to advertise it.

Will Rogers

   

Advertisers in general bear a large part of the responsibility
for the deep feelings of inadequacy that drive women
to psychiatrists, pills, or the bottle.

Marya Mannes (1964)

   

   
Our society's values are being corrupted by advertising's insistence
on the equation:  Youth equals popularity, popularity equals success,
success equals happiness.

John Fisher
   

Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don't need,
with money they don't have, in order to impress others who don't care,
is probably the phoniest field in existence today.

Victor Papanek
Design for the Real World

  

If I were asked to name the deadliest subversive force within capitalism--the
single greatest source of its waning morality--I should without hesitation name
advertising.  How else should one identify a force that debases language, drains
thought, and undoes dignity?  If the barrage of advertising, unchanged in its tone
and texture, were devoted to some other purpose--say the exaltation of the
public sector--it would be recognized in a moment for the corrosive element
that it is.  But as the voice of the private sector it escapes this startled notice.  I
mention it only to point out that a deep source of moral decay for capitalism
arises from its own doings, not from that of its governing institutions.

Robert L. Hellbroner

    

   

History will see advertising as one of the real evil things of our time.
It is stimulating people constantly to want things, want this, want that.

Malcolm Muggeridge

   

The trouble with us in America isn't that the poetry of life
has turned to prose, but that it has turned to advertising copy.

Louis Kronenberger

   

You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements.

Norman Douglas

   
The advertising industry is a huge industry, and anyone with their eyes open can see what it's for. First of all, the existence of the advertising industry is a sign of the unwillingness to let markets function. If you had markets, you wouldn't have advertising. Like, if somebody has something to sell, they say what it is and you buy it if you want. But when you have oligopolies, they want to stop price wars. They have to have product differentiation, and you've got to turn to diluting people into thinking you should buy this rather than that. Or just getting them to consume--if you can get them to consume, they're trapped, you know.

It starts with the infant, but now there's a huge part of the advertising industry which is designed to capture children. And it's destroying childhood. Anyone who has any experience with children can see this. It's literally destroying childhood. Kids don't know how to play. They can't go out and, you know, like when you were a kid or when I was a kid, you have a Saturday afternoon free. You go out to a field and you're finding a bunch of other kids and play ball or something. You can't do anything like that. It's got to be organized by adults, or else you're at home with your gadgets, your video games.

But the idea of going out just to play with all the creative challenge, those insights: that's gone. And it's done consciously to trap children from infancy and then to turn them into consumer addicts.

Noam Chomsky

  
   

Many media commercials encourage us to believe that if we buy
a certain product, we can be physically appealing, or popular, or
successful.  According to the commercial message, it may be easy
to make friends and influence people if we simply do what we're
told to do.  It would be wonderful if that were true, but unfortunately
life does not seem to work that way.  What is inside of us can be
much more important and influential than what is outside.

John Marks Templeton
Worldwide Laws of Life

   

In a culture that is becoming ever more story-stupid, in which a representative
of the Coca-Cola company can, with a straight face, pronounce, as he donates
a collection of archival Coca-Cola commercials to the Library of Congress,
that "Coca-Cola has become an integral part of people's lives by helping to tell
these stories," it is perhaps not surprising that people have trouble teaching and
receiving a novel as complex and flawed as Huck Finn, but it is even more
urgent that we learn to look passionately and technically at stories, if only to
protect ourselves from the false and manipulative ones being circulated among us.

George Saunders
The Braindead Megaphone

   

Advertising is the modern substitute for argument; its
function is to make the worse appear the better.

George Santayana

    



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One the one hand, our economists treat human beings as rational actors
making choices to maximize their own economic benefit. On the other
hand, the same companies that hire those economists also pay for
advertising campaigns that use the raw materials of myth and magic to
encourage people to act against their own best interests, whether it's a
matter of buying overpriced fizzy sugar water or the much more serious
matter of continuing to support the unthinking pursuit of business
as usual in the teeth of approaching disaster.

John Michael Greer
The Long Descent
   

Once a culture becomes entirely advertising friendly, it ceases to be a culture at all.

Mark Crispin Miller

   

All of us somehow felt that the next battleground was going to be culture.  We
all felt somehow that our culture had been stolen from us--by commercial forces,
by advertising agencies, by TV broadcasters.  It felt like we were no longer singing
our songs and telling stories, and generating our culture from the bottom up, but
now we were somehow being spoon-fed this commercial culture top down.

Kalle Lasn

  

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Read more about the book here.

   
To build a sustainable future will require dramatic changes in the overall levels and patterns of consumption in developed nations.  To change consumption levels and patterns will require a new consciousness and new consensus among millions of persons--and this will require dramatic changes in the consumerist messages we give ourselves through the mass media, particularly television.  In the United States 98 percent of all homes have a TV set, and the average person watches more than four hours of television per day.  In addition, a majority of people get a majority of their news from this source.  What is more, the average person will see more than 35,000 commercials each year.  Television is more powerful than either the schools or the workplace in creating our shared view of reality and social identity.  Not surprisingly, then, television is the most powerful instrument in developed nations for promoting either consumption or conservation.

Currently, the television industry is aggressively promoting high-consumption lifestyles and ignoring the re-definition of the "good life" that is needed if we are to build a more sustainable future.  The television industry is understandably unsympathetic to simple ways of living.  Television stations make their profits by delivering the largest possible audience of potential customers to corporate advertisers.  Mass entertainment is used to capture the attention of a mass audience that is then appealed to by mass advertising in order to promote mass consumption.  The television industry deliberately ignores the views and values of those who have little to spend (the poor) and those who choose to spend little (the frugal person or family that is more concerned with the quality of being than the quantity of having).

The profound consumerist bias of contemporary television creates an impossible double bind:  People use the consumption levels and patterns portrayed in TV advertising to evaluate their levels of personal well-being while those same consumption patterns are simultaneously devastating the environment and resource base on which our future depends.  If the old adage that "one picture is worth a thousand words" is correct, then the 35,000 or so commercials that people see each year represent the equivalent of 35 million words (!) about the seeming importance of material consumption to our happiness and satisfaction with life.

These commercials are far more than a pitch for a particular product--they are also advertisements for the attitudes, values, and lifestyles that surround consumption of that product.  The clothing, cars, settings, and other elements that create the context for an advertisement send strong, implicit messages as to the standards of living and patterns of behavior that are the norm for society.

Not surprisingly, more frugal patterns of living and consuming seldom appear on television.  These themes would threaten the legitimacy and potency of the television-induced cultural hypnosis generated by a self-perpetuating cycle of mass entertainment, mass advertising, and mass consumption.  By default, industrial societies are left with programming and advertising that selectively portray and powerfully reinforce a materialistic orientation toward life.

Duane Elgin
Voluntary Simplicity
   

   

  

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