by Arlen Grossman
“Advertising is a racket, like the movies and the brokerage business. You cannot be honest without admitting that its constructive contribution to humanity is exactly minus zero.”
–F. Scott Fitzgerald
How much commercialism are we willing to tolerate? Advertising in America continues to grow and permeate nearly every aspect of our culture. It’s hard to be or go anywhere without someone trying to sell you something.
Commercials multiply and nibble away more time from our favorite TV shows and radio stations. The internet flashes countless pop-ups and pulsating ads from every direction. Movie theaters run commercials before the trailers, newspapers run ads right on the front page, and colorful advertising covers supermarket floors and the insides of our shopping carts.
Good luck finding the table of contents as you scan the endless pages of advertising in the front of your favorite magazine. Ads and commercials cover more and more space inside athletic stadiums, on gas station pumps, and even in public restrooms. Advertising has infiltrated schools, and product placements are surreptitiously slipped into movies and TV shows. Ad agencies are working overtime creating newer and more invasive ways of promoting their products.
“We never know where the consumer is going to be at any point in time, so we have to find a way to be everywhere,” explains Linda Kaplan Thaler, a New York ad agency executive. “Ubiquity is the new exclusivity.”
So fasten your seat belts, American consumer. Advertising in the United States has grown eighty-fold since the 1920s, with 2011 revenue predicted to be $173 billion out of a global total of $474 billion.
But is all this advertising a good or a bad thing? Last October the United Kingdom-based World Wildlife Federation and the Public Interest Research Centre tackled that question with a report titled “Think of Me As Evil? Opening the Ethical Debates in Advertising.” It presented considerable evidence that “advertising may be encouraging society to save less, borrow more, work harder and consume greater quantities of material goods,” and concluded that we as a society need to be paying more attention to these issues.
According to the report, there exists a “work-spend cycle whereby advertising heightens the expectations about the acceptable material standard of living, leading people to work longer hours in order to attain a disposable income that allows them to meet those expectations.”
The study points out that advertising encourages materialism and consumption, values detrimental to our sense of family and community, and diminishes interest in preserving the environment.
The report contains recommendations for minimizing “the negative impact that advertising has on cultural values,” and reducing “the pervasiveness of advertising, reversing the trend to communicate with us as consumers in every facet of our lives.” One of the co-authors of the study noted that usage of the word “consumer” began to eclipse the word “citizen” during the mid-1970s.
Even harsher criticism comes from Kalle Lasn, co-founder of Adbusters, the Canadian magazine which helped launch Occupy Wall Street, when he describes advertising as “the most prevalent and toxic of the mental pollutants. From the moment your radio alarm sounds in the morning to the wee hours of late-night TV microjolts of commercial pollution flood into your brain at the rate of around 3,000 marketing messages per day. Every day an estimated twelve billion display ads, 3 million radio commercials and more than 200,000 television commercials are dumped into North America’s collective unconscious.”
The growth of advertising and our consumer culture appears unending and, to this point in time, so is our tolerance of it.