Americans spend thousands of hours every year watching commercials and viewing advertisements in print and online media. While I occasionally hear complaints, those complaints mostly center around the interruption to their favorite television show or the aggravation of dealing with popups and the other aggressive ads that take over your internet browser. Rarely do people seem concerned about the content of the advertising they watch or the effect it has on the watcher.
Advertisements are designed to convince the consumer of something. The goals vary. I often watch TV for a few hours before retiring for the night. Most of the ads I see could be translated as some variation on the following:
- I will be happier/healthier if I purchase this product. (If only it were so easy. No soap or grooming product I’ve tried has shifted my mood so much as a millimeter. Nor, for that matter, has one ever gotten me laid.)
- I should feel good about this company. (It may contribute millions of pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere every year and pay no taxes, but it’s made up of people just like me, so how could it possibly be bad.)
- This political candidate has my best interests at heart. The other one does not. (I’m actually more concerned about each candidate’s policy initiatives. But those are rarely mentioned in ads—and never in enough detail to allow any rational evaluation of the initiative or the candidate. )
None of the claims implicit or explicit in the advertisements I watched last night were based on anything resembling truth. Not a single one. Some were more subtle in their lies than others, but all of the ads were designed to make me think or feel things that were not supported by fact or reasonable analysis. Yes, burning rubber doing donuts in a parking lot does look fun, but I do not need, nor do I want to pay for the gasoline guzzled by a 300 horsepower muscle car. All of the messages encouraged me to behave in a way which would serve the interests of the company or organization sponsoring the advertisement. Rarely would those coincide with my own. Adults presumably have a greater capacity than children to discern truth from fiction, and thus, to shield themselves from any ill effect from all the messages blaring from every television and computer. But even if I discount the possibility of damage to the mature, according to statisticsbrain.com, the average child will watch 16,000 commercials in a year. What effect does all that advertising have on children whose capacity for rational thought is not fully developed? If nothing else, think of the last time you saw a child screaming for candy in the grocery store.
During the recent presidential election I had to assume that one of the candidates would probably represent my interests better than the other, but none of the ads I saw in the run-up to November 8 were useful determining which one that might be. So Hillary Clinton will do things to benefit families and the middle class. What things, exactly? Are her proposals likely to get past Congress? Nevertheless, I expect the ads were convincing to some voters. After the election, many pundits speculated as to why voters voted the way they did. Personally, I was amazed how many voters were willing to ignore Donald Trumps many offensive statements and vote for him despite any misgivings. Some were clearly swayed by the vilification of “Crooked Hillary” by the Right. (“Lock her up!” Trump supporters chanted. For what, exactly? If were any real evidence of wrongdoing, she would have been prosecuted before she received the majority of the popular vote. Trump, on the other hand, has been party to some 4,000 lawsuits in the past thirty years and is named 75 ongoing ones—this according to USA Today. Crooked indeed!) I wonder if some voters weren’t so numbed by the messages on television—and so distrustful of them—that they simply discounted everything they heard and picked their candidate simply because they perceived him to be more of a change from the current—disappointing—one.
This year, my National Public Radio station significantly increased the number of corporate sponsorship messages they air. Worse yet, they began to broadcast out-and-out advertisements (as well as more frequent promotions of their own content). I feel betrayed. The unspoken contract to which I have been a party for years has been that NPR will not broadcast ads. In return, I will assume less bias in their stories, and I will pay for the privilege of listening to this unbiased content with regular donations. No public discussion, as far as I am aware, proceeded this change of policy. My response has been to redirect my giving to other causes.
Can it possibly be a good thing to expose ourselves to a barrage of untruth every day? I have heard marketing apologists argue that the best ads simply bring to a person’s attention to a product, company, issue, or candidate that they might not otherwise know about. While this is certainly true, it absurdly reductive. Ask yourself this: are the products advertised the most the best ones on the market? Are they any better than the no-name equivalents next to them on the supermarket shelf? They are certainly more expensive. What about the cholesterol medicines pushed on television? Are they better than the generic equivalents? What about other treatments? Shouldn’t my doctor be making such assessments based on clinical data rather than ad-prompted patient requests? Capitalists may argue that exposure to advertising is the inevitable price of economic progress. I would like to examine this idea more closely, for it seems to me that the current state of our country may be the result of a Faustian bargain.