Advertising: This Smut's For You

When rightwingers talk about a plot to undermine America's traditional values, they aren't as flaky as many liberals would like to believe. The Right is confused, however, about how the plot got started. The historical record is pretty clear. The aim, one conspirator wrote, was to replace the American work ethic, and traditional family and community concerns, with a cult of self-gratification. He foresaw a new culture in which the average American could "feel moral even when he is flirting, even when he is spending, even when he is not saving," and "demonstrate that the hedonistic approach to his life is a moral and not an immoral one." This was not Timothy Leary, Jane Fonda, or one of those "McGovernik" liberal straw men that House Speaker Newt Gingrich is so fond of dragging out. Rather it was Dr. Ernest Dichter, a father of modern advertising, writing to his corporate clients back in the fifties. Dichter's own approach to this countercultural mission--called "motivational research"--quickly grew passe. But he described with the innocence and candor of the fifties the basic message that has permeated the nation's life and culture ever since. The end-product of that message is the subject of a new book called Marketing Madness by Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Laurie Ann Mazur, a freelance writer. The title is unfortunate, suggesting as it does a kind of bemusement with those crazy guys on Madison Avenue. There is nothing cute or cuddly about what they have done to our culture. The corporate sector in America spends some $150 billion on marketing yearly, almost as much as the nation spends on higher education. It so saturates the nation's cognitive experience that the typical American will spend three years of his or her life watching TV ads alone. If there's a moment in your life when you might actually be able to stop and think, some corporate pitchman is rushing to get there first. TV screens are everywhere--in the waiting lounges airports, health clubs, public schools, even the Trailways Bus. The infamous Channel One, which has turned the classroom into a free-fire zone for candy bar and sneaker ads, makes perfect sense in light of this quote from Carol Herman, a senior vice president of Grey Advertising. "It isn't enough just to advertise on television," Ms. Herman advised potential clients. "You've got to reach the kids throughout their day--in school, as they're shopping at the mall ... or at the movies. You've got to become part of the fabric of their lives." The values this propaganda serves up, moreover, are the kind that, in a Mapplethorpe photograph, would provoke a volcanic eruption from the Right. The authors show one teen-magazine cover sponsored by Pepsi that, a few decades ago, would have appeared on the walls of auto repair shops in the seedier parts of town.The industry hits the absolute pits in the nation's ghettos. There aren't many billboards where the Republican leadership lives, but minority neighborhoods teem with them. One study in New Jersey found that over three-quarters of these were hawking cigarettes and booze, often with sultry, pre-coital images. You'd think Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition might take notice. But they've been busy blaming government and liberals for teen pregnancies and the moral crisis of the ghetto. Another casualty of the billions that advertisers pour into the nation's media is freedom of speech. The way the tobacco industry has squelched stories about the cancerous effects of smoking is by now well-known to readers of this magazine. From Helen Gurley Brown, whose Cosmopolitian magazine is a friendly venue for tobacco ads, the book offers this choice quote: "Having come from the advertising world myself," Ms. Brown said, "I think, 'Who needs someone you're paying millions of dollars a year to come back and bite you on the ankle?'" Cosmo doesn't, and most of the media don't either. A survey of editors in 1992 found that almost 90 percent said that advertisers try to influence stories, often successfully. Sheila Kaplan, a Washington writer, had to remove a reference to Phillip Morris from a story for Mademoiselle on women lobbyists when the company threatened to pull its ads. Even Saturday Night Live altered a spoof on the auto industry when General Motors, a major sponsor on the show, complained. In Russia you couldn't say anything bad about the government; in America, you can't criticize the sponsor, or even ignore it: Some years ago Ms. magazine ran a cover story on Russian women who were exiled for publishing underground feminist literature. The story won an award but Ms. lost the Revlon account for its efforts. In the cover photo, the Russian freedom fighters weren't wearing make-up. Marketing Madness is full of gems like this, including reproductions of actual ads. It will be a standard reference for anyone who writes about the commercial culture, or simply worries about it. In a just world, it would find its way into the nation's classrooms, for use when Channel One is running Nike and Snickers ads. I just wish the authors had developed the political implications a little more. They are sniffing around one of the central hypocrisies in American political life--the gap between the Right's moral preachments on the one hand, and its slavish support for a corporate economy that undermines those values at every turn. Dan Quayle gets great mileage out of attacking Murphy Brown but he conveniently ignores corporate sponsors like GM and IBM for whom the show delivers a target audience. The new majority works itself into a lather over a few dubious National Endowment of the Arts grants, the fruits of which only a few thousand Americans ever see. But in the face of Anheuser-Busch, R.J. Reynolds, General Motors and other pied pipers of hedonistic self-indulgence, Gingrich, Limbaugh, and the rest turn downright wimpy. The reason, this book suggests, is that the real theme of the Republican revolution, from right-wing radio to the Contract, comes straight from Helen Gurley Brown: Don't bite the people who sponsor your shows, or spend millions of dollars on your campaigns.

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