The Columbus Free Press
Hucksters Are Milking a Sacred Media Cow
by Norman Solomon, Nov. 22, 1996
People who criticize "the media" for various sins -- real or imagined -- rarely bother to mention advertising. What an omission!
Ads are just about everywhere we look. They come at us from all directions, through all kinds of media. And nowhere is advertising more obtrusive, or more truly manipulative, than on television.
We're accustomed to facing a gauntlet of hucksters when we sit in front of a TV set. Steady onslaughts of slick visuals and hyped-up soundtracks are routine: another day, another few hundred commercials.
While people with differing political views argue about bias in news coverage, the constant din of TV advertising eludes scrutiny. But -- if we could stop treating the ad industry as a sacred media cow -- a wide cross section of Americans might join together to challenge the never-ending siege of commercials that we now take for granted.
TV commercials are running roughshod on airwaves that supposedly belong to the public. Tremendous resources are poured into producing ads that lure, cajole and, yes, insult us. Advertisers fill the air with demeaning techniques to boost sales. Why don't we put up a fight?
We live in an extremely advertised society. Last year, spending for ads in the United States topped $160 billion -- accounting for nearly half of worldwide expenditures on advertising. Such whopping figures are tributes to this nation's ad business.
But a new documentary, "The Ad and the Ego," tells a very different story. The one-hour video (available from California Newsreel based in San Francisco) exposes the grim underside of nonstop advertising glitz. For instance:
Once in a while, news media find fault with particular ads -- teens modeling pants in nearly pornographic poses or cartoonish cigarette mascots that target youngsters. More routinely, business pages inform readers about the ups and downs of ad agencies. But, from coast to coast, a daily barrage of advertising continues to be a pernicious and triumphant force -- dominant because it remains largely unquestioned.
- "The most powerful propaganda system...doesn't allow itself to be recognized as propaganda," says communications professor Sut Jhally, "and I think advertising is that kind of system."
- Advertising isn't only about selling products. Media analyst Jean Kilbourne observes that it also "sells values, it sells images, it sells concepts of love and sexuality, of romance, of success and, perhaps above all, of normalcy. To a very great extent, it tells us who we are and who we should be."
- Many think that ads only influence other people. Sociologist Bernard McGrane ranks this as one of the ad industry's "most brilliant accomplishments -- to get us to believe that we're not affected by advertising." This widespread belief prevents us from being on guard as ads besiege us.
- We don't see advertising clearly, contends marketing professor Richard Pollay, "because we're surrounded by it in multiple media all the time." Ads are "so much a part of our environment that we don't even think about them," Jhally points out. We may try to think critically about news reports or political speeches. But what about the TV commercials that incessantly bombard living rooms across America?
- "Advertising as a totality repeats certain kinds of consistent messages," says media scholar Stuart Ewen of Hunter College in New York. Adds McGrane: "It's like breathing the air. You don't notice the pollution."
- Ads keep telling us that we won't be OK without a new purchase, often touted as a virtual panacea. "In addition to selling individual products," Kilbourne comments, "advertising teaches all of us to be -- above all -- consumers. It teaches us that happiness can be bought, that there are instant solutions to life's complex problems and that products can fulfill us, can meet our deepest human needs."
Repeated endlessly, the sensual images of TV commercials create shimmering allure for brand names. The production values are exceedingly high, but the human values are painfully degraded. Today's televised ads, marvels of technical ingenuity, deftly link purchases to heartfelt needs. If those commercials are successful, we forget that what we crave most of all -- genuine love, joy, community and peace of mind -- can't be bought at any price.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist and co-author (with Jeff Cohen) of Through the Media Looking Glass: Decoding Bias and Blather in the News.
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