Donella Meadows' The Global Citizen, November 26, 1998

Mad About Ads

This month the Center for a New American Dream is running an e-mail discussion about commercialism in our lives. I have never seen such a hopping-mad bunch of messages. Rather than persuading us, the advertising industry seems to be infuriating us.

Here are a few snippets:

"What annoys me most is billboard advertising, which takes away common property (the view, the landscape) and turns it into private property to be bought and sold. It is visual pollution."

"Direct Mail is enemy number one. It has really gotten out of control at my house, where junk mail grossly outweighs any mail that I actually want."

"What I dislike is telephone marketing at home. My choices are to pay to have a little dot put next to my name (though the effectiveness of this is dubious), pay for an unlisted number, buy a phone that has caller ID.... I have to pay to keep the telemarketers at bay. There is something incredibly bizarre about that."

"I find the use of logos on clothing, particularly children's clothing, to be offensive. Why should I provide free advertising for Disney Corporation?" (Someone else on the list pointed out that it isn't free -- we pay for the products that turn us into walking corporate displays.)

"In my town a company has offered to build 100 bus shelters free of charge. In fact they are willing to pay the city $50 per shelter. These shelters will contain six-foot-tall lighted ads. Most disturbing to me, as a faithful bus rider, is that most of them will be cigarette ads."

"One of the advertising techniques I hate most is the panels on the inside of stalls in restrooms. Not only are you a captive audience -- the only way to avoid it is to close your eyes -- but it's insulting and invasive to be assaulted with ads while doing something so personal."

"The commercialism in the schools, be it through Channel One, "Coke Days," free book-covers, corporate-sponsored curricula, etc., is something I find very offensive. Children should absolutely be shielded from this kind of commercial intrusion. It's one thing to encounter this stuff at the mall, but a school setting, with its imprimatur of authority, should be off limits."

"I am a mental health counsellor. I am very upset that the tools of psychology are being exported to the advertising industry. The advertising onslaught comprises arguably the largest psychological project ever undertaken. Yet it remains largely ignored by mainstream psychology. The use of psychological expertise to manipulate people for economic gain rather than for fostering well-being is nowhere mentioned in the ethical code of the American Psychological Association. These abuses need to be exposed, challenged, and regulated."

"I believe mass advertising is immoral. Its immorality is not a matter of what it attempts to sell, but how it treats people. Kant says it is immoral to treat people merely as means and not ends. I would go so far as to say that the problem with advertising is the same as the problem with slavery. Under slavery people were bought and sold. Under advertising people's attention is bought and sold."

Intrusion. Immorality. Manipulation. Pollution. Insulting, offensive junk. The advertising people are not exactly winning our hearts and minds, are they?

When the complainers got to talking about what to do, some of them said they have uncoupled themselves from TV and malls and junk mail. Others said they've worked hard to educate their children to be skeptical of ads. Then someone asked why we should have to teach our children not to trust. It's like equipping them with gas masks or sending them out with bullet-proof vests instead of eliminating the poison gas or the bullets.

If I wanted to be charitable, I could say that advertisers are not evil, insulting people, they are caught in an evil, insulting system, one that forces them to weasel into our minds more and more effectively simply because all the others are doing so. It's like talking loud to be heard at a cocktail party, which forces everyone else to talk louder. The more ads fill up the spaces in our lives, the more advertisers have to find new spaces -- on computer screens, on the backs of airplane seats, on public radio, in sports arenas, in the sky. In the midst of the din, if they behave politely, if they don't scream at us and jump out from unexpected places, we'll never notice they're there.

That system will force them to get more intrusive, until we stop them. We can change the system, by taxing ads, by insisting on truth in their content (not just in words, but in images and innuendo -- like not implying that beer drinking attracts babes), and above all by drawing clear lines. That is commercial space; this is not. Not our homes or mailboxes or public spaces or schools, not places where we are captive audiences, not our children's minds. Several European countries flat-out ban advertising to children.

Why don't we?