[ADVERTISING’s] ASSAULT ON THE MIND
from Charles E. Lindblom’s The Market
System (Yale 2001, pp. 216-20)
Some sales promotion is informational – it tells a consumer what is for sale, where, and at what price – but the problem is that much of it is noninformational or misinformational. As is evident to all of us who are appealed to by sales promotion, much of it is designed to move the consumer by emotional appeal, to thwart rational deliberation, and to obfuscate. Pepsi is an "up thing" according to an ad, something to be identified with good spirits or perhaps the phallus. The message is in any case not informative on what the drink contains or in what respects Coca-Cola is the same or different. It is mind-rattling rather than helpful to thoughtful choice. The problem posed by the steady flow of seductive communications from market elites [i.e., entrepreneurs], then, is not that they decide for consumers what they are to buy. It is that they degrade the mind or, more precisely, degrade the human capacity to use the mind.
Can that be proved? No, I think not. But it is a conclusion also hard to deny. A reasonable suspicion - to understate it - is that the messages of market elites constitute a twofold assault on the mind, the effects of which are all the more grave because government elites join in the assault. The first assault might be called distraction. Market elites in particular cry constantly for the attention of customers and drench them in torrents of persuasion. Sales promotion and public relations, both commercial and political, are industries in themselves. Their communications everywhere catch our eyes and ears. Market elite persuasion of mass is so persistent and relentless, so widespread, and so inventive in its appeals that one must ask how much room it leaves in the mind for thinking about other things - or thinking at all rather than simply reacting. What room for conversation, introspection, speculation, creativity? How much room for thinking about anything other than possible purchases?
The second assault is obfuscation. As we see it about us, sales promotion and political persuasion deal heavily in images and slogans. They often intend to confuse rather than clarify, giving not a reason to choose but a reason-overriding impulse. They throw an array of influences at our minds that one might think to be a checklist of tactics for rendering a mind incompetent. Yes, they are often entertaining. But perhaps, as in a recent book title, we are "amusing ourselves to death."
You can judge the strength of these two assaults by counting and reflecting critically on the messages that will reach you, say, in the next twenty-four hours. For sales messages, you know that usually you are asked to buy not for a reason given but in response to visual and aural patterns. And you know that you will often be lied to: "only Bayer can . . . " is not true.
Much of the time, recipients or targets do not realize that they are receiving a message. Teaching materials provided by corporations for the classroom often leave children and teachers unaware of their ideological content. The children do not distinguish ideology from other content, and teachers often do not pause to reflect. In the "oil shocks" of the 1970s, when oil shortage in the United States stimulated new proposals for government regulation of the petroleum industry, few television viewers noted that petroleum commercials played up with new emphasis the capacity of the industry to find all the oil needed - pictures, for example, of heroic workers on storm-ridden offshore oil rigs. The commercials made no explicit reference to government or any political issues, but the message to consumers was one of confidence in the industry. Nor do Americans realize that frequent recent editorial opinion on the excesses of litigation - depicting America as becoming a nation of quarrelers - derives from public relations efforts of business groups hoping to weaken government regulation.
As early as 1950 in the United States, nearly half the contents of the best newspapers and nearly all the contents of the lesser papers were estimated to come from public relations releases. That is in addition to paid advertising space. Is this assault on the mind becoming intensified? World over, advertising has grown three times faster than the global population. And many observers call attention to what they consider a continuing degradation of discourse. Public issues are increasingly aired not through the exchange of sustained coherent argument but by fragmentary question-and-answer or by soundbite sloganeering. The average interval of uninterrupted speech on television by U.S. presidential candidates dropped from an already deplorable 42.3 seconds in 1968 to an abysmal 9.8 seconds by 1988.
All over the world, the days when a candidate or official could educate constituents, thus playing the classic leadership role, seem to be receding. Politics, it is now often said, is huckstering. As for communication from the market elite on products, its mixture of emptiness, confusion, and deceit may have descended to a level below which there is not much room to drop further. The indisputable benefits of literacy and the mass media have come at a heavy cost.
Some of these trends in relations between the market elite and customers may be slowed or stopped by a new growth of multilateral communication through the Internet. A consulting firm, addressing prospective business clients, reminds them: "In the new electronic economy, potential buyers can print out a dozen independent reviews of your product in minutes with a few clicks of a mouse." To which it adds: "Knowledge is power, and suddenly your customers are awash in it."
In some quarters, feelings run high and biases deep on the effects of the sales-promotion and public-relations industries on the minds on which they so steadily seek to bring their distracting and confusing efforts. Some people cannot bear to acknowledge that these industries, especially sales promotion, are rivals to public education. Nor will they reflect that this industry is at war with the education "industry": the one assaulting the mind, the other often seeking, among its other functions, to inform and exercise it. The sales-promotion industry's disposition toward truth is roughly the same as its disposition toward misrepresentation, falsehood, and obfuscation: within some legal limits, use it if it works. The education industry tries to give to the pursuit of truth a standing denied to misrepresentation, falsehood, and obfuscation.
If we simply look about us at both sales promotion and the political appeals of market elite to mass, especially those now in the hands of specialists in public relations, we cannot escape some fears that they are systematically undermining that respect for truth or honesty long argued to be a requirement of civilized society. Perhaps the traditional endorsement of honesty is no more than a pablum [sic] that we intend only for the very young. In any case, veneration for truth is always shaky and highly qualified. Still, there appears to be a worrisome problem here of market impact on culture even though it receives far less attention than the other impacts just discussed.
In the United States, the judiciary long ago accepted as legal some degree of product misrepresentation. "Puffing," the court said, is to be expected in commercial transactions, hence hardly to be outlawed. The court was insightful: misrepresentation is to be expected as a widespread practice. The decision was a telling commentary on market society.
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