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The Grotesque, Smirking Gargoyle 
The Commercializing Of America's Consciousness

David Bollier is the director of the Information Commons Project at the New America Foundation and a senior fellow at the Normal Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communications.

This is the third in a series of three articles by David Bollier for TomPaine.com, adapted from his recent book Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth (Routledge).

"The American apparatus of advertising is something unique in history," wrote cultural critic James Rorty almost 70 years ago. "It is like a grotesque, smirking gargoyle set at the very top of America's skyscraping adventure in acquisition ad infinitum. It is never silent, it drowns out all other voices, and it suffers no rebuke, for is it not the voice of America?"
With an average weekly diet of 40 hours of media a week and 20,000 commercials a year, childhood is being turned into one seamless web of commercialism.

Rorty was writing in 1934, the very year that CBS, NBC and other broadcasters consolidated their control over the public's airwaves. By the terms of the Communications Act, which a compliant Congress enacted, broadcasters were charged with serving as "public trustees" of the airwaves even as they sought to maximize profits. But of course, we know the outcome of this story: profit-maximization won.

Thanks to a concerted campaign of deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s, the idea that broadcasters are conscientious trustees of the public airwaves has become an embarrassing joke. There's just too much money to be made serving up salacious talk shows, celebrity "news," and arm-waving pundit blather for broadcasters even to consider airing serious, well-produced shows on public affairs, educational issues, or local concerns.

Since its conquest of television and radio, the smirking gargoyle has turned its attention to dozens of other areas of American life that were once commercial-free. Especially over the past two decades, the arts, sports, civic life, public education, journalism and public television have been quietly transformed into logo-littered preserves for merchandising.

It's an "enclosure" of cultural commons: The many ways in which we interact as social or civic equals, with no exchanges of cash, are fast being transformed into marketplaces. Our sense of common humanity is being segmented into marketing demographics that segregate and divide us -- in order to make money.

Consider what the gargoyle has done to childhood. "There's been a shift in the predominant way our society thinks of children," notes Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, an advocacy group that fights an array of commercial excesses in American life. "Not long ago we considered children vulnerable beings to be nurtured. However, today, we increasingly see kids through an economic lens. In our business culture, children are viewed as an economic resource to be exploited, just like bauxite or timber."

Having discovered that children are one of the most under-exploited market segments, marketers in the 1990s made up for lost time by developing all sorts of ingenious ways to persuade impressionable youngsters to buy. According to one marketer, there is the "primary market" -- the $24.4 billion a year that kids directly spend; the "influence market" -- the $300 billion of adult spending that kids directly or indirectly influence; and the "future" market, which is the lifelong spending that kids will do based on brand loyalties they develop while young.

"Branding kids for life," is how one marketer puts it. "If you own this child at an early age", said the president of Kids-R-Us, a clothing chain, "you can own this child for years to come. Companies are saying, 'Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger." Businesses were once satisfied with market share; today's companies realize that the real payoffs come from owning mind share -- the personal attitudes and loyalties of children.

This motivation to insinuate brand names into children's identities has led to commercials in every imaginable crevice in a child's daily life. Video games plug Pepsi and McDonald's. Content and advertising are now blurring, creating new forms of crypto-marketing. Cross-media promotion now spans a spectrum that includes film, toys, video games, fast-food restaurants, action figures and books. With an average weekly diet of 40 hours of media a week and 20,000 commercials a year, childhood is being turned into one seamless web of commercialism.

It should not be surprising that children are adopting the values peddled by fast-food restaurants and candy companies. Severe obesity among young children has doubled since the 1960s, and childhood diabetes is also on the rise. Ads exploiting young girls' fears about their body image have contributed to one-third of 12-year-old girls trying to lose weight through diets, vomiting, laxatives or diet pills.

An obvious target for innovative marketers is the public schools. Where else can such a large, age-specific cohort of children be found in one place, as mandated by law? Since outright advertising would be too blatantly unacceptable in a public institution dedicated to learning, marketers have had to develop a variety of clever subterfuges.

One of the most ambitious ones is Channel One, the pseudo-news program designed to deliver school children to advertisers. By "donating" satellite dishes, VCRs and TV sets for every classroom in participating schools, Channel One wins the right to show a daily 12-minute video program containing two minutes of ads. Through this novel means, the company has created a whole new marketing platform to reach a captive audience of eight million teenage students in 12,000 public and private schools.

Dozens of companies now distribute slickly produced "educational" materials that give generous space to corporate logos and political propaganda. Shell Oil waxes eloquent about the virtues of the internal combustion engine, and Exxon congratulates itself for its role in restoring the ecology of Prince William Sound (while omitting mention of its role in the Exxon Valdez oil spill).
Public institutions are often vulnerable to commercial intrusions because they perennially struggle with tight budgets.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi have paid millions of dollars to convince school districts to give them exclusive on-site vending contracts. Soft drink companies gain a prime sales location, the implicit endorsement of the school, a ban against competitors (which have led to higher prices), and access to a captive audience of thirsty teenagers.

Fortunately, public concern about commercialization in the schools is growing, even prompting a U.S. General Accounting Office survey of how well states and local school boards protect students from marketers. The answer: not very well. Only 19 states have any statutes or regulations that deal with school-related commercial activities, and these rules are partial in 14 of the states.

Public institutions are often vulnerable to commercial intrusions because they perennially struggle with tight budgets. A little extra cash is always welcome, and if that means trading on the institutions' public reputation, goes the reasoning, well, so be it. At the same time, marketers are only too eager to associate themselves with public institutions that have some measure of reverence and respect -- institutions that one marketer regards as "terrific, leverageable assets." The more unsullied by commercialism -- "virgins" in the trade -- the more attractive sponsors regard the "asset."

Regional festivals were once "virgins." According to one marketing expert, fewer than 25 percent of public festivals had corporate names attached to them 15 years ago. Now 85 percent of them have corporate titles such as the Hooters Hula Bowl, the AT&T Rose Bowl, and the Kodak Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Described by some critics as "the McDonaldization of local events," the corporate naming of events essentially dispossesses the local community of its sense of ownership of the tradition.

Or consider how much money can be made by selling the "naming rights" of sports stadiums. One specialists estimates that naming deals on sports stadiums these days are collectively worth about $3.2 billion. If you're a fan, you almost certainly prefer a stadium name that conjures up a long and cherished sports history rooted in that city's life and shared memory -- something like the Polo Grounds, Forbes Field, Tiger Stadium, Fenway Park, the Boston Garden or Candlestick Park.

But in their zeal to marketize the community's fan culture, cities and sports franchises have auctioned off stadium names and given fans such icy corporate names as the FleetCenter (formerly the Boston Garden), Continental Airlines Arena (the Meadowlands), 3Com Park (Candlestick Park) and FedEx Field (Washington, D.C.), Enron Field (Houston), and the new Staples Center (Los Angeles). In their indefatigable pursuit of human consciousness, advertisers in recent years have developed cunning new venues to ambush people when they think they are alone, free from commercial intrusion. Coca-Cola recently came up with a 900-foot "flip-book" series of images pasted on the underground tunnels of Atlanta subways. Another firm is pioneering the installation of TV monitors on public buses to force-feed advertising to hapless bus riders. A mortgage company has sent thousands of "spam" messages to cellphones that receive text emails. Some movie theaters now show as many as 20 minutes of pre-show trailers and ads.

Space Marketing Inc., having succeeded in getting a Pizza Hut logo on the side of a Russian Proton rocket, apparently is continuing its quest to place a mile-long, half-mile-wide "billboard" made of reflective mylar plastic into orbit. "If allowed to happen," said Representative Ed Markey, "this scheme would turn our morning and evening skies, often a source of inspiration and comfort, into the moral equivalent of the side of a bus."
Captive-audience advertising now extends far beyond theaters and school rooms, ambushing people as they use public restrooms, gas pumps, elevators and ATM machines.

Captive-audience advertising now extends far beyond theaters and school rooms, ambushing people as they use public restrooms, gas pumps, elevators and ATM machines. Telephone customers placed on hold are forced to listen to audio ads. Sports broadcasters now use computer technology to digitally insert advertising on otherwise empty soccer fields and behind home plate at baseball games.

Are these commercial invasions significant? This is a capitalist nation, after all. What's the harm of a few Burma Shave signs on the roadside or naming a show "Kraft Television Theater"? By ones and twos, such actions generally are inconsequential.

In the aggregate, however, the sheer pervasiveness of commercialism in public spaces and contemporary life has the malodorous whiff of a Corporate Big Brother. The ubiquity of marketing in hundreds of nooks and crannies of daily life has become a defining framework of cultural values.

It should come as no surprise that some Bush administration officials now refer to the United States of America as the ultimate "brand." It's a chilling thought that a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, is now led by a statistics-driven corps of "brand managers" conceived by investors and dedicated to the proposition that market values should trump citizenship and democracy.

But don't blame the gargoyle for smirking ... for after all, isn't it America?

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Published: Aug 08 2002

Related articles on Tompaine.com:

Rediscovery Of The Commons 
Managing For The Common Good, Not Just For The Corporate Good

Stopping The Privatization Of Public Knowledge 
The Endangered Public Domain

San Francisco: Taking Back The 'Stick 
City Supervisors Reclaim Naming Rights For Stadium


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