Live Consciously
Buy Wisely
Make A Difference
About Us
My New Dream
New American Dream Logo  

Selling Discontent
by Anna White

BUY NOW, PAY LATER! Click here to SHOP ONLINE. There are some things $ can't buy, for everything else there's...

Advertising is so pervasive today that it is hard to imagine that selling products had such quaint origins. Oral proclamations by criers in Ancient Greece, store signboards in the late Middle Ages, and picture-less promotions in theearliest American newspapers bear little resemblance to modern, in-your-face marketing. Perhaps the prize for "famous last words" should go to Dr. Samuel Johnson, who in 1759 noted that "the trade of advertising is now so near perfection that it is not easy to propose any improvement."

It's no wonder that we feel bombarded. We are targeted by over 1500 commercial messages a day, up from 560 per day in the 1960s. Modern advertising may have humble beginnings (the first full-page newspaper ad was published in 1878), but its close relationship with a burgeoning production/consumption-based economy and advances in mass media and technology quickly turned it into a $1 billion industry by World War I. At the close of the 20th Century, companies spend more than $200 billion on advertising in the U.S. each year. These days, there seems to be an advertisement lurking in every nook and cranny of our lives, and marketers are always seeking strategic ways to take advantage of a captive audience - whether in the checkout line, at the ATM, or staring at the wall of a public bathroom.

Advertisers have also taken to invading spaces once considered sacred or relatively immune to commercial influence: our homes, schools, townships, and public media. Pre-recorded celebrity telemarketing calls disrupt our family suppertime to inform us of the all-important "American Music Awards" on ABC. Corporate logos are found in public school textbooks, teaching math by way of OREO™. Girl Scouts go on a "Fashion Adventure" guided by Limited Too. (Perhaps a merit badge in accessorizing is next.)

Advertising invades our language ("Where's the beef?" "Just Do It"), infiltrates our news, replaces our art, and defines our identities. While some advertising is blatant, some is more subtle. The line between "commercial" and "news" is almost indistinguishable in many a TV program and newspaper. FAO Schwarz, for example, claims not to spend a single penny on advertising, yet generates $10 million dollars in media coverage by creating "newsworthy" events such as Elvis Impersonators jumping out of the sky to launch the new "Barbie loves Elvis" doll and the opening of their Las Vegas store, complete with a 46 foot high Trojan Horse. Entertainment and commercials have morphed into one. Brand names saturate almost every sitcom and movie these days.

Advertisers have become more sophisticated in targeting sub-populations (women, Hispanics, African-Americans, gays, Gen-Xers), and are now "mining the data" of our daily lives. We are no longer anonymous; every time we use our credit cards, surf the internet, go to the doctor, apply for a driver's license, graduate from college...there is a corporation taking note. For target groups hard to reach, a little "bribe" never hurt. Zap Me! Co., for example, offers free computers to schools as a lure for collecting data on young students' web browsing activities - data that is then sold to advertising and marketing firms. E-mail spam from Memolink offers college students the opportunity to "Get Free Stuff. Now" just by filling out some "survey questions" and "registering on other websites."

Advertising as the Engine for Consumer Excess
So what's the whole point of advertising, anyway? Is it just about seeking greater market shares as the advertising industry claims? Or does it create an insatiable appetite for more "stuff"? At the individual product level, the correlation may not always be apparent. "You have to stand back or you don't see the forest for the trees," says Richard Pollay, Professor of Marketing at University of British Columbia, who notes that soft drinks and cigarettes are the most straightforward examples of how advertising creates demand, not only boosting market shares, but expanding the market itself. One somewhat humorous example of how advertising creates demand was highlighted in Adbusters magazine. As a joke, a New Zealand graphics designer created a series of billboards with Calvin Klein-esque models and the word Nothing, presumably a brand or product to buy. The sponsor of the project (an advertising company, oddly enough) later received calls asking where one could purchase this "Nothing."

Michael Jacobson, author of Marketing Madness and Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says, "Just being bombarded with advertising, one thinks more about buying things than one otherwise would...If an equal amount of money was spent to encourage [more socially beneficial] activities it would have a big impact." Observes Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters, "When the average North American grows up receiving so many commercial messages each day, it changes one's personality, and the way one eats, dresses, gets biases the whole lifestyle and whole culture."

Tuning Out
Former advertising executive Ray Locke expresses the sentiment of many in the business, "Next to Christianity, advertising is the greatest force in the world. And I say that without sacrilege or disrespect. Advertising makes people discontented. It makes them want things they don't have. Without discontent, there is no progress, no achievement."

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once observed that "few people at the beginning of the 19th Century needed an adman to tell them what they wanted." Ironically, at the turn of the 20th Century, when we have more material possessions than ever, companies are spending record amounts of money to convince us that we need more stuff.

One of the many problems with a culture based on relentless advertising and hyperconsumerism is the grim environmental effect. According to the most recent estimate by Mathis Wackernagel, the author of Our Ecological Footprint, if everyone consumed at the level of the average North American, it would take four extra planets to provide the necessary resources to survive. Globalization and the marketing of the American consumer lifestyle provokes millions of global consumers to suddenly "need" sport utility vehicles, big screen TVs and closets of stuff - something the already overburdened planet can ill-afford. Perhaps the prophecy of the nineteenth century writer William Dean Howells will be correct, that "there will presently be no room in the world for things; it will be filled up with the advertisements of things."

Of course, the only force that can stop advertisers from completely plastering the planet, is, very simply, us. While "people" and "consumer" are almost synonymous these days, we are still "public citizens." Internationally, a number of governments have taken measures to curb certain types of advertising - primarily tobacco (European Union), alcohol (several Islamic nations), and advertising targeting children under age 12 (Sweden, Quebec). And while Japan is keeping pace with the U.S., many European countries spend considerably less on advertising per capita: France 52% less, Australia 33% less, and the UK 27% less.

Even in the U.S., students, parents, teachers, non-profits and local politicians have successfully challenged commercial intrusions into the classroom. In California, a state representative introduced a bill to curb commercialism in schools. High school students in various parts of the country have petitioned against and prevented their schools from signing exclusive soft drink deals. A diverse coalition of organizations helped push for congressional hearings on Channel One, a cable program that offers free computer equipment to schools in exchange for mandatory daily viewing of the programming and commercials that go with it. Channel One has been banned by New York State.

It is impossible to completely avoid the commercial onslaught when advertisements are ubiquitous, but we can greatly reduce our exposure, expecially by tuning out more from commercial television. Perhaps if we all did so, we would shift our point of reference. We might begin to compare our lives and luxuries to the billions of "have nots" rather than to the wealthiest few. It is even possible that we might stumble accidentally on the very thing advertising seeks to remove from our lives...contentment.

- Anna White is a Program Associate at the Center for a New American Dream

Return to Enough! excerpts page

"58% of Americans say they would be willing to give up one day of pay per week in exchange for one day off per week to spend more time with family and friends."

New Dream Poll


Related article: How do our kids get so caught up in consumerism? by Brian Swimme, Ph.D.Go

Related article: TV -- or not TV - online conversation excerptsGo

Related article: Sports for Sale (pdf) by Sean Sheehan Go

Related article: The "American Dream" Invades India (pdf) by Dr. Roopa Vajpeyi Go

The Chatter:
Some interesting forecasts about the state of the world in 2020. A little g...