The Ad-Man Cometh (for your Children)


boy and tv
RINGOES, NJ. March Madness is finally over. And for the first time in years, I actively participated in the madness. For most of our married life, my wife and I have shunned television. But we are renting a house in New Jersey for a year. It happened to come with a huge flat screen, high-definition television. I told myself and my sons, “We’re on sabbatical. Let’s watch basketball.” And so we have. It’s been great. I’m going to miss that huge screen. But one thing I’m not going to miss, one thing I had forgotten, was the sheer quantity of commercials. We have watched the same commercials over and over again as we wait patiently for the game to resume. Yes, they are stupid. Yes, they are irritating. But they are also hard to forget. My young sons now know that Bud Light has “drinkability” and other various and sundry tidbits of truth that has been bored into their brains by specialists who are paid big bucks to figure out ways to get us to identify with brands and crave association with them.

In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that ours is an age of advertising. In its benign form advertizing is a means by which sellers can alert buyers to their product. Advertizing has, though, become something far more troubling. We are constantly assaulted with images and pitches geared with scientific precision to convince us that we are not as happy as we could be if we would only purchase this gizmo or that doodad, that beer or that automobile. Advertising is ubiquitous. Television, radio, magazines, newspapers, internet sites, streets and highways, buildings, sports centers, athletes, bowl games, movies, apparel, breakfast cereal, all are turned into modes of persuasion. Want to be like Mike? Buy shoes like his. What to be sexy and get the girl? Drive this car. Feel fat? Buy this diet food. What to be happy? Buy it all. And if you can’t afford it, well, too bad for you and your happiness (or use your credit card).

Especially egregious is the fact that so much of advertizing is aimed at kids. Brand loyalties, if developed early, can last a lifetime. Get ‘em while they’re young and when they are old, they will not depart from it. Given the glitz, glamour, and simple “cool” that oozes from so many commercials, it’s hardly a fair fight. The kids are sucked in and have little idea what is going on.

The objection to any criticism of advertising is one rooted in a philosophy of individualism and freedom, two ideals that are difficult to challenge. “Hey, I have the right to say whatever I want, and advertizing is speech, so I can advertize whenever, wherever and however I want (assuming I’m not too offensive to the prudes among us). And besides, if you don’t like it, don’t look at it.” The argument sticks unless, of course, advertizing, in some contexts, serves to corrode the public spaces upon which I cannot help to look. If advertizing negatively affects society as a whole, then the free speech argument begins to look something like the “it’s my property so I can pollute as much as I want” argument. The problem is with what economists call externalities. If there are negative implications to advertizing that extend to the public in general, then the public has a vested interest in addressing the problem. Of course, in a society saturated by advertizing, the perception that it might be a problem recedes in the haze of undulating desire.

Wilhelm Röpke argued that

advertizing, in all of its forms and with all of its effects, one of the foremost of which is to encourage the concentration of firms, is one of the most serious problems of our time and should receive the most critical attention of those few who can still afford to speak up without fear of being crushed by the powerful interests dominating this field.

Röpke was concerned that advertizing would gradually insinuate itself into all areas of life, so that things and relationships that once stood outside the ad-man’s purview became subject to his craft. The result is the commercialization of all of life. “The curse of commercialization is that it results in the standards of the market spreading into regions which should remain beyond supply and demand.” But why would advertizing work its way through the social tapestry and thereby homogenize all things under the rubric of commercialism? According to Röpke, the reason is the asymmetries that exist in market economies. Money can be made from advertizing purchasable goods, but there is no money to be made from resisting the advertiser’s shtick. Again, Röpke:

Thousands get hard cash out of advertising, but the unsalable beauty and harmony of a country give to all a sense of well-being which cannot be measured by the market. Yet the non-marketable value, while incomparably higher than the marketable one, is bound to lose unless we come to its assistance and put on its scale enough moral weight to make up for the deficiency of mercantile weight. The market’s asymmetry opens a gap which has to be closed from without, from beyond the market, and it would be sheer suicide on the part of the market economy’s friends to leave to others the cheap triumph of this discovery.

Societies require the moral leadership of men and women of virtue who will recognize asymmetries in the market, such as advertizing, and work with diligence, patience, and fortitude, to balance the asymmetries with resources that transcend the market. Without the efforts of people on behalf of the good and the beautiful, commercialism will consume the very things we once held most dear, or at the very least alter our ability to seem them for what they are.

Now lest my libertarian friends think that I am suggesting a government solution, I am not. Or at least not necessarily. Ultimately, this is a question of culture. It is a question of what we, as citizens, value. It is a question of moral vision and courage. I am willing, though, to entertain the possibility that, especially on the local level, laws can be made to limit the encroachment of advertising. A home-owner’s association may forbid bill-boards, for example. Why couldn’t a town or county do the same? Television is, of course, more difficult, and I have no good answers save one: Now that March Madness is over, the television is off. We will return to our sequestered life without commercial television. A modest, and perhaps futile, stab at the beast, but at least I won’t have to hear my kids talking about drinkability.


  1. A fine and important reflection, Mark; thanks for writing it, and thanks for applying Röpke’s (as usual, perfectly correct) reminders about the need for collective, moral action against the ravishes of the marketplace to commercialization and advertising. If you’re unfamiliar with her work (and she’s “leftist” enough that most of FPR’s readers probably haven’t), you ought to look into the writings of Juliet Schor, a sociologist who has written wisely and critically about the negative power of advertising, and in particular how commercial interests in America seek to “brand” children at a very young age. I wrote a long post about the “Rousseauist” parallels between her work (and Christopher Lasch’s, and several others) and Rod Dreher’s crucnhy con project; like so many left-leaning writers, the “conservative” nature of her work is often ignored, by friends and foes alike.

    For what it’s worth, one of the relatively few resolutions that my wife and I have stayed true to throughout our whole marriage is refusing to allow our children to wear anything branded by corporate advertising.

  2. I tried to listen to some baseball on the radio last summer. What used to be great time for banter and discussion among the announcers–the time between pitches–is now considered “dead time” suitable for advertising pitches. Not commercials exactly, but a quick pitch by the announcer. Or, and I am not making this up a traffic update–at 9:30pm! It’s endless and I stopped listening.

  3. My favorite stage of the Great Deluge of Advertising is when the jingleers are able to place receptors on your person, say….. implant it in your clothes that , in turn , set off software as you pass shopping areas and trigger some kind of device that begins beseeching you with products “specifically tailored to your market history”. Intimate advertising, a wonderful addition to the life of hectoring which the media offers us.

    Shopping kid in 2029 to his grandpappy: “Whaddya mean you had privacy…what is it anyway, wasn’t it lonely?…didn’t the quiet scare you?”

  4. It seems as though we came to this point via individualism and, yet, the only way out is by some form of individual rebellion. One can withdraw from the general culture (see Thoreau, Abbey, Berry?) or choose passive resistance (see Bartleby the Scrivener). I can choose not to watch television, work as a corporate/government bureaucrat, or buy my clothes from American Eagle, but these are acts of individual defiance.

    Collective action, it would seem, cannot occur without enough individuals who assert their will against the commercial program. We certainly aren’t going to get help through political action. Politicians and their propaganda machine have adopted and perfected the tools of advertising and marketing. Moreover, politicians themselves are bought and sold in the Market. Even local government is usually influenced by state and federal funding to the point where I view some Town Boards with as much contempt as Albany and D.C.

    What is left but to withdraw or resist and to accept the consequences thereof? The only other alternative to individual non-compliance in these matters that I can think of, would be to incorporate the authority and influence of a non-market, non-government based institution into the cultural framework.

  5. Josh asks the obvious questions that really need to be asked: what can be done? Aside from the individual withdrawing, are there any other possibilities? Could churches, civic organizations, etc. do anything? Concrete suggestions are needed, and given the pervasive nature of our advertising culture, such suggestions seem to be in short supply.

  6. Commercial advertising is one thing. There is also the non-stop government advertising that we get on NPR. But my current personal campaign is to ban second-hand television noise in public places, just as surely as we ban smoking in public places.

    I’d love to explain more, but I’m supposed to be getting ready for meetings right now. My blog tells about my latest battle:

  7. The most pernicious form of advertising is on the so-called “free airwaves” where the public and its government have made a Faustian Bargain with advertisers to fund the so called “Free Content”. This funding has even penetrated venues we pay for like movies and the television plots themselves where product placement and issue-driven plots are the norm. I particularly like the most recent issues ad campaign on Fox where one of their fictional characters committed suicide and so they create a web site for people to post their condolences to the fictional character while reviewing suicide issues . The wife, a wonderfully sentimental and empathic woman was actually alarmed that the fellow had really killed himself. Maybe he did but the entire farrago was creepy beyond words.

    We have few choices. One is to opt out, always a possibility, however arid and steadfast. Another is to edit one’s viewing and simply ignore the idiotic advertising intrusions, keeping the mute button and a book on hand for the incessant interruptions. This would include an embargo on viewing beyond a rigidly structured limit for the kiddies, something my brothers and I survived quite well…resulting in the building of a track and field venue and smoking speakeasy on the lower forty. One of the events was championship rock throwing at the gullible new kid who was convinced that rolling down the hillside below the broad-jump pit in an old barrel was an athletic event. Medical careers were launched on the basis of the early field medical triage required by this headline event. Too many kids watch too much television and never enter the outdoors to grub about the crud and bugs. Here in my State, they considered a “No Child Left Indoors” Law but that just incapacitated me in gales of dark laughter. I shall never agree to listen to the various alarmingly ridiculous output of the Legislator until I catch wind of a “No Politician Left Standing” proposal. They of course have their uses, all God’s Children do. Unfortunately, government isn’t one of them.

    The other possibility is to encourage private broadcasters who charge for the content that is either completely advertising free or so limited in scope that the advertising is not so , in a word, pornographic. Home Box Office already does this.

    We could also look into the possibility of the cable companies isolating an advertising free or advertising reduced channel/s beyond PBS that is funded by the Tower of Babel on the rest of the stations or an additional cable fee or both. One is naturally skeptical of the content one would get but it seems to me it might be great venue for independent films and docs. We have the roots of this in local service channels that were created by legislation. Certain advertisers might find it politically astute to fund these venues if motivated to do so through the gavel or the market.

    Buy newspapers . The average television news broadcast half-hour has about half the words as just the Front Page of an average newspaper. Obviously, the fact that most people get their news “product” from television means they get a packaged and superficial bit of news that the Corporation wishes to dispense….and not any kind of fundamentally comprehensive level of news required of a people who have presumptions of a functioning Republic . Internet newspapers are starting to follow the bad trend of television news and this should be brought up short as soon as possible.

    Lastly, there is always the old Doc Sarvis method of billboard arson, television soccer and sabotage. My Librul Brother once defaced a public ad for Nixon and Agnew that cried “Now more than ever” by mounting strategic pirate patches and executioners hoods along with enough blacked out letters so it said “No More Ever”. This kind of creative professionalism is a lost art and I would imagine it to clearly be the fruits of the parent’s Hour Limits placed on our watching of the 5 channels we were forced to be satisfied with.

    We should teach our kids the fine and august art of the conversation. My parents directed the development of the art of conversation at the dinner table where we would talk about family legends, sports, politics, nature, art..any number of real things but Never ..EVER anything media related nor any kind of sentimental personal issue that should be taken up in private where it belonged. Humor always got extra points. As a result, we all worked to get our shots into the conversation because if you were mute, you were the target and with the arch satirists and sadists I grew up with, being a target was the very last thing you would ever do. You would read The Compleat Works of Emily Post before you would offer yourself up to the scrutiny demanded by non-participation in the Nightly Diatribe.

    In other words, instill a recognition that being a spectator might be fine in small and short doses but that in order to hit pay dirt and be a proper human, one must think and act independently. Creativity and active bodies makes strong citizens. If we only watch and use our mouths to ingest “feed”, exactly why do we have vocal chords connected to a thinking brain? The current trend would suggest that the mouth, ears and eyes might soon be replaced by a universal outlet accepting both I.V. and UBS cable.

  8. Mark,

    Nice piece and I have enjoyed all your blogs but they always leave me with questions. It seems that this one had few questions and they were answered but other people or asked by yourself.

    So I will only re-enforce the question you asked in different words. How do we get society to realize that most advertising is not profitable for society? My question implies that there may be some advertising that is profitable (and I believe there is and I even believe that frontporchrepublic does as well since I see the books written by many of the bloggers shown flashing). This leads to a follow-up question. Who decides for society what advertising should be allowed? Without any outside authority to regulate we end up where we are today money taking precedence over the future.

    Organic Garden tip “Build little mounds of dirt to support your corn before the wind blows it over”

  9. D.W.,

    Getting individuals to think for themslevs. What a novel concept. I understand that one of the draws of one of the worlds largest religion (and it is not Christianity) is that it takes the thinking out of your hands and says if you do A, B, and C you go to heaven. No thinking involved is a great draw for many people, possibly even a majority of people. Thinking is hard work and today’s viewpoint is why work hard when I can get what I want by not working so hard.

  10. Beemer,
    Just as one is advised to not consider some foppish, private jet-flying brimstone salesman and his thumping choreography of payola as representative of Christianity, one is well advised not to consider the bloodthirsty troglodytic ravings of a Sociopathic Yemeni Rich Boy and his Murderous Egyptian Rasputin as representative of Islam, a faith that has produced poetry, mathematics and some pretty fine architecture.
    Algebra, the Alhambra and the Taj would never have been produced by people who think faith is simply taking orders or planting roadside bombs.

    If you seek death, it will find you soon enough but if you seek poetry, you will find it everywhere.

    I will, however, never forgive them for Algebra.

  11. “Blow up your T.V., throw out the paper, try and find Jesus on your own…” John Prine, Spainish Pipedream.

  12. D.W.,

    I worked in the Middle East many years would never assume that ” bloodthirsty troglodytic ravings of a Sociopathic Yemeni Rich Boy and his Murderous Egyptian Rasputin” to be representative of Islam. Many that I met were extremely gracious, smart and had knowledge about a wide range of topics. Referring to things done in the distant past also does not necessary reflex the attitudes of today. Wahabism does encourage the followers of Mohammed not to think without encouraging the murder.

    Now we also need the person you quoted on Death and Poetry and are they the only options.

  13. Advertising undermines contentment. It is fundamentally antagonistic to spiritual stillness. Placing oneself (and God forbid one’s children) in front of that machine is begging for them to be shaped into restless, discontent consumers–always reacting to what advertising says they need, not acting based on what is truly needed. The answer to “How much stuff do you need to be happy?” might once have been “None” but now is this: “How much stuff is there?”

    Though advertising sells itself as a cure-all best-deal act-now, advertising doesn’t show what you’ll save, only what they earn. If a company can spend that much money on advertising, I have a hard time believing I’m actually getting the great deal they’re boasting. Like those GEICO commercials? I’ve grown suspicious of ubiquitous advertisements, and sure enough, they are better deals precisely from companies that can’t advertise because they’re giving better products.

    From D.W. Sabin’s comments, I suspect he’s read Amusing Ourselves to Death. PBS is actually one of the best examples of trying to keep attention, if not strictly “advertising.” I recommend The Tipping Point. Shows like Sesame Street were designed by statisticians to keep children glued to the television. If an episode didn’t keep the test group’s attention, it wasn’t aired.

    There are some quality television shows, but I do not own a television. If I watch anything, I get the DVD. While advertising acts like it is “making the most” of your time (“More for Less!”) it wastes half of the time you spend watching television already. And at the rate advertising is increasing? It’ll only waste more. I would happily buy every good book in the world rather than have television even (especially?) news running all day. Television fails to cultivate values you choose… It’s like letting a stranger into the house to raise your children. I’m not a Luddite. Television is just creepy.

  14. Beemer,
    Wahabism may be a thinly veiled death cult of rage and pathos and it may be catching on way too much but there is a whole lot more to Islam than this one sect. Check out some (certainly not all) of the awarded works of the Aga Khan Institute and you will find current worthy works within Islam. Unfortunately, septic geopolitics would seem to be the greatest manufacturer of fertile mission field for a certain wing of the Stone the Rape Victim Wahabists. The broom scene in the film Fantasia would seem somehow prescient.

    I was quoting myself on Death and Poetry, trying to not think of the Death and Taxes this April 15th.
    There are a lot more options….Faith, Song, Trade…to name a few and let us not forget Rodeo…unless one is the cow.

    The discussion of Wahabi vs. Sufi et al goes right to the heart of Mitchell’s Ad Man Cometh essay, …..our thoughts and perceptions are molded by the 60 second jingle of popular thought and we start to develop a kind of brand loyalty for whatever version of conventional wisdom suits our preferences. At a certain point , the brand loyalty morphs into self-fulfilling prophecy.

  15. D.W.,

    Wise words on your last paragraph and better stated than I can ever write (Florida education system kills me). I should point out I married a follower of Islam but she is not from the Middle East. I hope that April 15th doesn’t kill you but just makes you stronger.

  16. Lundy,
    thanks for the alert on “Amusing ourselves to Death”. I taint seen it. Will have to look for it. Right now, I’m reading the old nougat “What We Lost, Great Britain before the industrial Revolution”. It gives new meaning to the term “Family Values”. A little bit of Ludditism don’t go far enough these days…but, would we have ever had Baseball had there not been enough technologically-spawned leisure to provoke it?

    Can we handle our fingers in the dirt and our face to the stars? Humility would seem to be the thing that makes it possible and the thing that bothers this cantankerous heathen is that the arena of faith would seem to be where humility finds it’s greatest potential. Some day I might tire of crowing “I am what I am Not”. Not yet, we have televisions to burn.

  17. D.W.,
    Philosophy, rightly understood, is rather a humiliating experience, although it too points to…!

  18. I don’t care to ban commercial advertising unless we ban government advertising as well. Balance of power, etc.

    But what about when the two come together? Is it right that we taxpayers have to pay a celebrity like Howie Long to interrupt NCAA basketball games to make fun of truck owners who dress in dorky clothes or who need a man-step to climb in and out? How is it that we allow the government to fire Rick Wagoner, but allow it to give our tax dollars to wealthy celebrities so it can compete against other automotive manufacturers?

  19. The Reticulator has a post about television noise (not simply ads).

    It is amazing how invasive television is. There are gas stations with little televisions on each gas pump. There are grocery stores with televisions at each check-out lane. It’s hard to get away from televisions in an airport. The assumption seems to be that everyone wants to watch television, so let’s make it available everywhere. Clearly this constant barrage of noise is going to impact the way we see the world (or don’t). Can we adequately care for the natural world if our relationship to it is constantly short-circuited by electronic images and noise? Or if our knowledge of the natural world is primarily derived from the Nature Channel?

  20. Mark,
    Getting to a point where we “care” for the natural world is going to be hard when we cannot even simply let up on it long enough to treat it as anything other than an antagonist. This is one of the reasons Mr. Gore’s film caught so easily… because it takes nature from being that antagonist we exploit to an antagonist that will now have its revenge. It was easy for the public to get it’s head around it because it was simply a minor adjustment instead of a major re-alignment . While there are efforts to conserve and protect, overall, the regime is still adversarial and exploitive. It’s still zero-sum and Nature remains “the other”. We continue to think we are in control and that our technological abilities could never be “self-inflicted” because they are for “progress”.

    As was reported in the NYTimes yesterday, we now have the prospect of a drug to erase memory. Scientists @SUNY Downstate Medical Center have isolated a drug that can erase memory in rats. It is thought to be potentially helpful in eradicating terrible memory and torment resulting from horrific events. Accordingly, we can remove that last vestige standing in the way of unbridled exploitation:remorse. With no memory of what was present, we do not have to feel bad about finishing it off. With no romantic sentiment in a collective memory regarding nature, its open season. With “External costs”, the tragedy of the commons cooks the books apace.

  21. D.W. Sabin said: “My favorite stage of the Great Deluge of Advertising is when the jingleers are able to place receptors on your person, say….. implant it in your clothes that , in turn , set off software as you pass shopping areas and trigger some kind of device that begins beseeching you with products “specifically tailored to your market history”.”

    No need to wait until 2029 – various internet sites do something similar to this. Amazon is probably the most obvious example.

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