Recently I recalled a TV commercial I had seen, in which it was suggested to us that eating fast food while watching solitary TV is a good way to “get on with your life”. I thought that ad was “criminal”.
But as I think about it, that’s just the problem: that legalistically speaking, an ad like this is not criminal — yet it really ought to be.
But what really is not the fast food itself, so much as the implied message that goes with it — the message that to “get on with your life” is something you can accomplish through passive consumption. That message, if not exactly criminal, is pathologically disingenuous.
Ironically, our assurance that lawyers check every detail these days may actually make us more vulnerable to being deceived by ads than we once were. We can be fairly confident now that major advertisers won’t actually lie the way they did a century ago.
Most of us have seen those antique medicine-bottle labels that claimed to cure everything from malaise to malaria, and we can laugh at how gullible people must have been then.
But that may lull us into overlooking the newer ways advertisers have learned to manipulate us. Lies are only one kind of deception, perhaps the easiest kind to legislate against. But other kinds of dishonest messages are now all around us, in every medium and I think getting worse.
One way to see it is to recognize that perception is a form of physiological intake, just as is eating, drinking, or breathing. Like food, water, or air, the information we take in can be polluted.
In the past few decades, the forms of pollution that have crept into our food, water, and air have proliferated — ranging from organic chemicals to invasive species to rogue genes from GMOs.
And now, it seems, the various forms of information pollution, too, have proliferated. Advertising is transmogrifying into forms not always recognizable as advertising:
More recently, some advertisers have begun acquiring entire radio stations or publications of their own, in which they can pose as objective journalists. The National Rifle Association (NRA), for example, will soon be able to disseminate its anti-gun-control propaganda disguised as straight news.
A big worry may be that as more and more media are aimed at manipulating consumer appetites or beliefs, using more and more sophisticated forms of disguise, the public will be increasingly unable to discriminate between responsible information services and propaganda and will gradually lose its freedom of independent thought and decision.
If the ad comes disguised as a news report, scientific study, expert analysis, or neighbor’s candid opinion, it may deceive even those who try to be vigilant.
Traditionally, news media have maintained a “wall” between reporters and advertisers, ostensibly to protect reporters from conflicts of interest.
But I suspect the real reason is that it allows publishers and editors (whose salaries are paid for by the ads) to distance themselves from any responsibility for the deceptions those ads perpetrate.
Now that the ads do at least as much to shape public worldviews, opinions, and lifestyles as does the reporting, however, it’s time to stop that “see no evil” game the media play.
Publishers, editors, and producers, as long as their papers or channels have not actually been bought up and taken over by their advertisers, should be the ones who hold those advertisers accountable.
Ed Ayres is the editor of World-Watch magazine