What happens when our main source of knowledge is ads?

By Ed Ayres

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”.

In retrospect, I think maybe my use of that term was too impulsive. The commercial I described probably didn’t break any laws. When you’re paying US$2 million for 30 seconds (the price of advertising on that broadcast), you make sure to have your lawyers check out what you’re saying.

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.

To encourage 90 million people to do something that could make them even more sedentary, fat, and socially isolated than they already are, is to grease the way for even more obesity, heart failure, and hostility than we already have.

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:

  • First, there’s that seemingly innocuous form of industrial diplomacy known as public relations, a fascinating history of which is recounted by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton in their book, Trust Us, We’re Experts. Stauber, who now heads the nonprofit group PR Watch, notes that at least since the 1930s, American businesses have been systematically — and very successfully – shaping public perceptions about everything, from Coca-Cola to war.
  • Then, there’s what we euphemistically call “product placement.” For example, the movie Chicago, which won a lion’s share of Oscars in 2002, contains numerous scenes (including the opening one) in which the camera moves in on a woman seductively smoking a brand of cigarette whose manufacturer has presumably paid a hefty fee to be so featured.
  • A third form, particularly of concern to environmentalists, is the spread of disinformation about climate change and other impacts of oil or coal pollution, by “research institutes” that are out to be creatures of the fossil fuel industry.

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

5 May 2011