What if we paid less attention to advertising?

From its modest beginnings, advertising has grown into a one trillion dollar a year industry and the single biggest psychological experiment ever carried out on the human race.

Adbusters, The Big Ideas of 2011

I once joked on Facebook that Apple is so good at marketing that it could package horse manure in a box, sell it as “i-Krap” high-end fertilizer, and make a mint from it.

Heck, I’d probably buy a box myself, and believe me, I’m no gardener. It’s just that whenever I go into an Apple store, I want to hand over my credit card and ask them to bring me new gadgets in shiny boxes.

Galbraith got it right

One of my intellectual heroes, the late John Kenneth Galbraith, brilliantly dissected the post-World War II American economy in classics such as American Capitalism, The Affluent Society, and The New Industrial State. Among other things, he articulated the central role of modern advertising in creating consumer demand.

Galbraith noted that advertising started out as being merely descriptive, and people could make rational purchasing decisions accordingly. But then sales pitches became manipulative, crafted around persuasive appeals to induce purchases. This became especially prevalent during the 1950s and 1960s, when the American economy was going full throttle and the nation’s middle class was flourishing.

It’s not just the big corporations

Fancy advertising isn’t limited to the corporate world. In my industry of higher education, colleges and universities spend students’ tuition money and alumni contributions to produce fancy, glossy brochures that make them sound like the dreamiest places imaginable.

And let’s not forget that every election season we’re treated to a bevy of spin, half-truths, and outright lies in the form of advertising for candidates we like and don’t like. Talk about piles of i-Krap!

In the meantime

What if the need for cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s were marketed with the same fervor as efforts to sell fancy cars, clothing, and electronics? What if appeals to end world hunger or support public education appeared on television as frequently as pharmaceutical commercials or political ads?

If we’re going to allow ourselves to be manipulated, then at least we should be cajoled into supporting stuff that can really make a difference in our lives and those of others.

We’d have to rework work

Of course, if humans developed a stronger immunity to modern advertising, we’d have to rework the world of work dramatically.

Why? Because if we based our purchases of goods and services on purely descriptive information and reviews from previous consumers, it is likely that our spending patterns would change mightily. This would have a significant effect on the kinds of organizations that are viable and the types of work that need performing.

Do what I say, not what I have done

I plead guilty to being influenced by effective advertising and make no claim of complete immunity in the future. However, I think it would benefit all of us to ask whether a potential purchase will truly bring us satisfaction or fulfill a bonafide need. Those few seconds of pause may save us from making purchases that clutter up our homes, eat up gobs of time, or otherwise do not deliver true value.

In closing, I’d like to recommend a book, Brooks Palmer, Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back (2009). (Yes, I’m shilling for a product!) Over the years I have read, or tried to read, several books promising to make me less of a pack rat. This is the first one that resonates with me, tossing in some insightful psychology along with sound how-to advice.

One response

  1. Once again, a good idea, but does not really tell the whole truth. Other people, media, etc. do want to make money off of us, either profits, or income, or some kind of power. I recognize that. I only watch TV for sports or history and mute the ads. But as to media, the explicit advertisements are hard to distinguish from the spin in the texts. The writers, so called journalists, for example, always seem to have a point of view they are selling or an axe to grind. I try to read different points of view and media from London, where they seem to be less openly biased. I think the only way to approach the world is with a kind of universal skepticism. Demand proof of some kind from everything.

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