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Advertising pervades every aspect of our lives, destroying cherished traditions.

by Jason Ketola

Advertising has fundamentally changed the moral fabric of our society, and while each of us is exposed to more than 3,000 advertisements a day, we continue to disbelieve that this onslaught affects us personally. We imagine that advertisements cause less resolute individuals to have eating disorders, but our own interest in fad diets, gym subscriptions and low-fat foods merely reflect an enthusiasm for personal health. Of course, study after study has established the negative effects of advertising on female and male body images, and we need to keep challenging ads portraying statistically unreasonable body types. Yet, the effects of advertising are much more widespread than this and have supplanted traditional outlets for cultural transmission, proclaiming the new norms of dissatisfaction and insatiable consumerism.

As to whether advertising works, more than $1 trillion dollars was spent on it in the United States last year. And, although America is known for its waste, our corporations aren’t that stupid. We can assume they have found benefit in the anthropologists, social psychologists and other experts they’ve hired to conduct studies to improve their campaigns.

What exactly does advertising do to us? A 1975 study from Columbia University showed that children viewing heavy amounts of advertising were more likely to be cynical about life than their peers. The researchers suggested that pre-adolescent children are far too young to deal with the “hypocrisy and institutionalized lying” that runs rampant in advertising. This was in 1975. Cynicism and apathy are part and parcel of the 21st century.

Fewer of us turn to parents and other elders for help with our problems. Instead, we consult expertly marketed books, Web sites and DVDs to help us through tough times (think: Dr. Phil). We are distrustful of those older than us because we see them as behind the times, an image that is reinforced through advertisements portraying older adults as incompetent in the technological era. Together we lament traditional prescriptions for how we ought to live while blindly accepting the new image of ourselves as consumers of stuff.

Advertisers have co-opted icons and anthems of rebellion and have sold us a new image of what we ought to be. Songs like John Lennon’s “Imagine” and The Beatles’ “Revolution” have been used to sell products. As if having an American Express card or an iPod were the new markers of today’s change agents. Songs that defined the angst of a generation now serve as the background music to carefully constructed images.

Sweatshop labor is used to produce much of the clothing available to us, but most of us wouldn’t purchase more than the occasional piece of secondhand clothing. In informal questions I asked friends, most agreed they would ask store proprietors how their clothes are produced or would wear secondhand clothes as a boycott if others did, but they don’t want to be seen as weirdos or hippies.

As scholar Jean Kilbourne argues in her thorough book “Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel,” our emotional attachment to brand names and stuff has been shaped by marketing experts. Ads remind us that while relationships and friendships may come and go, at least we’ll have cool cars, and perhaps these cars or even the Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supremes we eat in them will attract our next relationship.

Nowhere is the undermining of our regard for relationships more apparent than in music videos. In the early ’90s, brand labels were blurred on television. Today we can’t watch a 50 Cent video without seeing the entire G-Unit clothing line. If we take instruction from Nelly and Paul Wall, men only need platinum “grills” to attract scantily-clad super babes; women, to be desirable, should be quiet, wear revealing clothes and be sexually available. These “infomusicals” tell us that by exuding the right image, we’ll be able to “shop” around for sexual partners, validating our worthiness.

Just as in music videos, magazines and newspapers have failed to escape the influence of advertising. As ex-ABC anchorman Ted Koppel opined in The New York Times, “The goal for traditional broadcast networks now is to identify those segments of the audience considered most desirable by the advertising community and then cater to them.” Unless you’re buying a magazine without ads, you can be sure the editors of your chosen rag carefully have shaped their message to please the advertisers who sustain them.

Is there any hope? Yes and no. It’s impossible to escape the effects of advertising in daily life unless you become a hermit. But we all can be more critical of the messages that ads present to us and can question our motives for making the life choices that we do. And those studying marketing at the University can commit to using their powers in socially positive ways. Advertising’s attempt to undermine our traditions and supplant them with its own has the real potential to backfire. Many of us are skeptical that purchasing the right toothpaste, going on the right vacation or joining the right gym will lead to real happiness. If we can learn to trust our intuitions, we can escape the advo-monster.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected]

>Bever, T. G., Smith, M. L., Bengen, B., and Johnson, T. G. (1975). Young viewers’ troubling response to TV ads. Harvard Business Review, 53, 109-120.
>Kilbourne, Jean. Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel.
> Koppel, Ted. (January 29, 2006). And Now, a Word for our Demographic. New York Times.