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The Scarlet & Black

The treachery of images part II, limiting exposure to adverts

In my last column I addressed the over-emphasis on appearances over reality. This week’s column focuses on what makes these appearances what they are—advertising.

I grew up in a family that didn’t own a TV, which seems to be considered unusual most anywhere outside Grinnell (in fact, I didn’t meet anyone of a similar circumstance until I came here!). Aside from a major under-appreciation and suspicion of popular culture, the experience has given me a different perspective on the social implications of advertising.

Whenever I do cross paths with the television—usually, when we are staying overnight at hotels before XC meets—I am always shocked at just how much time is devoted to advertising. A few weeks ago, some of us were watching a movie on TV, and I literally couldn’t make it through much more than an hour of the 10-minutes-of-movie, 5-minutes-of-ads cycle (at least it was predictable). Watching a bit of background CNN later on was even worse. The amount of time devoted to ads was actually greater than the amount of time given to programming! This was on a “news” channel! How can CNN be a trusted, or even efficient source of information if this is happening?

While asking this question opens a bigger can of worms, part of the answer might lie in the fact that “ad creep” is happening everywhere. Remember when Pandora had no ads? Even just after they first introduced them, they were innocuously infrequent. Now they happen after every three songs! Online videos are showing a similar trend, just as television has continued to increase from the more reasonable levels of the past (in the early 1980s, the FCC limited ads to nine minutes per hour of primetime TV—these limits no longer exist).

Why should advertising be limited? Annoyance is a common reason, but consider its real psychological effects—whether they are subliminal or overt, ads are designed to make one feel bad for not purchasing a given product. But when so many are battling depression and loneliness on top of high debt, do we really need to use our public airwaves to make people feel worse? Our televisions tell us how we can buy things to make us feel better, but what is there to suggest when we might be best off not buying anything other than the cold, hard, restraint of our budgets (which we are told to overlook during the holiday season)?

We need to somehow encourage an alternative mentality. Part of this might come from pushing our lawmakers to find ways of requiring the media to recognize the harm that pro-consumer advertising does to individuals and society as a whole, and in fact progress is being made on this—a bill that would limit advertising volume is currently passing through Congress. But another part of the change should come directly from the people. Instead of asking for the latest iDevice for Christmas, think about what you might want that money can’t buy. It’s a cliché heresy that might undermine the «economic recovery» that›s currently underway, but it›s also the most meaningful way to begin to reverse a culture that has allowed such pervasive advertising to be successful. While it’s understood that media outlets need some advertising to make their businesses profitable, and that buying some stuff can make us happy, we should also know how harmful the current excess of ads really is, and how there could be positives even to business by cutting back. News of good products (or services, or even medications) would be spread relatively more strongly by word-of-mouth and actual quality and not fancy, expensive ad campaigns. By removing some of the superfluous luster of appearance, we can more readily see the reality, and will have improved our culture and sanity to boot.

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