A Specious Art?
In any free market society, advertising is pervasive and inescapable. On billboards, busses, televisions, magazines, newspapers, flyers...and on every conceivable public surface and in every conceivable space—from park benches to t-shirts to candy wrappers—we can find ourselves presented with slogans and pitches. They come from hawkers, vendors, corporations, politicians, public relations giants, ad agencies, movie studios, restaurant chains, religious groups, rock bands, private schools, accident chasing lawyers, car dealers, and real estate queens. In virtually every case, the aim is to sell us something, to shuffle our dollars into someone else's coffers in the endless and bustling movement of currency that is capitalism.

As Dr. Art Echerd suggests, there are inherent dangers in most advertising (click here for Dr. Echerd's commentary). First of all, because the advertiser's aim is to SELL, one rarely finds advertising that depicts reality in an OBJECTIVE manner. As one student put it, advertising presents an IDEAL reality, not an authentic one. Second, while he may purport to offer the consumer the best deal or product, the advertiser typically does not have the consumer's best interest at heart, but rather his own. He wants to make money: plain and simple. Third, and most damning, advertising often attempts to persuade us by the lowest means possible—by appeals to our fears, insecurities, greed, and/or herd instincts. In fact, much advertising plays upon our innate social urge to conform, to belong to a select group. What American kid hasn't gone through the period when she had to own a certain brand of shoes to be considered "cool"? And while we think that we outgrow these childish brand wars, just consider the homes we own, the cars we drive, and the clothes we wear. Are these not also an extension of our desire to project a winning identity vis-a-vis our peers?


But is Advertising Really Dangerous?
Should we be concerned about advertising and its capacity to manipulate us? Maybe. Many of us believe that our taste in music or dress is entirely our own—sprung from our individual sensibilities and preferences. Thoreau's quotation (above) suggests the contrary, that most of us are largely social constructs—unwitting stooges who follow whatever trend is popular. A simple test will bear out this point, at least to a greater degree than most of us would like to imagine (click here for an explanation).




 







 

 

However, there are reasons to be concerned about advertising beyond its effect on simple musical or sartorial preference. In her oft-cited social study The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg suggests that contemporary psychological maladies like bulimia and anorexia spring directly from cultural messages, particularly those in advertising and the popular media. Using diaries of adolescent girls as her primary source of evidence, Brumberg asserts that one hundred years ago body image disorders were rare to nonexistent because late nineteenth century American culture emphasized a young woman's character, not her waist or bust line. Not surprisingly, as the nation grew more affluent and as companies sought ever new ways to sell products, marketing increasingly focused on the physical, the material—the body. Appeals to elemental impulses became a norm—so much so that it is self-evident today that sex is used to sell just about everything, from sitcoms to sandalwear to food. Moreover, the advertising industry inevitably sends mixed messages to an image-deluged public. For instance, we are urged to slim down, watch our weight, and buy a host of 'lite' products to stay trim and fit, but on the other hand we are bombarded with slick photographs of juicy burgers, sumptuous pizzas, and a hundred other delectable temptations. Such contradictions are inescapable in a free market society, but only a vigilant and skeptical mind will regularly expose them. The old Roman proverb caveat emptorbuyer beware—applies now more than ever. As silly as it may sound, a healthy indifference to advertising may prove life-saving to you or someone you love. That said, the cosmetics, fashion, food, and tobacco industries (to name a few) don't sleep. They just keep urging us to buy, buy, buy.

In Advertising's Defense
To be fair, anyone who owns a business understands the need to market her products. Moreover, if the products are beneficial to a person's welfare or the welfare of the public at large, then advertising has a crucial role to play in seeing to it that the better products "win" in the competitive arena. For instance, if you make the best medical products, the most efficient computers, the most trouble-free and pollution-free cars and trucks, then we would hope that you would win in the great marketplace. You will need talented advertising specialists to help you do so. In this respect, altruism and self-interest are hardly at odds. In fact, they may be one and the same.

 

 



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brumberg
warhol

university of arkansas
harpeth hall