Sunday, March 15, 2009



I do not typically watch television. I have two reasons for this. First, I do not like most programming. I just do not have much interest in watching people fight alligators for cash prizes, strive to become famous singers while enduring brutal public humiliation, repair their homes on a limited budget or learning about Brad Pitt’s current whereabouts. It just does not interest me. On the other hand, I do like watching documentaries and some news channels. For the most part, I get my news from prowling several different national and international sources on the internet, but sometimes it is refreshing to watch an American newscast.

Second, I do not generally watch television because I absolutely detest advertising. I have written at length about advertising. I call it “the language of commerce,” and I despise it for that reason. When I can, I shut my ears to it. Advertising appeals to as many human senses as possible. It attempts to implant impressions in the human mind. Only human sense can lead to human impressions, and advertisers know that they have a better chance to make impressions when they can appeal to several human senses at once. Television provides them an opportunity to appeal both to sight and hearing. For that reason, advertisers wheel out their best efforts for television audiences. After all, they stand a better chance to stand out in a viewer’s mind through television than they would if they merely put up a two-dimensional billboard on a highway. Television allows the advertiser to directly target a listener in his own home both with memorable sights and sounds. Advertisers also know that their listeners are voluntarily sitting there watching a program they want to see, so they will be hesitant to change the channel. That indirectly forces them to watch their commercial message. In short, there are few better ways to make an impression than to use television.

If I want to watch television, I use TIVO. I locate the programs I want to see, then I record them. When my schedule permits, I replay the recordings and skip the commercials. It is wonderful. And it makes me feel good to deny advertisers their chance to influence me. I have always relished opportunities to spite powerful interests. Muting advertisers is one way to accomplish that goal. I do not allow them to dictate what will be said at a particular moment. I choose what I want to hear, not what they want me to hear.

But it is really not so revolutionary as all that. In fact, I do not like most advertising because it is incredibly petty. So you’re selling a Sham-Wow “shammy” dishrag? That’s wonderful; I don’t give a shit. So you’re selling an industrial strength stain remover for only $14.95 plus shipping and handling? Great, I don’t need an industrial strength stain remover, so I really don’t give a shit about all the carpet-cleaning antics designed to impress me. So you’re selling an erectile dysfunction drug? That’s fine, but my erectile capacities are naturally sufficient, so I don’t give a shit about the drug’s side effects, or the grayed fiftysomething actor who comes on screen to tell me how much the drug improved his late-middle-aged sex life. There is a commonality at work here: Selling things about which I don’t give a shit. When I engage in commerce, I know what I want. I go online and buy it. I don’t need a sales pitch or a misleading gimmick to sway my undecided mind. And should I really be undecided when it comes to buying a dishrag? These are not the kinds of things about which to feel morally divided. You buy or you don’t. It is not complicated.

Yet advertising irks me for a more subtle reason than simple pettiness. Advertising also makes normalizing assumptions. It makes moral judgments as well as financial ones. Through its commercial appeals, it condescends. The new Progressive Car Insurance advertising push provides a ready example. In it, a sprightly, dim-witted insurance saleswoman—who allegedly “loves her job”—answers questions about the company’s insurance products. She asks the prospective buyer whether he “likes discounts.” “Who doesn’t like discounts?” he answers. Who indeed doesn’t? In commerce, you want to spend less money, not more, and discounts cost less than full prices, right? Then the saleswoman recites a whole list of characteristics that qualify insurance buyers for discounts. “Are you a safe driver?” she asks. “Yes,” responds the buyer. “Discount!” she says with a giggle. “Are you a homeowner?” “Yes,” responds the buyer. “Discount!” she says with a louder giggle. In the end, the company logo appears along with a phone number to call. After all, what good would a commercial message be without information about how to buy?

Why did this advertisement bother me? It bothered me because it makes morally normalizing assumptions about people. In essence, Progressive offers “discounts” to people who do not get in accidents and who own homes. In other words, only “responsible” people get to pay less. “Irresponsible” people have to pay more. Is this fair? After all, it falls in some measure to good fortune whether a person gets into a traffic accident. Drunks slam into the best drivers sometimes, whether or not they drive the speed limit. But what about owning a home? Can a poor person really control whether he owns or rents? It takes a lot of ready money and credit to buy a house. Millions of people cannot afford a home. Millions more have credit problems, and not always because they are irresponsible rogues. They have to rent. Yet according to Progressive’s implicit moral judgment, these people are “irresponsible” and they do not deserve a discount.

Am I “irresponsible” because I can’t afford to put $45,000 down on a house? I am so crushed with education debt that I can barely scrape an additional $400 together at any particular time, let alone $45,000. Does this make me “irresponsible?” I don’t get a discount because I don’t “own?” I am just a scumbag renter, huh? That is what Progressive is saying, whether or not they know it. This bothers me because here advertising goes beyond mere attempts to seduce a new buyer. Instead, it passes judgment on people for forces beyond their control. I can deal with pettiness in advertising, but when advertising starts branding me “irresponsible” because I can’t afford to buy a house, I get upset.

Yet this is commerce. It both implies and requires inequality. There are those blessed with money and those not so blessed. There are those who own and those who rent. Some people make $100,000 a year; others make minimum wage. There are those who inherited prosperous family businesses and those with impecunious fathers. Those fortunate enough to have lived relatively stable lives with jobs and salaries can buy homes and get special treatment from the car insurance company. Those who struggle enjoy no such special treatment. Meanwhile, they hear about the special treatment that “responsible” get and they feel worse about themselves because they do not “own.” Nobody likes knowing they are inferior.

I find this significant because commerce involves more than mere buying, selling and talk about buying and selling. It represents a moral perspective, too. It represents a value code premised upon property ownership. People who win success in commerce have particular values; they are “responsible.” Like any moral system, those who follow it look down upon those who cannot fulfill its mandates. But is it fair to look down on someone who cannot achieve commercial success? Today, it is not easy to win in commerce without good fortune and a substantial head start. It is virtually impossible to be a “self-made man” anymore; there is just not enough property to go around. It is already taken. According to prevailing rhetoric, education opens the way to success. Yet for most Americans, debt is the only way to education. And debt constricts freedom: In the end, who can afford to buy a home when he owes thousands every month to loan creditors? More to the point, how can a debt-ridden person afford to buy anything extra? Many people would love to fit the advertiser’s criteria for “responsibility,” but for one legitimate reason or another, they cannot. In my view, failing to meet impossible criteria does not warrant an advertiser’s moral judgment. It is simply unfair to hold people accountable for failings over which they had no control.

In sum, advertising does more than bore me with talk about worthless trinkets and drugs. It condescends toward me with normalizing judgments about “responsible living.” I cannot escape commerce. To some extent, we are all economic entities. I simply choose to do my own research about my material needs. I would rather not hear a biased pitch about a product I do not want from someone who stands to gain from selling it. And I certainly do not want to hear moral judgments mixed in with crass solicitations to buy.

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