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The Commercial Tidal Wave

This article is adapted from the forthcoming book by McChesney and Foster, TheProblem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century, to be published by Monthly Review Press.

For a long time now it has been widely understood within economics that under the capitalism of giant firms, corporations no longer compete primarily through price competition. They engage instead in what economists call “monopolistic competition.” This consists chiefly of attempts to create monopoly positions for a particular brand, making it possible for corporations to charge more for the branded product while also expanding their market share. Competition is most intense in what Thorstein Veblen called the “production of salable appearances,” involving advertising, frequent model changes, branding of products, and the like. Once this logic takes over in twentieth and now twenty-first century capitalism it is seemingly unstoppable. All human needs, relationships and fears, the deepest recesses of the human psyche, become mere means for the expansion of the commodity universe under the force of modern marketing. With the rise to prominence of modern marketing, commercialism—the translation of human relations into commodity relations—although a phenomenon intrinsic to capitalism, has expanded exponentially.

Advertising is part of the bone marrow of corporate capitalism. Yet it does not happen on its own. It requires advertising-friendly policies and regulations to allow it to flourish. Once these conditions are established it becomes a self-propelling system. Advertising has become such a dominant source of revenue for the media industries that those media outlets that do not attract advertising find themselves at a decided disadvantage in the marketplace. Advertising thus becomes ever more ubiquitous. One of the ironies of advertising in our times is that as commercialism increases, it makes it that much more difficult for any particular advertiser to succeed, hence pushing the advertiser to even greater efforts. Many in advertising are not necessarily excited by the push to increase commercialism—sometimes they are downright critical of the effect on culture—but feel powerless to challenge it. “It’s the ultimate challenge,” one ad executive stated in 2000. “The greater the number of ads, the less people pay attention to them. One ad is the same as another now. People simply don’t believe them anymore.” The declining effectiveness of individual ads as overexposed consumers develop immunities, has become a source of real concern for marketing firms, which find themselves forced to run faster and faster just to stand still. In the words of David Lubars, a senior ad executive in the Omnicom Group, consumers “are like roaches—you spray them and spray them and they get immune after a while.” The only answer is to spray them some more.

The resulting commercial tidal wave assumes many forms. On the one hand, it means that traditional commercial media are increasing the amount of advertising. Radio advertising has climbed to nearly 18 or 19 minutes per hour, well above the level only a decade earlier. Television has been subjected to a similar commercial marination. Until 1982, commercial broadcasters operated under a nonbinding self-regulatory standard of no more than 9.5 minutes per hour of advertising during prime-time and children’s programming. Even with that standard commercial broadcasters were lambasted for carpet-bombing the population with ads. However, today that looks like a veritable noncommercial Garden of Eden. By 2002, advertising accounted for between 14 and 17 minutes per hour of prime time programming on the major networks, easily an all-time high. The amount of time devoted to advertising on television during prime time grew by more than 20 percent between 1991 and 2000. Popular programs like The Drew Carey Show had over 9 minutes of advertising over a half-hour. And that’s not the half of it. In addition to the amount of commercial time increasing, the shorter 15-second spot, which barely existed in the 1980s, has come to account for nearly a third of the commercial time on TV. So the total number of ads increased even more dramatically. Broadcasters took advantage of new digital compression technologies to “squeeze” programs down in length to insert even more advertising. The quest to commercialize the airwaves was pushing to new frontiers. Digital ads were inserted into baseball telecasts, visible during the game itself. The UPN Network even proposed running onscreen advertisements during its programs.

All of this hypercommercialism leaves advertisers frustrated, as their particular messages are more likely to get lost in the shuffle, but their recourse invariably is to ratchet up the sales effort accordingly. It also infuriates viewers, who do whatever they can to avoid the commercial onslaught. New technologies, such as digitalized personal video recordings, make this considerably easier, much to the dismay of media executives. “You’re getting to the stage where television advertising in certain product sectors and to certain target groups simply becomes wallpaper,” one ad executive stated in 2002, “and even if you did spend more on it, it wouldn’t work.” The immediate solution to this problem has been a massive increase in “product placement” in entertainment programming, where the product is woven directly into the story so it is unavoidable, and its message can be smuggled in when the viewer’s guard is down. Coca-Cola, for example, paid $25 million dollars to AOL Time Warner so that, among other things, characters in the WB Network’s Young American series would “down cokes in each episode.”

Much of the impetus for the inexpensive “reality” programs has been their affinity with product placement. Coca-Cola had such success as the ubiquitous product displayed on Fox’s 2002 American Icon program, that the fee for “joint sponsors” for its subsequent reality show was set at $25 million apiece. “In so-called reality shows,” one industry observer noted, “branded products have become as prominent in the plot as in the commercials.” Mark Burnett, the producer of Survivor, states that he “looked on ‘Survivor’ as much as a marketing vehicle as a television show.” Advertisers’ products were made part of the story line—for $12 million each in the 2001 season. NBC’s 2003 reality show, Restaurant, was actually produced by Interpublic, the advertising agency giant, so it could give their “top clients access to product integration deals.” With new digital technologies, the sky is the limit for commercialism. AOL Time Warner has developed “virtual”advertising, where products are placed retroactively in reruns for popular shows like Law & Order.

Product placement has developed to such an extent on television that by 2003 a formal independent rating service, iTVX, had been established to assess the impact and value of product placements on television programs. The iTVX service evaluates the value of product placements on the basis of how long the product is onscreen, how prominently it is displayed, and whether it is incorporated into the story line. There are ten levels to which product placements are assigned depending upon their quality, ranging from a clear product logo in the background of a scene to a Level 10, “the ultimate in product placement,” when “a show’s entire episode is written around the product.” One classic example of a Level 10 placement was a Seinfeld episode where the characters ate branded candy throughout the show. According to one industry observer, the value of a Level 10 placement is “off the charts,” and well in excess of traditional advertising because it is more likely to be watched and remembered.

Nor is product placement limited to television. On commercial radio, broadcasters increasingly use that portion of the broadcast day not explicitly turned over to advertising, to promote material they are quietly paid to air. Product placement in motion pictures has become a standard practice and is booming, even among the most respected directors. All the studios now have top-level executives in charge of departments dedicated to giving “corporate America” what it wants, as one trade publication put it. In addition to explicit payments, advertisers make deals to promote the film in their other advertising in exchange for having the product appear in the film. Advertising Age praised Steven Spielberg’s 2002 Minority Report that “starred” Lexus and Nokia, while numerous other marketers including Pepsi’s Aquafina and Reebok had supporting roles. Even Disney’s Miramax Films, the vaunted “independent studio,” famed for its edgy work, made a deal with Coors beer in 2002. Coors will be the only beer to appear in Miramax movies, and Coors will be, in effect, the official beer of the studio, sponsoring Miramax movie premiers and promoting Miramax films. Whenever the name Miramax is seen, the name Coors will not be far behind. In 2001 the competition between Disney’s Monsters, Inc. and AOL Time Warner’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was characterized as every bit as much a competition between Pepsi and Coca-Cola, so heavily involved were they in the marketing of the two films.

Outside of films marketed exclusively to kids, nothing tops British agent 007 in the product placement department. Back in the 1960s, the first few James Bond films refused any product placement because the directors thought it “unseemly.” “In today’s very competitive movie environment,” an executive working on the 2002 Bond film, Die Another Day, stated, “these additional marketing monies have become a necessity.” Die Another Day was so laden with product placements that Variety called it an “ad-venture,” while the Financial Times noted that James Bond has now been “licensed to sell.” The film featured twenty-four major “promotional partners” that ponied up more than $120 million in promotions and advertising to support the film. James Bond has become a “walking, talking, living and killing billboard.”

As always, the children’s’ market, where resistance to commercialism is weakest, is the pioneer for ad creep. Threshold Digital Research Labs, a subsidiary of Threshold Entertainment, which is producing the new animated film Foodfight!, issued a news release on April 30, 2001, declaring that the coming film attraction “incorporates thousands of products and character icons from the familiar packages of products in a grocery store.” The story line of this movie-length commercial (or multi-commercial) is about how internationally branded characters battle the evil Brand X for control of the grocery store. Corporations holding brand names that star in the film include: Proctor & Gamble (Mr. Clean, Mr. Pringle), Interstate Food Brands (Dolly Madison, Twinkie the Kid, Wonderbread), Pepsi/Frito Lay (Chester Cheetah), Coca Cola Company (Coke), Starkist/Heinz (Charlie the Tuna), M&M Mars (M&M’s, Skittles), Uncle Ben’s (Uncle Ben), and many others.

In the adult realm, ESPN, with the help of digital ad firm Princeton Video Image, has been inserting what seem to be product billboards on the walls behind home plate in its Major League Baseball broadcasts. Fans at the games, however, can’t see them because the billboards are not there. During the coverage of the arrival of celebrities at the 2001 Grammy awards viewers watching the event on television saw a virtual street banner and logos on an entry canopy and sidewalks. The arriving celebrities, however, saw none of these advertisements, since they were not really there, but were inserted digitally for television viewers.

Marketers are seemingly unperturbed by this increase in stealth (and sometimes not so stealth) advertising in the form of product placements. “Maybe it is a subliminal commercial message,” one executive stated about film product placement in 2002, “but there are so many much more overt commercial messages, especially in America, that I don’t think anybody worries about it.” All of this has self-evident implications for what types of films will attract product placement and what types of films will therefore be more likely to get made. David Mamet’s 2000 State and Main had as a running gag the effort of a Hollywood producer to place a computer product in a nineteenth century period film. And the amount of advertising preceding the showing of films at movie theaters themselves—something considered unthinkable in the United States just a generation ago—continues to escalate and become more sophisticated.

Product placement and commercialism in general have spread across the media and culture. Once people get accustomed (or resigned) to having commercialism everywhere, as in movie theaters, the bottom comes out of the cup and longstanding standards fade quickly into the past. Video games aggressively incorporate products into their content. “This is the next frontier of product placement,” an Intel executive stated. “You’re not just watching products, you’re actually using them.” The British author Fay Weldon was paid a handsome fee to place Bulgari jewelry prominently in her 2001 novel, aptly named The Bulgari Connection. The book was not especially successful and the practice met with much criticism, but the direction is clear.

Essentially the same thing has been done for years in children’s books, which are full of branded objects and licensed characters. In the last few years this has taken on new dimensions. Millions of books are now being sold that have snack foods as their protagonists. Parents can currently choose between books starring Cheerios, Froot Loops, M&M’s, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Skittles, Reese’s Pieces, Sun-Maid raisins, Oreo Cookies and others. In a manner similar to the toy market, publishers and authors pay licensing fees to food companies in order to use the licensed products in their books. The food companies obtain not only the licensing fees but are also able in this way to market to toddlers sitting on their parents’ laps. More than 1.2 million copies of Simon Schuster’s The Cheerios Play Book were sold in just two years. One of Simon and Schuster’s newest entries is The Oreo Cookie Counting book. “It teaches children to count down from 10 cookies to ‘one little Oreo…too tasty to resist.’”

The long-standing notion of the separation between the advertising and editorial/creative sides of media is rapidly crumbling. To some extent this is due to ad clutter, and to some extent it is due to new ad-skipping technologies, but mostly it is due to the greed of media companies desperate to attract commercial support. The clout of large advertisers has grown; approximately 80 percent of U.S. ad spending is funneled through the eight largest companies that own advertising agencies, like Omnicom or Interpublic, which gives them considerable ability to name their tune with corporate media firms more than willing to play ball. “The tables have turned,” Wendy’s marketing chief stated in 2002. If media firms do not accommodate their wishes, “marketers will take their ad dollars to other places. There are too many ways to reach consumers.” Accordingly, Wendy’s was able to have Rosie O’Donnell tout Wendy’s salads during an episode of her talk show, and eat one of the salads on air. The list goes on and on. The USA Network held top-level “off-the-record” meetings with advertisers in 2000 to let them tell the network what type of programming content they wanted in order for USA to get their advertising. “The networks didn’t use to want us,” the J. Walter Thompson executive in charge of Ford’s TV account stated in 2002. “I sense a sea change….I’ve been amazed by people’s willingness to write [Ford] into scripts. I’ve had to remind them to keep it entertaining.” AOL Time Warner’s TNT cable channel sent out an open call to advertisers in 2000, in an effort to get products placed in all its programs wherever possible. Comcast’s G4 game show TV channel offered advertisers an opportunity to have their commercial appear as part of the programs. As a G4 executive said to advertisers, “if you have an idea, we’ll play.”

In a sense this is a return to broadcasting’s early days, when advertisers actually produced the programs that went on the air. And, fittingly enough, soap operas have rapidly embraced the explicit commercialization of editorial content. In 2002 Revlon was given a prominent role in Disney-owned ABC’s All My Children in exchange for millions of dollars in advertising. But what is happening now goes far beyond what was done from the 1930s to the 1950s in radio and television, in both scope and intensity. It is the media firms that are leading the push, now, and they are most definitely pushing the commercial envelope. “As the competition for ad dollars intensifies,” one Disney-owned ESPN executive stated, “we are exploring alternative ways to give advertisers added value for their time. We have to think outside the box.” ESPN has begun work on “long-form” commercials where products are integrated into entertaining segments on sport. In 2002 ABC’s Monday Night Football featured ads with announcer John Madden that were virtually indistinguishable from the program itself. News Corporation’s cable television sports show The Best Damn Sports Show Period assumed by 2003 the “leading role in blurring the boundaries between advertising and programming,” when it made the mascot for its largest advertiser, Labatts beer, a recurring character on the program. By 2002 commercial broadcasters were gearing up to develop “ebay-TV,” whereby direct selling of products could be done in conjunction with programming. The media firms claim all this commercial involvement has no influence over actual media content, but this claim fails to pass even the most basic giggle test, it is so preposterous. “Who are they kidding,” the Los Angeles Times TV columnist wrote in 2002. “Why would companies pony up cash without expecting some input over how it is spent?”

In sum, we are rapidly moving to a whole new paradigm for media and commercialism, where traditional borders are disintegrating and conventional standards are being replaced with something significantly different. It is more than the balance of power shifting between media firms and advertisers; it is about the marriage of editorial/entertainment and commercialism to such an extent that they are becoming indistinguishable. Infomercials, for example, which once were Madison Avenue’s tackiest contribution to commercial culture and which generated $14 billion via TV sales in 2001, increasingly resemble standard commercial entertainment programming. “Traditional advertising will not go away,” an ad executive stated in 2002, but it “requires an entirely new set of creative tools.” “Product placement is silly and overblown,” another ad executive stated. It can only work “if it’s integral to the story line.” Accordingly, the largest advertising agencies have begun working aggressively to co-produce programming in conjunction with the largest media firms. In 2003, AOL Time Warner’s WB network worked with advertisers on the first program without any commercial interruptions, but with advertising messages incorporated directly into the show. Produced by Michael Davies, who developed the reality show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” the idea is to create “a contemporary, hip Ed Sullivan show” in which singers and other entertainers will perform on a set completely dominated by a product logo, such as Pepsi, and comedy routines will be designed around particular products being sold.

Likewise, advertising agencies and corporate marketing departments are now producing their own media, in particular glossy magazines, which are often indistinguishable from traditional commercial media. Newhouse’s Conde Nast publishing house launched Lucky, a magazine where advertising motifs dictate the design of every editorial page, and all editorial copy is linked to specific products. “Articles, in the traditional sense, are nowhere to be found.” This “custom publishing market” was valued at $1.5 billion in 2001 and has been growing at 10 percent per year; traditional commercial magazine publishing revenues dropped 11.7 percent in 2001. “These magazines are direct marketing vehicles, but they’re more than that,” one publishing executive stated in 2002. “They are also intended to have a look and a feel of a real magazine.”

Along similar lines, firms like Microsoft and DaimlerChrysler produced lavish film shorts (and paid for them) to be shown in theaters before feature presentations; these were meant to be regarded as entertainment with the sales pitch low key. “Eventually there will be entire channels devoted to commercials,” one advertising executive predicted. “It’s all just content.” And, indeed, the pioneer in this regard is BMW, which launched its own 24/7 channel on DirecTV in 2002. The channel features entertainment programming based around BMW automobiles. “I’m hoping it’s the tip of the iceberg,” an enthusiastic DirecTV executive stated.

The crucial development here follows from the logic implicit in corporate advertising. It is to give brands personality, and to “brand” that personality on our brains. All of this has precious little to do with the actual attributes of the product or service being sold. As Coca-Cola’s chief marketing officer put it in 2002, when people buy a can of Coke, “they are not buying a product. They are buying the idea of the branding imagery, the emotional connection—and that is all about entertainment.” As an executive working with Anheuser-Busch put it: “The idea is not about promoting a product specifically, but connecting with consumers on an emotional level.” And the commercial media are joined to marketers at the hip in these endeavors. Disney, for example, has its characters provide the basis for General Mills’ line of fruit snack products and it ties NestlE9’s Wonderball chocolate bar to its children’s films, to mention just a couple.

Another key area where the merger of commercialism and content has become more and more prevalent is in recorded music, and here again the consequences are troubling. Late in 2002, for example, Pepsi and Sony Music signed a groundbreaking deal, whereby Sony artists will be promoted and distributed in many places Pepsi is sold, while Pepsi will get exclusive rights to use Sony music in its global marketing campaigns. “Music is part of our DNA,” a Pepsi executive stated. “Working with Sony lets us bring it to life in the marketplace. The umbrella idea is that Pepsi is bringing you music first. It reinforces Pepsi’s connection and leadership in music as a marketer at the same time it allows Sony to get airplay for artists early and often.”

AOL Time Warner struck a deal with Toyota in 2002 that, among other things, called for a single from Phil Collins’s new CD to be used during Toyota TV commercials for its Avalon sedan. “We are looking for new and innovative ways to get music out to the public,” an AOL Time Warner executive explained. “Toyota is the most collaborative partner we ever had. This is real co-marketing.” Toyota, Chrysler, and Honda all sponsor alternative music tours, “hoping to slip in some brand messages to a jaded demographic.” In 2002 Chevrolet sponsored the “Come Together and Worship Tour” of evangelical Christian artists, at the same time it was the exclusive sponsor of Rolling Stone’s twenty-eight-page 2003 calendar insert in an issue with Eminem on the cover.

The list goes on and on. “Now every record label,” one Disney executive stated, “is searching for a strategic marketing person to reach out to corporate America as a way to extend marketing budgets.” All of this is in contradiction to popular music’s long-standing role as a rebellious and anti-authoritarian medium. And it is that anti-authoritarianism that makes music so attractive as a convincing sales vehicle to corporations. One can only wonder how rebellious the music sponsored by marketers and advertising agencies can be. “You don’t want it to appear like you are selling out,” the president of a teen marketing firm explains. “There’s a fine line.” [emphasis added]

Nowhere in popular music is this tension more dramatic than with hip-hop music. Because of the nature of the genre—lyrics are central—and the access to difficult-to-reach markets, this has become a dream come true for marketers. “Once our audience takes to a product,” the editor of the hip-hop magazine The Source stated, “their influence is tremendous on the rest of the population.” Bragging about products in rap music has been a staple since the very beginning; in 1979 the Sugarhill Gang rapped about their “Lincoln Continental and sunroof Cadillac.” When Run D.M.C. rapped about Adidas shoes in 1986, their promoter was able to win a breakthrough $1.5 million endorsement contract from the running shoe manufacturer. That appears quaint by today’s standards. As one reporter put it: “On any given week, Billboard’s Hot Rap Tracks chart is filled with songs that serve as lyrical consumer reports for what are, or will be, the trendiest alcohol, automobile, and fashion brands.” By the end of 2002 the hip-hop label Def Jam was negotiating a deal with Hewlett-Packard to have the computer maker’s products featured in the songs of Def Jam artists in exchange for extensive play in the company’s advertising campaigns. Sean “P. Diddy” Combs has converted his music career into a marketing empire; his Blue Flame company “helps companies build brands that are targeted to trend-setting consumers.” This is “the future of advertising and marketing in America,” one observer noted, “a really good example of the avant-garde of the advanced entertainment-hype complex. They have managed to take what started out as a single product—which was music—and turn it into a lifestyle.” The commercial cart is pulling the hip-hop horse. “We sang ‘My Adidas’ because we liked them,” said D.M.C. of Run D.M.C. “That’s the difference. Now a lot of guys are just hoping to get that phone call.”

But to break commercialism down by media category, like music or film, is somewhat misleading in the era of the media conglomerate. The larger trend developing is for marketers to link with larger conglomerates and work massive product placement/advertising/promotional deals across the media firm’s entire arsenal of media assets. So it was in 2002 that MasterCard negotiated a deal with Universal Studios worth over $100 million, to make MasterCard an integral part of Universal theme parks, movies, home videos, and, possibly, music. This is where the commercial value (and competitive advantage) of having a media conglomerate comes into play.

Much of the media have been commercial institutions in the United States for generations, and what we describe is simply a massive and qualitative leap in a pre-existing commercialism. Its flames are fanned by the privatization urged on by neoliberal policies. Concurrently, and every bit as important as what we have described herein, there is an ongoing privatization and commercialization of virtually all those institutions—media and otherwise—that have been decidedly and explicitly noncommercial. This includes public broadcasting, public education, art, university education, and government activities. In grand irony, even “anti-establishment” institutions like independent films, increasingly turn to explicit corporate sponsorship. As Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland put it, we are in an age when people are channeled to “commodify your dissent,” with all that that suggests about the range of opinions that will be encouraged. Fittingly, “cause-related marketing,” where advertisers link their product to some worthy social cause to enhance their bottom line, has boomed over the past decade. Indeed, advertising itself is far too narrow a concept to encompass the effects of the rampant commercialism that now confronts us. Much attention is devoted today to how marketing and public relations are effectively merging, as both swallow up and direct the entire culture. In this sense the commercial tidal wave is interchangeable with a broader media torrent, or blizzard, that overwhelms our senses. The culture it generates tends to be more depoliticized, garish, and vulgar than what it has replaced.

Indeed, the spread of commercialism to new frontiers is so widespread as to be almost numbing. In 2002 Nike and Microsoft pasted advertising decals on the streets and subway stations of Manhattan, while the Broadway show La Boheme featured commercial props in its set. Everything now seems fair game: buildings use digital technologies to sport “urban wall displays” that are to old-fashioned billboards what rocket ships are to the horse-and-buggy; the tops of taxi cabs, public garages, subway entrances, the walls above urinals, golf holes, even baby buggies are being festooned with advertising. Advertising-packed TVs have been placed on city buses, in elevators, and in checkout lines. Using a special steamroller-like machine, Dori’s Beach N’ Billboards Inc. in New Jersey has imprinted the state’s beaches with more than 650,000 square feet of Snapple iced tea and Skippy peanut butter ads. NBC even established a Patient Channel to bombard people with advertising in hospitals. As a correspondent for Electronic Media quipped, “If you’re sick of TV advertising, a hospital bed might not be the best place for you.” In 2001 the California Horse Racing Board voted to drop bans on advertising on jockeys and horses. Taking it one step further, grade D celebrities like Tonya Harding and Danny Bonaduce were among the twenty or so public figures that began sporting temporary tattoos for advertisers. Leaving no stone unturned, in 2002 a firm called Government Acquisitions LLC began selling advertising space on police cars in scores of communities.

Product placement ads are even being inserted in news broadcasts by major networks. During its coverage of New Year’s Eve 2000 in New York CBS blotted out real billboards for NBC and Budweiser on One Times Square, the building where the ball drops at midnight, and digitally substituted the CBS logo. This became well-known only because CBS was hit with a lawsuit from OTS Signs which rents billboard space there for as much as $1 million.

As part of this process of commercial penetration two crucial and noteworthy developments have taken place. First, marketers have had to become much more sophisticated in their techniques at commanding the attention of their desired target audience. It would astonish almost any person to see the extent of the research deployed by marketers and advertising agencies to brand their imprint on consumers’ brains. Focus groups, psychologists, and cultural anthropologists are de rigueur in marketing research. Modern marketing is clearly the greatest concerted attempt at psychological manipulation in all of human history. A crucial development in the early twenty-first century has been the rise of “guerilla” marketing; i.e. smuggling sales messages into particular “target audiences” by aggressively spreading “buzz” about a hip new product or using other unorthodox and surreptitious methods. Alissa Quart’s 2003 book Branded chronicles these techniques for marketing to teenagers and their implications in chilling detail. “One of the tenets of teen advertising is that they don’t smell the sell,” a top ad executive stated in 2000. “You can do amazing things if you live where [teens] live and learn to speak to them in a voice they find appealing.” The ideal is to have “potential buyers” learn “about a brand from their coolest friends.” Or as another marketer put it, “Buzz doesn’t happen by accident. This is just real-life product placement.” One of the most striking uses of guerilla marketing tactics is called “urban marketing,” where firms like Coca-Cola send teams of hip young African-Americans with vans full of soda and hip-hop music “to the sweltering streets to engage in a block-by-block battle to win over the hearts and wallets of lower-income, mostly African-American consumers.” Maze Jackson, the director of “urban marketing” for one advertising agency, says it is “more authentic” and allows the firm to zero in on “urban trendsetters.” “We incorporate ourselves into the urban landscape,” Jackson states. In short, even personal relationships are now deployed to sell.

Second, the race to imprint the brand on the target audience increasingly turns to younger and younger people. The booming value of the global market for children’s licensed products was some $132 billion in 2002. Hence the children’s market has received extraordinary attention in recent years and it is here that the commercial tidal wave is most striking. In 2001, children’s programming accounted for over 20 percent of all U.S. television watching. In addition, children are increasingly recognized as the necessary location for building brand awareness, even for adult products. The key is to reach them before their brand decisions have been made, and before their defenses to advertising are well developed. Mike Searles, president of Kids-R-Us, a chain of specialty children’s stores, explains that where commercial marketing to children is concerned, “All these people understand something that is very basic and very logical, that if you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come.” In effect, “companies are saying, ‘Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger and younger.’”

This explains why the hotel chain Embassy Suites, for example, signed a $20 million deal with Viacom’s children’s channel Nickelodeon. “We found in research that 95% of kids could name at least one hotel chain,” a Nickelodeon executive enthused. Traditionally noncommercial venues such as public schools, and school textbooks are now loaded up with commercial messages. According to Joel Babbit, former President of Channel One which is present in schools across the nation, “The biggest selling point to advertisers” of this type of compulsory education via commercial TV is the lack of freedom it imposes in “forcing kids to watch two minutes of commercials.” The virtue from an advertiser’s standpoint, he explains, is that “The advertiser gets a group of kids who cannot go to the bathroom, who cannot change the station, who cannot listen to their mother yell in the background, who cannot be playing Nintendo, who cannot have their headsets on.” Childhood in the United States is becoming first and foremost a commercial indoctrination from one’s earliest memories, with the explicit purpose of enhancing the profitability of the marketers, not the well-being of the children. In the words of Nancy Shalek, President of Shalek Advertising, which handles advertising campaigns for children’s clothing, “Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser85Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something they are resistant. But if you tell them they’ll be a dork if they don’t, you’ve got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities and it’s very easy to do it with kids, because they’re the most emotionally vulnerable.”

For a society whose politicians and citizens love to speak of their commitment to children, the actual track record points in the opposite direction. Ironically, when the Center for Disease Control wished to address the epidemic of childhood obesity brought on to some extent by non-stop TV advertising for sugar products and junk food, it did so by purchasing TV ads.

It must also be noted that this hypercommercialiation of the culture is recognized and roundly detested by the citizenry, although the topic scarcely receives a whiff of direct attention in the media or political culture. An advertising industry survey conducted in December 2002 found that a “whopping 75% of U.S. consumers believe advertising intrusion into content has increased over the past year,” and most of them found the development very negative. The only good news for marketers was that younger people tended to be somewhat less critical of hypercommercialism than their elders, though the antipathy was still intense, with 44 percent of people under thirty-five expressing concern about the encroachment of advertising into editorial content. But with regard to hypercommercialism, interestingly enough, the mantra of “giving the people what they want” does not apply. To the contrary, people are given a “choice” from within the range of what generates the most money for the dominant firms in oligopolistic markets. In all likelihood, as the Los Angeles Times TV critic noted in 2003, people then grow “indifferent to such excesses or, more likely,” he concluded, they are “bludgeoned into submission by them.” In due time, as people select from this commercially marinated menu, they can expect to be informed by academics and the punditocracy that they are getting what they want.

Indeed, for all their lauding of choice, marketing professionals have much more manipulative and dominating designs. As one market researcher put it at the Seventh Annual Consumer Kid’s Conference in Arizona in May 1995, “Imagine a child sitting in the middle of a large circle of train tracks. Tracks, like the tentacles of an octopus, radiate to the child from the outside circle of tracks. The child can be reached from every angle. This is how the [corporate] marketing world is connected to the child’s world.” As Gary Ruskin, head of Commercial Alert, a group founded by Ralph Nader, observes, “In our business culture, children are viewed as economic resources to be exploited, just like bauxite or timber.”

Nor are children the only ones to be treated in this way. “After trying to watch the heavily hyped Winter Olympics,” John Updike sardonically commented to the National Arts Club in 1984, “I have no doubt that the aesthetic marvels of our age, for intensity and lavishness of effort and subtlety of both overt and subliminal effect, are television commercials. With the fanatic care with which Irish monks once ornamented the Book of Kells, glowing images of youthful beauty and athletic prowess, of racial harmony and exalted fellowship, are herein fluidly marshaled and shuffled to persuade us that a certain beer or candy bar, or insurance company or oil-based conglomerate, is…the gateway to the good life.”

All of this leads to deeply troubling implications for the exercise of democracy in the classical sense of the term. The democratic philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn put it well when he noted that if commercialism provides the logic for all speech, the commitment to public communication disintegrates under the obsession with material self-interest. The truth is far less important than what one can convince people to believe in order to get them to serve your commercial needs. What was written by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy in 1964 holds true for today, and then some:

It is sometimes argued that advertising really does little harm because no one believes it any more anyway. We consider this view to be erroneous. The greatest damage done by advertising is precisely that it incessantly demonstrates the prostitution of men and women who lend their intellects, their voices, their artistic skills to purposes in which they themselves do not believe, and that it teaches [in the words of Leo Marx] ‘the essential meaninglessness of all creations of the mind: words, images, and ideas.’ The real danger from advertising is that it helps to shatter and ultimately destroy our most precious non-material possessions: the confidence in the existence of meaningful purposes of human activity and respect for the integrity of man.

What such a commercial culture tends to produce—and what the avalanche of commercialism encourages—is profound cynicism and greed, both cancerous to public life. The message is constant: all our most treasured values—democracy, freedom, individuality, security, cultural diversity, equality, education, community, love, health, human development—are reduced in one way or another to commodities provided by the market. Social problems either cannot be solved or can be solved through individual material consumption. Likewise, human happiness is to be located in individual material consumption as well.

Rafts of academic books have been published in the past decade—and more are certain to come—explaining that this commercialization of life is actually very complex and nuanced and cannot be adequately described in such a categorical manner. This is true enough and any close examination must take this into account. Some go on to assert that commercial cultures hold the potential for popular sovereignty, albeit in a form we may not yet understand. But in the classical sense of the term democracy—the notion of informed self-government—our current path leads to no plausible democratic destination. As James Rorty wrote some seventy years ago, advertising represents “Our Master’s Voice,” that of the wealthy, and the culture it dominates will always ultimately be biased to serve the interest of the privileged few.

The struggle against advertising is therefore essential if we are to overcome the pervasive alienation from all genuine human needs that currently plays such a corrosive role in our society. But in resisting this type of hypercommercialism we should not be under any illusions. Advertising may seem at times to be an almost trivial if omnipresent aspect of our economic system. Yet, as the great mainstream economist A. C. Pigou long ago pointed out, it could only be “removed altogether” if “conditions of monopolistic competition” inherent to corporate capitalism were removed. To resist it is to resist the inner logic of capitalism itself, of which it is the pure expression.

2003, Volume 54, Issue 10 (March)
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