We seem to be stuck in what some have called an “echo chamber” of advertising, one in which corporations do all or most of the talking and the rest of us are condemned to listen. Two aspects of the problems with advertising were focused on. The first is the sometimes absurd extremes that advertisers have gone to, including placing ads on people’s foreheads and parents effectively selling to corporations the naming rights for their children. These extremes partly result from, and have partly produced by, the consumerism of culture. The second aspect of the problem is the negative effect that advertising, especially advertising in schools, has on our children. The net effect is that people are deeper in debt, they (and their children) are less healthy psychologically and physically, and corporations grow even more powerful. The final part of the paper noted that some have argued that the ultimate cause behind the consumerization of culture and the power of corporations is a political and ideological response to attempts to overcome wage inequality.
Advertising has always been an annoyance to many people. It used to be radio ads then it was telemarketers calling during dinner time. Television followed and now advertising is a permanent fixture on the Internet. Sometimes it can seem as if companies and corporations, through advertising and other means, are the only ones talking; everyone merely listening. It can seem like what Gary Ruskin and Juliet Schor called an advertising “echo chamber” (2005, p. 4). This paper will survey some of the problems that the advertising business has created, paying special attention to what seem to be some of the root causes of the problem.
Two problems will be the focus here. One is the extreme lengths that advertisers have gone to get there message out. The second problem is the effect that advertising is having on our children.
It is a striking fact that each generation learns to “tune out” much of the advertising that it is exposed to. Some of us may remember changing the television channel when an advertisement would come on, or at least turning down the volume. Today much programming is ad-free, offered by such companies as Netflix and Amazon Prime. So advertisers turn to new venues to get their message out. In the early days of the Internet people would actually click on a pop-up ad that promised some valuable good or service, often claiming to do so for free. Most of us cannot imagine clicking on such pop-ups, so accustomed to them have we become. This leads the companies and corporations to be ever more imaginative, creative, and, some would say, desperate. One article mentions a number of extreme lengths advertisers have gone to. In the United Kingdom, apparently, companies would at least at one time pay individual people to have their brand name or logo printed or tattooed across the persons forehead (Formichelli, 2003, p. 19). Another extreme example is a couple in Kansas who were apparently paid $5,000 to name their child after the name of the company (Formichelli, 2003, p. 22).
It is precisely because each generation becomes adept at ignoring advertising that such extreme lengths must be gone to. This is related to what is sometimes called “ad creep”—“the spread of ads throughout social space and cultural institutions” (Ruskin and Schor, 2005, p. 2). One of the places ads have crept in to is our public schools. This brings us to the second aspect of advertising mentioned above.
For a variety of reasons, some of which we be mentioned later, public schools became, starting in the last decades of the 20th century, quite heavily invested in and dependent upon advertising. Advertising to children was, and is still, considered especially powerful, since at a young age people lack the skills necessary to distinguish the substance from the style of the ad, or to make an informed decision about if they need the product of service or not. A large part of the problem was that the advertising and products that schools used, or that were targeted on them, was for products that are very bad for children. For example, vending machines began to appear in schools, stocked with very unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks. There were also indirect ways that companies and corporations would target school children, such as offering, often for free, “learning materials” that were actually just ads in disguise (Moore, 2007, p. 28).
Even programs designed to help children have been indirectly coopted by corporations. A good example is the “Let’s Move” campaign, initiated by then First Lady Michelle Obama in 2010. This was a program designed to promote youth fitness. Ironically, one of the reasons this was seen to be necessary is the fact that kids were eating and drinking so much of the sorts of products that were, or had been, sold to them in schools. No one would dispute that the campaign was a good idea, except that in order to popularize it the campaign brought in stars such as Beyonce and Shaquille O’Neil. Again, this would not have been a problem except for the fact that each of these stars turned out to have endorsement contracts with corporations or companies selling products that are very unhealthy for kids, for example, Pepsi and Shaq’s own line of soda drinks (Sifferlin, 2013, p. 15).
One tragic aspect of the problem is that schools do not even seem to make much money from programs that promote unhealthy foods and drinks in their schools. Everyone knows that schools tend to be underfunded, so it would be one thing if these product placements were providing good revenue for the schools. The evidence suggests, however, that the financial gain for schools is not very high (Moore, 2007, p. 28).
What explains all of this? Certainly part of the explanation is just greed. Another part is the fact, mentioned above, that companies have gotten desperate due to people becoming de-sensitized to advertisements. But this does not seem to be the whole explanation. Ruskin and Schor suggest that the “rise of commercialism is an artifact of the growth of corporate power” (2005, 1). These authors suggest that certain political and ideological responses that corporations made to concerns about wealth inequality, for example on the part of labor unions, was to find other ways to get back the money they were having to pay their workers.
Moreover, given the amount of corporate power that large and wealthy companies have today, they effectively have a hand in shaping legislation and public policy that might otherwise serve to limit the power and reach of advertisers. Such corporations used the power that they had to create a “culture of consumerism” in which people tend to be judged, and even to judge themselves, based on what materialistic things they have. This culture of consumerism, when combined with the fact that wages for even middle-class people were not keeping up with inflation, combined to draw people deeper into debt and even to damage their self-esteem and physical health (Ruskin and Schor, 2005, 4). This aspect of the damage consumer culture has done corresponds to similar damage done to our children (Moore, 2007, p. 30).
Each of the authors mentioned or quoted from here shows some optimism about the future of these problems. No one could deny that progress has been made. However, if Ruskin and Schor are correct—that the root cause of consumerism and therefore of the problems it creates is corporate power, including the sort of self-policing that leads to financial crisis, and the corporate bailouts that then happen—then it could be argued that there is not much room at all for optimism, because corporations are growing in power, not losing power.
In conclusion, two aspects of the “echo chamber” of advertising have been briefly discussed here. The first is the extreme lengths that companies and corporations have had to go to in order to get or keep our attention, and the consumer culture that has resulted from corporate power. The second is the harmful effect that advertising, especially in schools, has on our children. Finally, it was noted that some believe that economic and political conservatism is driving the process that gives corporations so much power, and that this may be the ultimate explanation for why so many Americans are caught up in a consumer culture that not only tends to make them unhappy, but makes them unhealthy as well.
- Formichelli, L. (2003). Is nothing sacred? Across the Board, 40.5, 23. http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/10943853/nothing-sacred.
- Moore, A. (2007). A balancing act. American School Board Journal. Retrieved from http://www.asbj.com/MainMenuCategory/Archive/2007/May/A-Balancing-Act.aspx.
- Ruskin, G. & Schor, J. (2005). Every nook and cranny: The dangerous spread of commercialized culture. Multinational Monitor, 26.1&2. http://epsl.asu.edu/ceru/Articles/CERU-0504-122-OWI.pdf.
- Sifferlin, A. (2013). Let’s move: But not with Shaq and Beyonce. Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2013/09/16/lets-move-but-not-with-shaq-and-beyonce/.