Sold Out



It’s no accident that the degradation of modern political life has coincided with the rise of advertising as a dominant form of communication. I use the word “communication” for lack of a better term—advertising has bent the meanings of more than a few words we once took for granted.

An ad could be considered merely another spice of capitalist life when it was just the local grocer hawking his wares, or a few lines in the back of a penny weekly. But with commercials plastered on almost every available surface and blaring from radio and television, the spice has become a deadly narcotic.

Worshipers of the “free market” may claim to enjoy advertising, but we know they’re in the minority—the popularity of the mute function on the TV remote is proof enough of that. Of course ads are annoying. There’s a big difference between a friend knocking on your door to pay a visit and the stranger selling you magazine subscriptions. But the pretense of advertising is that there is no difference. And it’s only one of many pretenses permeating this dubious anti-artform.


The prominence of out-and-out lying as a commercial strategy is no secret, but even supposing that an ad’s claims about a particular product are true (quite a supposition, that), there’s something about ads themselves that feel deceptive. The person, actually the company, doing the persuading will obviously say whatever it takes to accomplish the objective of selling you the product. Only children and the credulous, to their misfortune, believe that the advertiser is attempting to communicate a truth—the rest of us recognize persuasion for what it is. And persuasion is annoying because it constantly presses us to make a choice. It pulls at our sleeve like an unwanted companion who won’t shut up and leave us alone.

In this imagined conversation, a burden is placed on you, the customer. In other words, you are being asked to do something—in point of fact, told to do something, since an ad rarely stoops to asking, which would imply some sort of need. In any case, there is a decision that you are being presented with. The relationship of salesman to customer is incompatible with friendship. Friendship is based on equality in the personal sense. It involves dialogue. A commercial, on the other hand, talks at you, never with you.

The ad pretends to be sincere about the content of what it presents, but we know that the desire to sell the product overrides any consideration of content. The salesman may even believe in the product—it’s irrelevant because the act of persuasion itself is inherently insincere. Looking at society under the influence of advertising, then, we notice that we are surrounded and enveloped by false sincerity. The omnipresence of this false sincerity makes actual sincerity more and more difficult. The phony pitch gradually replaces rational discourse in the public sphere until many find themselves unable to tell the difference.

The voice of the ad—which we can take literally as a voice in the case of radio and TV—is the voice of self-satisfied capitalism. “Everything is fine the way it is,” the voice says. “There are no real problems other than what to buy, what objects to acquire, and how to acquire them.” The commercial’s persuasive appeal, the need to buy the product, is always set against the background of an essential acceptance of this situation as the only reality, the only happiness.

We can laugh at the blatant hard-sell techniques of old commercials from the 1950s. But the supposedly hip, humorous, smooth, ironic voice of the present-day ad campaign is no different in essence. Behind the slick veneer of the commercial is the grin of a fool. No rational person talks this way. People know this instinctively. Yet we have been conditioned to accept this language, this decadent form of speech, as an important part of our environment. Advertising presupposes stupidity as the normal, acceptable human condition. The ideal customer may wear a suit, drink martinis, and listen to indie rock, but his brain resembles that of the rube trembling with excitement when he gets the sweepstakes letter telling him that he “may already have won.”

There used to be a sense that advertising was only one aspect of business, and that business was only one aspect of society. But now advertising dictates the campaigns of political candidates, and the methods by which government leaders communicate their actions and intent. Its methods have to a large part absorbed more traditional ideas of journalism—the “news” shows seek to agitate, inspire, and distract us, rather than truly inform. The blather about “values” that has been one of the favorite political dodges in recent decades ignores a basic truth—a society’s values can be easily discerned through the messages that dominate public life. Those messages, by a huge majority, can be summarized simply as “Buy now!” This has the effect of repressing true dialogue in the social, spiritual, educational, artistic, and political realms, and it does so without most of us being aware of it.

I remember how shocked many people were by the statements of a Bush aide in a 2004 New York Times Magazine article. That’s the one where the Bushie said that the “reality-based community” believed wrongly that “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality,” when in fact (according to said Bush freak), the empire creates its own reality when it acts. I was surprised by the uncharacteristic frankness and demented eloquence of the unnamed neocon (“reality-based community” indeed—if I hadn’t known better, I’d say it was satire), but the idea was really just a central tenet of advertising pushed to the level of geopolitical strategy. The worth of the product is ultimately not the point—the important thing is to sell it, and when you succeed at selling it, the success of the “market” justifies the product.

The problem, then, is much bigger than those rotten billboards blocking my view of the mountains—although I’m not opposed to banning them; it would at least be a start. The problem is really a new way of thinking and perceiving, a way exemplified by advertising but now influencing all aspects of society. It’s delusional because it filters everything through a paradigm of persuasion for profit, persuasion without reference to standards of truth and without a relationship to notions of the public good, the welfare of the individual or society. The principle that opposes this new force is simple honesty. With the loss of this principle comes the inevitable destruction of culture and the end of freedom.

To expose this way of thinking as false, then, is one of the goals of a progressive movement. It implies the recognition that capitalism does not constitute a way of life, but only a single aspect of society. This aspect needs to be kept within bounds by an informed citizenry and a government that represents all of the people, not just the salesman.

You can see what an uphill climb we’re talking about. Oh, it’s steep, alright. But there it is.


~ by cdash on November 22, 2007.

6 Responses to “Sold Out”

  1. I really do think of myself as a far as being an instrument of change goes as a consumer, because so often I feel as though the only power I have over corporate rule is to not purchase from the big guns and buy locally and all that, which is in some ways true for me, but… I am still thinking of myself as a consumer.

    What else can one be?

    I loved that it sat on the post long enough that I got to see that the ball falls down the stairs and the figure runs back down after it. He. He.

  2. Just like in anything that is advertised that turns out to be an inferior product, I ignore their ads. If I don’t trust a company to tell the truth after trying their product…I never buy from that company again.

    As in product advertising, anything I hear out of Fox News, I assume is baloney, even if they are reporting the truth. If Bush, his administration, or ANY Republican says anything, I know it’s a lie and I don’t “buy” their product.

    Love the images, this is a great post!

  3. This is outstanding.

    I recall reading that NYT Magazine piece in 2004 and can recall with alarming clarity the physical feelings I had when I hit that “reality-based” line. I wish it were satire.

    Advertising? Staying on-message? On-point? It is all fucking propaganda.

    I remember being in the second grade- this would have been around 1964 and learning about “propaganda”. We were taught that “propaganda” meant messages that were meant to influence us and the teacher used examples for the (then) Soviet Union.

    THAT was propaganda and all I am hearing is largely the same thing.

    ‘Cept for here and ‘n shit.

  4. Happy Thanksgiving, fairlane!

  5. I remember learning about propaganda too when I was little. I didn’t realize until I got older that the good ol’ USA was, and still is, the master of the game.

  6. Great post! And it fits the times we live in so well since the Bush administration has been one long info-mercial. Never has a White House spent more on PR/Advertising to try and convince the American public they are doing a good job and/or will do a good job if trusted in the future.

    I read once that my generation (boomers) was almost immune to advertising because of the early loss of Kennedy, the disastrous Vietnam War and the betrayal by Nixon. Not sure that is still true as advertisers have over time ‘built a better mouse’ so to speak.

    With what has transpired in American politics in the last 10 years, I imagine we are raising another generation too cynical to be convinced that any government has their best interests at heart. And sadly they may be right.

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