An Old Report which is Nonetheless Instructive
In 1978, the Office of Consumer Education commissioned a report to find out exactly how advertising and marketing were affecting US society. The result was a study entitled Impact of Advertising: Implications for Consumer Education by Zena Cook et al, and the report was interesting because of what it found but also because of how it framed the discussion in terms of “consumer sovereignty,” which is the right of consumers to have their wants and needs respected by the market. The intention was, in fitting with the economic theory of supply and demand, that consumer needs and wants would determine what the market produced, instead of the other way around. Implicit in this idea, as a theme running through the report, is that consumers need to be accurately informed about the choices confronting them. The study’s authors note frankly, “Consumers are today faced with a very serious information problem: obtaining and understanding reliable information about the great multitude of commodities and services they consume is, at best, difficult and, at worst, impossible” (12). They note the problems of information deficiency (when people are uninformed) and commercial misinformation (when people are misinformed), and state that, “As advertising replaces useful information with non-informational elements, the processing of factual information is delayed and often ignored” (13). They worry that, “The intellectual foundation of the ‘free enterprise’ or market system depends on freedom from influence over consumer preferences and choice, and advertising to create ever greater markets tends to destroy that freedom” (17). Finally, while trying to spare you a lecture on economics, I will note that they suggested that increased advertising would cause us to save less and buy goods more, while at the same time causing a decrease in spending for the public good, such as parks, schools, and libraries. The report goes into a level of macroeconomic detail that we don’t need to go into here; however, it establishes the difference between unbiased public information and information (or misinformation) that is meant to influence you to buy something or, perhaps, to buy INTO something.
But what does this have to do with information literacy?
For starters, they recommend that consumers, ie. YOU, need to be better informed about your purchases, and they suggest that you evaluate advertising and marketing materials using unbiased sources such as product-rating periodicals, libraries, public consumer agencies, Public Broadcasting Company, and National Public Radio. Then, the authors apply their research more broadly to suggest that, “Our choice is not a zero sum choice, but it does involve questions of priorities, the understanding of which we have to grasp in order to make educated choices about the future” (44). In other words, inasmuch as information literacy is a key component of making informed decisions for yourself and of being a cognizant participant in a democratic society, understanding the prevalence and effects of advertising is important.
A Question of Focus
Many years ago I dated a woman who had a four-year-old son who was smart, gentle, and all-around wonderful. We took him to the Illinois State Fair, and we eventually found our way to the FFA (Future Farmers of America) petting zoo. All proceeded normally until we reached the end, where a shorn lamb had been marked up and labeled into his cuts of meat. The boy fed the lamb, who licked his hand. He petted his head and asked, “Why did they color him like that?”
How to explain? Well, we didn’t, which might have been a failure of parenting, but one rarely expects to see a transgression that confuses our compartmentalization like that: animals are our friends, except for the ones we eat. When we are forced to simultaneously confront this dichotomy, it causes the uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. Sticking with this example, here are some tricks that advertisers use to misdirect your attention from one idea to another, thus helping maintain this tidy compartmentalization:
Interestingly, the video itself is a bit of sleight of hand, as the presenter is not actually a marketing consultant but an actress, and it is clear that the video is meant to convince you that factory farming is cruel. Regardless of its slant, it makes some interesting points about how things are sold to us in a way that minimizes our discomfort.
Going back to the notion of public information, as a culture, we sort of expect to be manipulated by advertisers, and we put our guard up when the ads play. Yet we feel safe while watching the news or reading the newspapers because those places are not supposed to be trying to sell us something. But the same forces that shape the messages of our marketing also subsidize and support the places where we go to get our information. Consider that the main newspaper in Memphis, where I lived for a while, is called The Commercial Appeal. I saw Ralph Nader speak there once and he got the biggest kick out of that. He said something like, “They aren’t even trying to hide it anymore!” He meant that their purpose was to sell advertisements, not to inform the public.
This concept of public spaces is handily explained in Consumer Resistance in a World of Advertising Clutter: The Case of Adbusters by Joseph D. Rumbo. J. Habermas states that, “The public sphere is a hypothetical non-governmental arena where private citizens can meet to engage in rational discourse designed to reach a consensus over issues of mutal importance….” (as cited in Rumbo 128). That is, in a society there is supposed to be a free exchange of ideas—even those that are critical of the status quo. However, Rumbo laments that, “Extending to envelop public space (e.g. sites of consumption) and discursive space (e.g. mass media and fora for social and political debate), advertising is the main propagandist for the pervasive logic of consumerism” (128). This is a pretty serious charge: that the national discourse is essentially corrupted by the agents of hyper-consumerism. But I am not sure that it is entirely unwarranted a charge.
The effect is a pervasive thread in our culture that is pro-industry and pro-business. While there is nothing wrong with industry and business, if those forces do not work for the benefit of humanity, overall, then their modus operandi might need to be investigated. However, and here is the crux, that kind of scrutiny is indeed very difficult if those very same interests have been allowed to define the parameters of the discussion. By allowing for such aggressive and truth-averse marketing and advertising, that is exactly what we have conceded. Because, as Cook et al suggest, the message has impacts beyond which soda you buy at the grocery store. It seems to seep into broader culture, coloring the presentation of information supposedly in the public sphere. Here is a wonderful example I stumbled upon at the Museum of Science and Industry, which my kids and I love, but which in some ways uncritically accepts the messages of industry. Thinking about the video on advertising that we watched above, consider the wording of the following placard:
Note how the language makes it seem like we are nothing more than benevolent caretakers of the animals. We offer them food and nutrition, and despite visual evidence to the contrary, plenty of sunshine, exercise, and strolls down to the creek to drink fresh water. We also protect them from predators…except us. Because bacon.
Conspicuously absent from the discussion is how many pounds of vegetable matter it takes to make one pound of animal matter, how much forest has been clear cut to support cattle for food, how the overuse of antibiotics is creating drug-resistant strains of diseases that could pose a nightmare for humanity, or, you know, how keeping animals in solitary confinement is sort of inhumane. In other words, the focus of the placard makes this read more like an advertisement than a museum exhibit meant to disclose important information.
For the sake of full disclosure, I will say that I have no particular agenda regarding vegetarianism or veganism. I am from Texas, and we ate meat 3 meals a day, 21 times a week, 1095 times a year. And then we had beef jerky for between-meal snacks. Now I eat meat much more moderately, mostly because of the meat industries’ deleterious effect on the environment, but also because it makes me feel like a jerk to kill an animal just because I am hungry. But my point is not to make you think about how you eat; my point is that if they can do this with food, they can do it with anything.
Environmental activist David Suzuki states in a 2013 speech at Power Shift that the environmental movement of the 1960s was ultimately a failure because it did not fundamentally change our conception about the relationship between human and planet. I admire his passion as much as I shudder at his naivete, because I think that is an unrealistic goal. Cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris suggested in his 1979 Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture, that, of the many things a culture can argue about, the one thing that is off limits is its means of sustenance. If my society depends on whaling for its food, its economy, for its heating oil, and everything else, you better believe that my society will find a way not to discuss the killing-too-many-whales problem. In other words, it is hard to get people to realize that they need to protect the environment when their economic livelihood depends on not protecting the environment. I would expand on his premise to say that if we depend on the products of industry for our sense of prestige, for our sense of comfort, for our sense of purpose, then it is not surprising to see that we are willfully blind to the impact our decisions have. How many of us really want to own up to who makes our smart phones, what they get paid, and what their working conditions look like?
Marketers, of course, understand this, and as you saw above, count on our participation in the deception. There was a very effective marketing campaign in the 60s and 70s meant to confuse us about the correlation between smoking and cancer. The exact same playbook is being followed today to deny the link between burning fossil fuels and the warming planet. We have a powerful economic and cultural motivation to not see this link, though it is in our best interests to try to see the messaging with clear eyes.
Here is the exact same concept from Exxon-Mobil
Perhaps a quick Google search for Exxon safety record is in order. Using dates, concepts, and keywords you turn up via Google, look in the databases to see what kind of credible sources you can find that call into question the image they try to portray in the commercial.
Here is Chevron, calling for responsible shale-gas
Search in the databases for shale gas or fracking and environmental impact.
Have a Laugh:
This video is excellent at pointing out how images and sounds are meant to stir emotions and positive feelings that might not be entirely deserved.
But the issue is not just what the ads say and don’t say (or how they say it or don’t say it), it is how pervasive they are that gives them power to shape public discourse. Derren Brown, a British illusionist, wanted to show the influence that image placement and advertising can exert on people:
Some people have suggested that this video is about subliminal advertising. In fact, Mr. Brown refers to “subliminal persuasion” in the video. Between the 1960s and 1990s, there was quite a bit of hubbub in advertising, marketing, and psychology journals about this phenomenon. But Sheri J. Broyles’s Subliminal Advertising and the Perpetual Popularity of Playing to People’s Paranoia reviews 50 years of research on subliminal advertising and finds that, “No research has shown an effect that changed attitudes or impacted purchasing behavior.” Yet, people are obviously consciously suggestible, and advertisers work constantly to influence our behaviors, both in the private and public sphere of discourse. For instance, the media planning agency PHD did a study to find the dates, times and occasions when U.S. women feel their least attractive. The purpose?
The quantitative survey of women 18+ across the U.S was designed to identify when women feel most vulnerable about their appearance throughout the week in order to determine the best timing for beauty product messages and promotions. ‘Identifying the right time to engage with consumers with the right message is Marketing 101,’ says Kim Bates, who heads Brand Planning at PHD, ‘but when you are trying to connect with women on so personal an issue as appearance, it can be even more important to understand the wrong time as well.’
In other words, marketers are actively seeking to find when you are most vulnerable to suggestion and promotion. That may seem like a no-brainer, but what if they went even further and manipulated you into feeling vulnerable, and then marketed to you? You would have something like the experiment carried out by Facebook in which some 680,000+ users were unknowingly subject to having their newsfeeds tweaked to see if an emotional response could be garnered. In fact, it could be. The study found that when they manipulated which friend’s posts appeared on a user’s timeline that it had an affect on the kind of posts the user made. That is, if they decrease positive updates and posts and increase negative ones, the user’s posts will begin to reflect the tenor of the friends’s posts. They also found that the opposite was true: if they show you all your friends’ positive posts, you will feel better.
That’s really creepy.
Because despite the internet’s early promise of heightened discourse and freedom, it seems to have become another commercial space in which the influence of marketers and advertisements colors the discussion. These are potent forces in the world of information. Increasingly, there seems to be little public space for information, reflection, and discourse that is not somehow party to the messages of marketing forces. Indeed, when the messages of one side of a political or social debate are so interwoven into the fabric of a society, both in the private sphere or marketing and advertising, and the public sphere of discourse, it becomes increasingly difficult to evaluate information for credibility and bias.