Advertising doesn’t have to rule our minds. It may not be possible to escape from it entirely, but as Vernon Huffman describes below, the volume knob on the hawker is usually well within our control. This article is excerpted from Huffman’s work-in-progress, a book entitled Getting Past Clunkers, Crappers, and Hawkers to a Simpler Life. You can contact him at PO Box 304, Langley, WA 98260.
I’m sure this kind of thing happens all the time. In the drug store, out of the corner of my eye, I see a display for a new design of toothbrushes. Remembering that my friend had recommended the new brush, I grab one on my way to the checkout. I don’t really need it, but Madelyn says its great. No time for price analysis.
Two days later, Madelyn happened to be in my kitchen as I emerged from the bathroom, where I had just used the over-rated toothbrush.
"I don’t see why you think these brushes are so great," I told her.
"These new-design things you were going on about."
She had no idea what I was talking about. She’d never even heard of the things, much less used them. And although I could imagine her praising the brush, I couldn’t say when or where she’d said it. Fearing my friend would decide I’d slipped a gear, I dropped the subject.
The mystery was resolved that very night. It startled me awake. It was Madelyn’s voice … no, it was somebody’s voice, extolling the virtues of that stupid toothbrush. And it was coming from my bedside radio. At the time, I was in the habit of falling asleep to the radio’s snooze function.
This episode was part of my slow realization of my personal vulnerability to advertising. It sparked me to study advertising techniques, and to devise a plan to get around those techniques and take control of my own consumption.
Most of us like to believe that ads don’t affect us. I now know that they do affect me, even though I’ve been working to overcome them for years. In spite of myself, Camel cigarette ads draw me – there’s something I like about the pack, the persona of the product.
But while we may have different brand loyalties, the one thing North Americans have in common is consumption. No other culture has ever sucked stuff down at the rate we do. From junk food to cosmetics to cars and houses, we use up ten times our share of the world’s dwindling resources.
I’m sure there’s a connection between this extraordinary consumption and the over $100 BILLION spent here each year by advertisers. Businesses wouldn’t throw all that money away if ads didn’t work. Advertising is minutely researched for its impact on the bottom line (see Eric Clark’s The Want Makers, Viking Penguin, 1988). And television has been absorbing an increasing portion of this growing industry: in 1987, TV sold $23,900,000,000 in ads in the U.S.
Television is particularly insidious because it lulls us into a state of non-thinking. We’ve all seen it: the zombie stare-down with the one-eyed monster. In this state we’re very suggestible. Reason falls away as psychologically sophisticated advertising offers to fill our deepest needs when we buy product X.
Children are especially vulnerable to television’s type of suggestion, because they don’t function logically and aren’t yet skeptical of commercial interests. Another vulnerable group are the tired, late-night viewers. Not surprisingly, these two groups are targeted with the most ads per hour.
The culture of television has its own values, reinforced in show after show, that are often at odds with common sense. On TV, might makes right, the ends justify the means, and happiness can be bought for $9.95 from Remco. But we don’t have to accept these values. We don’t have to participate in TV culture. We don’t have to buy what’s being foisted upon us. But if we’re going to reject it, it’s going to take some work. Effortless and mindless is the path of the dupe. Stepping off that path requires knowledge and courage.
THE FLYING TELEVISION SET
I took the first step almost by accident. Though it was a decision made in anger and haste, I now recognize it as one of the most important in my life. I haven’t gone back on it, and I don’t believe I ever will.
It’s been ten years since the night. My wife was leaving me for another man. I was desperately trying, and failing, to talk her out of it. She was explaining how uninspired she felt.
"All I do is watch TV," she complained.
"We can fix that!" I announced, pulling the plug from the socket. In a passionate dance, I lifted the set, kicked open the door, and heaved. The cube curled through the air, bounced slightly on one corner, and lit on its top in the corner of the lawn. The vacuum tube imploded into a neat little pile of glass with a satisfying sucking crunch.
The catharsis of that moment was barely related to my attitude toward the media. But that was the last TV I ever owned. For several weeks the monument in my front yard was roundly admired by the neighbors. Disappointed though I was at my inability to communicate with my wife, I was proud of that act. That was a step toward freedom and a new way of life.
Learning to cope with advertising, I’ve since learned, is essential to living a less consumptive lifestyle. While it’s nearly impossible to avoid all ads, one can stay away from TV and commercial radio, not subscribe to commercial magazines and newspapers, and toss all junk mail. With planning, it’s possible to stay out of the stores with background Musak, avoiding the little mind-numbing "buy and enjoy" messages. Few of us are able to cut advertising out of our lives entirely, but the more we reduce it, the more manageable it becomes.
When I am exposed to ads, I don’t ignore them. I talk back! I can’t shut down my senses, but if I vocally reject the logic of the hawker, I can set that decision in my subconscious mind. It can also benefit others who hear me and who may not be as skeptical.
It’s also important to shield kids from ads. Agencies bank on the time-tested abilities of youngsters to talk their parents into buying. Children are exposed to tremendous peer pressure to run with the pack – but when parents support differentiation based on ethics, leadership qualities can emerge.
Advertisers study what motivates people. They focus on envy and pride and fear: the fear of being worthless, the fear of losing love. They focus on greed (the fear of want) and boredom (the fear of nothingness), as well as real needs. If I don’t want to be manipulated by them, I must analyze what my own needs and motivations are. And the only way to overcome my fears is to face them.
Love is also a major motivator for buyers. People who are perfectly willing to do without for themselves will still want to give the very best of everything to their loved ones. Hallmark is a classic example of how advertisers capitalize on generosity – they’ve invented whole holidays just to market their cards and gifts.
In the final analysis, isn’t love better expressed through the giving of our time and energy than through material wealth? My father worked himself to death to provide us with "the good life." I would rather he had been home more often.