Vance Packard published his Hidden Persuaders in 1957. I read the book a couple of decades later and now like to think—or lie to myself—that, as a result, I became less susceptible to advertising, especially to so-called lifestyle advertising or status-symbol advertising.
This type of advertising attempts to convey that a featured product can make someone attractive, sexy, cool, hip, sophisticated, smart, or the envy of others, all of which would be an impossible feat in my case.
The Marlboro cowboy is a textbook example. The message to smokers is that if they smoke Marlboros, they are as rugged and virile as the Marlboro Man, even if they look like me.
Packard’s book described the subliminal methods employed by advertisers to get consumers to buy their products. The methods were based on the latest sociological and psychological research of the day, much of which had been conducted by the military. Imagine that: The advertising industry used brainwashing techniques developed by the government.
Unsurprisingly, the book was panned in some quarters, and Packard was accused of being anti-capitalist.
That’s a strange accusation, given that capitalism is the private ownership of the means of production. Capitalism is not the private ownership of the means of brainwashing. It was the brainwashing that bothered Packard, not the means of production.
Libertarians who subscribe to caveat emptor say that those who go into hock to buy stuff that they neither need nor can afford have only themselves to blame for falling for misleading advertising. Other free-marketers say that advertising is a form of free speech that serves the beneficial purpose of making consumers aware of good products and good companies. Valid points.
The counterargument is that mass consumerism and indebtedness spurred by advertising have a downside for those who don’t engage in either. The downside is that people who end up in financial trouble in a democracy will use the political system to shift their financial problems to society at large, and especially, to the frugal. This was the case with the last housing crash and is the case today with student debt.
This is not to advocate that the government somehow regulate advertising, but it is to suggest that if the government were to live within its means and were to stop bailing out people and socializing the cost of their mistakes, then maybe consumers would be less influenced by advertising to buy stuff they can’t afford.
Whatever one’s philosophy on the matter, the fact is that the hidden persuaders that Packard warned about have become even more persuasive and pervasive. At the same time, coincidence or not, personal and national debt have skyrocketed.
Take TV. In 1957, there were maybe eight commercials per hour. Today, there are over 40, including the advertising that scrolls across the bottom of the screen during a show.
Then there is the barrage of targeted advertising from the advertising juggernauts of Google and Facebook, as well as the targeted advertising from Amazon and other retailers after a customer buys a product from them. BAM! BAM! BAM! The advertising is incessant. It’s like naval guns softening a beachhead, but with heads being softened instead of enemy installations.
It’s not just the quantity of ads that is so startling; it’s also the content of the ads. Much of the content is stupid, silly, and simpleminded.
The same with TV shows and news.
What’s surprising about this is that the percent of Americans with a college degree has quadrupled since 1957. Yet discernment, judgment and taste have gone in the opposite direction.
Particularly obnoxious are the commercials that engage in brainwashing based on brainwashing. It is brainwashing to the second power. Knowing that the millennial generation has been brainwashed in K-12 schools and colleges about the environment, diversity, social justice, egalitarianism, and communitarianism, astute advertisers have geared their own brainwashing, er, advertising, to these themes.
A case in point is a commercial for a Subaru Forester (or is it for a Subaru Outback?). It shows several twenty-somethings dressed in what looks like L.L. Bean or REI gear who stop in their Subaru to ask an elderly man sitting on a porch for directions to some natural attraction. He stands up, grabs a white cane, and says “I’ll take you there.” The commercial ends with all of them standing on a precipice enjoying the scenery, including the blind man. The unsubtle message is that Subaru drivers are not only outdoorsy types but are sensitive, kind and openminded.
There is nothing in the ad about horsepower, suspension, acceleration, stopping distance, clearance, or safety features. Quantifiable comparisons are irrelevant in lifestyle ads.
Despite the hip and woodsy advertising image, Subarus are not produced from fairy dust on the top of El Capitan in Yosemite.
The reality is that the Forester is manufactured in Japan, where, during the Second World War, Subaru was known as the Nakajima Aircraft Company, a maker of airplanes for the Imperial army. Like all cars, it is made from steel, aluminum, plastic, rubber, and rare-earth materials, many of which are mined, refined and produced in environmentally-sensitive parts of the world. Then the finished cars are shipped to the USA on cargo ships that are powered by fossil fuels, not by sails and wind power.
Starbucks has something in common with Subaru. It also panders to the gullibility of the brainwashed generations. Case in point: It recently announced that it was no longer going to carry plastic straws, because they are harmful to the environment. The company proudly distributed a press release with a photo of a new lid for its cups that no longer had a hole for a straw. It failed to mention that the lid is made of plastic and no doubt contains a lot more plastic than a straw.
Some Starbucks stores have a queue of ten or more drivers waiting at the drive-up window in the morning with engines running to get a beverage with a plastic lid. Think of how much better it would be for the environment if everyone made coffee at home and drank it out of a washable cup. Is it too big of a sacrifice to give up a coffee-flavored milkshake in order to save the environment? Yes, it is. You see, as advertisers and PR agencies know, symbolic green gestures increase sales while real sacrifices decrease sales.
Even more ridiculous are the so-called reality shows on TV, especially the ones on HGTV, and especially the show, “Flip or Flop.”
The show is about a couple that buys dilapidated homes in southern California, remodels them, and resells them. The female half of the couple, Christina, is a bleached blond with pancake makeup and false eyelashes that are longer than a camel’s eyelashes. She speaks like a stereotypical Valley girl.
The flippers have a learning disability, as they keep making the same mistakes. They buy homes without a thorough pre-inspection of the roof, plumbing, electrical and HVAC, only to later find out that these items need to be replaced. Of course, it’s all fake. The surprise discoveries are staged and done for dramatic effect.
But that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it are scenes of Christina pretending to paint or lay tile. Dressed like she’s going to a night club, and wearing multiple blingy bracelets on her wrists, she uses a three-inch trim roller without an extension pole to supposedly paint a large expanse of wall, somehow without getting one drop of paint on herself. Similarly, she’s shown laying tile in a bathroom shower, without getting a speck of grout on her long fake fingernails. Even if I hadn’t been a union painter in my youth, and even if my dad hadn’t been a tile setter, I would still find such scenes to be completely ludicrous, as they are so counter to the real world of real work.
The “Property Brothers” is equally ludicrous, but at least the two starring brothers have magnetic personalities and seem intelligent. One brother is a realtor, and the other, a remodeler. The remodeler wears clean “skinny” jeans and a clean fitted shirt with no stains, as well as a tool belt that looks like it was just bought at Home Depot. He couldn’t look less like a working stiff in the construction trades. It’s obvious that both of them just make cameo appearances on the show, as there is no way that they could handle so many jobs in a season or have contractor and realtor licenses in so many states.
HGTV is known to have a social agenda, which includes having gay and multiracial spouses on its shows in numbers that are way of proportion to the actual percentages of such couples in the population at large. But its social agenda apparently doesn’t include showing the truth about home remodeling. With questionable ethics, it misleads viewers into believing that if they remodel their homes and then sell them, they will recoup more than 100% of the cost of the remodeling. The fact is, only 50-75% of the cost is typically recouped.
Unreal reality shows also abound on other networks. For example, the Discovery network has “Alaska, the Last Frontier.” It’s about a likable Alaskan family that supposedly has to hunt and grow enough food and cut enough firewood in the warm months to survive the long winter. It has scenes of family members taking a seaplane or power boat hundreds of miles to bag a deer. That would be one hell of an expensive deer.
Actually, the family isn’t struggling to get by. It owns scores of ATVs, snow machines, and heavy equipment, including a bulldozer, a backhoe, and a large tugboat. Moreover, the family homestead is close to a highway and civilization, which are kept out of camera view. Civilization is close enough that the family patriarch used to own a machine shop in town. They could drive to the Safeway in town for vittles, but there would be no drama in that.
A true-to-life reality series about Alaska would show that the state ranks near the top nationally in welfare dependency, crime, and drug abuse. But why deal with reality on reality TV?
In fairness, “The First 48” on A&E does deal with reality. It shows the reality of the kind of people and races that commit most of the homicides in America. The series doesn’t sanitize anything as it follows homicide detectives as they try to solve murders. The only propaganda is when detectives lament the long hours they work and how they are awakened in the middle of the night to go to a murder scene. Left unmentioned is that there is a provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act that mandates overtime pay for police, even if they are in management positions. As with firefighters and other police, detectives get overtime pay and can retire at a young age with rich pension and benefits. As such, most of them love to work extra hours. Municipalities are going bankrupt as a result. How about a reality show about that?
Then there is sports coverage on TV, which is 90% talk, gossip, analysis, hype, commercials, and soap opera for men; and only 10% of which is actual playing time, and much of that occurs in taxpayer-financed stadiums. It’s more exciting to watch Christina lay tile than to watch commentators drone on about everything but the game.
Let’s now turn to news. Let’s turn it off.
Long before Donald Trump became a household name, I remember sitting at airport gates with CNN blaring on overhead TVs. While other travelers were seemingly transfixed by the news, I was sighing, fidgeting, and mumbling about the baloney emanating from the TVs. If I were traveling with my saintly spouse, she would tell me to shut up or she would turn me into a eunuch. After five minutes of enduring the baloney, I’d have to get up and try to find a spot in the terminal that CNN didn’t penetrate and my manhood would be safe from my wife.
It’s not just CNN, unfortunately. All news networks are shallow, supercilious, stilted, specious, and silly in their coverage. They’re even worse when they cover race, politics and economics. They can’t even be trusted to cover the weather accurately, as evidenced by their coverage of storms, where the hyperventilating of reporters on the scene about catastrophic conditions doesn’t match the benign images on the screen.
What accounts for the preponderance of fake ads, fake TV, and fake news? Maybe high schools and colleges are not teaching students to think independently; or maybe there isn’t much time anymore for people to concentrate and reflect, due to being plugged in constantly to smartphones and other electronic media; or maybe, as some neuroscientists claim, the parts of the brain that enable concentration and cognition are shrinking because of dependency on gadgetry.
Anyway, in closing, I hope that you liked this commentary. If not, you have only yourself to blame, for I warned you at the start that I’m not attractive, sexy, cool, hip, sophisticated, smart, or the envy of others.