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Commercialism Versus Culture

THE glasnost era is Western democracy's celebrated moment in history. But before we globalize America's commercial culture, we need to re-examine that culture and what it is doing for us. Put simply: Omnipresent commercialism is wrecking America. Our cultural resources are dwindling. Value alternatives beyond those of the marketplace are disappearing. The very idea of citizen has become synonymous with consumer. Yet we forget how our dictionaries describe ``consumers'': They are the ones who destroy or expend by use, the ones who devour all. Is this to be the model for world citizenship?

The foreboding signs of commercialism's stamp are so numerous that we are in danger of becoming oblivious to the obvious. The captains of commercialism see, better than we, the cause and character of America's largely pent-up frustrations with the commercial way. Here is what they are saying:

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``Consumers [are] fed up with being bombarded by up to 3,000 marketing messages a day.'' They've had it with the countless ``blandishments of Madison Avenue.'' Not surprisingly, ``a consumer revolt against advertising seems to be taking shape.''

These are the words of the industry's editorial confederates at Business Week. The alarm was echoed in a recent editorial in another trade publication, Advertising Age: ``What used to be a somewhat even battle between the exaggerations and lure of advertising and the prudence of authority figures at home has become dangerously one-sided.''

Something is awfully wrong when even the keepers of advertising itself feel compelled to speak so, when Advertising Age calls on ``advertisers [to] accept a greater responsibility to soften their hedonistic appeals, especially to younger audiences....''

Indeed, mass commercialism has run amok. Recent advances by the commercial brigades include:

``Channel One,'' an unholy alliance between school boards and entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur ``donates'' video equipment to the school. The school then feeds its children ``educational'' programs punctuated by candy commercials and other ads.

Placement ads punctuate movies, making a mockery of artistic integrity while commercializing entertainment.

``Video news releases'' produced by corporations are aired by local TV stations as genuine news, even though this insidious form of advertising corrupts broadcastjournalism; and

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Computers delivering ads by telephones invading the privacy of millions of American homes daily.

And ads are tucked in books, shown in movie theaters, displayed on giant screens at sport events, projected from subway monitors, pumped into doctors' reception rooms, posted in public restrooms, inscribed on clothes, embedded in arcade games, zapped through fax machines, and emblazoned (thanks to food dyes) on hot dogs.

The tentacles of commercialism wrap themselves around our cultural institutions ranging from minority civic groups to art museums. Exploiting the exploited, alcohol and tobacco marketers use ``philanthropic'' donations to capture the minority world. They pour misery money into minority media, and dominate the billboards in the inner-cities. Fortunately, numerous black ministers have defied advertisers by painting over scores of booze and cigarette billboards.

Meanwhile, college and high-school coaches serve secretly as high-paid ``consultants'' for shoe companies. The payoff to companies is having top teams wearing their brand of costly sneakers.

These assaults by commercialism reflect a power imbalance that we ignore at our peril. One measure of the imbalance is the (untaxed) $130 billion dumped annually into advertising. That's more money than the gross national product of our oil-rich ally, Saudi Arabia.

Today's marketers promote artificial and obsessional wants, urge ceaseless spending, foster a disposable society, and inject commercialism into every facet of our lives. All of this treads on our moral and civic tradition like a bulldozer in a flower garden.

It's not that the commercial life is new or inherently evil. Rather, to borrow from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the problem is the ``imbalance that [has] developed between materialism and idealism in [the] pursuit of the good life.''

All but forgotten in this ``buy till you die'' era are certain key American principles. There is the longstanding American ideal of simple and honest living, of moderation in the marketplace. Frugality was a key word in the founders' civic vocabulary. It also became an essential component of the lifestyle of those who experienced and learned from the lessons of the Great Depression.

Yet ever since World War II we have allowed businesspeople to exalt one value - consumption - to the near exclusion of all others. In this one-value universe, the consumptive ideal too often devastates social and environmental values.

Such a commercial culture is one ``predicated on premeditated waste,'' says sociologist Stuart Ewen. It is a society premised on unplanned spending and planned obsolescence. Consider, for example, the end product of excessive consumption - the more than 300 billion pounds (over 1,000 pounds per person) of solid waste dumped into our landfills annually.

Rampant commercialism undermines much more than our health and environment:

Psychological well-being: Our system of advertising purposefully promotes envy, creates anxiety, and fosters insecurity. The tragic end-product of this is kids killing kids in Baltimore and elsewhere in order to walk in their playmates' $100 name-brand sneakers.

Communal values: The soul of a community cannot thrive in a commercialism-run-wild wars against the common good in the name of excessive consumption and individualism. Civic-mindedness is an alien concept to a people mesmerized by consumer goods. This is the ``me only'' world, the world where politicians feed the great political beast with disingenuous promises of ``no new taxes.''.

In this world, public institutions that depend on government are forced to turn to business dollars to survive. The resulting cost, of course, is the commercialization of schools, art museums, and non-profit organizations.

Egalitarian values: The materialism promoted by Madison Avenue is bound to accentuate class differences. This is because differences between the commercial haves and have-nots become synonymous with one's rank in society. The point is not that material wealth be the same for all segments of the population. Rather, the concern is that at some point championing excessive consumption exacerbates social disparities of the kind linked to class conflicts, especially along racial lines.

The value of thought: Much advertising substitutes imagery, sloganeering, and a brand-name mentality for rational, fact-based decisionmaking. A fantasized ``truth'' appeals to our impulsive side. That kind of advertising accustoms us to be more accepting of irrational sales schemes and encourages mindless and wasteful shopping binges. Too often, this leads to spending habits that place designer clothes above rent payments and thus cause personal economic hardship, even bankruptcy.

The value of political discourse: When the distorted ``logic'' of advertising becomes the currency of political, social, economic, and other forms of once-serious discussion, democratic government suffers. The difference between commercial advertising and political campaigning is blurred when, as in the 1988 elections, sound-bite, symbol-laden campaigns engineered by political consulting firms mimic Madison Avenue ads. This development, says broadcast journalist Bill Moyers, ``is wrecking the polity of America, destroying our ability as a cooperative society to face reality and solve our problems.''

Unchecked commercialism has the potential to turn America into an anti-utopia. We need not, however, allow this potential to be realized. We can stem the tide, individually and collectively, by reconsidering our priorities and then acting.

The best in American moderation can be enlisted to rescue our environment, improve our health, educate our young, and help our poor. Against this backdrop, calls to ``save more'' echo the founders' wisdom. For example, MIT economist Lester Thurow has argued that ``extra saving from less consumption would allow us to correct our balance of payments problem.'' To do this, he adds, we must ``organize our society so that consumption [grows] more slowly than income for a substantial period of time.'' Unless we begin to change our consumptive ways, we may soon be forced to trade American lives for Arab oil.

To brace America's ethical, cultural, and economic backbone, we must also demand, by public protest or legislative fiat, that certain areas of life be declared commercial-free. At a minimum this would include our children, homes, schools, books, and museums. Additionally, practices such as movie product placements and commercials in theaters should be challenged, as should each new transgression of the advertising frontier.

Next, at the state and local levels the billboarding of America must be curbed in ways that say ``no'' to the extremes of ad pollution, be it in Harlem or Aspen. Zoning laws and commercial taxs could go a long way to beautify our cities and countrysides. And with state and local governments in economic peril, lawmakers should extend sales taxes to advertising.

Finally, Congress should begin a full-scale review of the place of advertising in our society. For starters, it should pull the plug on ads targeting kids. Likewise, with a $240 billion deficit looming, national legislators should eliminate the tax-deductibility of advertising costs for tobacco, alcohol, and most other forms of advertising.

Coping with commercialism requires tough choices. But if Gorbachev could conquer Stalinism, then America can certainly tame commercialism.

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