By Roland Watson
At this point, we can consider activism that can be directed at advertising. Our objective in this area is to shrink the advertising industry: to make corporate sales less reliant on advertising (to shrink corporate ad budgets); and to redirect advertising content to further, rather than undermine, the achievement of our social goals.
One of the basic trade organizations for the advertising industry is the National Council of Advertisers. This group clearly understands that many people are opposed to their practices, and they are fighting back. For instance, they produced their own television ad, which shows a page of a magazine where the ads are removed one-by-one, leaving only a few non-white spaces, containing the magazine's little real content. This is then followed by the message: "Advertising. The right to choose."
The idea, the fear that is being sold, is that without advertising we will lose our freedom of choice. And, it is very well done. It is a superb example of industry propaganda and Orwellian doublethink. They are attempting to preserve their right to brainwash us, to determine us, by appealing to our free will. Once again, the idea is, we asked for it. (I don't think so.)
In fact, a magazine with only articles and photo essays would be far more appealing than one stuffed with ads. The elimination of the ads does not have to mean the elimination of photography itself (and imaginative design). The agency photographers could present their artistic imagery, without the appendage of institutional form. We would get the real benefits of their creativity, instead of being exposed to and manipulated by their talents in carefully constructed propaganda.
But the NCA ad does raise an important issue, namely, how much choice do we want? Also, in a world where advertising is de-emphasized, and corporate marketing and sales strategies necessarily are restructured, how will we learn about the choices that are available?
For the first issue, a prevalence of choices is the same as an abundance of options, and hence it does represent greater value. We do want a lot of choices. However, we do not need the "choices" of products that have been developed to satisfy created, in other words, artificial needs. The solution is to do away with the brainwashing, and then let the market decide. First, take away the undue influence, and then let us tell the producers what we really want and need.
Regarding information about the choices, after removing the ads that try to sell them to us, we will need some way to learn about their availability and quality. The obvious solution would be to increase the number of consumer reference guides and programs. And here, the market can help us as well. This is another growth industry: the development of independent product and service rating organizations.
Furthermore, there will always be the information that is provided by word-of-mouth references, including through this social subsystem's modern manifestation, the internet.
Through all of this we can feel confident that the word on what is good and what is not will get around. We do not want or need ads. They exist solely to manipulate us and to boost sales.
A related point is that when we escape from the domination of advertising, how will the media that are dependent on it survive? As has been implied, we would be better off without a lot of this media, such as the lifestyle magazines and TV tabloid shows. As to the rest, they should be made user-fee dependent. As economists always say, there is no such thing as a free lunch. At present, we get a lot of media seemingly free, but we now know that the hidden cost is behavioral manipulation. In the future, if you want a specific medium you should have to pay for it, all of it: your share of its entire production cost.
Of course, at another level this is a much better state of affairs. Not only will it cut the manipulation, it is also far more democratic.
In our activism against advertisers it is important to be focused. For the most part we are not concerned with the manufacturers of industrial products, but of the products for consumers. And of these, our highest initial priorities should be the ads that are targeted at children and teenagers, and ads that create needs using fear, guilt, lies and hype. For example, we know that a crucial human need is romantic companionship, and that the factors driving this choice include appearance, personality, character, and the ability to provide. What has happened is that this has been reconstructed by the media as "cool." We want sex and a good mate; they persuade us to want "cool," and every product that can be associated with it. But cool, such as cool fashion, is the refuge of the uninspired. People who buy such clothing have no confidence in their own identity, so they buy what other people do, or what the ads tell them to. (This is also the reason why you should avoid wearing "labels." It brands you as unimaginative, and it is free advertising for your oppressors.)
When considering which advertisers to target, there is also the issue of the nature of the impact that they have, including on individuals and on society as a whole. For instance, you should always reject negative political advertising: the mudslinging of one candidate at another.
A good question is, do we simply want to ban advertising, to make it illegal? I personally believe that such a step would be too severe. It would be a dangerous precedent in restricting the freedom of speech. However, a number of general guidelines on advertisements can be given.
- Do not look at or listen to any ads. With the TV, always use the mute button on the remote, and close your eyes to strong images.
- Never do what any ad asks of you: neither its direct appeal nor its unspoken messages. (An exception to this would be with public service advertisements.)
- In this regard, do not buy advertised products. Use your will to exercise a consumer preference and reject them.
- However, if all of the brands of a particular product that you want are advertised, use another rational basis for making your choice. Such bases would include: against the products in the ads which use the worst manipulation (fear-mongering); or the most extensive (don't buy Nike); or which products are non-recyclable; or which are overly and obnoxiously packaged (packaging is advertising); or by some other criteria. For example, with soft drinks you should always avoid Pepsi (and soft drinks in general). Pepsi advertisements make use of highly sophisticated brainwashing, the drink is sweetened with sugar made from genetically engineered corn, and the company was one of the most recalcitrant supporters of the Burmese dictatorship. For the last, they only left the country after students at Harvard and Stanford fought the establishment of Pizza Hut and Taco Bell outlets (Pepsi subsidiaries) on their campuses.
- Do not buy goods advertised with product placement.
- Avoid all franchise chains (e.g., The Gap, Starbucks, etc.).
- Get an internet "ad-blocker."
- Lastly, don't buy from companies that advertise during, and therefore disrupt, major sporting events such as the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the World Cup, and the World Series. Such companies pay the highest ad rates of all, and make the most expensive ads, for this coverage. Make it work against them.
Of course, in exercising these preferences you will greatly magnify their impact if you make your actions known to the sponsoring companies. You should write letters to the advertisers and the media outlets that they use, saying that you, and your family, and your friends, will never buy their products, or this media, again. (Company addresses and the names of their executives are available on the internet, and also from business directories in library reference departments.)
In addition, to the extent that you can organize such preferences, by bringing together groups of people to form boycotts, you can force even the largest companies, such as Pepsi, to submit to your will.
It is also worth noting that people rarely demonstrate against the advertising agencies themselves. (The creator of a particular ad is never identified, except in the trade press.) But if such demos could be organized, as at the agency offices such as on Madison Avenue itself, they likely would be very effective. Ad agencies also have the protection of anonymity, and their account managers and creative staff are cocooned by their own egos and self-deception. Tearing this protection away and impugning them as the propagandists that they are should have a big impact.
(All such staff should also be encouraged to sign the First Things First Manifesto, which is a statement from progressive thinkers in the design community that their efforts should not support and endorse "a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact.")
Furthermore, if you do look at ads, especially on the TV, an effective defense is to study their brainwashing. To do this you must look at the advertisements very closely. What is the central element, and how does this draw you away from its other parts, the small and seemingly minor elements, the things that you normally wouldn't even see but which do register on your unconscious? Then, count the number of images, and consider how they develop and change pace. Lastly, examine the sound and the language, including the structure of what is said and the precise words used. Remember, everything is there for a purpose. It is all part of a carefully planned deception.
Following up on this, you should do a careful analysis of the messages in the ads. Look for commonalities, such as the portrayal of women as sex objects, or the idea that you must "Buy now! There is no time to waste!" Of course, such messages are rarely so obvious. For instance, it has been observed that in many ads the women actors in some way get the better of the men. This panders to women viewers, and it reflects the fact that in many cultures women have greater control over actual buying decisions. (It also appeals to their often-justified sense of being oppressed. In such an ad, they win.)
Next, you should look for the larger strategies which are used, such as how the sound level in ads is regularly slightly louder than in the programs, or how some ads are timed to be shown on all stations simultaneously, so you cannot avoid them. As another example, the breaks between ads which are shown during televised movies regularly change as the movies progress, becoming shorter and shorter as your involvement deepens. Another common timing, in the U.S., is to start with a large segment of the film, about twenty minutes, followed by four minutes of ads, then seven minutes of the film, and four minutes of ads again, with this last pattern - 7/4 - repeated until the film's conclusion. Undoubtedly, such patterns are tested in focus groups to find the limit of what is endurable, although as brainwashing increases such limits will increase as well. Also, this clearly reveals that the goal of the program is not your entertainment, to show you the film, but to hook your interest, so that you watch the ads.
In summary, through doing all of this you are accomplishing one of the core strategies for fighting form (or any battle). You are studying, and learning about, the enemy.
A couple of other relevant points are as follows:
- The argument against making advertisements illegal does not extend to billboards. They should be made illegal. The owners of the land on which the billboards sit do have rights, but these do not extend to invading our visual space and contaminating it with visual pollution.
- To repeat an earlier point, do not participate in (or participate in but lie), any surveys, polls or focus groups, of any nature: consumer, political, etc.
- Also, avoid all strong images. Like the sun, or an arc-welding torch, they imprint themselves, forever, on your mind.
Lastly, I want to comment on what I believe will be one of the main activist techniques against advertising in the future, and also one of the most effective. What I am referring to here is litigation. Advertising is predatory, culpable abuse, and this has already been demonstrated, in a number of courts, with the tobacco industry, which is finally being forced to pay the enormous social costs of its brainwashing. (What is more cool, especially to teenage girls, than smoking?)
It is now up to us, as activists, to extend this precedent to all of the sources of advertising that use the techniques of behavioral manipulation. The question is, where should we begin? The obvious starting point is with the advertisers that brainwash children, and as we have seen there are many example of this: of predatory websites; and the corporations which advertise in schools; and the makers of violent films and computer games. (The Federal Trade Commission has revealed that the last set of companies intentionally targeted their advertisements at children, even though the children were not of sufficient age to be allowed to view the films or buy the games.)
These companies must be forced to stop their practices, and to pay compensation for what they have already done. And, this culpability must extend to the broadcasters and publishers of the ads, and to their creators as well (including the actors and actresses).
The victory with the tobacco industry was decisive. Given the awards that have been granted, it has spread fear throughout the entire advertising industry. (How ironic! And what a fantastic example of karma!) But it is only a first step, in bringing the industry to account and forcing it to change.
John Lennon wrote an astonishing and quite possibly prophetic song, called Imagine. "Imagine no countries, and no religions too." To this, we can add advertising. He also made an appeal to activism: "I hope some day you will join us. And the world will be as one."
© Roland Watson 2016