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Friday, December 17, 2010

Adversarial Advertorial

In response to my complaints about ever louder, ever more frequent, ever more hysterical advertising content on television, one rather sanctimonious reader helpfully suggested I stop watching television altogether.

Of course, the "Kill Your Television" chorus has long existed by now. And there is nothing to ridicule in the fact that some people have enriched their lives by separating from television (which for generations now has sometimes functioned as a kind of disastrous child-care alternative in some households and created dependencies that can cry out for intervention).

Also, truth be told, tastes both do and should differ, and those who find nothing worth watching on television are welcome to that opinion and to the subcultural forms they prefer. I for one think there is plenty worth watching on television -- I enjoy serialized science fiction and costume dramas, I enjoy the antics of some game shows and reality television, I enjoy the rhetorical pyrotechnics of pundit programs. I do think that at least some of the people who are most sanctimonious about their refusal of television are simply cutting themselves off from areas of culture for no clearly explicable reason.

But more to the point, "Kill Your Television" isn't really a relevant response to the problem at hand. In America advertisements are proliferating deliriously, on college campuses, in public spaces like stadiums and parks and subway stations (and even as flickering reels in the darkened tunnels!), in lobbies, in elevators, in grocery check-out lines, in ever more of the real estate of every media screen.

"Withdrawal" is simply not ultimately an option, unless one fancies life in a rough-hewn Unabomber cabin in the deep wilderness amidst the boulders and the flashing fishies with nothing but a dog-eared Thoreau for company (in which case, rock on with your bad ass self, but I'm not sure that solution will scale, even if Resource Descent -- Peak Oil, PetroAg Fail, Water Wars -- may force a monumental test case on us all soon enough).

However, it occurs to me that in Europe there are actually sensible regulations that restrict both the volume and frequency of television commercials. In the absence of such regulations it is very clear that there is literally no check on the vicious circle driving commercial media into suicide -- they keep increasing the amount of ad time, the volume, the forms it takes, getting for each further encroachment of the norm a momentary burst of oh so delicious profit that vanishes once everybody else has replicated it and normalized the encroachment, thus provoking the next encroachment still, and on and on an on, never gaining a permanent profit advantage but with each encroachment tapping away at the actual quality of the content they are providing, with nothing to check the process, nothing to contain the greed that drives the degeneration. As with everything else, the drive for profit when constrained by regulation can encourage worthy innovation, but when unconstrained eats its own to the ruin of all.

The relevant question for me is just why it is that there is no real organized resistance agitating for legislation to introduce in the US regulation such as exists in the EU to limit the frequency of ad content -- which is now actually palpably beginning to undermine the capacity of shows to maintain narrative continuity? Why are there no mass campaigns for regulations such as exist in South America to limit or eliminate billboards that clutter our cities and pimple our pristine landscapes? Why is there no well organized outcry for laws forbidding the re-naming of stadiums and subway stations built and maintained with tax payer and public bond funds to honor private corporations as though they were monarchs? Why aren't people regularly arguing on the pundit shows for laws to forbid ads and commercials in university settings that exist, after all, as spaces of research and contemplation and in which distractions and biases imperil their mandated missions? Why don't I hear as a matter of course that people feel assaulted and harassed by endless shrill ads making hyperbolic promises and mobilizing ridiculous imagery and stereotypes that insult our intelligence and derange our senses?

In my view, the ongoing proliferation and ramification of advertising on every conceivable space is tantamount to pollution and harassment and there should be lawsuits and organized campaigns to stop it. Although I enjoy the aesthetics of culturejamming and adbusting it seems to me that these interventions functionally depend on and substantiate the norms and forms of ubiquitous advertising as such, whatever critical purchase they may provide in our relations to particular ad content.

Too many of my students take comfortably for granted the utter colonization of public space by deceptive hyperbolic corporate marketing material. And let me stress that word deception. The norms of marketing discourse are hyperbolic and cynical in ways that typically, that is to say generically, border on fraud and their ubiquity is educating the population to accept endless spin and deception as normal, as acceptable, preparing the way for a public life suffused with opportunistic lies. These norms appeal conspicuously to our emotions rather than our capacities to weight competing claims logically, empirically, critically, indeed they appeal to the bluntest of our passions, to our appetites, our greed, our fear, preparing the way for a public life suffused with selective mobilizations of short-term greed and terror. (To connect this point with other themes that recur here at Amor Mundi, I do indeed regard futurological discourse as the quintessential expression of this utter bankruptcy of public deliberation into marketing and promotional fraud, explored especially in the posts archived here).

Needless to say, I consider all this profoundly pernicious, perhaps the single most dangerous cultural force afoot without any organized resistance that I can see the least bit equal to its danger. Any readers aware of actually effective organizing out there on these questions? What forms might organized resistance properly take? What, practically, should be done?


Dale Carrico said...

To Alan, who has taken personal umbrage at this post -- the argument here is not directed to you, even if it was indeed generalized and elaborated from what was initially a response to a comment from you. By all means, complain all you like about that comment, in the Moot in which that exchange continues, but the case here is a general one offered up to a more general audience and I don't want it sidetracked by a mis-aimed narcissistic snit.

jollyspaniard said...

Download the television shows and watch them without commercials.

Over here in the UK you can change the channel to the BBC which has excellent programming and few commercials. My household is happy to pay the TV License, sitting through loud commercials not so much.

The equivalent stateside would be supporting Public Television.

Lorraine said...

One organization that may interest you is Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. In our increasingly entitlement-free culture, what's left of entitlements tend to be reserved for children. For this reason, commercial-free spaces for children, like health care and safety net programs for children, are probably more politically feasible than ameliorations for the population at large. But it can be a start. If future generations of children are given a taste of life, if not in the cathedral, at least outside the bazaar, perhaps they will ask for it later as adults. The intrusion of Channel One and other Whipple type entities into K-12 education demonstrates that this is a culture in which virtually everything (and everyone) is for sale.

Dale Carrico said...

Thanks, Lorraine, for the link. I wasn't aware of that organization or their work -- they are AWESOME.

Lorraine said...

Correction and apology is in order. The name of the genius behind Channel One is 'Whittle' not 'Whipple.'