Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Argumentum Ad

Conservatives insist that welfare programs sap initiative and corrupt society: the dole (to use the old word for it) is poison. If so, the poor can be thankful that these days the drug is only distributed in homeopathic doses. But that’s the government’s welfare program. There is another form of welfare, a private system that really does create a dependency problem and its administered on a mass basis for many hours every day.  I refer, of course, to advertising. In exchange for purportedly free entertainment and news, business interests get the right to marinate the public in propaganda. For some reason, the Conservatives never denounce the bad effects of this kind of welfare, though it has obviously created a culture of dependency with far reaching consequences, especially for public health.

I suppose I could be taxed with hypocrisy for suggesting that there might be something problematic about advertising. I’ve written hundreds of ads and never lost a moment’s sleep worrying about the morality of doing so. In my defense, the ads I wrote were attempts to get customers to buy the product of my company rather than that of another. The consumers of scientific software are going to use some program or other to do linear programming, and you sell to such knowledgeable folks by efficiently informing them what your product actually does. Even in the pages of technical journals, sex and sizzle help—hence my long and unavailing campaign to get Scientific American to put out a swimsuit issue—but it’s the specs that close the deal. Most of the ads that pay for freebee television shows aren’t like that. They don’t inform people about a product that will satisfy a need; they seek to create a demand. You don’t sell Camels; you sell smoking. Too bad the Seven Deadly Sins don’t pay for the ads directly. It would make things clearer.

Now a case can certainly be made for the private welfare system called advertising, just as a case can be made for public welfare. Like most features of the real world, both of these institutions are sometimes beneficial and sometimes not. Long before Keynes, advertising was stimulating economic growth by the creation of artificial demand; and absent advertising, it is hard to believe that a system built on gluttony, lust, and vanity could endure. The economic historians point out that it was the desire for a host of unnecessary luxuries that set off what they call the Industrious Revolution that preceded and made possible the subsequent Industrial Revolution. Eighteenth Century ad execs were responsible for much of that, even paying poets to insert puffs for various commercial products into their epics.

O! she was perfect past all parallel
Of any modern female saint's comparison;
So far above the cunning powers of hell,       
Her guardian angel had given up his garrison
Even her minutest motions went as well
As those of the best time-piece made by Harrison:
In virtues nothing earthly could surpass her,     
Save thine 'incomparable oil,' Macassar!

I confess that I’m not puritan enough to want to live in a world without fripperies.  Nevertheless, although I’m spoiled by the free candy of the commercial welfare system myself, I’d like to think that I’m a rational enough hedonist not to reach for that last little wafer. I wish we were more aware of the downsides of the system. We used to be more aware of the problems. You can laugh the quaintness of the world of the 50s and 60s, but at least they had Mad in the era of Mad Men. A sustained critique of advertising now is hard to image. Who would sponsor it?

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