Ottawa View: Adbusters under fire: could be less clever, more thoughtful

This column, serving as Strategy's window on Ottawa, looks at emerging issues, practices and trends in federal government communications.'...all advertising has abandoned the pastoral appeal of yesteryear in favor of the antisocial emphasis on 'power' - and given how pervasive advertising...

This column, serving as Strategy’s window on Ottawa, looks at emerging issues, practices and trends in federal government communications.

‘…all advertising has abandoned the pastoral appeal of yesteryear in favor of the antisocial emphasis on ‘power’ – and given how pervasive advertising is today, we must now finally recognize it as the great driving propaganda of our system, promoting the mass attitudes essential to the culture of consumption much as, say, Soviet propaganda long did for Stalin, or as Dr. Goebbels did for Hitler’s rule.’

- Mark Crispin Miller, Winter ’95 edition of Adbusters magazine

Yes, it sure is fun and easy to crap on advertising.

Ironic that Mark Crispin Miller in the above quote should recruit to his argument the very psychopaths world and cold wars were fought against in order to preserve the right to advertise.

No doubt, he’d prefer us all to go around goose-stepping in the latest, fashionably uniform, government-approved blue work apparel.

Miller and his self-righteous, adbusting ilk, like shooters of barrelled fish, deserve little credit for attacking such easy prey.

Capitalism, and its ugly partner, consumerism, while far from perfect, represent the least-worst form of social and economic existence known to humankind.

Trying to lay all its misdemeanors at advertising’s doorstep is a mug’s game.

Adbusters magazine has been playing this game now for some five years.

Not that it isn’t entertaining, frequently well-written, and stylishly designed ( a cross between Wired and Harpers.)

In fact, its evolution has been quite impressive: from a poor, schizophrenic, tree-hugging, ad-hating alternative quarterly, to a healthy, rich, together, ad-hating ‘Journal of the Mental Environment.’

It was honored with Western Canada’s Magazine of the Year Award in 1994.

No. It’s just that I’m tired of the facile, monotonous, dubious argument that advertising is solely responsible for, to paraphrase Max Weber, the world of spirit (and, indeed, life itself), losing out to a world of matter where the human project seems encased in a leaden-ness of things.

The standard defence given by the ad and marketing industry is that it is not responsible for our miserable condition.

It merely identifies and responds to existing needs; caters to, but cannot create, predisposition; performs an essential informational function; helps sustain the media, and, in this complex world, experiences genuine difficulty understanding and predicting the behavior of consumers.

While all of this may be true, advertising does only offer consumers a choice from commercially viable options; does stress only the positive; does target consumers with the bucks; does raise expectations; does use sex, love and fear to sell products; does promote questionable stereotypes and values, and, does promote legal, though harmful, products which leaves it open to moral criticism.

Advertising does not, however, turn otherwise rational consumers into helpless, desire-driven purchasers of unwanted products. It simply promotes products that critics like Adbusters don’t like.

Advertising serves our economic system. Attacking it is a bit like complaining about the wind spoiling your hair: short of shutting yourself away in your own hermetically sealed utopia, there’s little you can do. It’s the environment, stupid! Put a hat on.

Advertising is not responsible for all the evils in our consumer society. It is simply a tool which can be put to constructive or destructive uses.

Advertising is capitalism, and capitalism is advertising. You can’t separate them.

Instead of continually crapping on it, Adbusters would do better to write thoughtfully about how this tool can be used to help mould the values it thinks are important.

I’ll continue to subscribe because the magazine can be provocative and clever. I’m also impressed with the work it does promoting media literacy.

But, for thoughtful commentary on advertising, I’ll turn to the likes of Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century English lexicographer, who extolled the virtues of money-making enterprise, and defined advertisers as ‘givers of intelligence.’

Nigel Beale is president of Nigel Beale and Associates, a communications firm, and operates the Ottawa offices of News Canada, a news distribution service. Reader feedback is encouraged and Beale can be contacted at (613) 241-9900 (phone); (613) 241-9477 (fax.)