Ads, ads everywhere

I think that I shall never see/A billboard lovely as a tree/In fact, unless the billboards fall/I'll never see a tree at all.

I think that I shall never see

A billboard lovely as a tree

In fact, unless the billboards fall

I’ll never see a tree at all.

- Ogden Nash

This is a very bleeding-heart column. It bases its arguments on my old, well-hidden ’60s idealism, and completely ignores my highly polished and quite profitable capitalism. So be it: here I go. You’ve been warned.

It started when I saw a recent article describing a U.S. legal judgment against junk faxes. It seems that some guy down in Georgia was getting a lot of unwanted faxes from that gourmet-food establishment known as Hooters. I forget what his motive was, either he was spending too much on fax paper or he wanted to protect the morals of his 14-year-old kid, but whatever, he got real mad and took Hooters to court.

The jury saw his side of the story and slapped a $12-million judgment against Hooters. (Business Depot must have a hell of a fax-paper markup down in Dixie.) The Augusta, Georgia, branch of Hooters had to go tits-up – sorry, I couldn’t resist that – but everybody else lived happily ever after.

Although $12 million feels just a tad steep, I think the jury had a point.

These days, with the fax machine pretty well eclipsed by e-mail, I probably get two faxes a week that matter. But I get about half a paper roll a week selling me things like – excuse-me while I do some research in my wastebasket – FULL FACE LAZER HAIR REMOVAL. (By the way, idiots, it’s ‘laser,’ for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Learn to spell your own product.)

The long and short of it is, we have too much advertising. Somebody in the business had to say it, so I just did.

A friend told me the other day that advertising can now be found inside fortune cookies. Advertising is over urinals. Advertising is in elevators. Advertising is on the backs of ski-lift chairs.

Ballparks that used to have lyrical names like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are now christened Safeco Field and Pro Player Stadium. Top tennis players look like logo-plastered ransom notes. I believe that a serious effort was made a few years ago (this might have been a joke, but I don’t think so, which is part of my point – you can’t tell the difference) to project ‘PEPSI’ onto the moon. Fortunately, technology couldn’t pull it off. Yet.

But advertising only works if it gets attention and people believe it. The more we clutter the world’s space and people’s minds, the more we breed inattention and cynicism. I’m no economist, but I’m convinced I know the reason for the crash of Internet stocks. This great communications medium can’t figure out how to pay for itself. Nobody reads the ads!!!

Our mindless and endless expansion of advertising space can’t go on forever. It’s just like the environment. Sure, we can drill over there. Sure, we can chop that down. Sure, we can pump out some of our water, not much, just a little, so Phoenix can build another golf course.

Sure, we can fill that space with an ad. Sure, streetcars look cute painted like Holstein cows. Sure, the SkyDome won’t be any bleaker once it finally gets Ted Rogers’ name on it. Sure, we can have a few more messages on the radio, like the real one recently quoted by columnist Steve Rushin: ‘The umpire’s lineup is brought to you by Weitz & Luxenberg, setting the standard in asbestos litigation for over a decade.’

Hell, it’s been thousands of years since Aesop made up the story of the goose and the golden egg. We’ve made it this far, we can make it a little longer.

Except that our credibility ratings keep on going down. And the juries in Georgia are getting restless.


John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at