By Madronna Holden
When is an apple not an apple? When it appears in an ad for an apple.
Many years ago ad makers decided that a picture of a real apple was not good enough, so they created models of apples to photograph for their ads. Today there is computer retouching to create the image nature never presents us. That is how women in ads get so impossibly thin and unblemished, as Jean Kilbourne details in her films on women’s images in the media.
And when is a doctor not a doctor? When you saw him in a pharmaceutical ad—at least until a few years ago when the American Medical Association came out with guidelines discouraging the misleading practice of selling pharmaceuticals with actors posing as health care professionals.
Unfortunately, the shamming did not stop with these rules in 2006. Last year investigators uncovered the fact that many research articles in peer- reviewed medical journals were not written by real doctors. Instead, the pharmaceutical industry was ghost writing them. Merck outdid them all by writing an entire fake scientific journal that came out for a year before anyone caught on.
Not surprisingly, an article published this summer in Business Ethics presented the “blemished record” of doctors on the payroll of pharmaceutical companies. It seems that the manipulation of image for profit does not do well in maintaining the ethics of medicine.
Unfortunately, large pharmaceutical corporations spend more money on advertising than on research and development and use a number of “hidden” marketing tactics.
And today it is patient testimonials that are the perview of actors.
A good example of the importance of image– and its danger to our health is the use of food coloring. According to a recent issue of Nutrition Action, the FDA has been aware of data for several decades that clearly shows the negative effects of ingesting chemical food coloring. Such dangers range from cancer to hyperactivity. Given the fact that the coloring does not add anything to food, Nutrition Action urges that we simply ban it.
We might have done that long ago–or never developed such colorings in the first place, if image were not so important to us.
Many food colorings appeal to children—who are also most vulnerable to their negative effects. This was the protest of a doctor who complained to her pharmaceutical employer in the 1980s that putting dyes in children’s antibiotics was a health hazard. She was summarily fired.
Children also have a harder time with the mental effects of ads. You can spot many an unhappy parent with a small child in tow in grocery isles, as the child insists on adding to their basket something they recognize from commercials. The advertisers have done their research. They test their ads before audiences of children, adjusting things should the children’s attention lag.
They are testing adults too. As documented in Spellcasters, “neuromarketing” uses MRIs to design ads bypassing decision-making centers of the brain for those that act on impulse. A few decades back laws forbade the use of subliminal images in advertising–images shown so quickly that they registered on the subconscious but not the conscious mind. But we haven’t passed legislation to deal with this new twist.
The idea that buying things should replace community and familial connections predates any of these technological niceties. Stuart Ewen documents the history of advertising’s image manipulation in creating the social values that ground consumer culture. Nearly one hundred years ago, a group of influential CEOs met to decide the goals of social engineering through advertising.
Specifically, they wanted to foster loneliness and anxiety in the general populace—so that they could entice them to buy products in order to relieve their discomfort. And having made the consumer bereft of a sense of kinship with others, they planned to substitute the idea that the modern corporation is our social milieu– or in the words of the meeting minutes, the “father of us all.”
Many of us feel we do not pay attention to ads–or are oblivious to their messages. The fact that the average US citizen spends over three years of their lives watching ads gives pause to this claim, as does the fact that the ads continue to be effective in selling us things, as careful research done by the advertising industry indicates. A recent study shows that patients visiting their doctor’s office having seen an ad for Paxil are nearly seven times more likely to leave with a prescription for it than are those who simply show up and describe their symptoms.
In analyzing consumer culture, we need to ask what ads sell use besides– or along with– their products.
For one thing, ads govern media content. For years, corporations have been telling magazines that if they run particular articles (e.g. positive articles on aging in women’s magazines), they will lose their ad accounts.
The most egregious case I know is the pact network TV made with advertisers at the beginning of the first Gulf War not to show body bags– since this “downer” made consumers less likely to buy things. At that time I was teaching a class consisting of parents of a number of Gulf War soldiers. These parents of soldiers were livid at this network deal: they themselves knew well enough that there were real men and women dying in the War.
Persistently, ads sell us the idea that all life’s problems can be solved in a few minutes by purchasing a product. And that we have a right to a life of convenience and privilege based on such products.
We are also sold an addictive consumerism, as ads urge us never to be satisfied, so as to consume more and more. Thus ads express the values that “new” is better (and the past must be discarded, not learned from), and larger is better (as in fast food servings), in a world of technological delights and “magic bullets”.
Perhaps most insidiously, ads sell the importance of image itself. This severely impacts young people coming to adulthood in the US. In her observation of the lives of girls in different ethnic and economic neighborhoods, Schoolgirls, Peggy Orenstein observes a direct connection between girls’ measuring themselves against images in the blitz of ads they experience and their falling self-esteem– which currently plummets by half as US girls reach adolescence. This dynamic siphons off the energy and potential in these girls as they focus on creating the right image rather than following other goals.
Along with other young people, these girls struggle with the idea that their self-worth is bound up in buying things, as Juliet Schor documents in Born to Buy, which details advertising’s grooming of the consumer personality from birth through childhood.
Collectively, ads sell us the idea that images are important enough to risk our health and the future of our children for– as in the case of pesticide-manicured lawns.
Or they sell us carefully groomed candidates for public office in the ads mushrooming in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate funding of campaign ads. We are in a dangerous image-land when politicians take corporate money to air ads proclaiming they are on the side of “Main Street” rather than “Wall Street”. With the proliferation of such ads, we are giving ourselves over to rule by image.
In order to address the dangerous potential of rule by image, I have a few suggestions for changes– feel free to add your own.
In a democratic society, we should not be hawking our candidates for public office according to image. We sorely need campaign finance reform. With such reform, we would also take an essential step toward putting lobbyists out of the money business, so that citizen groups could speak to their representatives on the issues rather than with campaign monies on the table.
We could also do without ads for pharmaceuticals. After all, most of the developed world disallows these: we could follow their lead in taking medicine out of the media business.
And we ought to disallow any ads that appeal primarily to children.
And in each of our lives, we can work to undermine consumerism by creating a sense of community and caring with real persons.
We can engage with the natural world that sustains us: the world that is fragile and precious rather than infinitely susceptible to manipulation, as is the world of images.
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