Advertising, Our National Values, and Truth and Beauty

baltimore fire truckAfter hearing that the city of Baltimore was considering raising money to keep some fire stations from closing by selling ads on city’s fire trucks, I thought “What next?” Is there no end to corporate America’s increasing advertising reach?

An article in The New York Times (NYT) indicated that Baltimore was just one of many “other financially struggling cities, transit systems and school districts around the country that are trying to weather the economic downturn by selling advertisements, naming rights and sponsorships to raise money.” The author then goes on to give numerous additional examples.

Another article touching on this phenomenon was by NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof. It was entitled “ Markets and Morals.” It began with this question: “Does it bother you that an online casino paid a Utah woman, Kari Smith, who needed money for her son’s education, $10,000 to tattoo its Web site on her forehead?” It also asked, “Should Massachusetts have gone ahead with a proposal to sell naming rights to its state parks? The Boston Globe wondered in 2003 whether Walden Pond [made famous by Henry David Thoreau’s stay there] might become Wal-Mart Pond.”

Consumer activist Ralph Nader recently protested against all the ads that one radio station carried when it broadcast New York Yankee baseball games. He cited, for example, “ads that sponsored the pitching matchup (Chock Full o’ Nuts), pitch count (5-hour Energy), rally moment of the game (Rally BMW), game-time temperature (Peerless Boilers), national anthem (Mutual of America Life Insurance), call to the bullpen (Honda), and 15th out of the game (Geico).”

Nader’s protest reminded me of a satire that appeared in 1926 in The New York Sun about radio ads for a fictional football contest:

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the annual Yale-Harvard game being held under the auspices of the Wiggins Vegetable Soup Company, makers of fine vegetable soups.  The great bowl is crowded and the scene, by the courtesy of the R. & J. H. Schwartz Salad Company, is a most impressive one.

The Yale boys have just marched onto the field, headed by the Majestic Pancake Flour Band, and are followed by the Harvard rooters, led by the Red Rose Pastry Corporation Harmonists, makers of cookies and ginger snaps.

The officials are conferring with the two team captains in midfield under the auspices of the Ypsilanti Garter Company of North America.  They are ready for the kickoff.  There it goes! Captain Boggs kicked off for Yale by courtesy of the Waddingham Player Piano Company, which invites you to inspect its wonderful showrooms.

The ball is recovered by “Tex” Schmidt by arrangement with the Minneapolis Oil Furnace Company, Inc., and is run back 23 yards by courtesy of Grodz, Grodz & Grodz, manufacturers of the famous Grodz Linoleums.

On the next play the Harvard runner is thrown hard by McGluck one of Mahatma Cigarette Company entertainers, and is completely knocked out by two Yale guards, Filler and Winch, by courtesy of the Hazzenback Delicatessen Products Corporation, makers of exquisite potato salads, cheeses, smoked ham and salads.  Yale is penalized fifteen yards through the kind cooperation of the National Roofing and Copper Gutters Company.

The teams are lining up again.  It is a forward pass . . . a long forward pass under the direction of the Great Western Soap Powder Company, makers of the world’s finest soap powders and cleaning fluids.  The pass was caught by Schnapps, the Harvard back, who slipped on the wet ground under the auspices of the Hector M. Milligatawney Chocolate Works, the world’s leading manufacturers of bon bons and almonds…

Almost a century later, we have almost reached the point of that preposterous satire, and most people do not seem terribly upset about it.

In 1963 David Ogilvy, in Confessions of an Advertising Man, advocated “factual, informative advertising” as opposed to that which was misleading and “combative” or “persuasive.” He believed that ads which called people’s attention to new products were especially useful. In his final chapter, (“Should Advertising Be Abolished?”), he quoted advertising critics like historian Arnold Toynbee, who stated “the destiny of our Western civilization turns on the issue of our struggle with all that Madison Avenue stands for.” Ogilvy also wrote, “I am angered to the point of violence by the commercial interruption of programs. Are the men who own the television stations so greedy that they cannot resist such intrusive affronts to the dignity of man? They even interrupt the inauguration of Presidents and the coronation of monarchs. . . . It is television advertising which has made Madison Avenue the arch-symbol of tasteless materialism.”

He also thought that “the use of advertising to sell statesmen is the ultimate vulgarity,” and the ad agency he ran refused to do political ads. Finally, in answer to his own question about abolishing advertising, he concluded that “advertising should not be abolished. But it must be reformed,” especially by governments doing more to regulate television ads.

Just five years after Ogilvy’s book appeared, Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election with the help of Roger Ailes, presently president of Fox News. Joe McGinniss recorded how it was done in The Selling of the President, 1968. Ever since, spending on political advertising has skyrocketed, with this year’s spending expected to reach new stratospheric heights. Ad spending for commercial goods and services also increased far beyond general inflation rates. In 1997, for example, General Motors, Proctor & Gamble, Phillip Morris, and Chrysler collectively spent more than $6.5 billion on advertising. And one would have to be naïve indeed to believe that “factual, informative advertising” prevails today over the type of misleading ads decried by Ogilvy. Are there any of us who really believe that most highly paid celebrity spokespersons are pitching products because they believe in them, because they wish to speak true words to us, rather than because of the money they earn? We have become so jaded that few of us even expect ads or ad pitchers to speak truth. Thus, today’s advertising reflects less the values advocated in Ogilvy’s book and more the type we see in TV’s Mad Men, about ad agency people set in the period when Ogilvy was prominent.

Besides often offending truth, ads being plastered everywhere also threaten to decrease what beauty remains of our country. A Christian Science Monitoarticle in 2006 asked, “Amid the scenic splendor of America’s national parks, might visitors one day see a sprinkling of signs that read: ‘Yosemite, courtesy of Target’? Or perhaps, ‘Mount Rushmore, brought to you by Verizon’?” The article then went on to state, “It’s not so far-fetched, say park watchdog groups,” and went on to mention “a Bush administration proposal to let corporate donors have more recognition for their financial contributions to national parks—in the form of naming rights, signage, and plaques bearing their logos.”

Such a fear reminds us of lines from poet Ogden Nash:

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.

All of this leads to the question: “What is it about our nation’s values that inclines us to be so accepting of advertising and all the falsity and ugliness that comes with it?” And in the midst of a presidential election year, I would ask the same question regarding most political advertising.

My brief answer is that truth and beauty must not be that important to us. We may have many admirable national values, but a high regard for truth and beauty are not among them. This judgment is amply demonstrated by various commentators, including visitors from abroad. In his  The First New Nation, which appeared in 1963, political sociologist Seymour Lipset wrote that “two predominant values has been a constant element in determining American institutions and behavior”: equalitarianism and an emphasis upon success and hard work. Almost fifty years later in a  cover story in Time on the history of the American Dream, John Meacham referred to these two values and characterized our dream as “the perennial conviction that those who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded with a more comfortable present and a stronger future for their children.” (It is a dream, he believes, that now “faces assault from just about every direction.”)

Perhaps the most famous foreign observations of the United States came from the Frenchman Alexis de Toqueville’s two-volume Democracy in America (1835, 1840). In it he wrote: “I do not doubt that in a few minds and far between, an ardent, inexhaustible love of truth springs up, self-supported, and living in ceaseless fruition without ever attaining the satisfaction which it seeks,” but he did not think it very widespread in America. Nor did he think Americans were especially concerned with beauty: he thought them more typical of those in “democratic nations [which] “cultivate the arts which serve to render life easy, in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.”

Although many of our values have been consistent since our nation’s founding, others have changed. In his Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (1993), historian William Leach wrote:

From the 1890s on, American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this. American consumer capitalism produced a culture almost violently hostile to the past and to tradition, a future-oriented culture of desire that confused the good life with goods.  It was a culture that first appeared as an alternative culture . . . and then unfolded to become the reigning culture in the United States.

advertisingLong before Leach wrote these words the new reality was becoming evident. In 1902, philosopher William James wrote of “the worship of material luxury and wealth, which constitutes so large a portion of the ‘spirit’ of our age.” In the mid-1920s the leading paper in Muncie, Indiana stated: “The American citizen’s first importance to his country is no longer that of a citizen but that of a consumer. Consumption is a new necessity.”  “The way to make business boom is to buy.” The new consumer culture that evolved and became dominant was intricately intertwined with advertising that consistently expanded.

In a chapter on “Values” in his The Audacity of Hope (2006), Barack Obama described some of the values he thought had been most important to Americans. He divided them into two groups. The first were more individualistic, the second more communal. In the first he included individual freedom, self-reliance, self-improvement, risk-taking, drive, discipline, temperance, hard work, thrift, and personal responsibility. In the second group he placed family, community, neighborliness, patriotism, citizenship, “a faith in something bigger than ourselves,” and “the constellation of behaviors that express our mutual regard for one another: honesty, fairness, humility, kindness, courtesy, and compassion.”

 

Surveys of American values during the last half century generally come to similar conclusions, listing values such as freedom, equality, individualism, efficiency, and practicality as important. Like Obama’s list, one 1984 survey listed honesty, but linked it with directness and openness stating that “Americans consider anything other than the most direct and open approach to be dishonest and insincere.” When it comes to advertising, however, whether in 1984 or at present, few of us are naïve enough to think that honesty prevails. This same survey also concluded that “by any standard, Americans are materialistic. This means that they value and collect more material objects than most people would ever dream of owning. It also means they give higher priority to obtaining, maintaining and protecting their material objects than they do in developing and enjoying interpersonal relationships.”

An analysis of a 2012 American values survey states that “more than two thirds (69 percent) [of Americans] believe that American values have declined, and they point to political corruption, increased materialism, declining family values, and a celebrity-obsessed culture as the culprits.”

This same survey asked the question:  “Which of the following types of values do you consider to be most important in your life?” Overwhelmingly people listed family, moral, and religious values. Only 2 percent listed “values about beauty and art.” In answer to the question “Which of these [following] do you think should be the primary goal of public schools in America?” about three-fifths of respondents answered “instilling students with the values of dedication and hard work,” “preparing students for successful careers,” or “helping students get into the best colleges.” Only 4 percent answered “helping students live happy lives.” Except for the one mention of beauty noted above, a search of the 116-page survey reveals no other mentions of the words beauty, truth, or honesty.

Nevertheless, although there are few who would go as far as the poet John Keats (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all\Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know), there have always been a small minority in America who have greatly valued truth and beauty—see here for more on this minority versus the more dominant U. S. cultural trend.

The literary critic Harold Bloom considers Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) as “the central figure in American culture,” and throughout much of our history (including the last half century), “the dominant sage of the American imagination.” In his essay  “Illusions” Emerson had this to say: “Whatever games are played with us, we must play no games with ourselves, but deal in our privacy with the last honesty and truth. I look upon the simple and childish virtues of veracity and honesty as the root of all that is sublime in character.” In his essay “Nature” he devoted a section to beauty and wrote: “The world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty. This element I call an ultimate end. No reason can be asked or given why the soul seeks beauty. Beauty, in its largest and profoundest sense, is one expression for the universe. God is the all-fair. Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same All. But beauty in nature is not ultimate. It is the herald of inward and eternal beauty, and is not alone a solid and satisfactory good.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was one young man influenced by Emerson, with whom he became friends after graduating from Harvard. Although they would have their differences in subsequent years, they continued to influence each other. Thoreau later became best known for Walden, which The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states “has been admired by a larger world audience than any other book written by an American author.” This same entry also observes “For Thoreau, it was the work of a lifetime to cultivate one’s receptivity to the beauty of the universe. Believing that ‘the perception of beauty is a moral test’ (Journal, 6/21/52), Thoreau frequently chastises himself or humanity in general for failing in this respect. ‘How much of beauty—of color, as well as form—on which our eyes daily rest goes unperceived by us,’ he laments (Journal, 8/1/60).”

Influenced by both Emerson and Thoreau, naturalist John Muir (1838-1914), founder of the Sierra Club and advocate for safeguarding and establishing more National Parks, wrote in 1908:

For everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul. This natural beauty-hunger is displayed in poor folks’ window-gardens made up of a few geranium slips in broken cups, as well as in the costly lily gardens of the rich, the thousands of spacious city parks and botanical gardens, and in our magnificent National parks–the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, etc.–Nature’s own wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world. Nevertheless, like everything else worth while, however sacred and precious and well-guarded, they have always been subject to attack, mostly by despoiling gainseekers,–mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to supervisors, lumbermen, cattlemen, farmers, etc., eagerly trying to make everything dollarable.

A year after Muir wrote these words William James’s book The Meaning of Truth appeared. Like Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who later spent the last few decades of his life in America and became an American citizen, the psychologist/philosopher James approached truth primarily from a scientific perspective. But he also appreciated beauty, as did Einstein, who once stated:

The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. The trite subjects of human efforts, possessions, outward success, luxury have always seemed to me contemptible.”

There have also been poets and other writers who have resisted the dominant consumer culture. In 1950 one of America’s most prominent historians (Commager) stated: “Who, in the half century from Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt, celebrated business enterprise or the acquisitive society . . . ?  Almost all the major writers were critical of those standards, or contemptuous of them. . . . Most authors portrayed an economic system disorderly and ruthless, wasteful and inhuman, unjust alike to workingmen, investors, and consumers, politically corrupt and morally corrupting.” At times, they attacked the dominant culture’s lack of respect for truth and beauty. For example, Sinclair Lewis in his novel Main Street (1920) has his heroine Carole walk down the main street of his fictional town, Gopher Prairie, and notice its lack of beauty, and it resembled “ten thousand towns from Albany to San Diego.”  He then added:

In all the town not one building save the Ionic bank which gave pleasure to Carol’s eyes; not a dozen buildings which suggested that, in the fifty years of Gopher Prairie’s existence, the citizens had realized that it was either desirable or possible to make this, their common home, amusing or attractive.

It was not only the unsparing unapologetic ugliness and the rigid straightness which overwhelmed her. It was the planlessness, the flimsy temporariness of the buildings, their faded unpleasant colors. The street was cluttered with electric- light poles, telephone poles, gasoline pumps for motor cars, boxes of goods.  Each man had built with the most valiant disregard of all the others.

Later in the century and into our present one, we continue to read and hear others praising truth and beauty or decrying the lack of appreciation of them. One of the favorite quotes of pacifist and helper-of-the-poor Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was from one of Dostoevsky’s characters, “The world will be saved by beauty.” In one of her autobiographical writings, she recalled a scene from her childhood and then added: “The thrill of joy that again and again stirred my heart when I came across spiritual truth and beauty never abated, never left me as I grew older. The sad thing is that one comes across it so seldom. Natural goodness, natural beauty, brings joy and a lifting of the spirit, but it is not enough, it is not the same.”

One of her chief biographers  wrote about her: “She was profoundly attentive to beauty and managed to find it in places where it was often overlooked — in nature, in a piece of bread, in the smell of garlic drifting out a tenement window, in flowers blooming in a slum neighborhood, in the battered faces of people who had been thrown away by society.” Her friend the monk Thomas Merton felt just as strongly about truth, writing “life is, or should be, nothing but a struggle to seek truth.”

But such voices have been in the minority. Our dominant mass culture, our world of television, films, sporting events, celebrities, the Internet, Facebook, and almost-everywhere advertising is not especially concerned with truth and beauty. It is linked more to our consumer culture. As humorist Dave Barry once said that a “possible source of guidance for teenagers is television, but television’s message has always been that the need for truth, wisdom and world peace pales by comparison with the need for a toothpaste that offers whiter teeth and fresher breath.” Or as Bob Keeshan, TVs Captain Kangaroo, once said “television is not a tool for nurturing. It is a tool for selling.” Yes, we can access many of the world’s finest art museums on the Internet and look at beautiful paintings, but how many of us do? Yes, we can seek truth from Internet sites, but how many of us do so as opposed to looking for info and opinions that confirm our own biases? Look at how we spend most of our leisure time. Like Carole in Main Street, look around the streets around you and look at strip malls and run-down urban areas and then tell me how important beauty is to most of us.

Why can’t Baltimore and other municipalities and schools afford essential services? Why do many of them turn to advertisements to bolster their finances?  Does it not say something about our national values?

walter moss

Walter Moss

When a majority of our representatives in Congress want to cut government spending that would aid states, municipalities, and schools, as well as enhance beauty through funding for nature and art programs, what does it say about our values? Does it not tell us that we would rather have a little less beauty and a little more falsity—through exposure to even more ads—rather than any increase in taxes?

Walter  G. Moss

Published by the LA Progressive on July 5, 2012
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About Walter G. Moss

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here: http://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm