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Wendell Berry on Capitalism

I have long been enamored by the writings of the Kentucky octogenarian Wendell Berry. But I also continue to discover new insights in his writings, whether they be among his essays, fiction, or poetry. The latest example is my belated discovery of his preface (“The Joy of Sales Resistance”) to his essay collection Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community(1993), as well as some remarks regarding advertising in his essays that follow.

In a 2014 essay on this LAP site I wrote of the beliefs of him and E. F. Schumacher regarding global warming and quoted Berry’s words that “the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed.” I also quoted his 2012 speech in which he blasted “corporate industrialism’s failure to concern itself with the common good”: “No amount of fiddling with capitalism . . . can for long disguise this failure. The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up; pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle; ‘dead zones’ in the coastal waters; thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores; natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness.”

Moreover, that essay indicated that Berry agreed with Schumacher’s words that advertising and marketing encouraged a “frenzy of greed and . . . an orgy of envy.” But in the Preface “The Joy of Sales Resistance” he goes even further. Consider these strong words: “We live in a time when technologies and ideas (often the same thing) are adopted in response not to need but to advertising, salesmanship, and fashion. . . . The first duty of writers who wish to be of any use even to themselves is to resist the language, the ideas, and the categories of . . . ubiquitous sales talk, no matter from whose mouth it issues. But, then, this is also the first duty of everybody else,” the duty to resist “these hawkers of guaranteed satisfactions, these escape artists, these institutional and commercial fanatics.” Seldom since 1961 when The New York Times quoted historian Arnold Toynbee’s words on advertising--“the destiny of our Western civilization turns on the issue of our struggle with all that Madison Avenue stands for”--have such strong words been heard.

One of the main problems with that it has become so all-pervasive, so much a part of our everyday life, that we hardly notice it anymore.

In the essays that follow that preface, Berry discusses some of the other evils of advertising. For example, “As the salesmen, saleswomen, advertisers, and propagandists of the industrial economy have become more ubiquitous and more adept at seduction, communities have lost the loyalty and affection of their members. . . . Public life becomes simply the arena of unrestrained private ambition and greed.” In addition, “in their advertisements and entertainments [corporations] encourage sexual self-indulgence as a way of selling merchandise.”

One of the main problems with advertising--now even truer than almost thirty years ago when Berry penned his essay--is that it has become so all-pervasive, so much a part of our everyday life, that we hardly notice it anymore. It is like the fable of the frog put in tepid water, which is heated so slowly that it does not notice the danger and is boiled to death.

And this slow boiling has been going on a long, long time. In a 2012 essay on this site, “Advertising, Our National Values, and Truth and Beauty,” I quoted historian William Leach’s Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (1993):

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.

And, of course, increased advertising and marketing propelled this new “culture of desire.” Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948), wife of the famous writer of The Great Gatsby (1925), wrote: “We grew up founding our dreams on the infinite promises of American advertising.” 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.” In 1926, the The New York Sun ran a satire on 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.

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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…

A century later, the satire has almost become a reality. As I mentioned in my 2012 LAP essay, consumer activist Ralph Nader cited adds of that time for radio broadcasts of New York Yankee baseball games, “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).”

By the late 1990s the marketing of various products ranging from leading brands of cereals to Nike athletic shoes (made primarily by foreign laborers) cost more than did producing them. Television ads gobbled up a good deal of ad spending. By century’s end, U.S. prime time ads and promotions took up an average of almost 16 minutes out of every hour, and in daytime, about 20 minutes of every hour. Advertising costs also continued to escalate. 1999 Super Bowl adds cost companies $1.6 million for a half minute; in 2020 the cost was about $5.6 million.

Moreover, ads are everywhere--TV, the Internet, radio, direct mail, outdoor billboards, on buses and other means of transit, before and sometimes subtly (or not subtly) within movies, inside sports arenas, on chair-lift poles at ski resorts, window displays, calendars, skywriting airplanes, prominently placed brand names or logos on apparel and other goods, on shopping bags, shopping carts, and at bus shelters and public toilets.

In my 2012 LAP essay I mentioned that New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote 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.

During the last decade advertisers have become even more familiar with us as companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Netflix have used the info they accumulated on us and sometimes shared it with other sellers. A few days ago I called a Google customer support number (1-855-836-1987). Did I get help? Nope. But instead I was told to press #1 if I wanted to hear about a special promotion--and told this three additional times for other promotions. Speaking of phones we’re about to ditch our home phone because most calls are spam or scam.

In college (more than a half-century ago) I read W. H. Auden’s fine poem “The Unknown Citizen”--“. . . his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way. . .”--with its ironic ending,

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

As Auden and Berry have suggested, God (or someone else) please help us if our own reactions are “normal” when it comes to such assaults on truth. 

Yes, “assaults on truth,” because that’s what ads often are. Do any of us actually believe that celebrities hawking products really believe the words they mouth? The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC’s) statement that “When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it’s on the Internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence” is almost a joke. Not misleading? Ha! It often seems the whole point of advertising is to have us link a product with our desire for a better life.

walter moss

Walter Moss

But the ad people are not philosophers. What do they know about a good life? They’re just trying to sell us something. As U. S. humorist Dave Barry once said, “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.” That other man with a similar name--Wendell Berry--had it right: “Resist the language, the ideas, and the categories of . . . ubiquitous sales talk.”

Walter G. Moss