Life & Liberty: The Real Reason to Gripe About TV Ads

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A common complaint about our commercial culture focuses on advertising—on the many vapid, tasteless (even downright misleading) ads that seem constantly to bombard our eyes and ears as we navigate this most opulent society ever. Television ads are the favorite target of this sport: after all, we can avoid almost all of the ads in magazines, newspapers, billboards, flyers, junk mail, and the rest. But ducking TV ads requires extra effort.

As we read Time, Newsweek, People, the New Yorker, or even the Journal of the American Medical Association, the advertisements are displayed for us to notice only if we really care to. With no interest in them, we simply turn a leaf and away they go. But as we watch TV, our attention is periodically interrupted by some commercial—which, for the most part, has nothing whatsoever to do with our concerns—and we must wait for the ad to end before we can get back to our program. No simple flip of a page here to get rid of the annoyance.

Consider it for a moment. If your child demands that you pay attention to him or her, you can take it only so often. After several such interruptions, even the most considerate parent begins to let out rather noticeable sighs of exasperation. As I sit writing this, I can easily stop and resume my work after my child has been satisfied. Yet after her fourth effort to cajole some candy or other form of entertainment from me, I am at wits' end.

TV viewers must put up with this kind of thing all the time—not from their children but from uninvited strangers. Granted, most of us realize this is part of the price for having television programs. But such abstract convictions do not carry much weight when, at some intriguing moment, the man from Glad, the Shell answer man, or the spiffy IBM executive jumps into your line of vision with a 30-second piece of often irrelevant monologue.

This cannot be avoided, perhaps, but why on earth should it be welcome? Oh, sure, it pays for the program. But that is like praising dishwashing because it makes for cleaner dishes at the next meal. Or the pain of a dentist's needle because it prevents the later pain of the drill. These considerations may rationalize the nuisance, but they do not make the immediate experience any more pleasant. And in the case of TV commercials, such palliatives do not leave a favorable impression of what advertising symbolizes—namely, trade. And because of that symbolic connection, the general public has come to view broadcast advertising as the epitome of capitalism—and, for many, as the basis for a moral indictment of capitalism.

Intimate contact with an economic system that engenders the annoyance of insipid TV ads can certainly drain one's enthusiasm for that system. Never mind that it is the most productive, most helpful, and most peaceful economic arrangement that human beings have managed to devise. Never mind that it has probably enabled people to live much longer than they used to (and still do under other economic systems). No—most of us have little time and patience to consider this pure, abstract stuff. What we are very well aware of is that those blokes in TV commercials are little more than irritants in our lives, especially when we are trying to relax and get away from it all.

This particular indictment of capitalism isn't very fair, and neither is it really accurate: for several reasons, the advertising we are familiar with through TV reflects a gross distortion of capitalism.

First, advertising is really nothing more than a specialized form of something we all do: boast. When we want a job, for instance, we advertise ourselves, try to sell ourselves to a prospective employer (the potential customer of our service). We do it when we display ourselves for inspection in anything from commercial to romantic circumstances. But we view that as a private matter and okay as such. So here is our first unfairness: we complain about others boasting, while we ourselves do it much of the time (and indeed it is mostly fine that we do).

But there is another, less-obvious consideration. The electromagnetic spectrum, through which broadcast signals travel, is in the United States deemed "public property." The domestic airwaves were nationalized on the floor of the United States Senate in 1927, when the Federal Radio Commission—predecessor of the Federal Communications Commission—was established. These political agencies then proceeded to establish a system of assigning frequencies and licensing users. From then on, even beyond the time of the emergence of cable programming in 1948, domestic TV has been largely under the supervision of the federal government. Admittedly, this is still a system of greater liberties and more of a free market than the many government-run broadcast systems abroad. But, in fact, the TV networks do not own the frequencies over which they broadcast—and, for the most part, cannot charge viewers to receive broadcast signals.

Because of this extensive government regulation, TV broadcasting is an industry in which just a few large firms control the production of its wares: news, drama, comedy, documentaries—and, of course, advertising.

In order to stay in business, these large firms must find big advertisers who will pay the broadcasters to carry their ads to millions of viewers. And this immediately reduces diversity in broadcast commercials: it isn't that there is little variety of products, but broadcast ads must appeal to—and (it is hoped) not offend—millions of viewers.

If you think about it, this is mass marketing at its worst: such ads must appeal to the lowest common denominator in that large group, making sure that all those viewers are at least not offended by snobbery, special ethnic or professional appeals, and other messages directed at only a narrow segment of the audience. So these ads must be among the blandest things in our culture, matched perhaps only by grocery-store or elevator music—and TV programming itself! Inadvertently, TV ads become one of the most offensive elements of the culture, too, since most of us do think of ourselves as special and find such blandness insulting.

Advertising is part of capitalism, and it is largely a very good thing indeed: among other things, it helps inform us about the marketplace (albeit as only one of many information sources). But by intervening in the broadcast-TV market, the federal government has bred a clumsy TV oligopoly, and the often tasteless mass advertising that so crowds broadcast television is both broadcasters' and advertisers' rational response to that governmentally distorted market.

So the next time Mr. Whipple interrupts Dan Rather to lecture some unsuspecting shopper on the superior softness of Charmin, don't blame the toilet-paper vendor for this annoyance—blame the government.

Senior Editor Tibor Machan is a visiting professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego.

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