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Book says 'big brother advertising' is watching

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 19 - February 1, 1996

When people one thousand years from now look back at the waning years of 20th-century America, will they think of poet Toni Morrison? Composer Ezra Laderman? Philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine?-or will they think Nike shoes, Calvin Klein jeans, and White Diamond perfume?

Matthew McAllister, associate professor of communication studies, says in his new book, The Commercialization of American Culture, that advertising is becoming perhaps the loudest voice in our era, threatening to drown out the cultural aspects of our society as it shapes things to its own images. But long before those people a millennium away form their impressions of our society from its ads, our lives will have been changed and shaped by the all-pervasive advertising.

"The book is about how advertising is expanding into everyday life," McAllister said.

And expanding it is. Television ads in schools. Commercials on videos. Display ads in airports. Prominently displayed brand names at symphony concerts or sports events. Promotional materials in doctors' waiting rooms. Infomercials made to look like sitcoms, documentaries, or talk shows. Home-shopping channels that are nothing but 24-hour commercials with products that people don't even have to wait to go to the store to purchase. Advertising on the Internet. Brand names on sports heroes' clothes. The American public can scarcely go to sleep without seeing advertising in its dreams.

Back in the `60s and `70s, McAllister said, an effective advertising strategy consisted of ads placed in newspapers and aired on television. "To reach large traditional groups, that's still good strategy," he said.

One advantage to society of that simple approach was that the traditional media almost kept advertising under control by limiting ads to those media, McAllister said; but a lot of things have changed since then. The coming of remote control and cable television gave people more control over commercials, and the cluttering (oversaturation) of advertising on television made advertisers search for new avenues of persuasion. The loosening of government regulations about the things advertising could do provided advertisers with new opportunities to expand their influence into schools, medical sites, and other parts of our social sphere.

"I think what we're seeing is advertising starting to invade different elements of society as traditional advertising techniques are seen as less effective than in the past," McAllister said. Sponsors of cultural events demand that their names be displayed prominently during the event. Public television, losing government funding, turns to corporate underwriting.

Multi-layering is another effective advertising technique, McAllister said. A person buys a videotaped movie with an ad for popcorn stuck on the outside or the popcorn company's logo on the box. When he opens the package, a coupon for that popcorn falls out. On the tape is a commercial for the popcorn. And, in the movie, a character eats that very same popcorn, while the popcorn company touts the movie in its ads.

"Sometimes the movie is secondary now" to the advertising, McAllister said. The movie becomes merely a vehicle to carry the ads. This cross promotion, in which two advertisers join forces to bombard the consumer, makes the campaigns doubly effective.

The Olympics, college football games, and cultural events all carry advertisements. "They sell as many ads as they can, until you wonder if the only reason the event exists is to carry the advertising," he said.

Computers are providing fertile new ground for advertisers. "The Internet right now is very similar to television in the late `40s," McAllister said. "A lot that appears on it is not good, but there's a lot of diverse things-information, a mish-mash of images. Television in 1948 was better than now, even though technology was not as good or flashy; the content was exciting. You had Bowling for Dollars next to a Broadway play. You had political discussions and children's shows on prime time. There was a lot of excitement that television would create a cultural democracy, bring society up. It didn't. Ten years later, television was called a schlocky medium, a vast wasteland. I think the reason is that advertising took over and started shaping things to its image and its need to sell, not the democratic process. And I think there's the danger that the Internet will be like that as advertisers take over."

On the Internet, advertisers can sponsor something already in existence, such as "Cool Site of the Day." They can sponsor indices and make sure their logos are pervasive. They can set up flashy home pages. They can even make you feel like part of a family.

For instance, McAllister said, an MCI advertisement included a fictional publishing company called Gramercy Press. On the Internet, people could visit the press, get to know the people, find out the office gossip, even submit writing that would be published on the net. "They were hoping you would identify with the people and that the press would become real." McAllister said. All that increased the potential effects of the advertising, he said.

One of the scary things about computers and today's advertising is the "big-brother-watching-you" effect. "Nobody currently knows what TV shows you watch or radio programs you listen to," McAllister said. But with new interactive media such as pay-per-view television, your movie tastes, viewing times, and other habits are on a database somewhere. Some video stores keep databases of movies rented, times rented, and addresses of renters. "Advertisers love to get access to this information-information created by the increased computerization of media," McAllister said. Consumer habits can be shared and used to target specific buyers with specific advertising promotions.

McAllister believes the public needs to take control of advertising. For example, community groups can protest advertising in schools, he said. Schools can begin teaching, even in elementary schools, the basics of advertising literacy to show children how advertising tries to influence them and how to make critical decisions about often self-serving advertising.

But he would go further. "I believe the government has to take a little responsibility here," he said, "that one of the consequences of deregulation and cutting of funding to public education, PBS, the arts, is that they will turn to the private sector, and the private sector wants something in return There is a price to be paid.

"If we see a Shakespearean play and the characters are drinking Cokes, does that change our perception of Shakespeare and how valuable it is? I would say it does."