Privatization of Consciousness
by Jerry Mander
Is advertising legal? Most people agree that it is an uninvited intrusion into our lives and our minds, an invasion of privacy. But the fact that we can be aware of this without being furious, and that we do little to change the situation, is a good measure of our level of submission. There is a power relationship in advertising that is rarely, if ever, looked at, and yet it is a profoundly corrupt one. Some speak; others listen.
A. J. Liebling famously said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed, but only if you own one.” Freedom of speech is also guaranteed. But only if you have a few million dollars for an effective media strategy. Soapbox oratory doesn’t sway the public anymore. But the powers of advertising go well beyond the amount of money spent. The true power is in the nature of moving-image media, projected for hours every day into human brains. It’s a form of intrusion we have never before in history had to face. Even now in the Internet age, the powers of television and advertising are undiminished and insufficiently examined or discussed.
Very early in my advertising career, it became clear to me that I was being paid to stop you from doing or thinking whatever else you might want to do or think, and instead get you to focus on the piece of information that was of interest to my client. All advertising is an attempt by one party to dominate the other. More than $150 billion is now spent annually in advertising in this country—$450 billion in the world. Every dollar of that has the same purpose: to get people to do what the advertiser wants. Very few people have a similar opportunity to speak back through media, to make demands on the advertisers. Or to suggest some other way to find happiness besides buying things. This makes it a very one-sided deal. Advertisers say that you have the choice of not buying their products, as though that’s satisfactory. You get to say yes or no, like voting a one-party ballot. And you get to say it thousands of times per day.
Advertising is now literally everywhere, interrupting our lives at every turn, requiring that we deal with it. We walk through life as a kind of moving target; hawked at by media, hawked at by signs on the street —blinking, flowing, five stories high. Even clothes have ads on them, and we wear them proudly. Corporations have become like “community” for us. Steve Jobs was our guru. We mourn him as we once mourned Martin Luther King. What a transition.
The situation has advanced to a capitalist utopia: a giant, nonstop global marketplace that carries itself into all our experiences. Life has become a process of constantly avoiding things that people are trying to sell us. Yet most people don’t complain.
Why do we tolerate this? What right do advertisers have to treat us this way? When did we sell the rights to run pictures in our brains? If the airwaves are public, then why are they filled with people selling things all day without our permission? In fact, the “public airwaves” are supposed to be a “public commons.” We own them. In the early radio days, you and a few friends could throw up an antenna behind the house and speak to the world. It was like the early Internet days—YouTube, radio-style.
That stopped when the broadcast frequencies got crowded and capitalists realized what a crucial instrument this could become. The FCC fell quickly in line with the corporations during the 1920s and started selling off our public rights to the airwaves, granting licenses to commercial interests who could pay. Over the years it made little rules about “fairness and balance” and “equal time,” but those rules and rights were soon overpowered and, under Ronald Reagan and then Bill Clinton (who helped launch the infamous Telecommunications Act of 1996), effectively eliminated. The “public airwaves” are now nearly totally privatized. Even the remnants of public airwaves, like PBS and NPR, now have commercials. When the PBS NewsHour reports some horror story about Chevron’s behavior in the Amazon, it feels obliged to say, “Chevron, a ‘sponsor’ of the NewsHour, was today accused of….” I turn off the program the minute I hear that.
The fact that advertising can be occasionally entertaining does not mitigate matters. You could also enjoy a visit from Jehovah’s Witnesses, or from an entertaining vacuum cleaner salesman who came ringing the doorbell five times daily. But you would do that only if you had nothing else to do. Your public airwave commons have been invaded, as has your mental space. If that is not a constitutional invasion of privacy, then what is?
In 1975, I convened a small meeting in my living room in San Francisco, which included some of the leading public interest attorneys in the Bay Area, to ask them if they thought advertising was legal. The way I read the First Amendment, I said, was that its intention was clearly to promote democracy by assuring that all people have equal rights to free speech —at least a fair amount of equality in opportunities for expression —and a similar ability to access all other points of view. When the Bill of Rights was written, in the late 1700s, there were no national broadcast networks that could project one political point of view to millions of people. There was no advertising, either, except for the occasional handbill, to project a particular vision to those same millions of people.
If the goal of the First Amendment was to sustain a democratic flow of information, those days are long gone. The commercial broadcast media speaks to everyone all day and night, and we don’t get to speak back. And those media outlets are owned by a tiny group of megacorporations.
As for advertising, it’s a medium that, by definition, is confined only to the people who can afford to pay for it. The First Amendment wasn’t conceived to give powerful advertising conglomerates power over the people. The advertisers speak their imagery, and we absorb it. Shouldn’t that qualify as a violation of the Constitution? Isn’t that illegal? The group in my living room thought maybe it was, or ought to be, but, given the way the Supreme Court was ruling in those days, they decided there was not yet much opportunity there. Since then, things have only gotten much worse, especially since the Supreme Court’s passage of Citizens United.
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