Even among those who would prefer capitalism to socialism, there are certain aspects of the free market which many find repugnant. Advertising, for instance, may be tolerated when it aims merely to inform a potential customer about the product or service the entrepreneur wishes to sell; but when the advertisement cajoles a consumer--on false pretenses--we seem to recoil in horror. Surely the makers of Axe Body Spray are being disingenuous, and thus deserve our wrath, when they imply that a man who uses their product will wind up, unassumingly, next to a gorgeous woman at the supermarket only to wake up the next morning--but as I've said, it's implied.
The typical take here is that Axe, or its equivalent insidious corporation, is exploiting ignorant consumers into thinking that their product is something that it isn't; nine times out of ten, the product misleads consumers into thinking they will be sex machines to all the chicks, something most of them will never be. Two critiques of this line of thinking present themselves:
1) While the critics are able to correctly determine that the advertisement is engaging in hyperbole, they too readily assume that only a small segment of the population is capable of reaching a similar conclusion. I'm hardly one to defend the masses against their own stupidity and ignorance, but a Chesterton quip springs quickly to mind: "We lose our bearings entirely by speaking of the 'lower classes' when we mean humanity minus ourselves." The fact that one is capable of appreciating the not so subtle point cannot be taken as proof that those capable of likewise grasping it are insignificant in number.
2) Even supposing that someone is duped into buying a product based purely on its sex appeal, we err if we assume he will never realize that it is failing to help him achieve his desired ends. In my opinion, Axe is a wretched product, both over-priced and reeking of smells I never want anywhere near my body. But if enough people like it--even at its price, and regardless of its efficacy in the getting-with-babes department--it will deservedly sell. Both consumers and producers benefit in any voluntary exchange.
As the economist Joseph Schumpeter put it:
The picture of the prettiest girl that ever lived will in the long run prove powerless to maintain the sales of a bad cigarette. There is no equally effective safeguard in the case of political decisions. Many decisions of fateful importance are of a nature that makes it impossible for the public to experiment with them at its leisure and at moderate cost. Even if that is possible, judgment is as a rule not so easy to arrive at as in the case of the cigarette, because effects are less easy to interpret. ( Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, p. 263; quoted in Murray Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State, p. 888)
If we are to assume that man is incapable of resisting the siren's song of an advertisement on the market, we have little to fall back on in the way of a defense of democracy. It is much easier to tell if we are smoking a bad cigarette, or applying awful smelling deodorant, than it is to know if, say, a stimulus package was the most effective means of creating a recovery.
When you get right down to it, claims that electing a certain political will end terror or cause the rise of the oceans to slow are far more ridiculous than insinuating that applying a certain scent will help one win a lady. The latter is at least bound to happen on occasion, whereas the political promises reside almost entirely in the land of the fabulous. Critics of advertisement, then, would do well to me more consistent in the application of their charge. Although it is ultimately unsubstantiated in the free market, leveling it in a political context would serve us all.