Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On advertisement

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.


troutsky said...

This is a nuanced subject, for instance, what are the ethical implications of selling candy to children? Where and how are the lines drawn? Just saying "sex sells" diminishes the very complex arena of conditioning, of hegemonic control, and of psychological techniques that reach deep into cultural production/capitalist production. We can all make fun of a deoderant but a quick look around the modern home and it is less amusing.

Schumpeter was wrong about cigarretts and politics, it is only by including the widest array of opinions in open debate can a political decision gain legitimacy ( forget right or wrong) The point is that the same democratic processes should apply to economic decisions as to political. Debate the merits of production, not the sexiness of the ad.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

This is a nuanced subject, for instance, what are the ethical implications of selling candy to children?

Children who are old enough to earn their own money should know enough to avoid buying candy from strangers, though of course if actual kidnapping, etc. occurs, this violation of the free market will not be tolerated.

Otherwise, children making purchases with mommy's money should be watched carefully by her.

The point is that the same democratic processes should apply to economic decisions as to political.

I agree! But think about how many disparate goods are competing for the money we've earned. The economic choices we've been provided are nearly limitless; they certainly encompass a broader range than anything seen previously in history.

Meanwhile, we get to choose between two virtually indistinguishable candidates each presidential election--and the choices are not much better when it comes to other offices.

Anonymous said...

Sad to say, I must agree with Wiser Man on this one, dogmatic god-ridden libertarian that he is.

Troutsky - once again you show your truly progressive elitism. Do you really think people are so simple as to be so easily duped? Maybe they just don't take their spending decisions so seriously - the personal is NOT always the political - so they buy that horrible deodorant. (My son loves it.) The cultural critics who deride advertising, with all that entails, too often subscribe to a command-and-control view of culture and consciousness. The subversive and non-subservient activities of "the masses" are forgotten unless they erupt in political protest.

To those on the Left and the Right who despise advertising for its vulgarity, stupidity, shallowness, and the false gods of materialism that it celebrates I say, don't watch TV. Don't listen to commercial radio. Don't read junky magazines. Slowly, you will come to regard Mondo Video and its associated idiocies as a bizarre place that you must visit occassionally just to keep tabs on it.

troutsky said...

Wiser, when I say democratize economic decisions I mean a process for deciding what is produced and how it is allocated that is not market based. Advertising ( lying about a product) is gone.

Lichanos, So you are telling overweight people, "just stop eating so much!" Junkies to "just stop shooting".If only it were so simple.Call it "elitism" but I think the capitalist was correct who said "I can hire half the working class to kill the other half." Until they are organized the "sucker born every minute " will buy religion, youth, and hundred dollar tennis shoes. It is the sub and unconscious mind that culture works on.

Anonymous said...

Call it "elitism" but I think the capitalist was correct who said "I can hire half the working class to kill the other half."

Well, yes, Troutsky, I'd say that's elitism in a nutshell. Certainly for that capitalist you quote. Personally, I don't think The Workers, The People, The Masses, or whatever one calls "them" are quite that malleable.

Lincoln had it right:

Fool all the people some of the time; fool some of the people all the time; but you can't fool all of them all of the time...