Does constant exposure to advertising screw up our heads and lives?

November 11, 2006 | By | 36 Replies More

I think so.  The rampant commercialization of the U.S. becomes powerfully evident whenever I return from an extended trip to a country where people don’t wallow in materialism (on this exact point, see this post by Mindy Carney).  Americans are professional buyers and horders of things they don’t need.  I believe that the trojan horse of ubiquitious advertising is largely to blame.  Before I go further, here are a couple of quotes to ponder.

Don’t tell my mother I work in an advertising agency – she thinks I play piano in a whorehouse.  ~Jacques Seguela

He who buys what he does not need steals from himself.  ~Author Unknown

Many people would argue that we can freely ignore advertisements. Therefore, it’s OK to make the all-American deal: allow as many ads as necessary to pay for news and entertainment. 

I disagree. Yes, we can ignore particular commercials or even dozens of commercials.  But the average person is exposed to two million television commercials by age 65.  In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (2005), Barry Schwartz writes that “The average American sees three thousands ads a day.”  As advertising professor James Twitchell puts it, “Ads are what we know about the world around us.”  Just listen to Americans!  They have become the commercials they have been exposed to.   They just can’t stop craving the things they see advertised.  They recite skits they hear on commercials just like people often used to sing the melodies they heard on cigarette commercials from the 1960’s.  It is naive to assume that we can subject ourselves to this onslaught without ill effect.

Is this massive exposure to commercials harmful to us?  I believe so.  In my opinion, we shouldn’t assume that the ubiquitous commercialization of our world is harmless.  In light of accumulating evidence, it would be more prudent to assume that rampant commercialization causes widespread societal dysfunction.  Television is not just the programs.  Rather, television promotes a lifestyle, largely through its commercials and through the programs that those sponsors choose to promote. I’m not limiting my criticism of advertising to television advertising.  All forms of advertising lead us to ignore things that we claim to be important to us and to reallocate our energy and money toward things that we all admit are not important.

Consider, also, the narcotic effect of TV, which is mostly related to the way in which the content is presented, not the content itself.

As reported by American Dream, 79% of Americans think there should be more limits on advertising directed at children.  92% of people believe that TV commercials make children too materialistic. A super-majority of Americans (87%) think that our current consumer culture makes it harder to instill positive values in our children.

What is the cumulative effect of our constant exposure to images of happy people buying things they don’t need, images strongly suggesting that we must do likewise? I believe that we are seeing the result—massive societal Attention Deficit Disorder and the wasting of minds.  Minds that turn passive and all consumptive, caused by the extinguishing of their sense of curiosity.  We are too distracted to take the time to think critically.  We try to fill our resulting intellectual emptiness by buying things we don’t need.  It’s a perverse form of sublimation akin to eating too much because we fail to sleep enough.

Although television is a huge source of this advertising in the U.S., it is not the only source.  Advertising also permeates our minds through print ads (newspapers, magazines, flyers, posters), public displays (billboards, bus stops, train stations, signs of all sizes and colors), movie theater ads (pre-movie commercials and product placements), vending machine facades, radio commercials, ads burned onto our clothing (t-shirts, shoes, hats), displays pasted on prominent buildings and sports arenas, and even an occasional blimp. Don’t forget all those banners and pop-ups marching across your computer screen, many of them blinking and singing.

No one is safe from a constant barrage of ads.  Corporations are persistent predators at our schools. See The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education and ASU’s Commercialism in Education Research Unit.

Even the “good” news is not all that good: children saw fewer paid television ads in 2004 — 17,506, or a 12.5 percent drop from 1977 when they saw 20,000.   Doing the math, this still amounts to about 50 paid television ads per day.  

To quantify one example, take billboards (please, take them). As reported by  500,000 billboards “decorate” U.S. federal highways.  That total is increasing by thousands each year.  It is getting to be an unusual pleasure to drive down a highway where billboards have been outlawed, where you can actually appreciate trees and sunsets.

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Much of what passes as “information” is actually graffiti, corporate graffiti created and maintained on behalf of the economic elites.  If this sounds harsh, just look for it the next time you drive down through any city.

Ads are carefully designed to continue living in our heads.  Vicious memes that they are, they reproduce themselves and burst out of our own mouths to infect others.  Listen how often people speak about their newly purchased products to fill dull conversation.  We use our ownership of products to try to make ourselves interesting.  We drive them around, wear them and display them to raise our social status.  We talk about our new purchases incessantly and mindlessly.  “I just got a new glow-in-the-dark dog leash, Fred.”  “Gee, Carol, that looks real cool.  I’ll have to get Michelle one of those for Christmas.”

Commercials quietly drive us into herds.  They cause us to start thinking that we need something because those smiley people on the television screen have that thing too.

Again, what harm can such advertising do?  Lots, according to some writers. We are afflicted with “affluenza,” an all-consuming epidemic, according authors of the 2005 book of that title.  The authors quote T.S. Eliot’s “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men.”  What exactly is affluenza? “A painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”

In Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (2004) Juliet Schor, considers the adverse effects advertising, especially on children.   According to Schor, the average 10-year-old has memorized 400 brand names and the average kindergartner can identify 300 logos.  Kids as young as two are “bonded to brands.” The well-known plan of marketers is to get them while they’re young.  According to one study reported in Affluenza, “while the average Americans can identify fewer than ten types of plants, he or she recognizes hundreds of corporate logos.”

The effects of ubiquitous marketing are palpable, but hard to quantify.  Located in a prime part of the St. Louis Metropolitan area one can find a large shopping center called “The Galleria,” where you will find almost nothing essential. Instead, you’ll find overpriced toys, nick knacks, jewelry and gadgets.  I sometimes imagine walking up to the mall’s information desk to mischievously ask for something practical like a hammer, a toothbrush or a bag of rice.

I also wonder what it would be like to have a poor third-world family follow each of us around while we spend our money on those custom-made toys, fancy jewelry, carved ashtrays and monogrammed key chains that we just “have to have” or when we plop down $50/lb for chocolate.  I imagine trying to explain to these poor people why we need to buy so many things. “Yes, we already have clothes, but our old clothes (those from last year) are old, out of fashion or not as good as those worn by our neighbors, peers and co-workers. We need that new car because the old one doesn’t have a handy drink holder or a motorized moon roof.”

But what is the cause and effect relationship between the ubiquitous commercialization and the ubiquitous materialism?  Namely, does our exposure to widespread advertising cause our widespread materialistic cravings?  I believe so, though, this topic not seriously covered by media.  Gee, why not?  Perhaps television and radio too much depend on advertising dollars for their livelihood.  I’m certainly not the first to notice this disturbing trend.   Can you imagine a radio show hosting a guest who implored listeners that they should quit buying the things advertised on the station and to, instead, donate their money to people who really needed it?

Most of us buy lots of stuff we don’t need.  This is a sickness, by definition.  We’ve been so sick for so long that we can’t even see our sickness anymore. My wife developed this handy rule of thumb regarding impulse purchases: people get 95% of the pleasure of buying many things before they ever leave the store.  It’s the anticipation and the purchase of useless things that gives us most of the excitement. Therefore, enjoy looking at it in the store, then leave empty-handed.

Many of us are drowning in stuff we don’t need.  Industries and self-help groups have sprung up do help us with that excessive stuff that clogs our homes much like cholesterol clogs our arteries.  Here’s a line from one of those sites ( “Many of you are searching for the magic pill that is going to change your life and your home. I know you are tired of living in clutter and chaos.” All of us have seen many garages so full of stuff that cars no longer fit, for example. But so many of us still feel like we always need more more more.

How much stuff is it OK to own?  Imagine that floodwaters will submerge your house in only three hours and you’ve got one small car to fill.  Imagine going through you house, room by room and imagine whether it would really “ruin” your life to lose the stuff that wouldn’t fit in your van.  That’s one benchmark of how much it is OK to own.  The most common quote from people whose homes have been flooded:  “The stuff we lost can be replaced.”  I.e., it wasn’t necessary to have any of the destroyed stuff.

Note Jason Rayl’s post, Consumptious Conspicuosity and the comments thereto.   As Grumpypilgrim wrote, “just how ubiquitous is the (death) grip of conspicuous consumption.” When we buy things we don’t need, it encourages us to go into debt, thereby keeping us from allocating our resources toward things we genuinely consider essential.  

Merchants defend advertisements, claiming that they provide useful information that assists consumers.  They also resist the claim that advertising doesn’t cause us to buy things we don’t need.   But consider all the garages and basements bursting with stuff we didn’t even remember we bought.  And consider the many holidays and occasions celebrated with stuff we didn’t want purchased by people who were put out to purchase the stuff in the first place. Ceramic cherub collections, shelves of Star Trek figurines, leaf blowers for people with postage stamp sized yards.  Such trinkets, of course, are nothing compared to the unnecessary big-ticket items that we buy:  houses that are bigger than necessary and cars that are so often newer and fancier than we need.

Buying so much unnecessary stuff keeps many of us working multiple jobs or extended hours away from our friends and families.  Thinking about buying this stuff keeps us from being in the moment with the people and tasks that are truly important to us.  And the damage isn’t completely repaired after you finally pay for stuff you don’t need.  Those many useless things we own constitute a huge drag on our lives; we need to store our stuff and guard it and insure it.  Craving, buying and holding our unnecessary stuff is one of the reasons we buy residences that are larger than we really need.  Having all that stuff requires us to keep track of the stuff we own and maintain it and finally, to dispose of it. 

You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.  ~Eric Hoffer

Another Concern:  Commercialization and commodification have become the quintessential American experience, causing our society has become increasingly atomized and politically impoverished.  See, for example, this article at  It concludes that “advertising doesn’t exist because people want it; it exists because media policies made it viable and profitable.”

I once asked a friend how it was that our government could be so corrupt and unresponsive to the citizens, yet I don’t see any mobs with pitchforks and torches in the streets.   He said that the people will never revolt as long as they have their television.   Sitcoms, sports and glamorous cops solving murders as opiate of the people. 

Our obsessions with advertised goods distracts us and makes us complacent as citizens.  It’s OK to let politicians take huge (mostly legal) bribes from corporations that then get huge amounts of public money.  Just walk up to someone on the street.  Compare how much they know about their own government with how much they know about commonly advertised products. Commercial media favors the manipulation of glitzy images over critical thought. Who cares about our soldiers dying or about the integrity of our voting system as long as we can watch clever commercials.

Watching commercials warps our priorities.  It’s OK to buy big SUVs even while we face a serious intractable oil shortage.  It’s OK that children’s birthday parties have become intense showers of plastic toys made in Asia.  Actually, it’s now expected that all children attending the party of the birthday child will ALL come away with bags full of gifts.  As far as Christmas, don’t get me started! 

Commercialization infests our news. 

The advertising and news departments are totally independent of each other, right?  Welcome to the real world, where the financial interests of advertisers means that many things simply don’t get covered.

A few months ago, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin ordered a probe of dozens of television stations after a report found they aired advertisements as if they were news reports. The existing media system is not designed to produce quality journalism.  It is designed to benefit the stockholders and owners of media publications and institutions.  Local newspapers and local television new provide almost no meaningful content.  These “news” shows are actually designed to keep viewers happy.  At bottom, we don’t want to put viewers in a mood where they don’t want to buy things.

Those things that are advertised occupy our minds to the exclusion of other, more important, things:

People who fill their intellectual horizons with nothing beyond sports statistics and exquisite attention to their personal appearance, who know nothing of real matters such as growing food, repairing things and asserting their independence from mass culture are in for a rough future. A quiet disaster of seemingly unconnected changes will overwhelm their expectations, hopes and transient security.

Oh, and here’s one of my pet peeves:  store sponsored holidays, such as Mother’s Day.  Let’s see . . .  Do the merchants really have the audacity to tell me when and how to honor my mother (or boss or grandparent)?   And what about those merchants who try to convince us that we need to buy greeting cards because personal written expression is obviously so far beyond the mere writing of a personal note to those we care about?  Maybe if we stopped buying so much unnecessary stuff, we’d have more time to practice writing notes to people we care about.


What can we do about all of the advertising?

Here’s what I suggest.   Let’s start assuming that rampant advertising is not good for us.  Let’s assume that constant exposure to commercials is something we can’t simply ignore.   Let’s assume that Americans have become obsessed (more obsessed than ever before) with having needless and useless things as a result of advertising.   Let’s assume that many of us have become convinced that we need useless expensive things that we don’t actually need.  It’s not a pretty picture.  If there is a fair God who judges us, our failures to control our materialist cravings won’t play well on judgment day.

If my anti-consumerist rant is not enough for you, see these additional quotes regarding consumerism. 


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Economy, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (36)

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  1. glinda says:

    Advertising, however heinous its effects, would seem to be protected under the freedom of speech clause in the Constitution. You can't define free speech as speech you think is socially benign; that's what all censors do. I don't think much of Internet pornography, either–so much of it is astonishingly degrading to women, and it's scary that young boys are growing up thinking it's reality, and it's normative to call women "anal pigs" and rape them in their sleep. But free speech is one of our cherished liberties. As a journalist, I honk for it. It is possible to raise kids who are largely advertising-resistant; my parents did it. I don't actually watch TV, and I rip the ads out of magazines and toss them before I start reading, because I want the magazines to open to where I'm reading, not to where someone is shilling something I clearly don't need since I'm doing fine without it.

    I don't know what to do about the problem that the U.S. economy would fail if everyone was like me.

  2. eric says:

    Hate to break it too you, but thats the way of capitalism.

  3. KayBonny says:

    Your rant hit a nerve. I have been trying to figure out "what" my teen, freshman in high school, is passionate about. Future, goals, wants… And this advertising concept is true, constantly changing so fast, never committed to one thing. How can she commit to a career when she can't focus long enough to think about what she wants. The answer is that she truly doesn't know. I have layers of peeling plastic off to get to who she may be. My saving grace is her love of books/reading. Other than that, I am at a loss-the outside competition is fierce for their minds to consume. And I haven't been challenged my sex or drugs yet…

  4. Larry W. Tribble says:

    Another downside of advertising, and TV in general, I have noticed, is that all young Americans seem to believe that work is a place for eating, taking care of personal business, and generally goofing off. The typical work day starts off with having breakfast at your desk, then going to the bathroom, calling some friends, coffee break, maybe an hour or so of work, then it's time for lunch, which is taking an hour to go shopping or whatever then returning to the office with take out in hand, and eating at your desk. Afternoons go in a similar fashion, followed by an hour or two of overtime because you have just too much work to do. Aside from the fact companies are paying people to goof off all day they are also paying time and a half for the real work to get done. I could go on about this for a few pages, but I think you get the point.

  5. Thomas says:

    If advertising is unavoidably influential on our culture, how come such high percentages seem completely unaffected?

    "As reported by American Dream, 79% of Americans think there should be more limits on advertising directed at children. 92% of people believe that TV commercials make children too materialistic. A super-majority of Americans (87%) think that our current consumer culture makes it harder to instill positive values in our children."

    My other concern is with the following passage. It makes two false assumptions. 1) That all advertising is the same and void of anything that could be socially beneficial 2) That advertisements versus other human exposure (books, movies, teen friends), are inherently and always worse simply because a call for action is made in them.

    "They recite skits they hear on commercials just like people often used to sing the melodies they heard on cigarette commercials from the 1960’s. It is naive to assume that we can subject ourselves to this onslaught without ill effect."

    I take it you did no research on the actual FIELD of advertising which is quite diverse in intent and standards.

    It's because of fears like the ones stoked in this article that keep good companies from advertising. Thus ensuring only the Marlboros of the world make use of this useful tool for spreading information.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Thomas: This article is aimed at attempts to convince people to purchase products and services from profit-making entities. It is not geared toward public service announcements. I thought this much was obvious. I am not condemning all attempts to provide information using public media.

      BTW, I haven't seen cigarette ad for a long time.

  6. Uncle B says:

    America, The transition, from a constitution written by agriculturists to a modern super power run by Corporatists! Not and easy road. We are failing! Asians overtake us on the world economic battle field! Americans are bred, fed and propagandized to support the "Smoke Stack Era" and the manufacturing era of America, but both are sold out by capitalists to Asian interests and no longer exist in America! This leaves long lines of "Unemployables' in government offices seeking work that does not exist! Union pay-rates were killed by Asian productivity and communism. The advertising forces you witness are but a fringe feature of the collapse of the larger system due to sell-outs and Capital migrations to Asia to exploit the lower cost labor market there! We now witness more "Hard Sell" techniques applied to a shrinking working population, getting fewer sales each time! America, the old swash-buckling America, is dieing away and a new America is emerging. A less prosperous, sad America which does not rise from the ruins that are Detroit and its ilk like a Phoenix, but shivers on street-corners selling pacifiers like Crack Cocaine to the peon population, peddles it's young daughters hides in dark alley-ways, and scavenges the ruins at night for scrap metal to sell for basic food and a very rudimentary survival. America dies from the center outward to a Third World entity, complete with a few Uber-Rich despots living in walled, guarded compounds, apart from the riff-raff of common folk, very much like Apartheid South Africa was! Some sales-pitches are directed at this elite – Bigger faster European cars that far exceed the common-folk Cadillacs, now extinct and not even presented as incentive for the Patriots. America's resources have dried up, and the paradigm shift this presents will have convulsive effect on the "American Dream' and the average patriot, and much as in the demise of the U.S.S.R. the patriot, or proletariat will suffer the most, face the largest social upheaval, and the "Upper Crust" will ride the wave to the bottom! The end of every great empire is like this: British common-folk starved in the dark, emigrated to the far corners of the earth for survival, while the upper-crust lived in relative luxury all through the collapse of their empire, and still do! Advertising is but one tool of the passing commercialism wave that Americans enjoyed as long as it filled the coffers of the Capitalist. This is no longer true! Cheap labor in China is now the Capitalist's fancy, and few Chinese products get the massive advertising support American products did: they are priced so cheap as to not merit such extra expense!

  7. kalyan says:

    its a fantastic and nice information.

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