Whenever a member of my paunchy, 50-something set pulls me aside and complains of the dumbing-down of American culture, I tell him that if he doesn’t like it he should quit moaning and go buy a lot of fast-moving consumer goods. And every time he buys soap, toothpaste, beer, gasoline, bread, aspirin and the like, he should make sure to buy a different brand. He should implore his friends to do likewise. At the same time, he should quit giving so much money to his kids. That, I’m sorry to say, is his only hope.
Here’s why. The culture we live in is carried on the back of advertising. If you cannot find commercial support for what you have to say, it will not be transported. Much of what we share, what we know and even what we treasure is carried to us each second in a plasma of electrons, pixels and ink, underwritten by multinational advertising agencies dedicated to attracting our attention for entirely nonaltruistic reasons. Modern selling is not about trading information, as it was in the 19th century, as much as about creating an infotainment culture sufficiently alluring to allow other messages – commercials – to get through. In the spirit of the enterprise, I call this new culture Adcult.
Adcult is there when we blink, when we listen and when we touch. It’s even in scent strips when we open a magazine. There is barely a space in our culture not already carrying commercial messages. There are ads on T-shirts, grocery carts and parking meters, as well as on tees at golf courses and on inner-city basketball backboards. Ads are placed in urinals and played when we are on telephone hold. Even public broadcasting stations are littered with “underwriting announcements” that look and sound just like what PBS claims they are not: commercials.
Commercial speech is so powerful it drowns out all other sounds. But sounds are always conveyed in a medium. The media of modern culture are print, sound, pictures or some combination of each. Invariably, conversations about dumbing-down focus on the supposed corruption of these media as demonstrated in the sophomoric quality of most movies, the fall from the golden age of television, the mindlessness of most bestsellers and the tarting-up of the news, be it in or on USA Today, Time, ABC or “Inside Edition.” The media make convenient whipping boys, but as much fun as the media are to blame, they have very little to do with the actual reasons for dumbing-down.
These reasons, I think, are more fundamental, more economic in nature. Media are delivered for a price. We have to pay for them by spending either money or time. Given a choice, we prefer to spend time. We pay attention to ads and in exchange we are given infotainment. This trade, central to Adcult, is called “cost externalization” by economists. If you want to see it at work, go to McDonald’s. You order. You carry your food to the table. You clean up. You pay less.
So the quid pro quo of modern infotainment culture is that if you want something you’ll get it – as long as there are enough of you who are willing to spend some energy hearing “a word from our sponsor” and have sufficient disposable income to buy some of the advertised goods. In Adcult you pay twice: once for the ad and once for the product. And strange as it may seem, these products are at the center of the dumbing-down of American culture.
Modern advertising is primarily tied to things, and only secondarily to services. Manufacturing both things and their meanings is what American culture is all about. “We bring good things to life” is no offhand claim. Most of these “good things” are machine-made, hence interchangeable. Such objects, called parity items, constitute most of the stuff that surrounds us, from bottled water to toothpaste to beer to cars to airlines. There is really no discernible difference between Evian and Mountain Spring, Colgate and Crest, Miller and Budweiser, Ford and Chevrolet, Delta and United. Usually, the only difference is in the advertising. Advertising is how we talk about these tangible things, how we know their supposed differences, how we recognize them. We don’t consume the products as much as we consume the advertising.
For some reason we like it this way. Logically, we should all read Consumer Reports and then buy the most sensible products. But we don’t. Instead we waste our energy (and billions of dollars) entertaining fraudulent choice. Perhaps just as we drink the advertising, not the beer, we prefer the illusion of choice to the reality of decision. A decade ago, grocery stores carried about 9,000 items; they now stock about 24,000.
As human beings, we like things. We buy things, exchange things, steal things and donate things. In short, we live through things. We call them “goods,” as in “goods and services.” We do not call them “bads.” This sounds simplistic, but it is crucial to understanding the power of Adcult. The ongoing Industrial Revolution produces more and more things – not because production is what machines do, but because we are powerfully attracted to the world of things. Advertising, when it’s lucky, supercharges some of this attraction.
Mid-20th-century American culture is often criticized for being too materialistic. The real problem, ironically, is that we are not materialistic enough. If we craved objects and knew what they meant, there would be no need to add meaning through advertising. We would gather, use, toss out or hoard based on some inner sense of value. Because we lack such intuitive wisdom we don’t know what to gather; we trade the objects we have gathered and we attempt to evaluate objects of little practical use. Most of these things in and of themselves do not mean enough to us. In fact, what we crave may not be the objects themselves, but their meanings.
We are now closer to understanding why the dumbing-down of American culture has occurred with such startling suddenness in the last 30 years – and why the big complainers about dumbing-down are my paunchy pals and I. The people who want things most and have the best prospects to get them are the young. They are also the ones who have not decided which brands of objects they wish to consume. In addition, they have a surplus of two commodities: time and money, especially the former. If you can make a sale to these 20-somethings and “brand” them with your product, you may have them for life. But to do so you have to be able to speak to them, and this means going where you will be heard.
Books used to carry ads. But books did not become an advertising medium because there wasn’t much to advertise, and once there was a surplus of machine-made parity items, there was a cheaper medium – the magazine.
All of the innovations in magazine and newspaper publishing were forced on these media by advertisers. From the appearance of ads throughout the pages, through the continuation of stories from page to page and the use of common page sizes, halftone images, process engraving, black-and-white (and then color) photography and, finally, discounted subscriptions – innovations were created not by publishers but by advertisers hoping to find target audiences.
Papers and magazines tend to self-censor in order to provide the bland and unobtrusive stories through which they seek to maximize their profits. They dumb-down automatically. A look at The New York Times over the last decade will reveal the operation of this process in slow motion. The increase of infotainment and the presence of movie ads, the inclusion of Tuesday’s “Science Times” section to showcase computer ads, the jazzy “Style” section on Sunday and, of course, the use of color – to say nothing of the appearance on the front page of stories that used to be deemed tabloid-like and were therefore relegated to the back sections – were attempts to find the “proper” readership, not to find all that is “fit to print.” If newspapers want to survive, they will have to learn to see themselves not as delivering news or entertainment to readers but as delivering readers to advertisers.
Newspapers and magazines are remnants of a print culture in which selling was secondary to informing. To survive, they had to replace their interest in readers as readers with the more modern view of readers as commodities. Still, the print media might have maintained their cultural standards had not radio and television elbowed them aside. Since advertising will flow to whichever medium finds the target audience at the cheapest price, the demographic specialization of print is a direct result of the rise of Adcult.
The electronic media have made the print media play a perpetual game of catch-up, forcing them into niches where only a few national magazines or newspapers have survived. Broadcasting has forced print to narrowcast. Television is usually blamed, but the real culprit is radio.
Rather like users of the Internet today, no one in the 1920s seemed to care what was on the radio as long as something could be heard. And like television today, the messenger was soon being blamed for the message. Commercial radio broadcasting was dumbing-down American culture with its incessant repetition of mindless humor, sentimentality, exaggerated action and frivolous entertainment. Radio programming by the 1930s was selling out to the lowest common denominator.
It took 25 years for radio to evolve out of wireless, but only five years for television to unfold from radar. And while it took a decade and the Great Depression to allow advertiser control of the radio spectrum, in only a few years of economic expansion the same had been accomplished for television. Television never had a chance to be anything other than the consummate selling machine.
We need no reminders of what is currently happening to television to enable us to visualize the future. MTV, the infomercial and the home-shopping channels are not flukes but the predictable continuation of this medium. Thanks to remote control and coaxial (soon to be fiber-optic) cable, commercials will disappear. They (and perhaps also movies) will become the programming. Remember, the first rule of Adcult is that given the choice between paying money and paying attention, we prefer to pay attention.
As long as goods are interchangeable and in surplus quantities, producers are willing to pay for short-term advantages (especially for new products) and consumers have sufficient disposable time and money to consume both ads and products, Adcult will remain the dominant meaning-making system of modern life. And so I say to my melancholy friends who mourn the passing of a culture once concerned with the arts and humanities that the only way to change this situation is to buy more fast-moving consumer goods, change brands capriciously and cut the kids’ allowance. Good luck.
<h5>By: James Twitchell</h5>