American Needs Perestroika for Ads

SOVIET dissidents used to talk about a ``public sphere of discourse'' that was missing in their country. There were no channels for debate of public issues because the government did not want such discussion to exist. America today has a similar, if less oppressive, public void. It is the lack of media space in which to challenge consumption and the advertising that promotes it. In the Soviet Union, you couldn't challenge the government. In the United States, you can't say bad things about the sponsor.

Consumption is now a public issue, needing free debate as much as welfare or defense. This was apparent in the recent Earth Day events. The tone of the first Earth Day was apocalyptic and a bit romantic. This time around, the focus is more mundane. Bookstores are full of practical guides - there's even one by Heloise - for living less polluting lives: using vinegar instead of Drano to clean drains, for example. The last time such household tips became a public issue was during World War II rationing.

The battle against pollution has hit the home front. To shift metaphors, the supermarket checkout line is now a kind of ballot box. Edward Filene of the Boston department store family argued, back in the 1920s, that through their purchases Americans elect their ``industrial government.'' Now they are deciding such issues as whether the air will be clean enough to breathe.

The problem is, America has a virtual one-party system in this respect. That party is the Pro-Consumption Party. Like political elections, checkout line campaigns are waged primarily through mass media advertising. The only side that gets time in the debate that matters is the Pro-Consumption Party.

Most advertising today doesn't provide information about products. That kind does exist, primarily in ``classified'' ads and on grocery-store bulletin boards. Mass media ads, by contrast, aim largely to bestir a desire to consume. They promote an ideology - an ideology of consumption.

Ernest Dichter, one of the fathers of modern advertising, made this clear back in 1956. The challenge facing business, Dr. Dichter said, was nothing less than changing the values of the American public. The aim of advertising was to convince the average American ``to feel moral even when he is flirting,'' and that ``the hedonistic approach to ... life is the moral, not the immoral one.''

This is still the subtext of most TV ads. It is also the platform of the Pro-Consumption Party. There are debates within the party, but the basic assumption goes unchallenged. Pepsi and Coke spend fortunes fighting one another, but plain old water doesn't get a minute of air time. Ditto Honda and Toyota. When was the last time you saw an ad suggesting that you walk or take the bus instead? For all the commotion over what to buy, the question of whether one needs to buy at all is virtually banished from the airwaves.

Oddly, the deregulation of the Reagan years has made the problem worse. More freedom for those who own the media has meant less freedom for those with important messages to convey.

``The climate for free expression in media has changed drastically,'' says Tony Schwartz, the maverick adman who produces antismoking and other public service spots. ``Today, stations shy away from anything that could possibly be controversial or upsetting.''

Several TV stations have even refused to run ads for ``Crazy People,'' the new movie that makes fun of advertising. The film is sappy and ineffectual, but stations were worried about offending sponsors.

This is why the current experiment in California is so important. The state is using revenues from cigarette taxes to run hard-hitting antismoking spots on radio and TV. It could be the beginning of a real two-party system at the American checkout counter.

But America needs to go much further. Television and radio stations that run ads should set aside time during prime time every day for ads that question the ideology of hedonistic consumption and point to cheaper and more healthful alternatives.

Such counter-advertising would help mobilize the free market to solve environmental problems. Television would be a lot more interesting to boot.

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