The World

[as I find it]

Archive for March 2007

Advertising and Free Speech

If one were to criticize advertisements for some of the effects they have — of creating an overly-materialistic culture, or causing people to want things that they would not otherwise want and might actually harm them — proponents of “free markets” and “free speech” would immediately come to its defense. It’s up to consumers, they would say, to actually make the choices that advertisements merely suggest; and anyway, we can’t restrict advertisements because doing so would clearly violate the First Amendment.

I think both defenses have problems with them; I am concerned here with the second. (For a very considered discussion of the first, you might take a look at John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society.)

I think that the state to which we have allowed advertising to invade our culture actually harms the ideal of Free Speech, and to defend it on First Amendment grounds is out of touch with the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. Here are the reasons why:

  1. Advertising takes up space and air time. By filling our media with advertising (to the extent that magazines have more advertising than content, and half of every television broadcast is filled with commercials), we prevent that time and space from being used to propagate information that might be more useful or significant to the public. Moreover, because advertising is profitable to the entities that broadcast it, they have little or no incentive to replace it with more meaningful content if it means a drop in profit margins — thereby making it even more difficult for a useful message to get air time. Not only does that message need to compete for the time; it needs to compete for paid time.
  2. Advertising makes us less sensitive to information generally. Through constant overstimulation, media consumers become desensitized to information. Rather than taking on the Sisyphean task of sorting out information that’s good and useful from information that isn’t, we simply become more likely to tune it all out. Things that should shock us don’t; useful messages don’t have the effect they would have in the absence of advertising.
  3. Advertising is psychologically manipulative. Advertising creates desires in people where none existed before. It encourages conformity to the states of mind that advertisers want consumers to have. Whether or not you believe it’s “ultimately up to the consumer” to act on the mental states that advertising induces, it is undeniable that the express purpose of advertising is to cause people to believe something they did not before, usually for the sake of the advertiser’s profit. Even if this is true, of course, it doesn’t necessarily affect the right to free speech. The problem, however, is that free speech is only valuable if free thought precedes it: the purpose of protecting free speech is to protect a diversity of perspectives, which are necessary for the pursuit of many other valuable things (like, say, the Truth). Advertising, by creating conforming desires, destroys that diversity of perspective. It therefore harms not just free speech but its more valuable precursor as well.

All this is not to say, of course, that we should do away with advertising entirely. Some advertising is genuinely useful (for example, if it informs people of new products that can actually improve their lives). What we need is a way to sort the good advertising from the merely invasive. Again, the free market people will try to tell us these mechanisms already exist: you as a consumer can change the channel during commercials, or skip ahead to other pages with real content. But clearly, this approach has only made advertising more invasive and more subtly manipulative over the last several decades. Some new mechanism is required — one that puts the power to choose good content and reject bad content in the hands of the collective consuming public, instead of merely the individual.

Proposals, anyone?


Written by whereofwecannotspeak

March 7, 2007 at 10:37 pm