Robert Meeropol

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Advertising = Harassment?

April 11, 2016

Tags: Consumption, Advertising

I recently read Ecosocialislism: A Radical Alternative To Capitalist Catastrophe by Micheal Lowy (Haymarket Books, 2015). This little book is filled with essential, big ideas.

One chapter, “Ecology and Advertising,” was particularly provocative. I quote a paragraph here:

“Advertising pollutes the mental landscape, just like it does the urban and rural landscapes; it stuffs the skull like it stuffs the mailbox. It holds sway over press, cinema, television, radio. Nothing escapes its decomposing influence: in our time we see that sports, religion, culture, journalism, literature and politics are ruled by advertising. All are pervaded by advertising’s attitude, its style, its methods, its mode of argument. Meanwhile, we are always and uninterruptedly harassed by advertising, without stop, without truce, unrelentingly and never taking a vacation, advertising persecutes us, pursues us, attacks us in city and countryside, in the street and at home, from morning to evening, from Monday to Sunday, from January to December, from cradle to grave.”

Advertising drives us to compulsive consumption of fetishized, increasingly useless, items. This excess consumption is necessary to grease the wheels of capitalism. Consumption per se is not the root of the problem, but rather capitalism’s nature, whether green or neoliberal, that requires advertising to fuel acquisitiveness so more and more stuff can be produced and sold. We must work to change the nature of the system AND its underlying ideology of consumption if we value our grandchildren and their children’s survival.

Even if advertising is not at the heart of approaching ecological crises, we cannot avoid catastrophe without involving the majority of humanity in a green anti-capitalist revolution. And we must wean billions from advertising’s thrall to succeed in gathering that support.

We need to conquer Madison Avenue while taking on capitalism and its military-industrial complex. As Lowy writes: “How can people be convinced to abandon consumption habits incompatible with ecological equilibrium without putting a stop to continuous pounding of advertising that incites, encourages, and stimulates them night and day to buy and buy again?”

This is a challenging task: advertising would not be so effective if it did not resonate with components of our nature. But thousands of years of human history along with the vast variety of human cultures teach us that such neurotic acquisitiveness does not have to be the driving force of social success. Lowy writes, “Every attempt to put limits to advertising’s aggression - until we are, one day, to get rid of it altogether - is an environmental duty, a political and moral imperative for all those who hope to save our natural environment from destruction.”

I wish Lowy said more about how we should go about doing it. I may run afoul of my ACLU friends, but we must divorce the concept of advertising from free speech. We must convince the public that there is a qualitative difference between advertising products and the expression of personal opinions. As a first step, environmental organizations must call out advertising for what it is: mental harassment, a public nuisance, and a contributor to the destruction of our planet.

Selected Works

"Bravery is rare. Tyranny is commonplace. Both define the life of Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his heart-wrenching, honest memoir, Meeropol recounts the emotional terrors of his childhood, the kindness of Abel and Anne Meeropol-who adopted him and his older brother after their parents' execution-his struggle to vindicate his parents, and his own political activism, culminating in the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he now directs."
Publisher's Weekly
"one of those rare books everyone should read"
–Joyce Carol Oates

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