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March 19, 2018 – How much is too much? We know repetition is important to remember things. That’s why we see the same commercials over and over again. But, how much is too much? What’s your favorite ad and what’s your least favorite ad. (Can be television, radio, billboards.)

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Image result for image of a really great advertisementSo, I have to confess that I don’t watch advertisements very often. Broadcast television is and always has been limited in Fairbanks, Alaska, so first we had Dish (mostly advertisement-free) and now we have Netflix. The closest we come to ads is the very ad-like sponsorship spots on PBS during Friday news night. If I hear that BNSF Railway spot one more time, I may just run screaming into the Alaska night.

My very first journalism class in college studied Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, which came out in 1964. It had been out about 15 years, but there was no denying the freshness of his perspective nor the prescience of McLuhan, who loved advertising. He was among the first to celebrate unreservedly what he called “the Madison Avenue frog-men-of-the-mind.” The business of trying to sell people more stuff neither frightened nor appalled him. He didn’t look down on it, as so many of his contemporaries did.

“Many people have expressed uneasiness about the advertising enterprise in our time,” McLuhan also wrote in Understanding Media. “To put the matter abruptly, the advertising industry is a crude attempt to extend the principles of automation to every aspect of society. Ideally, advertising aims at the goal of a programmed harmony among all human impulses and aspirations and endeavours. Using handicraft methods, it stretches out toward the ultimate electronic goal of a collective consciousness. When all production and all consumption are brought into a pre-established harmony with all desire and all effort, then advertising will have liquidated itself by its own success.”

Further proof, as if any were needed, of Marshall McLuhan’s prescience. In 1964, he wrote:*

“The classified ads (and stock-market quotations) are the bedrock of the press. Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold.”   *Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (ARK edition, 1987) p.207

“Ads are the cave art of the twentieth century” according to McLuhan.

Now there’s a thought. It is certainly true that many of us remember the ads that separated the shows better than the shows themselves. “Where’s the Beef?” … “Let Mikey try it. He won’t like it.” … the Maytag Repairman … Madge the Dishwasher … Mr. Clean … the coffee commercial with the guy who became Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer … all that Coca Cola memorabilia.

These ads played in the background and many of us got up to go to the bathroom or make a sandwich when they were playing, but they still stuck with us because …

“Ads are not meant for conscious consumption. They are intended as subliminal pills for the subconscious in order to exercise an hypnotic spell, especially on sociologists.”

McLuhan had some interesting observations about advertising in his day that speak to the situation in our own.

“After the Second War, an ad-conscious American army officer in Italy noted with misgivings that Italians could tell you the names of cabinet ministers, but not the names of commodities preferred by Italian celebrities. Furthermore, he said, the wall space of Italian cities was given over to political, rather than commercial slogans. He predicted that there was small hope that Italians would ever achieve any sort of domestic prosperity or calm until they began to worry about the rival claims of cornflakes and cigarettes, rather than the capacities of public men. In fact, he went so far as to say that democratic freedom very largely consists in ignoring politics and worrying, instead, about the threat of scaly scalp, hairy legs, sluggish bowlers, saggy breasts, receding gums, excess weight, and tired blood.”

I think it’s striking that advertising has largely gone the way of the dodo bird in the 21st century. We hit our mute buttons or channel surf or we choose media that have no advertising (one of the beauties of streaming). And as we lose that “cave art” we turn our minds, perhaps not surprisingly if we’ve read McLuhan, to politics. We don’t pay as much attention to product brands today, but wow do we know everything there is to know about President Trump. We obsess over whether Melania wore high heels or tennis shoes. We hang on every trolling tweet. McLuhan would say we’ve gone backwards … that freedom is found in the stuff you can buy, not the blood sport of politics. And, yet, here we are … once again refusing to learn from history so that we’re doomed to repeat its uglier segments.

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