Excerpted from Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander, copyright 1977 by the author. Reprinted with the permission of William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Argument Two: The Colonization of Lived Experience
It is no accident that television has been dominated by a handful of corporate powers. Neither is it accidental that television has been used to re-create human beings into a new form that matches the artificial, commercial environment. A symbiosis of technological and economic factors made this inevitable. This then is the thrust of Argument Two: The colonization of lived experience and concentration of power.
Advertising: The Standard Gauge Railway
We have seen how the natural environment has been transformed into secondary, artificial and abstracted forms. This process has been described as though it happened by accident, without purpose. I have been avoiding conspiracy theories.
It is true that no small group could successfully plot to dominate social and technological processes that take millennia to evolve. Yet at any one moment, some people may benefit considerably more than others from particular forms of social organization and the technologies that accompany them. These will be the people who sit at the hub of the most critical institutions at any given time. They will naturally seek to consolidate their own position by concentrating their control while widening its effect. In this way, a tendency that may have been going on for hundreds of years or longer, beyond the range of human conspiracy, gains power over time. And so the tendency, the social and technological line of development, becomes more monolithic, more dominant, more difficult to stop.
Take, for example, the growth and centralization of energy-production systems during the last few hundred years. No single human could have planned to reap the great benefits that some have gained from the evolution of wood-burning stoves into coal-burning stoves into electric utilities, gigantic power companies with nuclear facilities and multinational oil companies. Each technology grew out of the previous one. At each stage, a small number of people occupied key spots and were able to guide change in ways that would concentrate the direct benefits in their hands. By now, the energy technologies and the institutions that serve them are so large, they dominate virtually all of life and even our political and social systems, while an exceedingly small number of people have come to control them.
Meanwhile, other technological systems have also become larger and more monolithic at the same time. Transportation systems, for example, have advanced from horses to horses and buggies to railroads to cars and trucks on freeways to SSTs. Long-distance communications systems have gone from telegraph to telephone to radio to television to satellite. As these technologies grow, their power and influence grows with them, but the number of people who control them shrinks.
In a capitalist, free-enterprise economy, that the controllers of the communications systems should become personally acquainted with the controllers of the energy systems, the transportation systems and so on and eventually begin to cooperate with each other ought to be obvious and predictable. The fact that it is not obvious to most of us, at least not so obvious that we act to stop it, has allowed matters to “pop” organically into still larger and more monolithic patterns of domination and control at each turn of the cycle, affecting human lives and political organization.
At some point we begin to call this a conspiracy. Humans get together and discuss how best to help each other concentrate power. But the human conspiracy didn’t begin the process. It resulted from another, less personal though more basic, conspiracy: a conspiracy of technological form. The patterns of life, the social and political systems, the narrowing style of thinking about the world and the technologies that both result from and foster these trends are the ground upon which the conspiracy can grow.
In this chapter and the one which follows we shall see how television and its parent and child, advertising, have contributed to this process of concentration, and how it was inevitable from the moment of its invention that television would be used this way. Later, we will also see that no other use of television makes much sense or, in any practical way, is even possible.
The Creation of “Value”
In transforming natural environments into artificial form, the United States is the most advanced country in the world. This is not an accident. It is inherent in our economic system.
To the capitalist, profit-oriented mind, there is no outrage so great as the existence of some unmediated nook or cranny of creation which has not been converted into a new form that can then be sold for money. This is because in the act of converting the natural into the artificial, something with no inherent economic value becomes “productive” in the capitalist sense.
An uninhabited desert is “nonproductive” unless it can be mined for uranium or irrigated for farms or covered with tracts of homes.
A forest of uncut trees is nonproductive.
A piece of land which has not been built upon is nonproductive.
Coal or oil that remains in the ground is nonproductive. Animals living wildly are nonproductive.
Virtually any land, any space, any material, any time that remains in an original, unprocessed, unconverted form is an outrage to the sensibilities of the capitalist mind. Iron, tungsten, trees, oil, sulphur, jaguars, and open space are searched out and transformed because transformation creates economic benefits for the transformers.
In economics this transformation has a name: “value added.” Value added derives from all the processes that alter a raw material from something which has no intrinsic economic value to something which does. Each change in form, say, from iron ore in the ground to iron or steel to car to car which is heavily advertised adds value to the material. The only raw materials which have intrinsic economic value before processing are gold and silver. This is only because people have agreed on these values in order to define a value for paper money, which certainly has no intrinsic value.
It is, then, the nature of profit seeking to convert as much as possible of what has not been processed and exists in its own right into something which has the potential for economic gain.
A second element in the creation of commercial value is scarcity, the separation of people from whatever they might want or need. In artificial environments, where humans are separated from the sources of their survival, everything obtains a condition of relative scarcity and therefore value.
There is the old story of the native living on a Pacific island, relaxing in a house on the beach, picking fruit from the tree and spearing fish in the water. A businessman arrives on the island, buys all the land, cuts down the trees and builds a factory. Then he hires the native to work in it for money so that someday the native can afford canned fruit and fish from the mainland, a nice little cinder-block house near the beach with a view of the water, and weekends off to enjoy it.
The moment people move off land which has directly supported them, the necessities of life are removed from individual control. The things people could formerly produce for their survival must now be paid for.
You may be living on the exact spot where a fruit tree once fed people. Now the fruit comes from five hundred miles away and costs thirty-five cents apiece. It is in the separation that the opportunity for profit resides.
When the basic necessities are not scarce—in those places where food is still wild and abundant, for example—economic value can only be applied to new items. Candy bars, bottled or chemical milk, canned tuna, electrical appliances and Coca-Cola have all been intensively marketed in countries new to the market system. Because these products hadn’t existed in those places before, they are automatically relatively scarce and potentially valuable.
Redeveloping the Human Being
Once the process of accounting for every available square inch of terrain and every raw material has begun, it is necessary to convince people to want the converted products.
On the environmental end of the equation, the goal is to turn raw materials in the ground, or the ground itself, into a commodity. On the personal end of the equation, the goal is to convert the uncharted internal human wilderness into a form that desires to accumulate the commodities.
The conversion process within the human is directed at experience, feeling, perception, behavior and desire. These must be catalogued, defined and reshaped. The idea is to get both ends of the equation in synchrony, like standard-gauge railways. The human becomes the terminus of the conversion of plants, animals, and minerals into objects. The conversion of natural into artificial, inherent in our economic system, takes place as much inside human feeling and experience as it does in the landscape. The more you smooth out the flow, the better the system functions and, in particular, the more the people who activate the process benefit. In the end, the human, like the environment, is redesigned into a form that fits the needs of the commercial format.
People who take more pleasure in talking with friends than in machines, commodities and spectacles are outrageous to the system. People joining with their neighbors to share housing or cars or appliances are less “productive” than those who live in isolation from each other, obtaining their very own of every object. Any collective act, from sharing washing machines to car-pooling to riding buses, is less productive to the wider system in the end than everyone functioning separately in nuclear family units and private homes. Isolation maximizes production. Human beings who are satisfied with natural experience, from sexuality to breast feeding to cycles of mood, are not as productive as the not-so-satisfied, who seek vaginal sprays, chemical and artificial milk, drugs to smooth out emotional ups and downs, and commodities to substitute for experience.
As long as the process of mediating between people and natural nonconsumer experience is encouraged, the big wheel keeps turning and we all turn with it.
Not long ago I learned of a laboratory experiment which mirrored this process of reshaping needs to fit environment. Some chimpanzees had been isolated, one to a room, and were being taught to communicate with a team of scientists by way of symbols. Whenever they had a need or a desire they would push buttons. If they wanted a banana, they located a button marked with a symbol of a banana, pushed it and a banana came down a chute.
Other buttons had other symbols. There was one for water and one for changes in lighting. There was even one that requested physical affection. When the chimp pushed it, a human scientist would enter the room, hug and play with the chimp for a time, and then go back out the door.
The chimpanzees’ world of experience was reduced to what they could ask for with these buttons. What could be requested, of course, was limited to what the scientists had thought to provide. Since cost was a factor in the experiment, the scientists did not attempt to duplicate the kinds of experiences the chimps formerly enjoyed in the forests. The scientists provided the experiences which were convenient for them to provide in a lab. I think there were twelve in all.
Apparently, at least for the time being, these few experiences were sufficient to keep the animals satisfied, although it is well known that there is an extraordinarily high death rate (even suicide rate) among all confined animals. This is especially true of the more intelligent ones, such as dolphins and monkeys. There is an even higher lethargy rate, as a visit to any zoo reveals.
The scientific purpose of the experiment was to demonstrate that as the scientists switched a symbol from one button to another button—let’s say a banana symbol was switched from button three to button ten—the animal would notice the switch had taken place. It would “read” the symbol accurately and immediately push the newly appropriate button.
This was hailed as a significant breakthrough because it showed that these animals had the ability to abstract. That is, they were able to go through mental associative processes, just as we can, and could thereby be trained more quickly to follow the scientists’ routines.
To me, however, the experiment meant only that the chimp in the lab was undergoing an accelerated version of human history, from concrete to abstract (like the Solaris astronaut proceeding from forest to space). More important and more poignant, it meant that chimpanzees, like any other confined animals, will do whatever is necessary to survive and will make the best of a bad situation that is totally out of their control.
Confinement itself, the removal of a creature from its natural habitat into a rearranged world where its ordinary techniques for survival and satisfaction are no longer operative, produces several inevitable results:
1) The creature becomes dependent for survival upon whoever controls the new environment. It will use its intelligence to learn whatever new tricks are necessary to fit that system. If it takes tricks and changes to stay alive, then that’s what it takes.
2) The creature becomes focused upon (addicted to) whatever experiences remain available in the new environment.
3) The creature therefore reduces its own mental and physical expectations to fit what can be gotten.
Confined creatures that cannot fit this pattern go crazy, revolt, or die.
While the analogy between chimps and humans is certainly not precise, neither is it farfetched. We were not suddenly captured by hunters and imprisoned in a room or a zoo, but over a period of several generations, our species has suffered a similar fate.
We have been removed from the environment within which we evolved and with which we are uniquely designed to interact. Now we interact and coevolve with only the grosser, more monolithic, human-made commercial forms which remain available within our new laboratory/space station. Because we live inside the new environment, we are not aware that any tradeoff has been made.
We have had to sacrifice the billions of small, detailed, multispectral experiences—emotional, physical, instinctive, sensual, intuitive and mental—that were appropriate and necessary for humans interacting with natural environments. Like the Micronesian Islander in Chapter Four trapped between two modes of experience, we have found that functioning on an earlier multidimensional level has become not only useless but counterproductive. If we remained so attuned to the varieties of snowflakes that we could find fifty-six varieties as the Eskimo can; or to dreams so that we could find hundreds of distinct patterns as the Senoi Indians can; or to the minute altitude strata, inch by inch above the ground, occupied by entirely different species of flying insects as the California Indians once could; all this sensitivity would cripple any attempt to get along in the modern world. None of it would get us jobs, which gets us money, which in turn gets us food, housing, transportation, products, or entertainment, which are the fulfillments presently available in our new world.
We have had to re-create ourselves to fit. We have had to reshape our very personalities to be competitive, aggressive, mentally fast, charming and manipulative. These qualities succeed in today’s world and offer survival and some measure of satisfaction within the cycle of work-consume, work-consume, work consume. As for any dormant anxieties or unreconstructed internal wilderness, these may be smoothed over by compulsive working, compulsive eating, compulsive buying, compulsive sex, and then our brands of soma: alcohol, Librium, Valium, Thorazine, marijuana and television.
Born within the walls of our reconstructed environment, unaware of any other, we are like the chimpanzee in the lab. We are making the best of a situation that seems as inevitable as it is ubiquitous. Participating in it is the only logical way to get along.
Yet there are people who do not adjust, who cannot be made satisfied or functional within these confines. They eventually fall out of the pattern. As you may have noticed, a lot of people seem to be going crazy these days. People are shooting each other as never before, walking the streets with blank stares, lying in doorways, making jail a way of life, or living off welfare. Others burst out, unable to contain their frustrations: beating children, torturing animals, forming gangs, or, on another level, among those who view these matters in terms of power, forming revolutionary movements.
These people are unable or unwilling to remake themselves to fit the given arrangement. In Huxley’s world, all of them would be moved benevolently out of the system to islands. In Orwell’s world they would be imprisoned and changed by torture and brainwashing. Our own world uses a combination of separation, removal and reconstruction, but there can never be any question of the enforcement of the overall model. If too many people fell out of the pattern, the whole system would be endangered. If even a small percentage of the population should step out of the cycle of button pushing—work-consume, work-consume—then we’d see the gross national product decline and the economy begin to disintegrate. After a time no one would deliver our food from afar, the buses would cease to run, jobs would disappear, hospitals would close, money would be useless, and having lost all individual skills of survival and all contact with the earth itself, people would experience craziness and a breakdown of order as the new reality.
Breaking the Skin Barrier
Given how critical it is to keep the production-consumption process flowing smoothly, advertising obviously occupies a place of considerable importance.
It has been assigned the specific duty of keeping people buying, buying, buying and therefore working, working, working to get the money to do so. It is the system invented to break the skin barrier, as it were, by entering the human being to reshape feelings and create more appropriate ones as need be.
If suburbs are capitalism’s ideally separated buying units, and suburbs can be built profitably, then we must create humans who like and want suburbs: suburb-people. Since before the existence of suburbs there were no suburb-people, advertising has the task of creating them, in body and mind.
Since before the creation of electric shavers or hair dryers or electric carving knives people felt no need for these things, the need was implanted into human minds by advertising.
Advertising is the instrument of transmutation. It lays the standard-gauge railway track from wilderness to human feeling, assisting in the transformation of both into a unified commercial form. Unplugged from our natural connection to the environment, we are replugged into a new consumer environment.
To the degree that advertising reaches us, occupying our time and thought, it keeps us vibrating within strict limits. If forty million people see a commercial for a car, then forty million people have a car commercial in their heads, all at the same time. This is bound to have more beneficial effect on the commodity system than if, at that moment, all those people were thinking separate thoughts which, in some cases, might not be about commodities at all.
Of course, advertising people will argue against the notion that the purpose and result of their activities is to unify and homogenize people and culture. They are forever speaking of the dazzling array of choices our market system provides and how advertising provides the information we need to make choices.
It is an ominous sign that so many people can accept this argument, which confuses diversity of product choice with diversity of lifestyle or thoughts. It ought to be self-evident that if I choose a Ford and you choose a Volvo, we are not expressing diversity, we are expressing unity. Moreover, if you and I at any one moment are both occupied with mental images and feelings related to products—any products—rather than some experience which is not connected to purchasing, then in terms of the commodity system, the gross national product, and the world of advertising, we are indistinguishable; we have merged as “market.”
While it might matter to Upjohn or Gutter Laboratories which drug a consumer buys, both are in agreement that they benefit whenever people seek any drug rather than a nondrug solution to a problem.
Advertising, then, serves to further the movement of humans into artificial environments by narrowing the conception of diversity to fit the framework of commodities while unifying people within this conception. The result is a singularly channeled mentality, nicely open to receiving commercial messages, ready to confuse brand diversity with diversity itself, and to confuse human need with the advertiser’s need to sell commodities.
The Inherent Need To Create Artificial Needs
Advertising exists only to purvey what people don’t need. Whatever people do need they will find without advertising if it is available. This is so obvious and simple that it continues to stagger my mind that the ad industry has succeeded in muddying the point.
No single issue gets advertisers screaming louder than this one. They speak about how they are only fulfilling the needs of people by providing an information service about where and how people can achieve satisfaction for their needs. Advertising is only a public service, they insist.
Speaking privately, however, and to corporate clients, advertisers sell their services on the basis of how well they are able to create needs where there were none before.
I have never met an advertising person who sincerely believes that there is a need connected to, say, 99 percent of the commodities which fill the airwaves and the print media. Nor can I recall a single street demonstration demanding one single product in all of American history. If there were such a demonstration for, let’s say, nonreturnable bottles, which were launched through tens of millions of dollars of ads, or chemically processed foods, similarly dependent upon ads, there would surely have been no need to advertise these products. The only need that is expressed by advertising is the need of advertisers to accelerate the process of conversion of raw materials with no intrinsic value into commodities that people will buy.
If we take the word “need” to mean something basic to human survival—food, shelter, clothing—or basic to human contentment—peace, love, safety, companionship, intimacy, a sense of fulfillment—these will be sought and found by people whether or not there is advertising. In fact, advertising intervenes between people and their needs, separates them from direct fulfillment and urges them to believe that satisfaction can be obtained only through commodities. It is through this intervention and separation that advertising can create value, thereby justifying its existence.
Consider the list of the top twenty-five advertisers in the United States. They sell the following products: soaps, detergents, cosmetics, drugs, chemicals, processed foods, tobacco, alcohol, cars and sodas, all of which exist in a realm beyond need. If they were needed, they would not be advertised.
People do need to eat, but the food which is advertised is processed food: processed meat, sodas, sugary cereals, candies. A food in its natural state, unprocessed, does not need to be advertised. Hungry people will find the food if it is available. To persuade people to buy the processed version is another matter because it is more expensive, less naturally appealing, less nourishing, and often harmful. The need must be created.
Perhaps there is a need for cleanliness. But that is not what advertisers sell. Cleanliness can be obtained with water and a little bit of natural fiber, or solidified natural fat. Major world civilizations kept clean that way for millennia. What is advertised is whiteness, a value beyond cleanliness; sterility, the avoidance of all germs; sudsiness, a cosmetic factor; and brand, a surrogate community loyalty.
There is need for tranquility and a sense of contentment. But these are the last qualities drug advertisers would like you to obtain; not on your own anyway.
A drug ad denies your ability to cope with internal processes: feelings, moods, anxieties. It encourages the belief that personal or traditional ways of dealing with these matters—friends, family, community, or patiently awaiting the next turn in life’s cycle—will not succeed in your case. It suggests that a chemical solution is better so that you will choose the chemical rather than your own resources. The result is that you become further separated from yourself and less able to cope. Your ability dies for lack of practice and faith in its efficacy.
A deodorant ad never speaks about the inherent value of applying imitation-lemon fragrance to your body; it has no inherent value. Mainly the ad wishes to intervene in any notion you may have that there is something pleasant or positive in your own human odor. Once the intervention takes place, and self-doubt and anxiety are created, the situation can be satisfied with artificial smells. Only through this process of intervention and substitution is there the prospect of value added and commercial profit.
The goal of all advertising is discontent, or, to put it another way, an internal scarcity of contentment. This must be continually created, even at the moment when one has finally bought something. In that event, advertising has the task of creating discontent with what has just been bought, since once that act is completed, the purchase has no further benefit to the market system. The newly purchased commodity must be gotten rid of and replaced by the “need” for a new commodity as soon as possible. The ideal world for advertisers would be one in which whatever is bought is used only once and then tossed aside. Many new products have been designed to fit such a world.
Buying Ourselves Back
The necessity for ever-growing markets, the need to create new need, the search for nuances of artificial discontent within previous artificial discontent have required delving ever more deeply inside the human psyche to root out more subtle aspects of experience. Thousands of psychologists, behavioral scientists, perceptual researchers, sociologists, and others have found extremely high salaries and steady, interesting work aiding advertisers. Like miners seeking new deposits of coal in the mountains, these social scientists attempt to mine the internal wilderness of human beings.
Once the most obvious feelings have been catalogued, reshaped, and developed, these people advance inward to the more subtle veins.
This delving can be amazingly thorough. Stanford Research Institute, one of the larger employers of social scientists doing marketing and advertising research, recently listed eighteen inner feelings of “an outdoor sportsman.” They ranged from “love of nature” to “a desire to put down one’s stay-at-home friends.”
In its monthly publication, Investments in Tomorrow, Stanford Research Institute literally catalogs new areas where human feeling can be converted into needs. In the July 1978 issue, for example, it presents new opportunities to reach people who have pets, who do home handicrafts, or who seek the wilderness experience. These are all interesting categories because they commercialize aspects of human experience which became packageable only when humans were separated from any direct experience of them. Handicrafts, animals and wilderness became advertisable at the time when they became scarce. Not too long ago they were the stuff of daily life. The fact that most of us are uncomfortable in nature, frightened of it, makes the sale of commodities to mediate the experience—chemicals to keep the bugs off, glasses for fifteen varieties of sunlight, shoes for one kind of walking and boots for another kind—far easier to accomplish than before. Fear is one of the most desirable emotions for advertisers. Loneliness and self-doubt are good ones. So is competition.
One SRI category of market opportunity was particularly poignant: “self-discovery and inner exploration.” SRI lists some market opportunities and appropriate appeals for biofeedback machines, courses in self-improvement, books, workshops, gurus, and meditation systems. These are all marketable now that humans have been separated from their inner experiences. In an earlier world, the idea that inner experience was separable from “outer” experience was unknown. There was no such difference. The outer and the inner were one; there was not even the possibility of survival if one did not take that attitude. Now, however, we are so outwardly focused that inner experience has itself entered the realm of scarcity, making it packageable and capable of being sold back to us as commodity. Our inner lives are now promotable as products. We get to buy back what we already had.
There is an obscure movement of European intellectuals who call themselves “Situationists” and who have developed a comprehensive analysis of the process of removing inner life, in fact all human feeling, from one’s immediate experience of it and then reprocessing it and selling it back. Writers like Guy Debord depict capitalist society as consisting of creatures who are redesigned to live life as a representation of itself. He compares this society with others, which lack the profit motive and, therefore, don’t need or find desirable the expropriation of inner experience.
The role of advertising, the Situationists say, is to create a world of mirrors in which people can obtain new images of themselves that fit the purposes of the overall system. Through this mirror function and by its expropriation of inner experience, advertising makes the human into a spectator of his or her own life. It is alienation to the tenth power. Life itself becomes a spectacle.
By entering the human being’s inner sanctum, our inner wilderness, advertising effectively pulls our feelings up out of ourselves, displays them and sells them back to us like iron from the ground. Our inner feelings are transmogrified into a new form—commodities. We desperately seek to get them back, and pay high prices for the privilege.
The Situationists are correct. Whenever we buy a product we are paying for the recovery of our own feelings. We have thereby turned into creatures who are the commodities we buy. We are the product we pay for and all life is reduced to serving this cycle. Life and commodity achieve absolute merger; the ultimate stage in the inexorable drive of the system to convert all raw material into “valuable” commercial form. Advertising is the internal delivery system for this bizarre process.
The Delivery System’s Delivery System
There is one additional factor, however. Advertising itself requires a delivery system. This has been the role of the mass media. All the media have done an excellent job of placing advertising inside people’s heads, but some are better at it than others. Television is by far the best, because it has nine natural advantages.
1) Television is itself a commodity, and an expensive one too. Therefore it is physically consistent with the prevalent reality. Its purchase gives the commodity system a boost.
2) Television changes the nature of artificial environments from passive to active. Unlike buildings and machines, television literally enters inside human beings; inside our homes, our minds, our bodies, making possible the reordering of human processes from the inside.
3) Television is an experience that can be had by virtually everyone at the same time. By substituting for a greater diversity of experiences and unifying everyone with it, it aids commercial efficiency. With all people confined to the same mental and physical condition, a single advertising or political voice appropriate to the common mood can influence everyone.
4) Once diversity of experience is reduced to television, a relative handful of people can control everyone’s awareness. Luckily for advertisers, in a capitalist system, whoever is in a position to pay for the technology has primary access to it.
5) Television is unique in that it smoothes out any furrows in the commodity system. Dormant anxieties can be dulled by the television experience. Beyond being a delivery system for commodity life, it is the solder to hold that life together, the drug to ease the pain of confined and channeled existence.
6) Though television passes for experience, it is really more like “time out,” as we shall see later. It is antiexperience. Its interaction with the human body and mind fixes people to itself, dulls human sensibility and dims awareness of the world. This enhances the commodity life by reducing knowledge of any other.
7) By focusing people on events well outside their lives, television encourages passivity and inaction, discourages self-awareness and the ability to cope personally, both of which are dangerous for advertising.
8) By speaking in images, television adds a dimension to the mirror-image process. Unlike radio or print media, advertising can now implant internal movies, forever available for self-comparison.
9) Television encourages separation: people from community, people from each other, people from themselves, creating more buying units and discouraging organized opposition to the system. It creates a surrogate community: itself. It becomes everyone’s intimate advisor, teacher and guide to appropriate behavior and awareness. Thereby, it becomes its own feedback system, furthering its own growth and accelerating the transformation of everything and everyone into artificial form. This enables a handful of people to obtain a unique degree of power.
Although television was invented in the 1920s, it did not exist for any practical purposes until after World War II. It is easy to forget that advertising, at least on the scale we have come to know it, barely existed before then either.
In 1946, advertisers spent about $3 billion. For the previous two decades, advertising expenditures had been fairly constant at about that level. By 1975, however, the national advertising budget had grown by 1,000 percent to $30 billion.
Most of the increase went into television advertising. Within only ten years of its effective inauguration, television was absorbing 60 percent of all advertising spending and driving hundreds of newspapers, magazines and radio stations out of the market.
A symbiotic relationship developed. Advertising financed television’s growth. Television was the greatest delivery system for advertising that had ever been invented. We could call it love at first sight, except in this case, the match may have been prearranged.
If you are old enough, think back to the days immediately after World War II. Although I was only ten in 1945, I remember the expectant and uncertain feeling of the times very well. Everyone was relieved that the war was over and was expecting things to get back to normal, but what was normal? Memories of the Depression loomed. I remember listening to my parents talk with their friends on those backyard summer evenings of 1945, and I could feel the fear.
Like most ordinary people, my parents knew that the war had alleviated the Depression. During the war, American industrial capacity, lying fallow only a few years before, had actually expanded to build the military machine. My father’s own business was an example. Now there were no more uniforms to make, and no more tanks. The war had given men jobs as soldiers and women jobs as factory workers. Full employment had practically become a reality. Now Johnny was marching home again, jobless.
If this was the talk among ordinary people, one can only imagine what was said in industrial boardrooms and at the Department of Commerce. With industrial capacity and capital investment expanded as they were, the consequences of a drop in production could make the 1930s look like golden years. A longstanding criticism of capitalism—that it can stave off cyclic depression only through war—seemed about to be confirmed.
Economic Growth and Patriotic Consumption
Suddenly in 1946, government and industry started making identical pronouncements about regearing American life to consume commodities at a level never before contemplated. It wasn’t that military production was about to be abandoned. Even now it remains the single most important factor in the United States economy. However, in 1948 with the war just over, it was not clear that the decline in military spending would be as temporary as it turned out, to be. Some new offsetting factor was needed.
Thus, a new vision was born that equated the good life with consumer goods. An accelerated economy that continued the booming expansion of wartime, added to a new consumerist ideology, achieved the greatest economic growth rate in this country’s history from 1948 to 1970.
To make such growth possible, both ends of the transformation process described in the last chapter had to be hyped up. First, we needed to insure an abundant supply of raw materials to convert into commodities. This led to a burst of American investment overseas as well as to enormous aid programs for sympathetic “underdeveloped” countries. Often we secured our supply by the creation of client governments propped up with military aid. Raising anticommunism to the status of a holy war in the 1940s and 1950s formed the political foundation for these military and economic programs, and underlay the assertion of foreign investment as a patriotic virtue.
At the other end of the transformation equation, an accelerated movement of commodities into consumers’ homes was critical. People had to be convinced that life without all these products was undesirable and unpatriotic. It was to forget the rationing of the war years and consume for your country.
Advertising and television were the dynamic duo that would rededicate the consuming American. Advertising’s ability to create a passionate need for what is not needed was already well established. Since economic growth and a consumer economy had to be based upon selling far more commodities than were needed to meet actual needs, economic growth depended upon advertising. Television, which had been lying around in mothballs since the 1920s, was dusted off and enlisted as the means to deliver the advertising lifestyle fast, right into people’s homes and heads.
Quick to spot any new technology that could aid their urgent cause, big advertisers immediately invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing this idle sales tool. And so advertising gave birth to television, and television gave advertising a whole new world to conquer. Together they made possible an enormous, though temporary, economic bonanza.
Can you recall the TV advertising of the 1940s and 1950s? Smiling, happy people. Scrubbed children. Housewives showing their impossibly clean wash. Smiling junior-executive husbands emerging from their new cars, greeted at the picket fence by their clean, cheerful families? The happy mowing of the lawn. The happy faces reflected off the polished toasters?
The nuclear family was idealized to a greater extent than ever before, because the family was the ideal consumption unit. Women had to get out of those factories and overalls and back into little pink dresses in the kitchen. Those returning soldiers needed jobs. Rosie the Riveter gave way to June Allyson. Separate family units maximized production potential. Private homes. Private cars. Two cars. Private washing machines. Private television sets.
Within a few years, the world started changing. The battery-operated lawn mower I saw on television one day appeared on my lawn the next week. So did the car. The whole neighborhood started looking like a television commercial. The woods near my house disappeared and were replaced by hundreds of identical versions of my house. Neighborhoods everywhere started looking like each other. Freeways replaced country roads. Shopping centers replaced corner markets. Pavements covered everything.
“Prosperity,” “security,” “happiness,” studded ads and presidential speeches alike. This incredible outpouring of commodities, this entire revamping of landscape, this filling of houses with gadgets was supposed to constitute some kind of latter-day Nirvana. That’s what everyone was thinking, saying, and believing. It was what made America America.
One of my high school teachers during the 1950s told my class that it was America’s commitment to a consumption economy that made our country different and better than all others. He told us that by expanding our economy, we would soon make everyone wealthy. America was already the world’s only classless society, he said. Workers and managers were equal partners in a glorious process benefiting everyone. In America everyone was equal. Our standard of living made it that way. Everyone could have a car. Everyone could have a television. Everyone could own a home. Everyone could have a business. We were not like Mexico and Nicaragua, dirty little countries, where there were a few rich people and everyone else was poor and all of them wished they had what we had.
A few years later at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, I learned how and why this commodity life and the economic growth it produces was supposed to be so good for absolutely everyone. I learned what they had been talking about in those boardrooms and at the Department of Commerce. It was called the “trickle-down theory.”
The Trickle-Down Theory
It goes more or less like this:
Industrial expansion, rapid economic growth, and the consumption economy benefit everyone. The theory—which is the basis of Keynesian American economics—has it that when people buy more and more commodities, they produce more profits for industry, enabling it to expand. When industry expands, more jobs result. This puts more money into circulation, enabling people to buy more commodities, expanding profits again, yielding more investments, more jobs, and starting the cycle around on another turn.
I have oversimplified the process, leaving out such variables as savings, borrowing, and so on. The way I have presented it is more or less the way it is translated through the media and through our educational system into popular understanding: a beautiful circle of activity, everyone helping everyone else, labor and management rowing the boat together, all serving the common good and growing endlessly. It explained the patriotic urgency of people spending more and more on commodities. The benefits would “trickle down” to everyone in the country, including those at the bottom of the pyramid. Jobs, money, prosperity, happiness, security, democracy, equality were all lumped together as inevitable results of this cycle.
I believed in it. We all believed in it. Most people believe in it still. Presidents get elected based on whether they can convince the public that they will stimulate the beautiful cycle. Jimmy Carter was elected for saying he knew how to do it.
The trickle-down theory is the nice simple kind of economic model that can be sold to a mass population removed from any deeper understanding of how things really work. Trying to come to grips with economic nuance is for most of us no easier than trying to understand how much nuclear radiation is “safe.” Who knows? The “experts” know.
Like every other organizing model in our society, economic processes have been removed from personal participation, appropriated into a nether world of flow charts, financial analyses and circle graphs. Like scientific and technological systems, once economic systems reach a certain size and complexity, they can be controlled only by forces far outside the grasp of the individual and community. One explanation of them sounds as plausible as another. In the absence of a really thorough training in economics—a training which itself supports many arbitrary and fantastic theories—this trickle-down model of the benefits of a consumer society sounds perfectly valid.
It certainly seemed valid for a little while. People had jobs, the economy was growing, and homes were filling up with ever more intricate gadgets.
Only now, thirty years after the trip was launched, can we see the process from the vantage point of joblessness, inflation, bankruptcy and default, and realize that something was terribly wrong somewhere.
In fact, it was a fantasy. It was packaged and sold to us like the seven-piece matching livingroom sets on the television screen. Buy now, pay later when you are richer than you are now. But when later came, very few of us were richer.
It turned out that the pursuit of all those happy goodies didn’t produce happy people: it produced isolated, frustrated, alienated people. More important, the economic benefits did not trickle down to create some egalitarian democracy. The benefits trickled up.
Beneficiaries of the Advertising Fantasy
The period of rapid growth from 1946 to 1970, which coincided with the emergence of television and electronic advertising, concentrated wealth and power in this country to an unheard-of degree. It put effective control of the economy in the hands of a few corporate entitles. It concentrated immense wealth among a handful of people. Meanwhile, the working classes, and the more disadvantaged nonworking people, to whom the commodity life had promised dazzling benefits, ended up in a far worse, more desperate, and more dependent position than ever before.
A New York advertising man, Lawrence G. Chait, was the first person to articulate clearly the economic concentration made inevitable by economic growth. In a now-famous speech he gave in Detroit in 1968, Chait said, “The factor of overwhelming significance in our business and financial life for some years now has been the trend toward concentration of economic power.”
Pointing out that in 1965 this country had 412,000 business units, he added, “The fifty largest controlled 35.2 percent of the total manufacturing assets.”
As for profits, “The twenty largest manufacturing corporations, [who hold] 25 percent of total corporate assets, had 32 percent of [the nation’s] profits after taxes.” That means that only .005 percent of the corporations in this country enjoyed one-third of all corporate profits.
Chait went on: “Assets and profits are, of course, important measures of concentration in national economic life, but there are other very interesting indices. In 1963, for example, there were 112 industries in which 4 companies accounted for more than 50 percent of production. In 29 of these 112 industries, the top 4 companies accounted for more than 75 percent of production. By 1963, 30 percent of the volume of production of consumer goods came from industries in which the top 4 firms accounted for over 50 percent of production.”
Chait quoted economics professor Corwin Edwards to explain why the larger corporations inevitably get larger during periods of economic growth, absorbing or driving out smaller ones: “In encounters with small enterprises it [the corporate conglomerate] can buy scarce materials and attractive sites, inventions and facilities; pre-empt the services of the most expensive technicians and executives; and acquire reserves of materials for the future. It can absorb losses that would consume the entire capital of a small rival …. Moment by moment the big company can outbid, out-spend in advertising, technology or talent, or out-lose the smaller ones; and from the series of such momentary advantages it derives an advantage in attaining its larger aggregate results.
“The sociologists may very well take exception to this trend,” Chait said, “but as pragmatists, we must recognize that this in fact is the direction in which the economic organization of our country is moving.” Finally, he quoted Dr. Edwin G. Nourse, who believes, “There are no discernible limits at which such concentrations of economic power, once fully underway, would automatically cease.”
A moving example of the way the process works is offered in The American Farm by Maisie and Richard Conrat. The authors point out that only two hundred years ago, 95 percent of the population of this country lived on farm land; now less than 5 percent do. The family farm is a creature of the past, and so is the moderately large farm. The economics of technological scale nourish only the hugest agribusinesses and their machines. The critical period in this change came immediately after World War II: “With astonishing rapidity, the 60 horsepower general purpose tractor was replaced by a new 140 horsepower model, then by a towering 235 horsepower machine with a $40,000 price tag. The single-row corn harvester gave place to machines that could handle four rows simultaneously, then eight rows. The cost of such new equipment made it economically imperative for farmers to take on more acreage. Between 1950 and 1975, the acreage of the average American farm doubled and the value of farm machinery trebled … those who could not keep up with the frenzied pace were shoved aside and forced to drop out. In the new agriculture there was no room for the man who simply wished to live on the land and work in the soil and sell enough to pay his bills. The dairyman with twenty cows was notified by his milk company that they would not be making pick-ups at his place anymore. From now on the company trucks were stopping only at the farms of the large operators. Small scale vegetable producers, orchardists, and general farmers found themselves underpriced and cut out of the market by supermarket chains and agribusiness corporations.”
What was true for farmers was true for all business as the rapid-growth phenomenon gave automatic advantage to the larger, better-financed, more technologically advanced elements of the system.
Smaller competitors were driven from competition by the mere scale of the expenditure required at every level, from the cost of automation to the salaries of’ executives to the availability of bank loans. Banks, recognizing very early that large companies are better loan risks than small ones, actively aided the advancing juggernaut. Smaller companies were wise to face the fact that it was usually better to sell out before things got worse.
Nowhere were the advantages of size more evident than in advertising. Only the largest corporations in the world have access to network television time because it can cost $120,000 per minute while reaching 30 million people. Television is the media counterpart to the eight-row corn harvester.
The Effect on Individuals
It was not only abstract entities like corporations that benefited disproportionately during the commodity boom. So did the people who owned the corporations.
Dr. Lester C. Thurow, professor of economics and management at MIT and former member of the Council of Economic Advisors, published some enlightening figures in the Public Interest Economics Newsletter of December 1975.
By 1962, says Thurow, during the final spurt of the greatest economic growth of any industrial nation in history: “The top 18 percent of all families owned 76.2 percent of all privately held wealth in the U.S., while the bottom 25 percent, roughly 50 million people, had no assets at all …. recent estimates suggest no significant change ….”‘
Thurow continues: “The top 5 percent of the families own more wealth than the bottom 81 percent. The top .008 percent hold as many assets as the bottom half of the population.”
Thurow goes on to say that “wealth and power are even more concentrated than are indicated in these data, because of the interrelationships among the wealthiest individuals and the large corporations they control.”
In other words, this .008 percent can, through their stock ownership and interlocking directorships, effectively dominate the few corporations that in turn dominate the economy.
I believe Thurow is suggesting conspiracy, or at least a startling degree of collaboration among these few. Perhaps his academic standing prevents him from putting it that way. Since I don’t have any academic standing, I am willing to draw the obvious conclusions.
Thurow goes on to talk about income: “The income gap between the bottom 5 percent [of the families] and the top 5 percent is 45 to 1, and the income gap between the bottom 1 percent and top 1 percent is 525 to 1. The top 1 percent received nearly three times as much income annually as the bottom 20 percent of the American population. The fact that only the government transfer payments [social security, welfare, food stamps] have kept the position of the lowest income groups from declining, indicates that the distribution of earnings by the private sector is becoming more and more unequal …. The lowest fifth of the population receives only 1.7 percent of the earnings as distributed by the market [private industry], down from the already miserable 0.6 percent in 1943. The top fifth receives through the market 28 times as much in wages and salaries as the lowest fifth.”
Thurow’s point is that if the government, that is, the taxpayer, didn’t pick up the slack which industrial growth has created, the widening gap between the rich and poor would be perfectly obvious. In the false belief that industrial growth will provide benefits to the poor and unemployed, we provide tax breaks to aid industrial growth. Meanwhile, with our own taxes, we feed the growing number of hungry and poor, who are blamed for the rising taxes. We pay for what is being taken away from us. At each turn of the cycle, the situation becomes more desperate.
What these figures reveal is that America is every bit as dominated and directed by a tiny minority of wealthy people as the Mexico and Nicaragua of my high school teacher’s fantasy. Looking at the past thirty years through our new reality of unemployment lines, bankrupted small businesses, and the immense profits of a handful of corporate giants, we can see that we are now much further away from an egalitarian society than we were a generation ago. The American Dream was a dream.
Flaws in the Fantasy
Since the dream was packaged and sold by advertising people, it ought to be no surprise that the flaws in it were never mentioned. It is inherent in the advertising process to tell only those parts of the story that encourage the desired belief.
Two major flaws were covered over. The first was that commodity consumption and economic growth, even if beneficial, could not go on forever. The second was that economic flow in a private enterprise economy, during periods of rapid growth, is inexorably distorted to favor the rich.
Unlimited economic growth is a planetary impossibility. It could only have been conceived by minds out of touch with natural limits. It is dependent upon a suicidal overuse of resources and an impossible rate of commodity consumption. It depends upon all elements of the resource-production-consumption cycle operating at an accelerated rate that cannot be maintained in the long run.
At the initial signs of raw materials shortages, of which oil and copper were only the first, production began to decline, jobs were lost, buying power decreased, while, contrary to the textbook laws of supply and demand, prices went up. The handful of corporations that totally dominate supply were able to raise prices, getting more money from the ever-shrinking number of people who could afford to pay.
In addition, many of our client governments abroad, which had been paving our way to their resources, began to fall to revolutionary movements. This was particularly true in African, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations, bringing into view the bottom of the bottomless pit of goodies.
Meanwhile the limits of commodity consumption were appearing. People cannot buy two new cars every year forever. Nor can road builders keep building roads once the landscape is mostly covered. People cannot replace their living-room furnishings, microwave ovens, or television sets annually, no matter how much advertising they see. Eventually, purchase rates slow down. There is an end to the consumption process. Markets can be overexploited.
While many Americans do not realize that this is what has happened, the largest corporations have known it for some time. Many of them, seeing a burned-out market, have been dismantling their American operations and reestablishing themselves as transnational entities. The United States, with its ravaged cities and exploited landscapes, faces the prospect of becoming a sort of gigantic boomtown, exploited and abandoned.
With operations geared to nations that are just emerging as markets, the multinational corporations are taking television into places in Asia, Africa and South America where there are often no telephones or paved roads. Satellite television systems have been installed in many countries ahead of modern transportation or sanitation systems. TV provides pretraining for the commodity life that is coming up fast. People in villages where electricity has just arrived are watching ads filled with ecstatically happy people using artificial milk, Coca-Cola, and electric shavers.
Even if economic growth could go on forever, it does not benefit all people. It benefits only the owners of businesses, not the working people, and it surely has nothing to offer the jobless. It doesn’t take a Marxist economist to explain why.
Such distinguished corporate experts as Louis Kelso have been predicting our present malaise for decades. In his brilliant How to Turn Eighty Million Workers into Capitalists on Borrowed Money, Kelso argues that as capitalist enterprise grows, the rich must get richer and the poor poorer because owners of businesses have more kinds of incomes. They have wage income, which is many times higher than that of the average wage earner, and they also have dividend income. Then, they have another advantage: In periods of economic growth, they enjoy large profits that may be used for further capital investment, which will provide additional profits at a later time.
Workers, whether blue- or white-collar, have only one income source: wages. There may be occasional wage hikes, but the rate of wage increases can never match the three-fold opportunities of the business owners. The workers, therefore, fall further behind as time passes.
During the postwar period, while most of us were singing the praises of our expanding economy and buying toasters, washing machines, cars and gas-powered lawn mowers, all of which were designed to break down after a certain period, some people were able to use their double or triple incomes to build new plants and buy up small companies, labor-saving technology and raw materials such as Chilean mines, oil rights or Brazilian forests.
This is ignored by trickle-down theorists, who keep saying that the owners of the businesses use their extra wealth in reinvestments which expand job markets, suggesting that it is actually desirable that some people have more money than others. But investment in laborsaving technology reduces jobs. Expansion of overseas facilities reduces American jobs. The purchase of small companies means the merging or elimination of some production facilities, further reducing jobs.
Aside from this, much of the surplus wealth is not spent on capital investment. It is plowed into inflation hedges such as gems, art, and land, driving the prices of those items further out of the reach of wage earners.
As often as not, the disparity in incomes increases while the total number of jobs is reduced. In an economic climate where a few large businesses control supply and prices, as the number of jobs declines any employee who becomes too uppity or too demanding can easily be ousted. Where unions are strong, whole businesses can be packed up and moved, for example, to South Korea or Hong Kong, where workers tolerate fourteen-hour days at forty cents an hour. American wage earners are left with their single incomes, their shrinking power, and a widening gap between them and the people who control their lives.
The Depression Never Ended
As we slowly begin to understand that the American Dream was not merely a dream but a hoax, and that far from benefiting economic democracy, it produced a terrifying concentration of wealth and power, we can also grasp the quality of our new dependency. It is similar to the old company-store syndrome. These few huge enterprises control the jobs, and as job competition increases, they also control the salaries.
As Tennessee Ernie Ford sang: We work for the company, we beg to keep our jobs, we don’t make trouble, and we buy at the company store.
In retrospect we can see what should have been obvious all along. The Great Depression of the 1930s never ended. It went underground, covered over by a war which created jobs and expanded industrial capacity, and then, when the war was over, by an advertising fantasy, a pipe dream sold to us with a purpose.
The new American lifestyle based on commodity consumption, emphasizing credit buying on the never-never plan, and economic growth with its inevitable concentration of economic power, only produced a more virulent version of the older Depression. In the 1930s, as the number of jobs went down, at least prices did too. Now, because economic concentration has advanced to the point where price competition is passé, as jobs disappear, prices go up.
This new phenomenon was summarized in Mother Jones (February 1977) by economists David Olson and Richard Parker, reporting on a study by Dr. Howard Wachtel and Peter Adelsheim for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress:
“They found that corporations in food, utilities, rubber, tobacco, computers, aircraft, to name a few, had all raised their prices at times the textbooks say they should have rolled them back. How can corporations raise prices when the economy is stagnant, demand is falling, factories are operating well below full capacity and more and more people are out of work? The answer, Wachtel says, is economic concentration—entire industries increasingly dominated by a small number of ever-larger firms … fewer and fewer big businesses need to compete through pricing. This creates a situation in which prices can be increased and inflation kept rising even during periods of recession.”
Meanwhile, the government of this country, like the governments of other Western countries, has been losing the power to control these actions. Existing outside the boundaries of the country, the multinational companies, in concert with banks, are capable of the economic domination of entire nations. Governments slip slowly into a new role subordinate to and supportive of them.
Dr. Lester Thurow concluded his paper in the Public Interest Economics Newsletter, “There is no satisfactory answer to the question of why the American people have been content to leave untouched the enormous concentration of wealth that characterizes this economy.”
It is possible that Thurow was being coy when he made that statement, because there certainly is an obvious explanation. Too few people have ever heard of the figures listed here, and many of those that have heard them may have been too indoctrinated with accepted economic theory to grasp their true meaning. All of our cultural institutions teach us that Keynesian economics and the trickle-down theory of economic growth have a certain effect when they actually have an effect which is opposite to what is claimed.
Since the overwhelming majority of Americans are removed from any personal participation in economic processes, we have come to believe in an artificial economic construct propagated by the people who benefit from it and who control the media that explain it to us.
Domination of the Influencing Machine
In 1960, at the moment when our economic growth rate was near its highest point and the nation had been totally wired in to television, the trade publication Advertising Age commented, “Network television, particularly, is largely the creature of the 100 largest companies in the country.”
In that year, the one hundred largest advertisers in the country accounted for 83 percent of all network television advertising. The top twenty-five of these accounted for 65 percent of the 83 percent. Since that time, the ratio has scarcely altered.
The domination of the one hundred largest is most apparent in network television, but it applies in other media. In 1974, for example, the top one hundred accounted for 55 percent of all advertising in all media, 59 percent of ail network radio advertising, and 76 percent of network television ads. Since virtually all media in this country depend upon advertising for survival, it ought to be obvious that these one hundred corporations, themselves dominated by a handful of wealthy people, can largely determine which magazines, newspapers, radio stations and television stations can continue to exist and which cannot.
Public television also fits the mold. During 1975, more than 40 percent of all public-television programming was paid for by these same one hundred companies: mainly oil, chemical and drug companies. This is not quite the same level of domination that is found at the commercial networks, but the effect is the same. Survival depends upon them.
For both commercial television and public television then it is absolutely necessary to create programs that these one hundred advertisers will support. They are where the action is. Given the costs of television, they are the only action.
We are speaking of control by 100 corporations out of 400,000. The interest of the other 399,900 are irrelevant as far as television is concerned. As for the thoughts, wishes, and feelings of the noncorporate segments of American society—nearly 250 million human beings whose perspectives are as varied as the Indian, the artistic, the humanistic, the ecological, the socialistic, to name a very few—these are not of the slightest importance.
Broadcast television, like other monolithic technologies, from eight-row corn threshers and agribusiness to supertankers, nuclear power plants, computer networks, hundred-story office buildings, satellite communications, genetic engineering, international pipelines, and SSTs, is available only to monstrous corporate powers. What we get to see on television is what suits the mentality and purposes of one hundred corporations.
While purporting to be a mass technology available to everyone, because everyone can experience it, television is little more than the tool of these companies. If four out of five dollars of television income derive from them, then obviously, without currying their favor the networks would cease to exist.
The corollary is also true. Without such a single, monolithic instrument as television, the effective power and control of these huge corporations could not be harnessed as it presently is. Monolithic economic enterprise needs monolithic media to purvey its philosophy and to influence rapid change in consumption patterns. Without an instrument like television, capable of reaching everyone in the country at the same time and narrowing human needs to match the redesigned environment, the corporations themselves could not exist.
The spread of television unified a whole people within a system of conceptions and living patterns that made possible the expansion of huge economic enterprises. Because of it, our whole culture and the physical shape of the environment, no more or less than our minds and feelings, have been computerized, linearized, suburbanized, freewayized, and packaged for sale.
It is a moot point whether those who control television knew what the outcome would be when they dusted it off after the war and sent it out to sell. Whether they invented television for that purpose or it invented them, the relationship was symbiotic. Its use was predetermined by the evolution of economic and technological patterns that led up to it and that have since continued on their inevitable path. As we shall see, its use and effects were also determined by the nature and limits of television technology itself.