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Between the Lines: Buy the Way ...
By David Pitt (February 2005)

From the day we're born, to the day we die, somebody, somewhere, is trying to sell us something. If you don't believe me, you probably ought to read Born to Buy (Scribner), by Juliet B. Schor. Her point is simple: pretty much everywhere you look -- the classroom, the textbook, the playground, the movie theater -- you'll find advertisements aimed directly at children.

Born to BuyThe point is simple, but its elaboration is not. This is a very complicated subject; advertising aimed at children, Schor suggests, is not merely about products, it's about self-esteem. Your children -- yes, you, I'm talking to you -- are getting key information about body type, about what they should think and believe and feel, from people who want them to spend the rest of their lives comparing themselves to everyone else ... who want your children to associate a self of well-being with wearing the right clothes, owning the right things, and fitting in with the rest of the herd.

If this troubles you, and honestly it really should, then this next book might not make you feel any easier about the whole thing. Sex Sells! (Westview), by Rodger Streitmatter, tracks the modern evolution of the relationship between sexuality and advertising.

Half a century ago, the most popular show on television, I Love Lucy, was forbidden to use the word 'pregnant.' Nowadays, if you're regular viewer of the boob tube, you hear words a lot more explicit, and potentially offensive, than that. And the television commercial these days? The ads in magazines, on billboards? Forget about sexual innuendo, forget about double entendres; these days the references are blatant, often uncomfortably so.

What's changed? Have people gotten cruder over the past fifty years, cruder and ruder and less prudish? Well, sort of. But really, when you get right down it, what's going on now is the inevitable product of a fundamental shift in society. The birth control pill, for example, was 'profound in impact and, in every sense of the word, revolutionary.' It allowed women to take control over their bodies and their lives, and, Streitmatter says, it allowed couples to express themselves sexually far more freely than ever before.

Sex Sells!And there was Playboy magazine, of course, which brought sexuality into the mainstream of society. James Bond, the dashing superspy, personified the new notion that sex could be fulfilling, yet casual and non-binding. Talk shows began talking about sex. Television shows began talking about it. Musicians began singing about it, and not in the old 'I wanna hold your hand' way, either. As society changed, and sexuality moved from taboo to commonplace, advertising changed with it.

Unlike some writers on the subject, Streitmatter refrains from making judgements. He would prefer to leave the judging to us. But whether you think advertising is too extreme, or just right, you can't deny there sure is a lot of it.

According to Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, things aren't likely to change anytime soon, either, no matter what the so-called counterculture wants you to believe. The Rebel Sell (HarperCollins) - published as Nation of Rebels : Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture in the U.S. - explores the whole notion of the counterculture, and the authors want you to know that it's mostly a complete waste of time.

You've probably heard the phrase 'culture jamming,' otherwise known as consumer revolt. It's a key element -- some would say it's the only element -- of the counterculture, the premise of which is that we can make the big-name, brand-name, monolithic corporations go away if we just refuse to buy their products. Culture jammers, according to the authors, promote themselves as being steadfastly against capitalism. (The flagship magazine of the culture-jamming movement is Adbusters, which nowadays, the authors point out, runs ads to sell its own brand of running shoes.)

But here's the problem: the idea of jamming, of counterculture, doesn't work. Never did. In fact, say Heath and Potter, the counterculture doesn't rebel against capitalism, it encourages it. Hippies bought Volkswagen Beetles as a way of saying they rejected the big three Detroit car manufacturers. But, because so many hippies were buying the bug, Volkswagen was able to enter the American auto market and become a major player.

When hippies started having kids, and becoming yuppies, they rejected the idea of buying the same old wood-panelled station wagons their parents had owned. So they bought something new, radical, rebellious: sport utility vehicles. And SUVS swiftly moved from new and radical to mainstream, commonplace ... not counterculture, but culture. Similarly, the rebellion against shoe companies like Nike opened the door for manufacturers of 'alternative' footwear to make millions of dollars from people who thought they were making a statement by buying them.

Rebel SellAnd let's not forget the jammers' annual Buy Nothing Day. People crowd together in places like shopping malls, chanting, trying to get the rest of us to keep our money in our pockets for one day a year. How, the authors ask, is this contributing to the fight against consumerism? If you don't spend it today, you'll spend it tomorrow. 'The only way you can reduce your consumption is by reducing your contribution to production,' the authors write. 'Yet somehow an annual Earn Nothing Day doesn't have the same ring to it.'

It's possible to see The Rebel Sell / Nation of Rebels as an enormously cynical book, written by a couple of guys who can't see past their own prejudices. But I don't see it that way. This is not merely an anti-counterculture rant; it's a carefully reasoned, thoughtful, examination of the hypocrisy of the counterculture movement. No, not its hypocrisy. Its irrelevancy. Culture jamming, the authors want you to understand, is simply a big waste of time.

And, meanwhile, the big-name, brand-name, monolithic corporations keep rolling merrily on, trying to sell us something, from the day we're born to the day we die.
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