I hate commercials. They’re an insult to the intelligence. They’re grating. They’re repetitive. They’re unimaginative. They’re a colossal waste of money that could be spent on something useful to society. Mostly, they’re depressing — they show the low level of intelligence that big corporations can profitably pander to, to hawk their dreadful, overpriced crap. And they show the low level of creativity of Western society — with untold millions of dollars to spend in a medium that can present almost anything imaginable, this garbage is the best they can come up with. How can these bloated corporations and slimy advertising agencies be surprised that the biggest hit of the last television season was TIVO — a tool that finally allows us to skip their god-awful tripe permanently? And what can be more pathetic than millions of people watching a football game each year just for the ads, which are mostly for companies that sell third-rate mass-produced beer and other products that are either bad for you or manufactured in third-world sweatshops anyway?

Why get so worked up about this? Why don’t I just turn them off? Because they’re one of the engines of corporatism, the means by which, from a young age, we’re brainwashed to believe that our possessions, what we buy and wear and eat, determines our identity, our value and rank in society. And because, just like politicians who bribe us with our own money through ‘tax cuts’ (which are in reality simply service cuts), corporations in their advertisements are pressuring us to buy their product with our money. The cost of advertising, which can amount to up to 80% of the ‘cost’ of a brand-name breakfast cereal or sneaker, is passed along to us, the consumers. And we pay it because (a) the ads that we’re paying for coerce us into believing that their brand name is somehow worth the hugely inflated price, and (b) the huge market share that this coercion brings allows these brand names to monopolize retailers’ shelf space and drive those that produce small, local, reasonably-priced products out of the market. Such oligopolies control every industry in our economy.

What’s the answer? The usual solutions to deal with this problem are to boycott the overpriced, overhyped brands and the goods of socially and environmentally irresponsible corporations and oligopolies, to educate ourselves on alternatives by belonging to organizations like Consumers Union, and to pledge to buy local.

These are good ideas, but they are not enough, by themselves, to reach a tipping point to bust the oligopolies, make expensive and deceptive ads unprofitable, and squeeze the hidden inflationary cost of exhorbitant ads out of the price of the products we buy. What we need to do is to take back the airwaves, to realize that the media bandwidth is a public resource and it should be owned by, and for the interests of, the people, not corporations and advertisers. As the owners of the airwaves, we should allow them to be used only for public purposes. As radical as it may seem to those of us in North America (it’s not a radical idea elsewhere in the world), advertising should be prohibited on our airwaves — it is not in our best interests.

How then should programming be funded? Publicly, with the budgets for programs determined by a public foundation with a mandate to support a mix of entertainment, cultural and information programming, and guided within limits by what viewers actually watch, and by a code to be inclusive, politically and culturally balanced and courageous, and to encourage creativity and investigation, and stretch the limits of the media and the minds of the people. Yes, this would be paid for by tax dollars. But remember, we’re already paying for it. Not only would public funding of the airwaves let the people, not the advertisers, determine what we can and should watch for our money, but the profligate waste of billions of dollars in advertising could instead be spent on real programming. And the taxes that pay for the programs would be progressive (income taxes), based on ability to pay, instead of regressive (consumption taxes), based on how much you’ve been duped to buy. Because of the savings on advertising, the cost (and hence price) savings on products would more than offset the cost of publicly funded programming.

We’d end up with, almost certainly, better, more varied, commercial-free programming. The cost of many consumer products would plunge. Oligopolies would be unable to sustain their stranglehold, making many industries much more competitive, opening the door to more small, local, entrepreneurial businesses with the commensurate boost in jobs, and rewarding innovation more and brand less, which would benefit the whole economy.

To those that find the idea of public ownership of the airwaves too radical, think about information and the arts as a public good — like education, health, parks and public spaces. The neocons want to ‘privatize’ all of these things, too — run them for corporate profit and to hell with what the public wants. Most of us can see that in education, health, parks and public spaces the benefits of public ownership and stewardship in the people’s interest far outweigh the ‘efficiencies’ of private, corporate ownership. We need to fight back against the greedy corporatists — in the private sector and in government — who try to bribe us with our own money and denigrate the value of public goods. They’re every bit as great a threat to our democracy as terrorists.

P.S. Last week CBS refused to carry the Moveon anti-Bush spot. Since those that control the media, our airwaves, won’t allow you to see this important message, you’ll have to see it here. Too bad tens of millions of others won’t have that opportunity.

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  1. Thanks for the rant, Dave. Corporations are insinuating themselves everywhere, even “public” television. For some time now, PBS (or is it NPR?) has been allowing “spots” by “sponsors” between their programming. And about public ownership of airwaves, I have acquaintances locally who do microbroadcasting, and complain that the bigger stations of higher wattage but the same frequency are quite tyrannical, and seem irrationally paranoid, about smaller interests taking away their listeners.

  2. Leo Gomez says:

    The meta-message of most ads is you are an incomplete, unhappy person without this product. Look at what all those ads with anorexic models have done for women around the world — made many of them terribly unhappy with their self-image. Advertisers should be taken to the cleaners to pay for the damage they’ve done to everyone’s self-worth. Secondly most ads are fundamentally immoral because they convince people they need something they really don’t, and thus cause everyone to buy ten times more stuff than they actually need, polluting the world and filling up landfills with junk. But the alternative to ads is having everyone actually think and research before buying. Good god, the masses of lazy people will never want to have to think about researching companies and products. They might discover that their favorite product is made by slaves in some hell-hole.

  3. liam says:

    What needs to be added to this discussion is the need for media education at a young age. We are bombarded with messages from the moment we can stare at a screen and yet we still suffer from the legendary “third-person effect”, convinced that the ads are not affecting us. Thankfully, I’ve seen some positive steps toward media awareness for kids: “Made you look” by Shari Graydon is a great book aimed at 8-14 year olds that teaches kids how ads work and why. If you’ve got a young one watching TV, it should be essential reading for parents and kids alike. With a population of people aware of how TV ads really work, then we can start reclaiming what is rightfully ours. Great posts, btw.

  4. Kevin says:

    I remember being taught about advertising in school when I was a kid (about 14). They taught that advertisements can be broken down into several themes: If you use this you will be like a famous basketball player, you are ugly and need this to look more beautiful, etc…The thing is, no one really told us “Don’t be fooled.” They just said “This is what methods advertisements use”. It was almost more like teaching us how to make an advertisement, rather than how to protect ourselves from them. And the teacher teaching it wore Nike shoes and drank Coca-cola, and our school lunch every wednesday was McDonalds.

  5. Fiona says:

    I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve said. The media has become a combination political and corporate propaganda machine. I don’t think we should underestimate how powerful it has made certain people. It is amazing how the simplest methods and messages can be used to generate vast wealth and influence. I think this is THE reason why the left can’t make any headway: no media access. Imagine what might happen to the national consciousness if we REALLY had a left wing media. But in addition to being deprived of information, I also think that people are too tired to take it all in because they’re too busy working two jobs or whatever.

  6. Raging Bee says:

    First, let’s quit using the word “coercion” here; obnoxious, manipulative and stupid though they clearly are, the ads aren’t “coercing” anyone to do anything, nor are we “coerced” even to turn on the TV in the first place.Second, I can’t help thinking that most people’s resentment of TV ads (like mine) stems from our childhoods, when our favorite shows were interrupted by loud, obnoxious ads for products we were too young to buy and didn’t have the money for.Third, do you really think that a Federal agency funded by Republicans would give us better programming than the crap we see today?

  7. Raging Bee says:

    I am beginning to think that the entire ad-biz is itself a bit of a scam. Are the ads really as effective at changing consumer spending habits as the advertizers themselves say they are? They’re ADVERTIZERS – of course they’ll hype the product they’re paid to hype, including their own services and skills. The same people who equate SUV size with sexual potency, are telling their clients that their ads are sure to win them more customers; how much credibility do they really have with either audience? Who’s REALLY being ripped off here?If we really want to fight bogus advertizing, the first thing we should do is stop believing the ad-men’s propaganda about the effectiveness of their ads.

  8. kuros says:

    being a gay man i take a somewhat different slant on commercials living in a heterosexual dictatorship i take a different look at commercials i see them as tools of the predominant heterosexual society to perpetuate their domination

  9. O RLY YA RLY says:

    I (mostly) watch BBC and Canvas (Belgian public tv). No frustration here.commercials = pee break

  10. O RLY YA RLY says:

    I wouldn’t worry about this too much. TV is a doomed medium. Right now I hear the sound of the TV in the room next to me. Canned laughter (no human laughter). It’s the sound of the past. TV will loose its dominant position in our culture. Commercials even more so. It has already started.

  11. O RLY YA RLY says:

    Woops. Sorry. Bad connection.

  12. CJ says:

    Dave, thanks for using the term “service cut”– I will use it from now on to refer to Bush’s “tax cuts”. <grin>

  13. kelly says:

    I don’t even watch TV and still I feel violated and manipulated. I wrote about it just two days ago. Thanks for your informative piece. I am glad I got to see the ad CBS is too afraid to air.

  14. kelly says:

    sorry about that, i guess i have the same connection as harald. i just said i wrote about a non-TV marketing ploy i fell for just two days ago on my site (see “cookie”) thanks for the link to the CBS non-ad.

  15. cs says:

    I agree with everything you’ve said. Dennis Kucinich is the one candidate talking about public ownership of the basic services on which social cohesion and quality of life depend — utilities, transportation, airwaves, etc. I rarely watch tv — just when visiting my elderly mom — and automatically tune out when commercials come on. My mind just goes elsewhere. My mother will comment or ask a question about a commercial and I won’t know what she’s talking about. I wonder if lots of other Americans have developed this adaptive faculty . . .I do have questions about how to transition to ad-free tv, though. The advertising industry is huge. Just as we swords-into-plowshares folk have advocated transitional planning in the manufacturing sector to ease the burden on workers, I feel we must do the same in any other parts of the economy we want to reform. There is so much creative and technical talent in the advertising world that could be put to postive use. But it seems like it would take a huge re-educating process to change the way the advertising industry has taught its people — and the rest of us — to think.If you can direct me to sites/sources addressing such issues, that would be great. And if you have been all along, accept my apologies. I’m new to your terrific site.

  16. Dave Pollard says:

    CS: Congratulations on your work with Dennis — it takes conviction to go knocking on doors and not just rant, and I greatly admire people who roll up their sleeves and do it. A lot of the people (at least in Canada) in advertising are pretty versatile, and would actually prefer to do more creative, less mercenary work if they could find it. I’ve never seen specific transition ideas. We’ve allowed commercials to creep into everything, maybe we just need to reduce the number of ads, bit by bit, until we can go ‘cold turkey’. New technologies that allow people to circumvent ads help too, but they’re only for the rich, the people who tend to watch less, and watch stations (PBS etc.) that have fewer ads anyway.

  17. Raging Bee says:

    Why make such an effort to get rid of advertizing? People appear to be getting inured to ads anyway, and tend, in many cases, to forget what even the most memorable ads were advertizing; as long as the advertizers are determined to waste money, and manufacturers are determined to give them money to waste, why not let them waste money creating TV programs the rest of us can watch for free? Some of the shows aren’t really that bad, and most of us have “mute” buttons to silence the commercials. As Penn of Penn & Teller would say, “What a scam!”Besides, does anyone here really believe that Ralph Nader and his clique of self-alienated snobs can give us a better TV lineup than even “Stargate,” let alone “Alien Nation” or “Babylon 5?” The man who claimed there was no difference between Democrats and Republicans is NOT in a position to say what our kids should be watching.

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