Brainwashing at an Early Age

A couple months back BBC reported on a fascinating study of the effects of marketing on young children. I doubt very much if it was carried by the American media since it’s so damning of the whole edifice of advertising.

In the study three to five-year-old children were fed a McDonald’s hamburger in a plain wrapper and a company wrapper. The same was repeated with two other foods; one, fresh baby carrots, isn’t served at the chain’s restaurants. In all three cases, the kids said the offering in the McDonald’s wrapper tasted better by overwhelming margins; something like 80%.

The question then comes down to whether people actually have decision-making power in their lives. Everybody has at least a smidgen of control, for many it reaches a substantive level but few are completely above their learned responses: You cannot separate yourself from the countless hours you spend watching commercials no matter how hard you protest that they don’t affect you.

I consider myself fortunate that my being rejects TV at a visceral level. Since 1964 I have lived with a TV for only about four years. My antipathy towards it began at an early age, and largely because I despised the commercials. Imagine, before remotes, jumping up at every ad break to turn off the sound. That’s how deranged they’ve always made me feel.

That isn’t my only problem with the boob tube: there’s also laugh tracks which make me want to scream rather than laugh. Then there’s the general inanity and emptiness of it all. You can watch till your eyes blur but you won’t witness a conversation between real people of the kind I take part in every day. It’s pure dumbed down stupidity with clues for when you’re supposed to laugh, or cop shows where the police routinely and illegally abuse their suspects, and are proud of it.

Most insidious is the overt corporate bias. Like a couple years back when CNN referred to corporate welfare for oil companies as “production incentives’’. Like NBC, which is owned by General Electric, never mentioning GE was - still is as far as I know - fighting a requirement that it clean up the poisons it dumped into the Hudson River for decades. The corporate media never mentioned that it received the digital TV spectrum, estimated to be worth $70 billion on the open market, as a gift from the people of America.

Worst, probably, is corporate whitewashing. Like Weyerhaeuser, one of the world’s foremost forest ravagers, showing you a beautiful little woodland and telling you how much they love the forest and how well they take care of their trees. Maybe the best example came decades ago at the completion of the Alaska pipeline. Chevron, which passionately fought every minor environmental restriction placed upon it, produced an add telling the world how much they were doing to protect Alaska’s environment.   

Getting back to the study, it strongly confirmed, (as if I needed confirmation) that if there were a root of all evil, it would have to be advertising, not money per se. Money, it seems to me, actually has some good points, whereas advertising has extremely little redeeming value, with the exception of the ability of small businesses to reach a local audience. As soon as it reaches a corporate level it’s totally designed to mind warp.

Do Americans take pharmaceuticals for every imaginable ailment, including new ones invented every day, because they actually need them or because drug advertising on TV encourages them to take this or that drug 100 times a day? Do they drink gallons of sugary, caffeinated soft drinks daily because it makes them feel good or because they’ve been taught to believe so from infancy? It only takes one coke to make me feel tense and ugly, what does it do to a three-year-old’s body? What if the money spent marketing greasy fast food burgers were spent extolling the benefits of eating broccoli, carrots, green peas? It’ll never happen because corporations cannot make money from selling fresh vegetables. We are essentially letting them decide what we want and need based on their bottom line rather than our health and welfare.

How can the world possibly move to sustainability if children are taught from an early age that happiness comes from consumption? Besides, people don’t need to be encouraged to want things, that desire is already there: children don’t need advertising to induce them to like sweets; people don’t need to be browbeaten by incessant auto ads to want new cars. Minimization of advertising would not end consumption: desire for possessions is intrinsic to human nature. However, if people were daily prompted to be upstanding, frugal and thoughtful citizens of the world and to eat a healthy diet in place of today’s commercial bombardment the entire tenor of society would be drastically altered.

In any case, no amount of political, environmental or social activism is going to make a difference in the world without severely restricting or at least heavily taxing advertising, a change which is absolutely and utterly unthinkable today. At the very least, if it were no longer a deductible business expense – after a minimum amount necessary for small business to function – that would make a huge difference.

But what would happen to the economy if people stopped their mindless consumption? What about all those lost livelihoods from reduced purchasing? In theory, people could work less because they were buying less. With less money in circulation, everything would be cheaper. Unfortunately nothing good can happen in that regard as long as the wealthy have such a large portion of the income pie. (The last time income disparity in America was as great as it is today was back in 1929, and we know what that led to.)

As long as the privileged classes have money to burn they will bid up the price of everything to the point where average people feel they have to work more just to survive. With advertising restricted, the affluent would earn a lot less money, income would be more in balance and the general population could get on with enjoying life in ways that didn’t require rapacious consumption.

The ability to live a good life without the encumbrance of so many things was forcefully brought home to me the first time I came to the developing world.

Come to Cambodia with per capita income about 80 times less than America: Take a look at the people, the way they smile, joke and interact, and ask yourself if Americans are happier. Answer: they aren’t. They are certainly more comfortable, but not, that I can tell, a bit happier.

They’ll lose that ease about life as they grow in wealth, much as has happened in neighboring Thailand. When I first visited the country in 1992 chunkiness was uncommon, obesity rare. Today they are racing to catch up with the Western world. They advertise themselves as the ‘Land of Smiles’ and when I first arrived there, I believed it, I was suitably impressed. Today that smile is getting harder to find. Advertising has raised their expectations but their incomes are still way below affluent. They see many displays of wealth around but imagine no likely future scenario in which they can partake.

They are dissatisfied and they’re getting fat. Sound familiar? The only difference between Thais and Americans is that most Thais really don’t have very much in the way of possessions whereas Americans are taught that they can never have enough. I use the word ‘taught’ loosely: Advertising isn’t public school but it, evidently, does educate children on how to eat… a very unhealthy diet.