Sut Jhally begins his article Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse by framing consumer culture as an existential risk:
“In this article I wish to make a simple claim: 20th century advertising is the most powerful and sustained system of propaganda in human history and its cumulative cultural effects, unless quickly checked, will be responsible for destroying the world as we know it. As it achieves this it will be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of non-western peoples and will prevent the peoples of the world from achieving true happiness. Simply stated, our survival as a species is dependent upon minimizing the threat from advertising and the commercial culture that has spawned it. I am stating my claims boldly at the outset so there can be no doubt as to what is at stake in our debates about the media and culture as we enter the new millennium.”
Jhally doesn’t explain precisely by what pathway he expects advertising to lead to our deaths but he does elaborate on the way in which advertising deadens cultures. His basic argument is that advertisements convince us that we can satisfy our spiritual needs through material gain. Since the 1920s, advertisers have sold products by associatively packaging them with values like happiness, freedom, love, and self-esteem. Beyond a certain level of material wealth, the consumption of objects does not provide people with any of those things, however. The endless cycle of craving and consuming leaves people perpetually frustrated and unequipped to really get what they want out of life.
The advertising industry’s systematic reinforcement of cultural norms and values might lead to mass suffering for any of four reasons:
- By encouraging a system that is draining the planet of all its resources and may lead to wars over resources.
- By sending mass amounts of people through perpetual cycles of craving, consumption, and frustration, advertising generally reduces the level of happiness within a culture.
- By creating false needs and insecurities for us, advertising keeps people more focused on their own trivial problems than it does on important social issues where mass amounts of suffering hang in the balance.
- By keeping mass amounts of people superficial and unsophisticated, advertising increases the possibility of highly destructive scenarios such as terrorist attacks and nuclear warfare.
The third risk is along the lines of some New Atheist concerns. Sam Harris in particular appears motivated to fight religion in order to reduce the probability of terrorist attacks, nuclear strikes, and religious-inspired cruelty from the Islamic world. Like Jhally, Harris sees an irrational culture as a threat to the long-term flourishing of humanity.
Fighting forces that lower the levels of rationality of entire populations might be a particularly effective way of reducing suffering because it increases the viability of handling all other problems as well. A more sophisticated population will likely be less violent, less reactionary, less sexist/racist/speciesist, and more capable of launching effective altruist programs.
Jhally echoes Barbara Ehrenreich’s assertion that it might be necessary to glamorize activism in order for counter-hegemonic initiatives to compete with the seduction of advertisements. The best way to deal with mass suffering may be to turn activism into an industry that allows people to get rich even as it saves lives and donates millions to those in need. If people could get rich off charity work, business would boom. The creation of a format whereby activists could, without guilt and public shaming, earn high salaries while doing suitably large amounts of good might be the spark needed to make altruism as popular as other kinds of work. The current and historical PR downfall of altruism is that it’s a sacrifice. Take away that element and it becomes a no-brainer to a much wider pool of people.