Attack Ads

Date: 25 Sep 1997 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Attack Ads

by David Morris

September 25, 1997 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

Advertising is useful, when it informs. Classified ads in newspapers serve this function well. Those seeking a job, a used car, furniture, pets and hundreds of other goods and services can turn to that section while the rest of us pass it by.

But an increasing proportion of advertising is not intended to inform but to seduce. To do that ads must capture our attention and increasingly they are doing so in ways so invasive that we need, as a society, to draw the line.

Item: In October, AdEdge will install 10 inch video advertising monitors on the shelves of three southwestern supermarkets. “Screens will be silent at first, until the public gets used to the idea,” a company official told Business Week. But when the national rollout takes place next year, expect to be bombarded not only by sights but also sound as you walk down the food aisles.

Item: After plunking down $7-9, movie audiences now must sit through up to 10 minutes of ads. When on-screen ads debuted in the U.S. more than a decade ago, calls Business Week, “audiences greeted them with open hostility. but over the years…the booing has died down.” We’ve grown passive in the face of this assault. Movie chains expect to reap an additional $100 million in revenues as a result. Says Howard Lichtman, Executive VP of Toronto-based Cineplex Odeon Cinema, “This is a solid legitimate revenue stream for us.” To my knowledge no movie chain that has introduced ads has lowered ticket prices.

Item: T.v. stations now interrupt programs every 8 minutes or so for several minutes of commercials. In the last year stations have begun to display their name and logo on the screen throughout the entire show, except of course, not during commercials.

Item: Advertising on the Internet is growing rapidly, but advertisers are frustrated by the passivity of the current ads; a banner at the top or bottom of the screen. Companies are testing pop-up ads and “intermercials” that will forcibly compel the user’s attention.

Advertising is not only interrupting our viewing and reading; it is increasingly influencing what we see and read and hear. As the Boston Globe reports, “relations between advertisers and the mass media are tighter than at any time in the past decade”.

Laurence Soley, professor of communications at Marquette University surveyed investigative reporters and editors at commercial t.v. stations. Seventy-four percent said advertisers had tried to influence the content of a news story. Forty percent said the advertiser had succeeded.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Chrysler now requires written summaries prior to publication of all articles that “might be construed as provocative” from the 100 magazines that carry its ads. Last year KCBS-TV in Los Angeles fired noted consumer reporter David Horowitz when local auto dealers complained about his stories on car safety.

Joann Schellenbach of the American Cancer society has noted that women’s magazines often publish articles about breast cancer, ovarian cancer and skin cancer, but almost never discuss lung cancer, even though lung cancer is the fastest growing cancer affecting women. Why? They fear that the big spending tobacco companies will pull their ads. A 1992 statistical study by the New England Journal of Medicine concluded, “Magazines that did not carry advertisements for cigarettes were almost twice as likely to cover the dangers of smoking as those that did.”

We now spend more than 2 percent of our gross domestic product on advertising. That share could double in the next ten years. What can be done to curb the worst excesses of advertisers?

First, Congress should demand that in order to continue to use the valuable public airwaves free of charge, broadcasters could air commercials only on the half hour. The result? A modest reduction in the revenues earned by Westinghouse and Time Warner and a modest decline in the inflated salaries of t.v. stars. And in return we would regain the pleasure of being able to watch a plot unfold or an argument made without being interrupted.

Second, Congress should abolish the business tax deduction we now allow advertisers. Doing so would not pose an undue burden on those who use the classifieds, but it would give a clear message to the advertisers who are dominating our airwaves and our magazines and soon, our supermarkets and our web pages, that we will not long reward attack ads.

The advertising tax subsidy costs the U.S. Treasury $20 to 30 billion a year. Eliminate it and we would generate sufficient revenue to fix up the nation’s schools, provide health care for all children under 18 and still have enough left over to double the book budget of the nation’s public libraries. That’s the kind of tradeoff I’m sure the American people would enthusiastically support.

Morris is vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

David Morris
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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.

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