Tuning out

15th December 2011 by

The TV in my flat has disappeared! We haven’t been burgled, though. Our big, boxy old cathode ray goggle box is actually gathering dust on the floor of the spare room, unused. We moved it out of the way in preparation for a party back in August, and it hasn’t been moved back since. We’ll probably recycle it back onto Freecycle before long, which is where we got it in the first place. Or maybe we’ll have a ritual smashing.

And now there’s not only a big space in the corner of the living room – there’s a big free space opened up in our heads, too. It’s been liberating.

It’s not that we don’t veg out on the sofa any more, I’m afraid. There are, these days, the temptations of iPlayer, 4OD and all the rest – unlike the last time I went telly-free, when I ended up doing a lot more reading and going out (and fielding baffled questions along the lines of ‘But what do you do if you don’t have a TV?’ Which I always thought was a question, on escaping their lips, that ought to bring the questioner up short and cause them to look at their own life, but never mind. If I’d known about it at the time, I’d have simply sent them to this lovely project.

So we still veg more than we should, really (no one will lie on their death beds wishing they’d spent more time watching screens).

But what good has happened is that we’re exposed to many, many fewer advertisements, to the extent that when we come across them now they have a weird, alien, even surreal feel. Do advertisers really speak to people in these strange tones? Do they really think the bland and airbrushed lifestyles they depict is what we aspire to, or identify with, and so will cause us to buy their product?

The problem is that it takes a prolonged period of not being exposed to ads in order to see their inherent weirdness. Yes, even if you think you’re not affected by ads, there’s good evidence to suggest that you are. Not only that, but that it is capable of chipping away at the values that you and others hold dear – and that are vital to social, economic and environmental justice.

WWF and the Public Interest Research Centre produced a fascinating report recently, Think of me as evil?, pulling together the available academic evidence on the effects of advertising. It will have made pretty excruciating reading for advertisers who claim that criticisms of their ‘trade’ are overblown.

One by one it pulls apart the defences put up by the advertising industry: that it doesn’t increase people’s overall consumption but simply persuades them to switch between brands; that it doesn’t create an acquisitive culture but simply reflects our society’s existing values. The report not only shows that these arguments are almost certainly nonsense, but points up still more alarming effects of saturation advertising. Such as?

  • Exposure to TV advertising increases the tendency to take on household debt and work longer hours in order to meet increased expectations
  • Advertising undermines people’s ‘intrinsic values’ such as community, affiliation to friends and family and self-development and boosts ‘extrinsic values’ such as envy of higher social classes and admiration of greater wealth or power – and this really matters, because extrinsic values are associated with “higher levels of prejudice, less concern about the environment and lower motivation to engage in corresponding behaviours, and weak (or absent) concern about human rights”
  • It makes us cynical: because advertisers sometimes appeal to intrinsic values – see Dove’s ads assuring us that all body shapes are legitimate – the fact that we know they are doing so in order to hawk a product makes us less trusting of other appeals to intrinsic values, such as, I don’t know, fighting environmental degradation or sweatshop labour

Great. So we know what to do, right? Junk the telly, don’t buy magazines. But that’s not so easy for most, and even if it were, you only need to step outside to be bombarded by billboards, logos, ads on buses, ads on taxis, giant screens in public places, funky viral ads on pavements. Every surface is covered.

So is it a losing game to fight this apparently unstoppable tide of shilling and mental pollution? Most of the time it seems that way. So it’s time for some inspiring examples to show that we should make a stink and that we can fight back.

Sao Paulo - photo by Márcio Cabral de Moura

But never, never underestimate the cynicism and stubbornness of the corporate world to turn anything into a marketing and selling opportunity – even Sao Paolo’s anti-advertising revolution made one company see an opportunity to make a buck. This one’s up there in the pantheon of cynical opportunism!

This issue really matters. It’s a question of rights – our right not to have our community spaces colonised by corporate occupiers for the very shallowest and most damaging of motives.

And as the WWF/PIRC report eloquently showed, it matters to movements like ours because it chips away at people’s sense that they can and should make positive change. It is a kind of negative magic, working changes in our consciousness without our consent and making the insane and the polluting appear to be desirable choices.

“To complete the task of breaking away from the murky thinking and the tangled nonrational drives that dominate contemporary life … it’s necessary to break away from the lifestyles and everyday choices that are produced by that thinking and those drives.

“Mind you, the same equation works the other way around: to make the break away from lifestyles that demand energy and resource flows we can’t count on getting for much longer—and making that break is perhaps the most essential task of the decade or so immediately before us—it’s going to be necessary to turn away from the thinking patterns and the unmentioned and usually unnoticed passions that make those lifestyles seem to make sense”

John Michael Greer


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