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Advertising: The Big Lie

In this story there are no heroes or villains, just people who believe they can buy happiness, and advertisers who support this belief.

Consumer Angst

Consumerism is one of religion’s modern replacements, and, like religion, it actively encourages, then exploits, dissatisfaction with everyday reality.


It is possible to examine nearly any aspect of modern society – the conduct of war, government, marriage, education – and find a similar practice, an earlier version, in history. In most cases, the seeds of the present can be seen in the past. But this is not true for consumerism, for consumerism has no parallel in early human societies.
Modern consumerism is based on the triple premise that:

  • luxuries are actually needs,
  • what you already have is not satisfactory, and
  • no product is so basic that advertising is superfluous

The Big Lie

There is one thing you absolutely must know about modern advertising. No matter how true any single advertisement is, modern advertising itself, taken as a whole, tells a lie – that you need the thing being advertised. It is a lie because consumer goods of real value do not need to be advertised.

When I was young, if you wanted a candy bar and you could afford a good one, you bought a Hershey’s Bar, because they were known to be the best. But, whatever the source of this perception of quality, it certainly was not because of advertising, because Hershey Chocolate Company did not advertise before 1970. They were the best, everyone knew it, why waste the company’s money asserting the obvious? Founder Milton Hershey said, “Give them quality. That’s the best advertising in the world.”

By 1970, the world had changed, and products of obvious value were being advertised alongside goods of no intrinsic worth, thus leveling the playing field and making it difficult to distinguish goods of actual worth from make-believe goods designed to fill make-believe needs. And in that year the Hershey Company began to advertise.

To put this another way, modern advertising spends vast sums trying to make the buying public aware of products that it also portrays as a necessity of life – an obvious contradiction. After all, how could our loyal consumer have survived to the present moment without this crucial product, to be in a position to witness its advertising?

The truth is, by the time an advertisement fills a time slot on your television set, or plays on the radio, or appears in print in your newspaper, chances are you already have all you need to live comfortably. The global purpose of modern advertising is to make you forget this fact. Advertising does this in two ways:

  • By creating an atmosphere of dissatisfaction with everything not purchasable, or already purchased. More on this subject below.
  • By telling lies, appealing lies, lies nearly everyone wants to hear.

The Little Lies

Here are some examples of the minor lies that are included in advertising to support the big lie:

  • “New!” How can something be simultaneously new and absolutely essential to survival? Or, given the thesis that new is better, the advertiser should honestly list the ways that the old new product failed us, thus setting the stage for inevitable disenchantment with the new product.
  • “An exclusive offer!” This nationally televised, prime-time advertisement excludes only the dead, and those too penniless from responding to previous exclusive offers.
  • “It costs more, but it is worth it.” By implication, things that cost more are worth more, and by negation, things that have no price also have no value. This is an appeal to reject the entire natural world out of hand.
  • “You deserve the best.” A questionable premise, one intended to cloud your mind and distract you from the more practical question of whether you can afford the best, or whether the product is in fact the best.
  • “Everybody has one of these.” Except you. Yes – we spent 30 million dollars on a national advertising campaign to reach the last holdout – you. Now buy our $5.95 product and redeem our investment.
  • “Protect your children with …” A pitch often seen on television. Ironically, television itself threatens your children in ways too numerous to list. There is no advertisement telling you to protect your children from TV itself.
  • “Want to know what women really like?” ad infinitum. This class of advertising exploits the fact that men and women either do not talk to each other, or, if they do, do not understand what the other person is saying.
  • “This car is not for everyone.” But it certainly is for the 98% of the male car-buying public our team of psychologists has identified as possessing the conceit that they are unique. You are entirely unique in the world, yet you are going to line up and choose one of the three colors this car is available in, then drive this cookie-cutter symbol of your uniqueness off
  • “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on television.” I didn’t make this up. This opening pitch was followed by an endorsement for a patent medicine. This particular example shows the advertisers’ contempt for the consumer’s intelligence, a contempt almost always justified by subsequent events.

The Role of Dissatisfaction

I earnestly believe that some degree of dissatisfaction is innate in people, and absent our modern society, the chance that someone would fall to his knees in wonder at the sight of a wildflower is marginal. But I can say with assurance that modern advertising makes this possibility disappear entirely, for most people in most places, because in order to consume as we do, we must first be programmed to regard everyday experiences as completely unsatisfactory.

This aspect of marketing has a lot in common with traditional religious practices:

  • The truth is hidden from view.
  • Your reward lies in the hereafter.
  • True happiness in only available to the initiated, the “insiders.”
  • Everyday reality is a sham, a waste of time, an illusion.
  • We are all defective, our personal experiences have no legitimacy without the validation of priests.

Coping Skills

Here are some common-sense suggestions to minimize the negative effects of consumerism in your life:

  • It is very likely that most of your dissatisfactions are a carefully engineered preparation for consumerism. So examine your dissatisfactions – keep only those that, if discarded, might kill you. Toss the rest.
  • The first rule of advertising: if it is advertised, it is not a necessity. So start out by saying “I don’t need this product. Now, do I want it?”
  • Ask yourself how much of an advertisement appeals to reason, and how much appeals to emotion. If the primary appeal is to emotion, you should expect to feel another, stronger emotion after the purchase: disappointment.
  • Ask yourself if the advertisement describes a product, or instead describes you in unrealistic ways. After all, it is the real you that will be paying for the product, not the fantasy you that “deserves the very best.”
  • Apply common sense to advertising. If you are being offered a book that is guaranteed to make you millions and costs $39.95, you should wonder why it didn’t work for the author. Real millionaires don’t promote get-rich-quick schemes on late-night TV unless the actual get-rich-quick scheme is to sell millions of copies of a worthless book.
  • Above all, recapture an appreciation for ordinary reality. Two reasons quickly come to mind:
    • Fields of flowers don’t lie, and
    • If you postpone a walk in the flowers for long enough, the next time you check, they will be gone.

In my view, if a person can’t sit down in a forest, look between the trees at a sunlit meadow and say, “This is all I really need,” then that person is more than slightly bent. But that’s only my opinion – I could be wrong.

A Closing Comment

In your life, how many print articles have you read that portray consumerism and advertising in this way? Chances are, very few or none. Why? Is it because the author is spectacularly original, possibly inspired by genius? Or is it simply because television, magazines and newspapers reject this kind of writing out of hand, for fear of offending advertisers? Even though I am the author and would like you to believe the first premise, the second is actually correct – articles like this are almost never seen in print, and ideas like these are almost never aired on TV. They are deliberately excluded.

In the commercial publishing business and in television network programming, articles like this are tantamount to treason or suicide. Small-circulation scholarly journals are another story, but their readership is so small and specialized that they do not represent a threat to mass marketing. For various reasons the Internet, although increasingly commercial in content, is also the best source for anti-consumerist sentiment.