Ad Nauseam: How Advertising And Public Relations Changed Everything
by Jeff Koob (Jamaica 1991–93)
$16.95 (paperback), $3.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Gerald Karey (Turkey 1965–67)
“If you read no other book this year, read Jeff Koob’s Ad Nauseam. It will change your life.”
There you have it: the hyperbole and the promise to make you a better you, a claim I can’t possibly substantiate. It’s advertising. It’s propaganda.
“Propagandists use emotion and unfounded assertions rather than logic and fact, selecting emotionally loaded words and images to create a desired feeling, or combining facts and half-truths or outright lies — with emotional triggers,” Koob writes. “Many ads are unburdened by anything resembling truth.”
Most Americans, if asked, would say propaganda is something that happens elsewhere, Koob writes. “We’re so steeped in propaganda techniques that most of us don’t notice them in advertising and public relations campaigns.”
We are inundated by a tsunami of advertisements urging us to buy products and services we may or may not need or even know we want, that promise to enrich our lives, make us happier, more popular and desirable people. Koob cites a 2001 study that estimated the average American would see or hear more than seven million advertisements in his or her lifetime.
We are targeted from cradle to grave by advertisers and sales campaigns, on television and radio, of course, in movie theaters, on billboards, in subways and on buses, by mail and telephone solicitations, on the Internet, virtually everywhere. Articles of clothing and accessories carry prominent and visible logos and brand names, turning people into unremunerated human billboards for companies such as North Face, Izod, Louis Vuitton, Coach and Nike.
The implication is that if you possess a certain product, you will be a more attractive, appealing and interesting person — that self-confident and self-assured person in the beer ads, for example, self-confident and self-assured and surrounded by admiring, attractive women. Make mine Bud. Or Stella Artois. It’s what advertising promises and our fondest wish.
The acknowledged and self-styled father of public relations was Edward Bernays, whose uncle Sigmund Freud explored the world of unconscious and repressed desires that advertisers learned to exploit and manipulate.
Koob cites this passage from Bernays’ book, Propaganda, published in 1928: “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”
A propagandized society is “antithetical to democracy which depends on an educated and well informed electorate . . . the purpose of propaganda isn’t to inform but to influence, ” Koob writes.
“The media teat we all feed from informs, amuses and attempts to define and shape us,” he writes. “What can we do about a propaganda industry that tries to condition us to be constantly moving happiness machines always in need of more goods and services?” (Consumer spending on goods and services accounts for about 70% of economic activity in the U.S. Throwing sand into the cogs of that constantly moving happiness machine could be problematic for the economy).
However, Koob posits as an alternative to the propaganda industry — a world of “sane, ethical advertising. In such a world people could trust ads as accurate and factual . . .. Truth-in-advertising laws would have teeth.”
Claims about a product being the “cure” for something, or the “best” service or the “lowest cost” would have to be backed up with objective proof.
(Imagine requiring political advertising to be accurate and truthful. Think the “Swiftboat” campaign used in 2004 against presidential candidate John Kerry would hold up? On the other hand, some political lies, such as President Obama is a secret Muslim, or many of the paranoid fantasies that clutter the Internet, are resistant to truth.)
Since it’s probably safe to assume that a world of “sane, ethical advertising” is not about to dawn, Koob writes that education is the only antidote to “infotoxicity,” that is the “pollution of the mental environment” by the constant encroachment of advertising in daily life.”
The ideal goal of public education “would be to provide all students not only with the basics . . . but with knowledge of the mechanics of thinking and the choices we have a independent thinkers . . .. In an ideal democracy, children would be inoculated against propaganda and media manipulation because they would learn about the techniques of mass persuasion, starting in middle school . . .. With this kind of public education and truth-in-advertising laws with teeth, information would replace propaganda in advertising. But it’s not going to happen unless the public sees the danger we face from infotoxicity and demands change.”
Unfortunately, Koob writes, “the invisible government doesn’t want an education system that turns out independent thinkers. They want conditioned consumers and likes things the way they are . . . I think that people can be conditioned to behave like herd animals if they’re treated like herd animals or liberated from the yoke through education.”
Koob covers ground that has been plowed before, most prominently in 1957 by journalist Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders. And he includes a useful bibliography of additional sources (something Packard did not do, perhaps because so much more has been written on the subject in the intervening years).
Koob’s contribution to the literature is a useful guide and a also a cautionary tale about the how advertisers/propagandists manipulate and influence the public into buying everything from cookies to presidential candidates.
Incidentally, Ad Nauseam, which I don’t think is the most appealing title for a book, is a reference to “repetition,” along with outright lies, pseudo-information, lies of omission; distortion, simplification and stereotyping are among the several propaganda tools listed by Koob. It’s a useful checklist to keep handy during the presidential debates and campaign.
Reviewer Gerald Karey taught English in a middle school in a Turkish village from 1965 to 1967. After the Peace Corps, he worked as a general assignment reporter for two newspapers in New Jersey, and for a McGraw-Hill newsletter in Washington, D.C., where he covered energy and environmental issues. A collection of his essays entitled Unhinged, was published in October, 2014.