Mind-time is precious to me. I resent it when random outsiders, trying to
sell thneeds, get inside my brain. I resent it even more when they get inside
my children’s brains. What they claim is free speech, I experience
as mental trespassing, and so do millions of others. As Kalle Lasn has written, “Our
mental environment is a commons like air or water. We need to protect it
from unwanted incursions.”
Advertising — and by this I mean all forms of commercial attention-seeking — is
part of the dark side of surplus capitalism. (I say this as one who, during
my own career, modestly added to the din.) It’s one of those borderline
activities that’s necessary, or at least acceptable, in moderation,
but becomes dangerous when it spirals out of control. The trouble is that
advertising escalates inexorably. Every new product needs to announce itself.
Moreover, the greater the ambient noise, the more each ad has to shout in
order to be heard. If anything is a “tragedy of the commons,” this
is it (though here, again, the commons is victim, not cause).
Here are a few statistics that confirm what everyone knows. Children in
America see, on average, one hundred thousand television ads by age five;
before they die they’ll see another two million. In 2002, marketers
unleashed eighty-seven billion pieces of junk mail, fifty-one billion telemarketing
calls, and eighty-four billion pieces of email spam. In 2004, a Yankelovich
poll found that 65 percent of Americans “feel constantly bombarded
with too much advertising and marketing.”
Advertising isn’t just an occasional trespass of one person against
another; it’s a continuous trespass of relatively few corporations
(the one hundred or so that do the most advertising) against all the rest
of us. These companies want to — indeed have to — increase their
sales, and for this they need access to our minds. But mind-time is a scarce
resource. We have only so many hours of it a day, and so many days in our
lives. Because of this scarcity, every neuro-minute occupied by an ad is
one less neuro-minute available for our own thoughts and feelings. Every
ad thus has an opportunity cost, a cost we experience but advertisers don’t
Ads also have other side effects. They bias us to high-priced branded products,
to junk foods rather than healthy foods, and to spending rather than saving.
They diminish our self-esteem by suggesting that we never have enough or
look good enough. And ultimately, they diminish our natural wealth by increasing
pollution and depleting resources.
As individuals, we can do a few things to protect ourselves against ads:
we can turn off our television, delete email spam, and toss junk mail in
the recycling bin. But that doesn’t dampen the collective noise, or
do much to reduce the external costs of ads. To do that we need economy-wide
At present, there are no such controls. Though the airwaves belong to the
people, no public agency limits TV advertising time. Until 1982, the major
networks adhered to a voluntary code limiting ads to 9.5 minutes per hour
in prime time. Then, profit maximizing took over, and the networks dropped
their code. Today, a typical “one-hour” prime-time show has about
forty-two minutes of content and eighteen minutes of ads and promotions,
nearly twice the advertising intensity of two decades ago.
What if we managed advertising as we manage, or could manage, physical pollution?
If corporations want to pollute our minds, they’d have to pay for the
right to do so. As with physical pollution, the transactions could be brokered
by a trust. This guardian of our inner commons would set caps on total trespasses
and sell tradeable advertising permits to corporations. Our psychic costs
would then show up as advertisers’ monetary costs. There’d be
less advertising, more peace of mind, and if we so earmarked the revenue,
more money for commercial-free broadcasting and the arts.
An advertising cap-and-trade system could have another benefit as well.
At present, there’s only one macroeconomic valve for regulating
the pace of economic activity: the Fed’s handle on money. If
the economy is too hot, the Fed raises interest rates; if it’s
too cool, the Fed lowers them. The trouble with this valve is that
it has unpleasant side effects.
When interest rates go up, so do credit card bills and mortgages,
and millions of households suffer. But if we dampened an overheated
economy by lowering
the volume of advertising, we’d get the benefits of higher
interest rates without the pain. In fact, households might save money
less. ... read
the whole chapter