"Happiness has not gone up even, as a society, we've gotten richer and have more access to more things. Advertising is the illusion that stops us from recognizing that."
February 23, 2002 7:06 AM   Subscribe

"Happiness has not gone up even, as a society, we've gotten richer and have more access to more things. Advertising is the illusion that stops us from recognizing that." Sut Jhally is a communications professor at the University of Massachusetts, founder of the Media Education Foundation, and an excellent teacher of media literacy.
posted by tranquileye (56 comments total)

 
Excellent whiner, maybe.
posted by techgnollogic at 7:21 AM on February 23, 2002


I detest those who secure with tenure and living in america bad mouth where they live. Fucking move if it is so bad. Had a student once from India (grad) who said everything was terrible in Amreica and was not, like India sacred. I told her that in India, all was sacred but human life. Guess what? After getting here degrees, she became American citizen and now owns a condo. Yes. There are perhaps better places. But don't make a living HERE while badmouthing it to those NOT HERE. Janus, two-faced god of hypocrisy is this guy's icon. Sove it or love it.
posted by Postroad at 7:35 AM on February 23, 2002


This guy's point is that things would be very different if things were very different. Gaze in breathless wonder.

He says that without consumerism driving production and resource depletion, that the 9/11 attacks wouldn't have happened. What he fails to mention is that they couldn't have happened, because there would've been no sky scrapers and no jet airliners.
posted by techgnollogic at 8:04 AM on February 23, 2002


So, what -- capitalism is evil? Is that what Jharry is hedging at, but won't come out and just say? WTF?

If it is, I disagree. Just as I disagree with the premise that people are unable to adequately think for themselves, and are all-too-willing dupes of Madison Avenue. And just as I disagree with the notion that our increasing affluence fails to make us "happier," what with the sanitary and medical advances alone that have been derived from that increasing affluence over the last several centuries.

I want to understand Jharry's point, but from reading that article, I just don't get it. Or maybe I do get it, and just think it's a bunch of hooey. (Am I losing my mind? I know that makes me happier.)
posted by verdezza at 8:18 AM on February 23, 2002


Actually, postroad, Janus is the god of beginnings and endings, entrances and exits. He doesn't seem to have an opinion about hypocrisy.
posted by faceonmars at 8:35 AM on February 23, 2002


Let's see...when I was in college I lived in a really crappy apartment with no heat and a bunch of obnoxious drunks living upstairs. I drove a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle that broke down regularly and wouldn't start in the winter. I subsisted on Kraft Dinners and hot dogs and lived on my monthly Social Security check and part-time income from delivering pizzas.

These days I live in a 3-bedroom house with a good furnace, my neighbors are quiet, I have a car that starts, and I can afford to eat decent food. My income is several orders of magnitude higher than it was 20 years ago.

So exactly why am I supposed to feel unhappier now than I did back then? Oh yeah, advertising...right.
posted by MrBaliHai at 8:37 AM on February 23, 2002


The "America: love it or leave it" sloganeering is crap. It's like saying that you accept your children exactly as they are, so if your three year old shaves the dog, your only options are to embrace him for it or get rid of him. I respect people who try to make America a better place. Perhaps Postroad could address the particular arguments rather than foaming at the mouth about foreigners.

Also, MrBH, the correct comparison wouldn't be between you now and you as a student. It would be between you now and someone in a similar situation some years back.

It's easy to dismiss out of hand an argument that might lead to conclusions that would make one uncomfortable, but we should at least examine the argument logically.
posted by anapestic at 8:44 AM on February 23, 2002


I agree with many of his observations about media, advertising and consumption, but for the love of God, how can anyone make a living beating that pony to death? It's not new or original; it was a big fulcrum of the Hippie movement when this gent was nine years old! And sir, you are of course a hypocritical fake; 'he strongly believes it is the most effective place, as the most consumer-mad country in the world, for his work to make a difference'...what conceit-please move to Canada if they will have you.
posted by Mack Twain at 8:45 AM on February 23, 2002


There's nothing of substance in this article. Just his opinion that advertising is bad, which like Mack Twain said, isn't really all that interesting or suprising.

If anyone's interested in post-modern media theory read some Baudrillard.
posted by xammerboy at 9:05 AM on February 23, 2002


What anapestic said about "love it or leave it" is precisely right. The point of democracy is that you can live in a country whose government you dislike, whilst hoping to change it peacefully. If you think that there's something seriously wrong with your country then surely you have a moral obligation to stay and try to change it - leaving is for cowards. Imagine what America would be like if all the anti-slavery activists had left to go to Canada or Britain. How is it the "land of the free" if you can't tolerate a little peaceful dissent?
posted by Gaz at 9:11 AM on February 23, 2002


It's easy to dismiss out of hand an argument that might lead to conclusions that would make one uncomfortable, but we should at least examine the argument logically.

Sorry, but there's not enough information in this article to fully evaluate his ideas. There's a brief statement essentially claiming that if we just stopped producing things our planet would be saved. Jharry doesn't elaborate on exactly what things we should stop producing; cars, houses, appliances, foodstuffs? The article only states that we should return to "a simpler life". What does that mean? How far does he think that should go? Should we revert to a society of hunter-gatherers?

And despite what you think, I still say that my comparison with myself 20 years ago is valid. If, as he claims, I've been inundated with addictive advertising messages since the day I was born, then I should be filled with inexplicable cravings for "things" and a vague sense of unhappiness because I really want to live a simpler lifestyle. Well, the lifestyle I lived 20 years ago *was* simpler, but guess what, I don't want to return to it, and I'm not filled with vague longings to put even more stuff into my life because of advertising.

So I'm not dismissing his ideas out of hand because they make me uncomfortable, I'm dismissing them because I've thought about them and I think that they're crap.
posted by MrBaliHai at 10:08 AM on February 23, 2002


...for the love of God, how can anyone make a living beating that pony to death? It's not new or original; it was a big fulcrum of the Hippie movement when this gent was nine years old!

Yeah, same goes for those pesky anti-war people. I wish they would just give it up already. It's been beaten to death.
posted by fieldswn at 10:15 AM on February 23, 2002


And despite what you think, I still say that my comparison with myself 20 years ago is valid. If, as he claims, I've been inundated with addictive advertising messages since the day I was born, then I should be filled with inexplicable cravings for "things" and a vague sense of unhappiness because I really want to live a simpler lifestyle.

Then you should really compare yourself now to how you'd be without all the "addictive advertising messages," and you obviously have no legitimate way to do that. You're happier now because then you were cold and hungry. Well, duh. Forty years ago, people were still more affluent and happier at 35 than they were as poor 20 year olds. That has little to do with consumerism and rampant advertising. Advertising is not responsible for the fact that people's earning potentials rise as they get older.
posted by anapestic at 10:26 AM on February 23, 2002


The essential point is that people quickly adjust to their situation. All judgements are based on your current set-point (what you are used to).

Beyond a certain point where you have your essential needs met (food, shelter, clothing, etc), improving your material situation will not making you happier in the long run.

You might get a temporary feeling of happiness from winning the lottery, getting a raise, etc., but you will very soon adapt to your new level. You are still you, except now with more money and more stuff.

What is important is developing the internal. Once you have your essential needs met, improving the external will not do you any good.
posted by fieldswn at 10:34 AM on February 23, 2002


Beyond a certain point where you have your essential needs met (food, shelter, clothing, etc), improving your material situation will not making you happier in the long run.

I think I'd rather be happy with stuff than happy without it, though. In fact, even if I am unhappy I prefer to be unhappy with stuff than unhappy without it. Why can't I just like having stuff without it being tied to my 'happiness?'
posted by plaino at 11:03 AM on February 23, 2002


MrBali's posts actually do a good job of illustrating Jhally's central point. In his first post, MrBali points out how much more he has now than 20 years ago--more money, bigger house, etc.; however, nowhere on this page does MrBali feel the need to say (in support of his argument) that he is indeed happier now than he was 20 years ago. Do you know why? Because, like MrBali, we're supposed to assume that he is happier because he has more money and a more comfortable life. This assumption is the perfect illustration of Jhally's statement.

I think the argument against overproduction is a valid one. The world has a finite supply of resources, and the US is using them up faster than the rest of the world--not because we have more people, but because our production is geared so far beyond human necessity that few people here consider cars and television to not be among human necessities. While I don't think advertising is inherently evil, I think it has succeeded in convincing us that as individuals we are more important and more deserving than the world outside, and we are acting accordingly.
posted by troybob at 11:04 AM on February 23, 2002


At the risk of sounding overly philosophical, what do we mean by "happiness" in this thread? A permanent state of exaltation? Bodily comfort? The lack of dissatisfaction? Contentment? (That isn't really the same thing as "happiness," methinks.)

Academic criticisms of consumerism and conspicuous consumption are primarily boring because it's all been said before. In the New Testament, to begin with...

"Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?" (W. M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair [1847-48])
posted by thomas j wise at 11:21 AM on February 23, 2002


Postroad, you can only critique the USA if you are an American citizen, right? Love it or leave it? Postroad, can you say xenophobe?
posted by tranquileye at 11:41 AM on February 23, 2002


I think you can be happy in a capitalistic society a little easier than in say, the Sudan. At least here (so long as you aren't 'addicted' to advertising) you have the opportunity to pursue happiness. Happiness is not guaranteed, but if you are spending all your time trying to avoid starvation and slavery, well, it's probably a lot harder. On the flip side of this coin, I have read about Sudanese Christians whose churches, hospitals, schools, and crops are bombed and burned regularly, and somehow they still seem to have some joie de vive.

Material wealth affects people in different ways, it's no good to make a blanket generalization (as I am, admittedly, wont to do) about wealth making all people happy or making all people unhappy corporate pawns. And dealing with advertising is the responsibility of the individual. If you let mass media run and ruin your life (as Jhally implies), you have bigger problems than advertisers.

"Advertising is like a drug dealer," Jhally said this week in an interview from his home in Northampton, Mass., a college town about 160 kilometres outside Boston. "It's always there offering us a hit, cajoling us to take a whiff. And the extent to which we do stops us from thinking of real ways we can become happy." -Jhally

Please. Advertising exists so companies can stay in business, and you know who they employ? People. And I'm sorry, despite advertising, people still usually buy the best product for the best value.

"We are still blind to what mass media is really about. Media companies stay in business because they get their money from advertisers and they provide advertisers [with] audience attention." -Jhally

Oh my, I had NO idea this was the case! What are we to do? I think just about everyone who watches TV understand that ads pay the bills. What blatant idiocy on his part.

"If you ask people what would make them happy, few would respond with the answer a BMW or a big house," Jhally says. "What we do know from studies is that people want basic things. Autonomy. Control. Intimacy and love and connection and relaxation. That's what drives people. -Jhally

Autonomy. If you have the purchasing power to buy things, you have more autonomy and control over your own destiny, and I reckon that folks like exercising this power regularly, whether they need to or not. If life was all about our basic needs, I wouldn't even own the computer I'm using to type on MeFi. I would be subsistence farming in the backwoods of Ohio. But I guess that is Jhally's dream, since, upon reading the entire article, he is basically just an environmental fascist.

"Happiness has not gone up even, as a society, we've gotten richer and have more access to more things. Advertising is the illusion that stops us from recognizing that." -Jhally

Agreed. But less things in the marketplace is not the answer, I think there is an individual spiritual and emotional component that people have to deal with in their lives. This reminds me of the aphorism: the more things you own, the more they own you. Material things, or the lack of material things, will not make people happy, this is an issue of individual conscience. Perhaps he would like people to focus on things that are not material... why doesn't he suggest some? He assumes that by default, we will focus less on material goods if there are no material goods to buy. I doubt it.
posted by insomnyuk at 11:44 AM on February 23, 2002


Happiness is quite a subjective thing. Oddly, when asked ... well ... have a look at the "Happiness Barometer" (this is the 1999 version).

"There is a tremendous 'happiness gap' among the peoples of the world today," observes Tom Miller, group senior vice president of Roper Starch Worldwide and director of the global happiness barometer. "Some people, like the Americans and the Danes, seem positively ecstatic about most of the important things in their lives, whether it be their relationships with family and friends, the money they have, or their own self-confidence. But for others, like the Russians, almost nothing seems to be going right."
posted by MidasMulligan at 11:47 AM on February 23, 2002


I saw Jhally speak many years ago at a media conference at the University of Ottawa. He was a breath of fresh air when compared to the other speakers, like the late Herb Schiller. During his talk Jhally quoted Maggie Thatcher of all people, saying that everyone on the left hated her, but that she did make a very good observation: that the only things that really exist are people and their families. There is a tendency in the alt.media crowd to deny that advertising works, or that it somehow speaks very effectively to the real and imagined needs of people. It's a state of denial, I think, shared by a lot of smart people; just as the devil's greatest feat was convincing the world he didn't exist, too many people are convinced that advertising doesn't work.
posted by tranquileye at 12:22 PM on February 23, 2002


So exactly why am I supposed to feel unhappier now than I did back then?

To be fair to Prof Jhally, I'm guessing he was presupposing that you know the full consequences of the consumerism that has been necessary to bring about your own blessed bit of world.

Example. Mange tout goes on sale for the first time in the North East of Scotland in February, allowing us to reproduce the crisp, astringent crunch of the quintessential summer salad while a blizzard rages outside. Richard happy. Reads that mange tout (selected for drought resistance and transportability, not taste) are created in barbed-wire protected compounds in Kenya and air freighted to to Northern European markets at ruinous energy costs. Richard unhappy.

I've quoted Betty Knowles before in these forums, but the economic freedom that is the foundation for advertising obliges us to educate ourselves in our responsibilites for the consequences of our choices.

I'm quite sure, absent that education, is is quite possible to remain happy. For the rest of us, advertising can prove rather a trial.
posted by RichLyon at 12:22 PM on February 23, 2002


An illusion that prevents us from realising that we are unhappy? How, I wonder, does that differ from genuine happiness? Where's a philosopher when you need one?

Jhally's views seem related to Twitchell's in Adcult USA. Twitchell argues that ads have an important, even religious, function in providing a common vision of material happiness for us all that is at least as important as their function of selling (witness that no one really knows how, or even if advertising really works).

Advertising may be replacing religion as the opium of the people. But temporary relief from pain and boredom isn't always a bad thing.

The first few responses in this thread strike me as a little... oversensitive.

As to the Roper Starch happiness barometer MidasMulligan points to - you might expect a marketing firm to say this:

"For several years now our trend tracking in the US has led us to conclude that the rise of the self-reliant consumer is the defining trend of the 1990s in America. This global study shows the power of that trend," said Miller. "Although this is not yet the case for most of the world, it appears that believing in yourself--choosing your own goals, being true to yourself--is one of the keys to happiness, for the happiest peoples. Maybe this means that, once materialistic needs are met, people have the freedom to choose their own paths to happiness, and that's really what it's all about."

And Roper Starch is a marketing firm.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:47 PM on February 23, 2002


troybob: I think that your implicitly holding me up as an object example of rampant consumerism is a rather dishonest rhetorical device that skirts answering the questions that I raised in my posts. Indeed, nobody in this thread who defends Jhally's ideas seems to be willing or able to verbalize exactly how this nebulous concept of life simplification should be carried out. If Jhally's published some concrete ideas on this, I'd love to hear them, but so far all I'm getting from this thread is the distinct odor of cultural bashing wafting in the digital breeze.

And by the way, I'm still happy.
posted by MrBaliHai at 2:16 PM on February 23, 2002


I'm happier.
posted by mikegre at 2:18 PM on February 23, 2002


Well it appears the ads are working many here are defending their happiness.
posted by onegoodmove at 2:36 PM on February 23, 2002


"What is good? Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.

What is evil? Whatever springs from weakness.

What is happiness? The feeling that power increases, that resistance is overcome."

Nietzsche (shortly before going mad)
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 3:06 PM on February 23, 2002


MrBaliHai: I dunno. You sound kind of pissed off to me. Which happens to all of us, regardless of income.
posted by raysmj at 3:20 PM on February 23, 2002


Two things:

1. From the article: "The environmental crisis is always connected to production." Um...WHAT environmental crisis?

2. I don't know recall where I heard it, but try this: "All I want is the chance to prove that money doesn't buy happiness!" Yeah - I'll take that bet.
posted by davidmsc at 3:36 PM on February 23, 2002


Jharry doesn't go into this very much in this article but he makes a good point about advertising co-opting culture. Our ideas of what is normal, fashionable, successful, cool, etc come almost straight from the minds of very few individuals whose main interest is selling their dreck. You bet it works, everyone wants to look like a celebrity just enough to get social acceptance. People wearing the armor of costly products have a big advantage socially over those who don't.

Culture doesn't come from a large group interacting with each other and producing more diverse definitions of normal, fashionable, cool, etc anymore. It comes top down and marketed at you 24/7. I don't think this is an effect of a market economy as much as it is easier for marketers to sell their wares with only a handful of recognizable names. The market has plenty of room, but marketers and advertisers want a stanglehold because it makes their specific companies profitable and now have a nice monopoly on culture itself. That's just wrong.
posted by skallas at 3:50 PM on February 23, 2002


Not surprisingly, the Globe And Mail* 1400-word piece doesn't do Jhally justice; he does have a bit more to say than this. See Jhally's website, www.sutjhally.com, which contains some interesting supporting materials. Like many celebrity academics, his list of peer-reviewed publications is a bit thin.

*Oh, and in case you were wondering, "The Globe and Mail is Canada’s No. 1 choice for reaching affluent, educated Canadians across Canada. ... This highly desirable audience is predisposed to spending on a wide variety of products and services for both personal and business use." (rate card)

:)
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 3:53 PM on February 23, 2002


Davidmsc: From the article: "The environmental crisis is always connected to production." Um...WHAT environmental crisis?

This environmental crisis:
"Paul Ehrlich, a biologist at Stanford University, predicted at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970 that by 1974 there might well be rationing of food and water in the United States, and that by 1980 there would be mass starvation, leading to hundreds of millions of deaths worldwide because of world overpopulation. He also suggested that US life expectancy would have diminished by 10 years..." (Posner, near the end)
Seriously, this illustrates an amusing irony: the left (and to a lesser extent the right) must constantly create new crises in order to ratchet up their rhetoric. This rhetoric has grown increasingly apocalyptic, even in the face of growing evidence to the contrary.

The other half of the irony is that rich nations tend to be greener than poor, and free nations greener than dictatorships. BMWs are greener than Trabants, Sweden is greener than Iraq, Erie is greener than Aral, and Microsoft is greener than the People's Liberation Army. Thus the real environmental crises (as opposed to the fictional crises of the left's imagination) are indeed connected to wealth and production -- but the other way around.
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 4:02 PM on February 23, 2002


"As to the Roper Starch happiness barometer MidasMulligan points to - you might expect a marketing firm to say this:

"For several years now our trend tracking in the US has led us to conclude that the rise of the self-reliant consumer is the defining trend of the 1990s in America...."

And Roper Starch is a marketing firm.


Excellent. Wonderful that you'd challenge the source instead of the concepts. Let's look at sources, shall we? If you want to imply that the results of the happiness barometer are somehow distorted, and what one "might expect because Roper Starch is a marketing firm", I wonder, think there might be any reason to be similarly suspicious of the objectivity of the "Media Education Foundation", who lists Noam Chomsky first in the list of it's Board of Directors (that also includes Todd Gitlin, of SDS fame in the 60's), and starts making the case for it's existance on it's "About" page by stating:

Over the past several years, global mergers involving media giants and multi-national corporations have increasingly threatened the public sphere through their monopoly of airwaves, television, the movie industry, print journalism and the internet. The voice of the citizen is literally driven out of the public domain by the colonization of public space, from schools to ball fields, by an all-pervasive commercialism that bombards us with thousands of advertising images daily.

Yes indeedy, what exactly would one expect from the founder of such an organization?

Even further, let's look at motive, shall we? Roper is a marketing and research firm. It doesn't have any interest in skewing results one way or another to make some political or ideological point. In fact, it makes it's money by helping businesses make money. If it's results are wrong, it doesn't get hired. If 95% of America were unhappy, it would simply say that (and then probably suggest that businesses use that latent angst ...).

What about the "Media Education Foundation"? Seems clear that it does have a vested interest in holding a predetermined opinion, and finding facts to back that up. Heaven help us if our consumer society, drenched in media and filled with the products of multinationals, actually turned out to produce one of the happiest populations on earth. Shit oh dear - that is the one thing these people ... the Chomsky's and Jhally's of the world - simply could not tolerate. And if people are happy, it's got to be because they are too stupid to realize that they're really unhappy (and naturally, some fairly significant grants will be necessary to help "educate" them ...).
posted by MidasMulligan at 4:03 PM on February 23, 2002


Gosh, MrBali: I wouldn't consider what you describe as rampant consumerism. My point was that your post fell into a pattern of equating happiness with material acquisition, which Jhally argues is a widespread and mistaken assumption. I'll try to offer something practical, since you are asking for something concrete, though it's just my side of things.

I think one statement in the original article is key:

Jhally prefers to focus on the individual's role when discussing solutions to the planet's problems.

I don't think it's practical to seek systematic change. The confluence of television, advertising, and consumer culture is too strong, and I think our 'right' to material gain has the force of religion. Even when faced with evidence of starvation in other parts of the world, we will defend our right to have two cars instead of one. For me personally, this presents an ethical problem: If my needs are met, how can I justify my desire to live at ever-growing levels of luxury? I don't mean how do I justify it to others; how do I justify it to myself? What I want to do in response can be considered simplification, but I think it is more a waking up and rearrangement of priorities.

The first thing for me was trying to understand the messages I receive through the media, particularly advertising. Television dominated my life growing up, and certainly it affected my decisions and desires. TV advertising is a huge business because it is effective, and I think the main message is that you can buy happiness; the problem is that once you start, you can never stop. With trying to be more aware, over time the messages of advertising and programming and news reporting started to overlap. (After Sept. 11, the message was more explicit: you will feel better, America will be stronger, we'll get through this together...if you BUY SOMETHING! Don't cancel your vacation travel plans. Keep America rolling. Of course, Bush never said that buying gas supports terrorism more than buying illegal drugs.)

From the point of reading the media's messages more clearly, I started to assess exactly how I was responding. I started rethinking what I wanted for my life and why. I found that in a city with decent public transportation, I don't need a car (or the bills that go with it). As much as I hate answering the phone at home, the last thing I need is a cell phone. If Windows 98 works fine, I don't need 2000 or XP. I don't have to buy a book on Amazon if it's at the library. If I deserve a break today, I'll go to the park and not McDonald's. Goodbye, cable TV. So long, microwave.

I'm still stumped on what to do next. I'm not giving away all my extra money to the poor. I wouldn't necessarily equate happiness with material loss, but it's quieter around here, not as stressful. If I'm not off the treadmill, it's at least going a lot slower.

So my response, I guess, is to change what I can about myself rather than asking the system to change to fit my priorities. There are posts here that are quite defensive, and I think that is telling. I don't think its 'cultural bashing' to suggest that people take a look at how the media might be affecting their own priorities. Jhally's message is not that capitalism is bad, that we need to get rid of advertising...it is only that we need to pay closer attention to the real messages behind it so our decisions are informed ones.

Midas: Why would the 'happiest populations on earth' be taking the most antidepressants? Or has the pharmaceutical advertising just convinced us that we're unhappy?
posted by troybob at 4:43 PM on February 23, 2002


Our ideas of what is normal, fashionable, successful, cool, etc come almost straight from the minds of very few individuals whose main interest is selling their dreck.

Only those shallow enough or dumb enough to fashion to fashion they're whole lifestyle around these "mass perceptions" or around reacting against them. The older I get, the more inclined I am, to just like what I like and not give a shit what either the "mainstream" or those reacting against it think." My experiences tell me that most mature adults do the same. Adolescents are a different, but when weren't adolescents image-obsessed and narcissitic to some extent. And if most people's tastes tend to be somewhat predictable, I imagine it's because they're too busy scraping out a living or caring for a family or they're simply not as inclined as me or others to prowl around looking for oscure cultural treasures.
Besides, it's a rough world and people need solace. Generally, people choose entertainment or whatever because it's simply pleasurable or it moves them on some level, and who am I or anyone else to knock that? Whether it's Britney Spears or Howlin' Wolf, John Grisham or Thomas Pynchon, Heironymous Bosch or Tom and Jerry Cartoons, if it heps get you through the night, hold it close. But that's just my two cents.
posted by jonmc at 5:22 PM on February 23, 2002


Jhally's message is not that capitalism is bad...

How is it, exactly, that you presume to make that declaration, troybob? Because based on what Jhally does (and does not) say in the linked article, I do see him possibly suggesting some sort of indictment of capitalism, while I don't see him offering any specific, or even implied, refutation of the same.
posted by verdezza at 5:30 PM on February 23, 2002


insomnyuk: "I think just about everyone who watches TV understand that ads pay the bills. What blatant idiocy on his part."

How does that work, exactly? Corporate interests pay the tv networks to broadcast their spots. I understand that part. Somehow they look at some data and theorize that when an ad is successful, sales go up. I don't know of a single person who watches a TV ad and then goes, "I like that ad. I think I'm gonna buy that product." Who are these people? I don't believe they exist.

If I happen to like a TV commercial (when I'm not fast forwarding through them or going to the kitchen) I don't remember the product. I remember the cute bunny rabbit that the lady bobsledders almost ran over. I have no idea what they were trying to sell. If I don't like a commercial I will remember and I make a point NOT to buy those products. I don't recall ever using a commercial as the sole reason to go out and buy something.

Happiness has nothing to do with advertising. I don't see how advertising has anything to do with anything.
posted by ZachsMind at 5:41 PM on February 23, 2002


I don't see how advertising has anything to do with anything.

Well, it had everything to do with my income until I got laid off a couple months ago, Zach. ;)
posted by verdezza at 5:50 PM on February 23, 2002


Well said, ZachsMind. I'm a rabid capitalist, and I very much appreciate the creative efforts that go into some commercials, but I really am at a loss to understand most of them -- in terms of how the producer/owner of the ad thinks that they "work."

I do understand commercials as a means of introducing new &/or improved products and services, but (to take one example) cola & beer commercials stump me. EVERYBODY knows that Coke and Pepsi are the #1 and #2 sellers. EVERYBODY who has a preference for one or the other buys that preference. So why do Coke & Pepsi spend millions & millions simply to put the name on the screen? Seeing Britney wiggling her butt while caressing a Pepsi bottle doesn't make me think, "Hmmm...after 20 years of drinking Coke, I think I'll switch to Pepsi!"

And Hieronymous Coward: Thanks for the backup! You articulated (and linked to) precisely my point.
posted by davidmsc at 6:25 PM on February 23, 2002


So why do Coke & Pepsi spend millions & millions simply to put the name on the screen?

They're trying to maintain their cultural relevance. Imagine if Coke stopped all advertising and focused on lowering prices and getting its product into more outlets. After a while Coke would look like some old fashioned drink while Pepsi is the hip, young, sexy, and pleasant thing to buy. The product really isn't as important as the message the companies can put behind it.


That's how I think it works anyway, these companies share a monopoly on cola and I can barely taste the difference, but they advertise endlessly none the less.
posted by skallas at 6:48 PM on February 23, 2002


Midas: In my experience, marketing and research firms have a great deal to gain by promoting one view over another. I work in IT, and am bombarded with vendor-subsidised studies purporting to be objective. Further, by promoting the idea that there are predictable trends that analysts can give you advanced warning of, research firms create their own market. I have learned to be very sceptical of all commercially produced research.

(Eg from a recent survey I was asked to participate in: Q: When will you upgrade to Windows XP? A Now, B Next 3 months, C Next 6 months, D Next 9 months. There was no "Never", no "I use a Mac/Linux/Other", no "I use Win 2K and have no plans to change". Gosh, how reliable those results will be. And gosh, won't that predictions based on them have an element of self-fulfilling prophecy.)

Roper's clients might well benefit from their research as reported in the Happiness Barometer, inasmuch as it promotes their activities as beneficial. Roper's conclusions might be true, too, but I'm inclined to reserve judgement until I see the original questionnaire, and find out who paid for it. The idea that Roper is disinterested is laughable - I'm sure they get funded somehow, and I bet it's from corporate commissions.

You might enjoy reading "Trust Us, We're Experts" on that topic.

Getting back to Jhally - I think it's ridiculous that he can dismiss people's feelings as "an illusion of happiness", as if only he were entitled to judge what counts as legitimate happiness. But questioning whether advertising is good for society - yeah sure, why not, interesting line of enquiry. Those people who said "let him leave", I bet you would have been handing Socrates the hemlock.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:55 PM on February 23, 2002


"Roper's clients might well benefit from their research as reported in the Happiness Barometer, inasmuch as it promotes their activities as beneficial. Roper's conclusions might be true, too, but I'm inclined to reserve judgement until I see the original questionnaire, and find out who paid for it. The idea that Roper is disinterested is laughable - I'm sure they get funded somehow, and I bet it's from corporate commissions."

Point I was trying to make was not that Roper was absolutely objective (in fact no study can be absolutely "objective"), but rather, was answering someone else. I quoted Roper, had it implied that since Roper was a "marketing" firm (and naturally, marketers are by definition crooked liars) the results were predictable (although, if the results were predictable and they were aiming for some ulterior motive, it's sure odd that they'd skew results so that the Danish were the number one country on the list ... what possible end could they achieve with that?)

Bigger point was - since sources were being questioned - to look at the source of the article in question. A foundation that makes absolutely no pretense of "objectivity", states outright that it has a worldview and a mission, and has the likes of Chomsky and Gitlin on it's BoD.

Of the two, I'd give the Roper one way more credibility.
posted by MidasMulligan at 8:03 PM on February 23, 2002


Coke/Pepsi: Before I got married several years ago, my (now ex)wife suggested I drop Coke, Pepsi, Moutain Dew, and all the other pop drinks I'd been consuming. Living together, she noticed that I consumed a couple sixpacks a day on the average. Something I hadn't paid much attention to before. She theorized I'd feel better in the mornings, and would lose weight, if I just stopped drinking them. In six months I dropped about forty pounds, and they've never come back.

Water. Juice. Occasionally tea or coffee. Coke and Pepsi can claim they're still a relevant part of culture, but as far as I'm concerned they're sweet battery acid and nothing more relevant. Diet soft drinks are a joke. Anyone serious about losing weight and living healthy would avoid them like poison. No television commercial could change my mind about that.
posted by ZachsMind at 8:09 PM on February 23, 2002


How does that work, exactly? Corporate interests pay the tv networks to broadcast their spots. I understand that part. -Zachsmind

ZachsMind, I think one of the reasons is brand recognition, although many people train themselves to ignore ads (though I still pay attention to the beer ads). I was just pointing out Jhally's ridiculous amazement at what is the basic business plan of all television statements. The purpose of ads are to fight over existing customers, a company by advertising is attempting to increase it's market share (by appealing to beer drinkers who are going to buy anyway that their brand is the best). If advertising didn't help profits, businesses wouldn't do it. Anecdotal personal experiences don't really change this reality.
posted by insomnyuk at 8:16 PM on February 23, 2002


er, statements = stations
posted by insomnyuk at 8:24 PM on February 23, 2002


Postroad, I'm having trouble reconciling what you say here with what you say here. Care to explain?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:09 PM on February 23, 2002


Mr. chicken took the words right out of my fingers.
posted by sudama at 10:08 PM on February 23, 2002


If everyone bought into his argument and only purchased what they absolutely needed for survival then the economy would collapse like a cheap hooker punched in the stomach by a fat man with sores on his face. I think this would make alot of people unhappy rather than happier as he suggests.
posted by euphorb at 12:17 AM on February 24, 2002


--jhally 's message is not that capitalism is bad...

How is it, exactly, that you presume to make that declaration, troybob?


I guess it would be more correct to say not all bad; his writings would indicate that he is more realistic than to suggest abandoning capitalism altogether. I think he is calling for an evolution of capitalism such that it does not threaten society. While we are all consumers, I believe the effort to make consumerism the center of our cultural experience, our most valued role, is a threat to society. The media tell teenagers that their parents and teachers are wrong, because teenage rebellion sells; they tell parents that kids are happier the more you buy them, because guilt sells as well. In each case, the role of consumer takes precedence over (and subverts) the respective family roles such that we can't get along on our own homes, though the market benefits.

I think this is illustrated in the recent conflict over the privacy of consumer information; the market wants us to open up and share our personal details (with our without our consent or knowledge) so we can be better consumers; they want details on what we're reading, what we're watching, and what we're doing as individuals in order to tailor the sales pitch to each of us...justifying it by saying it's just to give us what we want. Without the type of change Jhally is advocating, I think the market's going to win that battle.
posted by troybob at 12:22 AM on February 24, 2002


troybob: after reading your response, I think that you and I are a lot closer on this topic that you might think; perhaps that's my fault for not being more succinct about what I believe. I wasn't advocating the unending acquisition of material goods nor do I base my personal happiness entirely upon owning *stuff*, although I think that it's an important component. I believe strongly in understanding the underlying messages of advertising and making purchases that are at least somewhat cognizant of their cost in environmental and social terms.

After taking a break from this thread and doing more research on Jharry, I've come to the conclusion that although I agree with some of her underlying concepts, she's basically recycling some very old ideas as if they were somehow revolutionary. She's long on consciousness-raising, short on concrete ideas, fond of making extreme and polarizing statements without a lot of empirical evidence to back them up, treats her audience as if they were wide-eyed 18-year olds who'd never ever considered that advertising might not have their best interests at heart, and seems absolutely convinced that she's a REALLY IMPORTANT THINKER.

In other words, she's a college professor.
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:09 AM on February 24, 2002


Are you talking about Sut Jhally or some other person named Jharry, MrBH? Sut Jhally is a man.
posted by rodii at 9:08 AM on February 24, 2002


MrBali: I'm not sure who Jharry is, but Sut Jhally is the male communications professor quoted in the posted article. (Sorry...I couldn't resist...I screw stuff like that up all the time.)

I didn't make any assumptions about your attitude toward material goods; again, I was just commenting on the general assumption in your first post (which I would grossly summarize as 'I have more than I did 20 years ago, why wouldn't I be happier?'), only because I think that assumption (which is so pervasive it's hardly noticeable) is a basis for Jhally's argument on this topic.

Jhally's ideas not not new; however, I think it is probably harder now than perhaps 20 years ago to get his message across. A lot of people have attached their ideas of happiness and well being to what and how much they own, and they can be pretty defensive about it; I'm sure it's a tough battle to try to get them to see a different side.

[Jhally] treats [his] audience as if they were wide-eyed 18-year olds who'd never ever considered that advertising might not have their best interests at heart...

A lot of adults I talk to have never considered that advertising might not have their best interests at heart; again, I think it reflects a defense of a way of life many people have a lot invested in (literally). I think the posted article explains this pretty well:

He realizes that it's more important to reach what he calls "the kid in the baseball cap in the back row of class" than to preach to the converted.

"When intellectuals talk among themselves, they talk in a way that is impossible for a general audience to understand," he says. "They may be talking about great things, but they're in an intellectual alley. Unless we talk to that kid, we're just hanging out with people who already agree with us. Not enough academics are willing to take that risk. The first job of education is to get people to see the world they live in, to pull back the curtain and allow people to see what's behind it.
posted by troybob at 9:17 AM on February 24, 2002


Possibly the reason average happiness has not increasesd is that, as a species, we have a "happiness limit," and it doesn't take much to peg it. That is, a certain number of people will be unhappy regardless of their circumstances, a certain number will be happy once their basic needs are met, a certain number will be happy once some higher threshold is reached. After that it doesn't matter to their happiness how much stuff they can buy or how much money they earn. In this case you would expect -society's overall happiness to remain stagnant once most people are reaching their threshold.
posted by kindall at 9:21 AM on February 24, 2002


I think the point made is BASICALLY good, but they go about it in entirely the wrong way, as if they mean more to be divisive than to really accomplish something.

It's a message we do need to get across. Capitalism as an economic system works better than any seen to date, but consumerism is not the path to happiness. Hell, I had a social studies teacher whose life's goal was to own a BMW.

The point is not to vilify corporations. Let them go about their business. Go straight to the people and remind them of things that are really important: family, friends, laughter, a walk at sunset. Birds singing. Seeing the sun. Learning, thinking, striving to be a good person -- to figure out what being a truly good person means.

And if we take this all to heart, we don't have to worry about the claims advertising makes, because advertising assumes you're miserable and says "hey! we'll fix that!" -- but then we can laugh at them and say "no, I know where happiness really lies"

Don't scare people, empower there.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:48 AM on February 25, 2002


"And if we take this all to heart, we don't have to worry about the claims advertising makes, because advertising assumes you're miserable and says "hey! we'll fix that!" -- but then we can laugh at them and say "no, I know where happiness really lies"

Has the basic irony of this whole discussion struck anyone else? That adverstisers (it is claimed) attempt to convince people they'll be happier if they buy products. So then, these academics here attempt to convince people they might not be happier, but, in fact, will be happier if they question advertisers. And those that agree with them seem to think it is necessary to get this "message" across.

Hhmmm ... basic flaw in Jhally & Co. seems to be the assumption that people are sheep ... that have no idea how to balance consumption to optimize their happiness. What if they don't? What if a large number of people are actually feeling pretty good about their lives?
posted by MidasMulligan at 8:51 AM on February 25, 2002


I'd say the basic flaw in a statement like "Happiness has not gone up even, as a society, we've gotten richer and have more access to more things." (from the original link) is further back towards first principles : the assumption that 'happiness' is something that is quantifiable, or is an identical feeling or condition in different people, even if those people lead outwardly similar lives.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:12 PM on February 25, 2002


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