"The basis on which good repute in any highly organized industrial society ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and the means of showing pecuniary strength, and so of gaining or retaining a good name, are leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods."
The clock radio jolts me out of the warm incubus of sleep and the pitch begins:
"I got two words to make streets safer: coffee cakes."
Reflexively I reach over and shut the radio alarm off with dispatch. As days peel off the calendar, the time between when Air America wakes me up with a commercial and when I turn Air America off becomes shorter and shorter. I purposely turn the volume up loud when I set the alarm the night before to quicken my response in the morning. The last thing I need is to be late for work and worse, to lay prostrate as I'm spoonfed spots for gourmet cat food, chi-chi spas and shitty interest-only mortgage loans that don't exactly complement Air America's liberal rants about the end of the world as we know it.
After a long, leisurely Saturday shower I dress in comforting silence and head out the door to an Internet cafe. I hit a main thoroughfare, and there, on the side of a corner building, is a billboard bemoaning the "lawsuit crisis" in the United States. The crisis is largely mythic - lawsuit filings have not noticeably increased in the United States over the last twenty years - but Big Business is clever enough to know that facts are often irrelevant in the battle for public opinion, which as ever is rooted in perception, not reality. The ad is put out by Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, a front group created by businessmen aiming to increase their profit margins by duping middle-class citizens who are much more likely to be protected than hurt by the right to sue. The ad was irritating at first, but after umpteen dozen sightings it has become a perverse source of amusement, a regular reminder of the right's bold methodology: throw any old shit at the wall and some of it is bound to stick. My neighborhood, where Ralph Nader received more than twice as many votes as W. in 2000, is a funny place for trial lawyer-bashing. A couple blocks away a similar sign was edited in the night by a graffiti artist who scaled fifteen feet and scrolled "Sue the rich assholes" across the billboard's face.
Soon I'm at an Internet cafe with coffee, breakfast and the day's news. I log on and go to the Drudge Report, for the timeliness and variety of the feeds, and only the timeliness and variety of the feeds. The Internet kiosk is not blessed with a pop-up blocker, but my reaction time has gotten faster and faster, enabling me to x out most pop-ups before they have a chance to download. In the Drudge Report, however, I meet my match. I x out the first pop-up, and instantly three others lurch out onto the screen: one for the University of Phoenix, one for Classmates.com, one for the latest fictional non-fiction hardback peddled by Drudge's reactionary affiliates. Drudge's pop-ups are many, but one of the next sights I go to, SF Gate, homepage for the San Francisco Chronicle, makes Drudge's pop-ups look almost benign. SF Gate unloads two pop-ups as soon as the homepage appears, pop-ups that are pesky little devils: just as you go to x them out they reduce down to the bottom of the screen, forcing you to open (and look, presumably) at them before banishing them to their respective dung heaps in pop-up hell. Today we have...another ad for the University of Phoenix! After perusing the local news I go to Yahoo, read one short personal e-mail, delete a load of crap, and the 20-minute card is expired.
Next it's off to the library for some cds and a movie. As the bus pulls up I catch a quick glimpse of an ad on its side, for a movie I will never see and probably never think about again as long as I live, like the vast majority of top-dollar movies that have ridden an artificial media buzz-and-fizzle over the past twenty years.
I decide to watch the library movie when I get home. Though I rent movies often enough (to avoid the interminable pre-show "entertainment" imposed by most movie houses), out of pure laziness I haven't bought a DVD player, so I pop the VHS tape in and begin fast forwarding through the trailers. I used to just stop the tape and fast forward, but I'd always hit play five or ten minutes into the flick and have to rewind, so now I fast forward with the trailers onscreen and watch the people in the quick-cut images jump around all silent movie-like.
By the time the movie is over, I'm in a vegetative mode, so while the tape rewinds I check public television. I catch the ending of an interesting documentary, a couple minutes of previews of upcoming PBS programming and boom - an ad in which some or other utterly indistinguishable modern car whisks through a lush countryside, off on a Sunday drive of the kind people never take these days if they ever did, while handling with pinpoint precision. It wasn't always like this. For years public television was not diluted with ads, but a decade of stingy, Know Nothing Republican Congresses has left PBS sorely underfunded, leaving no options but endless, wearying telethons, ads, corporate sponsorship, and a very slippery slope: as ads gobble up a larger and larger proportion of each viewing hour, advertisers seize more and more power over the type, and as a common corollary the quality, of programming. Just ask David Letterman. Though most East Coast NBC execs wanted Letterman to replace Johnny Carson, Jay Leno took the coveted Tonight Show slot in large part because advertisers (and their servile NBC subjects) saw bigger profits in Leno's clean and safe GE-friendly patter than Letterman's edgy and offbeat presence. If such a bottom-line mentality gains much more traction at PBS, they may have to drop the "public" from public television.
I shut off the tube and wander out to the living room to consult a San Francisco Bay Guardian as to what to do with the evening. The Bay Guardian is an alternative weekly whose content is left-wing from cover to cover, movie and book reviews included. Yet, while running determinedly hard-hitting investigative pieces that San Francisco's bought-and-paid-for daily newspapers won't touch, the Guardian is utterly indiscriminate about their ads. Page 12: "Mission District real estate speculator evicts Hispanic granny for a quick buck"; page 13: Remove your butt wrinkles with plastic surgery! Forty-five minutes later I have a small list of leads for Saturday night and print ink all over the tips of my fingers. As content-to-ads ratios continue to plummet, I wonder for the nteenth time how many hours, days, weeks, this inveterate magazine reader has wasted and will yet waste shucking chaff to get to the wheat. Books look better all the time.
The brilliant sun beckons, so I hop on my bike and ride toward Golden Gate Park en route to the Pacific. When I get to the ocean I dismount and gaze in awe at the infinite blue and the perfectly smooth, corrugated sand. I walk along the shoreline in pure bliss as the cold waves roll up and over my feet, then slide back into the one. When I've had my fill I stroll back to my wheels and hit a nearby convenience store for some bottled water. In the front window is a big sign with the words "God Bless America" plastered over the Statue of Liberty. Inside, behind the counter, is an African immigrant exercising the freedom to earn $5.50 an hour with no benefits.
Around 8 I head out the door for a night on the town. I instinctively duck off the main thoroughfare onto an empty side street, where noise and clutter and commercialism give on to the last of the day's sunlight as it washes through big bushy trees. At the subway I am met by swarms of Utopiated young adults waving the Socialist Worker and preaching to the choir. Not being big on futile entanglements, I ignore one of the pitchmeisters who has zeroed in me.
The queue for the subway is large and growing, thanks to public transit's starvation diet under Messrs Bush and Schwarzenegger. I'm not armed with reading material, so I glance down the tunnel for a train and then turn forward and look into a battery of ads on the wall on the other side of the track. I muse on the artificiality of the ads, the people always thin, the women borderline anorexic, smiling from the empowerment of this or that product or service, opposite the bigger, grayer modern America of love and beauty and generosity certainly, but also stress and neurosis and depression awash in drugs of all kinds, and I wonder once more, why do people buy into this bullshit? The sublime ability of ads to ooze into and kidnap a perfectly functional human brain has always perplexed me, while helping to explain on a larger level the ability of the right-wing in this country to plant and sustain myriad deeply-held myths. Ever wonder why so many Americans believe that the media is liberal, that the US is the world's beacon of equality and democracy, that a marketplace full of subsidies and monopolies is "free," or that Saddam Hussein worked hand-in-glove with Osama bin Laden, mountains of factual evidence to the contrary? It's the repetition, stupid.
Though I don't see it as The Man's grand design per se, advertising and its favored mediums have helped create and perpetuate an apathetic spectator culture in which attention spans are jerked this way and that, rarely absorbed in anything significant for any length of time, thus diverting public focus from what matters and disabling basic critical thinking tools that could help in the creation of a truly empowered world. This devolution is well-represented by the length of the sound bite, a political quote replayed by the media, often repeatedly, as shorthand for one view or another and/or the media message of the day. According to media analyst Norman Solomon, the average sound bite during the 1968 presidential election was 43 seconds; by 1988, it was down to 9 seconds, and it has only gotten shorter since. An instinctive personal preference for concision is understandable, but how can one truly grasp complex issues while feeding their mind a steady diet of little Scooby snacks?
Apart from the facts that ads waste our shrinking free time and numb the populace while helping push it into debt, often for luxury items, advertising involves a tragic displacement of human capital. Imagine how much better off the world would be if the thousands of talented, creative people working in advertising directed their energies toward poverty, education, healthcare, human rights, ad infinitum. How magic is a marketplace that financially discourages good works in favor of disposable goods?
The subway ride is unpleasant but brief, as I stand taloned to the horizontal bar overhead. When I escape out the other end on my way to see some standup comedy to renew my faith in humanity, I encounter two Jehovahs in the entranceway holding their literature. They are quite unlike the clean-scrubbed milky white Mormon boys with nametags who approach you with a smile that softens overtly manipulative motives. I've seen these two Jehovahs dozens of times and yet they've never even said hello, leaving me to merrily rot in hell. If my feet weren't carrying me so persistently toward my safe haven, I would stop and thank them for honoring my right to color my own world.