Wednesday, February 24, 2016

On Advertisement

FISHES do not know that they live in water. They think they live in the worlds at large, and very glad they are to be in so comfortable an air. When you take them out of the water into the real air they object, they protest, they kick, they gasp and they die. This is by way of telling you (if you did not know it already) that men do not grasp the characteristics of the place and time in which they live. That place and time in which they have become a part of their nature. They have long ceased to imagine anything other. And when you tell them that their environments are only those of the place and time in which they live, they either protest or tell you it is unimportant.

Now the characteristic of the place and time in which we live, here and to-day, is advertisement. It is by the universal presence of advertisement that our lives differ from those of our fathers. It is by the obsession of advertisement that our minds are moved in a manner peculiar to our generation, unknown to earlier generations and (please God!) to be equally strange to future generations. Not only things for sale, advertised by those who desire us to buy them, but false characters, false fame, false ill-repute, are drummed into us morning, noon, and night. Repetition has taken the place of emphasis and of reasoning. In that which men most eagerly pursue—I mean wealth—advertisement conditions everything.

Next to wealth, perhaps, what men desire is being talked about. It is a strange thing to want, but a great part of mankind do want it, especially in youth. Now to be talked about to-day you must be advertised. Indeed, men are not talked about at all nowadays unless they are advertised. Though the dead should rise, they would need advertisement. And the converse is true. If you would persuade men that the dead had risen having no other proof whatsoever of something so extraordinary, sufficient repetition of the falsehood would do the work.

Through advertisement all values are to-day sent awry. Each of us meets among a numerous acquaintance some few men who powerfully affect his mind, having more knowledge or more wisdom or more intensity than the rest. If they have more knowledge or more wisdom they are of high value to their fellows. If they, added to knowledge or to wisdom, have a desire to propagate such truths as they have discovered, they are of the highest value to their fellows. Yet none will know of them; while all will know too thoroughly the names at least of the advertised.

There is a consequence following on so strange and, let us hope, so ephemeral a state of affairs. It is this: that those who control the gates of advertisement are the masters of commerce and of opinion. Those who have in their possession the machinery (particularly through the Press) of repeating that this or that should be bought, that this or that is good, that this or that is wonderful, that this or that is true, hold and will hold the power to proclaim or to impose silence. For some time past these few “masters of the gate” (and in our urban modern way of living they are but a handful) were principally content with levying a toll, saying to the advertisers “you shall not pass through my gate until you have paid so much each.” The vast revenues they thus captured were at first sufficient for them. But there came upon them gradually, what more intelligent men would have discovered earlier in the business, the discovery that they could act positively as well as negatively. They could not only levy a toll but command. They could refuse or obstruct or encourage the passage through the gate. This gave them power, which, like fame and money, is very much desired by men; and so the masters of advertisement came not only to great fortunes but also to ruling.

Providence has so happily disposed the world that men desiring money and (in a less degree) men desiring fame, and (in a still lesser degree) men desiring power, are commonly stupid in proportion to the strength of such desired in them. Were it not so the harm done by the controllers of advertisement would be infinite. As it is, through their stupidity the harm is limited. But it is growing, as day by day the men upon whom advertisement depends discover and enlarge their opportunities. Their effect is as good an example as one could get of the universal truth, that evil comes from the substitution of the means for the end.

Are their limits to this evil? It is growing, manifestly. It is worse now by far than it was fifty years ago. Yet anyone who will look at the thing dispassionately, without allowing his disgust for the vileness of it to deflect his judgement, must admit that the disease does tend to a maximum and therefore to a limit; and, what is more, in that tendency to a maximum and to a limit we shall find the ultimate remedy for this disease. It will not be a remedy (alas!) of our own choosing. It will be a remedy imposed, as perhaps are most remedies to epidemics, by the nature of things.

Advertisement tends to a maximum and therefore to a limit in many ways. First of all it depends on repetition. It does not weary the crowd as soon as it wearies the more cultivated or the more contemplative, but at last it wearies even the crowd.
Picadilly Circus (2006)
Then there is the tendency to a maximum, and therefore to a limit through the exaggeration of competition, and through the decay of competition through merger. In commercial affairs this is evident. The fierce battle of advertisements between two rival sellers dies down because they are rivals no longer but have combined to bleed the public. They are whole departments of goods and services in which this slackening of advertisement through merger is already manifest. It is no doubt a bad remedy for a bad thing, but it is a remedy. It would seem that the only obstacle to such tendencies is that general merger of all control in one despotic centre, which is just now so fashionable a panacea for the misfortunes of human society. In the despotisms, where all competition is under control, any branch of it may be killed at a moment’s notice. But the despotisms themselves are founded upon advertisement—and advertisement carried to monstrous, inhuman lengths. Some name, some policy, some “slogan” (to use the jargon of advertisers) is shouted till men are deafened with it. Indeed, the modern despotisms would seem to be the very deification of advertisement. Yet under them particular advertisement dies, and that is the end of advertisement by powerful competing individuals. Satiety will do its work at last in this major case also. It looks as though here, as in much else, we shall not return to sanity and reasonable right living until there has been catastrophe. An unhappy conclusion! But it is the conclusion to which one road after another leads as we follow the misfortunes of our time.

When advertisement in every form has lost its power through excess, there will at last return, slowly and imperceptibly in a society grown barbaric and therefore simple, the proper process of fame, of commerce and the rest of it: the attainment of what men desire, not through publicity and repetition, but rather, as it was in better times, publicity and reputation coming as a natural fruit of living action. Men may then once more be famous for what they have done. Their characters may be admired or detested through the good or evil of their deeds and we shall be free once more to judge thing as they are.

~Hilaire Belloc: The Silence of the Sea and Other Essays (1941)

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