Galbraith & Advertising Ethics

Andrew Potter of Rebel Sell fame has a very nice piece about the late John Kenneth Galbraith’s influential views on advertising, in this week’s MacLean’s Magazine, called Galbraith’s theory of advertising had us all fooled.

Here’s a snippet or two, but I highly recommend reading the whole article:

In what remains the most influential passage of his best-read book, The Affluent Society, Galbraith argued that in societies such as ours, wants or desires are created by the very process through which they are satisfied. Contrary to then-popular belief (the book was published in 1958), Galbraith wrote that corporations do not use advertising to inform us about products that might sate our independently determined desires. Rather, the function of advertising and marketing is “to bring into being wants that previously did not exist.” Galbraith calls this “the dependence effect,” and goes on to argue that this is an indictment of the entire system of capitalistic production, which is no more defensible than a town doctor routinely running over pedestrians in order to keep the hospital beds full.

The problem with this argument, though, is that it is a logical runaway train. Forget about fancy coffee or teeth whitener, what about music, literature, religion? If we set aside our urgent needs (for food, shelter, sex), there is probably not a single civilized want that is not, in a basic sense, an acquired taste. There was, presumably, no pre-existing desire for poetry until the first poet started rhyming. For the dependence effect to have any bite as a critique, we have to carve out advertising as a special, pernicious case. Galbraith himself did not offer a satisfactory way of doing so, and a half century of neo-Galbraithian social criticism has been devoted to figuring out some way of screening off commerce from the rest of culture.

As usual, I think Andrew is absolutely right.
The only reservation I have has to do with the case of products — take SUV’s as an example — that we know to be socially pernicious, and the demand for which we know has been (I won’t say “created”)…um…fostered by a cluster of very aggressive ad campaigns. Andrew’s right: the current prevalence of SUV’s is absolutely the result of a whole lot of stupid, selfish, individual decision-making. But the fact remains that there are too many SUV’s on the road. And advertising continues to play a role in that. And advertising is easier to regulate (or criticize) than the behaviour of millions of consumers. So, even if advertising isn’t the proximate cause of the SUV problem, it might well be one of the most effective ways to tackle a nasty social dilemma.

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