The most unintentionally funny magazine in the world is Adbusters. The world's got to be pretty good if the only thing you have left to bemoan is Ronald McDonald. The letters to the editor are a scream - the bitterest people alive complaining about the pettiest problems imaginable. But behind all that inadvertant mirth, Adbusters has a theory: Advertising is designed by the greedy corporations to brainwash us into accepting their rule.
Any decent economist can point out the hole in this theory. If the capitalists are so greedy, why don't they free ride? Why waste money making capitalism popular, when your firm captures such a small slice of the benefit? Economist Dan Sutter develops this argument with great panache in his forthcoming book on the economics of the media.
Yet recently I've begun to think that the Adbusters position can be partially salvaged.
Less than a decade ago, I drove from former West Germany to former East Germany, and was struck by how much more beautiful the West was. Houses in the West had flower boxes. Houses in the East did not. I reflected that the aesthetic gap between West and East used to be vastly greater. And I recalled how people I knew who toured the Soviet bloc were more likely to sadly describe the "greyness" of communist life than the machine guns at the border.
The upshot is that the private pursuit of beauty in the West had a striking externality. Every time a West German put a flower box in his window, he was making capitalism look prettier than socialism. And while intellectuals may say they couldn't care less about such things, I suspect that sheer aesthetics changed a lot of minds about East versus West.
What does this have to do with advertising, and commercialism generally? Corporations do not advertise to create support for capitalism, any more than West Germans planted flowers to fight communism. But advertising does more than just sell one firm's products; it also contributes to the beautiful image of the whole system.
Flip through a popular magazine, or wander through your local mall. Even if you don't remember a single product, you get an overall impression of a world that is colorful, fun, glitzy, and sexy. And that probably leads more people around the world to admire capitalism than Milton Friedman ever did.
In other words, Adbusters is right to insist that advertising persuades people to like capitalism more. It does. But contrary to Adbusters, the corporations don't intend to do it. It just so happens that in their quest to make a buck, corporations make the whole capitalist system look marvelous.
If you share Adbusters' anti-capitalist ethos, this will just cement your desire to squelch advertising to help make capitalism as ugly on the outside as it is on the inside. But if you appreciate the benefits of the free market, you've probably been underestimating the social benefits of advertising. After all, if the real arguments for capitalism fail to persuade, it may win anyway just for being so good-looking.