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Books

August 16, 2009

Combatting Idiocracy

Ad Nauseum author Carrie McLaren tells Gelf how she would limit the impact of corporate advertising.

Adam Rosen

By 2006, writer and director Mike Judge had created Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill, and Office Space, all immensely popular, controversy-stoking, highly-rated comedies. Nonetheless, when his most recent movie was released in fall 2006, it was shown in only seven cities (not including New York), a head-scratching feat for a multimillion-dollar production distributed by no less than 20th Century Fox.

The film, Idiocracy, is an outlandish affair set in 2505, a time when a sports drink, chock full as it is of electrolytes, whatever they are, has replaced water; forming coherent sentences brands one a "fag;" and Starbucks gives out handjobs. The bizarre circumstances surrounding Fox's decision to quash promotion for the movie, coupled with the film's lacerating (and endlessly quotable) rant on contemporary American mores, have earned it a place at the pantheon of cult cinema.

Carrie McLaren. Photo by Charles Star
"False or misleading advertising is currently banned in theory but not in practice."

Carrie McLaren. Photo by Charles Star

For social critics, there's simply no wiser oracle than Judge's underexposed opus. Carrie McLaren is such a critic. The founder and editor of Stay Free!, a zine referred to as the "American Adbusters," McLaren, working with longtime contributor Jason Torchinsky, recently published Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. A compendium of Stay Free!'s greatest hits plus some new material, Ad Nauseam is a point-by-point dissection of the advertising profession, touching on subjects as seemingly diverse as biopsychology and corporate mascots, and offering alarming proof that Idiocracy may arrive far, far sooner than 2505. In the following interview, which was conducted by email and edited for clarity, Gelf caught up with the 40-year old Brooklyn resident to discuss her new book.

Gelf Magazine: Ad Nauseum explores the vast (and often disarmingly clever) methods used by advertisers to influence us. Given the breadth of your knowledge, are you fully immune to advertising?

Carrie McLaren: No, no one is.

Gelf Magazine: How do products and services reach their intended audiences without advertising?

Carrie McLaren: Word of mouth is a very effective form of advertising, albeit a free one.

Gelf Magazine: If you were able to, would you ban all advertisements?

Carrie McLaren: No. But I would gladly ban some.

Gelf Magazine: Which would you ban, and why?

Carrie McLaren: I'd ban ads in schools. Ads disguised as medical-journal articles, etc. False or misleading advertising is currently banned in theory but not in practice, so I'd like to see more regulation there.

Gelf Magazine: How did you gain access to so many primary industry sources?

Carrie McLaren: No real secret. I just use the net a lot.

Gelf Magazine: Your interview with Doug Webb, The Little Mermaid "fan," was frightening. But isn't his obsession—to be generous about it—more a function of his own issues than Disney's practices?

Carrie McLaren: Disney's practices are largely irrelevant in this case. The point of that interview (and the chapter that it appears in) is to show how consumer culture affects people as individuals. As I say in the intro, Webb's obsession is pretty extreme, but I wanted to illustrate how central a role this commercial stuff can play in people's lives. All Americans have a little bit of Doug Webb in them.

Gelf Magazine: Do you ever feel hypocritical after examining your own choices in entertainment, fashion, food, etc.?

Carrie McLaren: Not really. I've never had much to say about the choices people make as consumers (except when it comes to buying SUVs). Screaming at people to stop shopping isn't my thing. My criticism is almost always directed toward institutions or public figures. I'm much more interested in how corporations shape our views and actions, often in ways we're unconscious of.

Gelf Magazine: A byproduct of the recession has been a huge downturn in consumer spending and a huge spike in unemployment. For better or for worse, American consumption habits are the primary driver of the domestic and world economies. Were we to alter this paradigm, wouldn't much of the world be faced with increased poverty and hardship?

Carrie McLaren: In times of heavy consumer spending, there's still plenty of poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Government policies that place corporate interests over human ones are the real source of the problem. The media seem to fixate on economic growth as the end-all, be-all. In a chapter in Ad Naueseum called "Shopping for Cancer," Jonathan Rowe argues that, increasingly, economic growth consists of things like cancer treatments, lawyers bills, and bank fees—things that actually hurt people. As long as things make money, the economy deems them good.

Gelf Magazine: In your introduction, you write, "The final chapter is often the one in which authors outline solutions to all of the problems they've detailed. We're not going that route because there is no grand panacea we can honestly prescribe." C'mon…give us something.

Carrie McLaren: My main concern with advertising is that it dominates so much of our culture. So I'd love to see restrictions narrowing its scope. If I had to boil it down to two rules, they would be:
1) Advertising and other commercial interests should be clearly identifiable. This means no medical studies or journals ghostwritten by pharmaceutical companies.
2) Audiences shouldn't be held captive to advertising. This would rule out advertising in public schools (such as McDonald's-sponsored lunch menus, product placements in textbooks, corporate naming rights, etc.), audio on public buses, and [pharmaceutical companies'] TV commercials in hospital waiting rooms.
Another suggestion that's been around forever is making corporate-advertising expenditures, say, 95% instead of 100% deductible as a business expense. The money raised could then support noncommercial, public media. There are lots of specific ways to limit advertising; what we really need is the political will to do it.

Gelf Magazine: Rank, in descending order, the greatest threats to American liberty: terrorism, political demagoguery, advertising, censorship, economic inequality.

Carrie McLaren: I'm not smart enough for that.

Related in Gelf:

Four years ago, McLaren told Gelf about Stay Free!'s hilarious prescription drug advertisement parody for Panexa.

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.







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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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