From Fledgling Zine to Industry 'Survivor's Guide'

More Than a Decade After Its Debut, Stay Free Gets the Anthology Treatment

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"Ad Nauseam," a collection of essays and other bits culled from the zine and blog Stay Free over the years, calls itself "A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture." And in a way, it is. Editors Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky have clearly survived without resorting to a remote and heavily armed compound in Idaho, and they are here to tell the tale. Or, more precisely, they are here to explain to the masses just how consumer culture works and why everyone should be concerned.

On the one hand, in a society where until last fall 70% of the economy depended upon consumer spending, one might wonder if there was anyone left in this country who didn't know how consumer culture worked. On the other hand, that might just be my advertising hat talking; fish are often unaware of the water they swim in.

At its best, "Ad Nauseam" is tremendous and should be required reading for anyone in or out of the consumer culture. At its worst, it's uneven (as anthologies invariably are) and at times a bit dated. One wishes, for example, that the essays and articles that reach back over a decade were accompanied by a paragraph or two updating the insights in the context of all that has happened since the essay was first written.

Because this "surviving consumer culture" business is a large and daunting task, Ms. McLaren charts out an admirably comprehensive attack plan that the book is organized around. "Ad Nauseam" begins by explaining how advertising works on humans. It then advances to how consumerism affects humans, followed by two sections on how consumerism affects society as a whole. There's a brief history of advertising -- indeed, because advertising occupies the unusual position of both manufacturing and mirroring consumer culture -- and the book finishes with a section that could be titled "What Some of Us Are Doing to Express Our General Displeasure with Consumerism."

Ms. McLaren and her band of writers have a great style; her analysis of a Viceroy print ad from the '60s is spot on and one of the few times a book on advertising actually had me laughing out loud. The writing is generally smart, sharp and fast. Think of it as a sort of "Daily Show" if the "Daily Show" were fixated only on consumer culture. And if it didn't have any commercials. And were a book.

The fifth section of "Ad Nauseam" briefs readers on the history of advertising (or more precisely, on the history of how advertisers view consumers). It's one of the most concise, readable and clear-eyed reviews of this industry I've ever encountered. Few punches are pulled, and as such, one emerges with an honest -- and, at times, embarrassing -- understanding of how we ended up where we are. You may never look at "Mad Men" quite the same way again. Or "Bewitched," for that matter. This section alone is worth the price of admission.

Unfortunately, the book ends with perhaps the least satisfying section of the collection. If consumerism is as important and dangerous as the authors believe it is, their snarky take on a whiskey tasting at the Playboy mansion, or their celebration of the harassment of poor telemarketers, seems juvenile at best, and disingenuous to their aims at worst. Indeed, having set the bar so high by delivering so many insights and cogent analysis of what ails us, one is disappointed when the folks at Stay Free seem content merely to poke a finger in the eye of culture instead of offering thoughts on how to fix it.

That said, Ms. McLaren makes it clear in the Postscript that her role is not to have the answers. But neither is it, she admits, to just sit around while Rome burns. And if this book does nothing more than educate and enlighten about the true nature of the culture we're swimming in, then it will have been worthwhile. It does that, and to its credit, it does a great deal more.

Read the forward to Ad Nauseam by New York Times "Consumed" columnist Rob Walker on his blog,, and the book's site. You can keep up with Carrie McLaren and her contributors on the Stay Free Daily blog. And while the print edition of Stay Free is now defunct, you can still browse the archives online.

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