A 'death spiral of disrespect'

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In the United States and across the planet, there are myriad signs of a growing revolt against the advertising industry.

Polls show rising resentment of the industry and its aggressive tactics. According to a new Yankelovich Partners poll, 65% of Americans say they are "constantly bombarded with too much" advertising; 61% think the quantity of advertising and marketing they are exposed to "is out of control"; 60% report that their view of advertising is "much more negative than just a few years ago."

Responding to sports fans' disgust over the sale of naming rights, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors restored the name Candlestick Park to its baseball stadium, which became the first pro sports arena to return to its popular name because of popular protest. In Denver, Mayor John Hickenlooper rose to prominence as the lead opponent to the sale of naming rights to Mile High Stadium. The placement of ads on pro baseball uniforms and batting helmets drew a spate of negative news coverage this month, a letter from a U.S. senator and a New York Times editorial.

Advertisers are being expelled from schools in droves. Channel One, the in-school advertising service, was removed last school year from Nashville, and will soon be kicked out of Seattle. New restrictions on the marketing or sale of soda or junk food in school have been approved in places such as California, Texas, New York City and Philadelphia.

These are just a few flashpoints. I could list many more. The point is that the advertising industry is growing a formidable list of opponents. It would do the industry some good to ponder why this is happening. The main reason, I suspect, is that the industry abides no limits or boundaries. There seems to be almost nowhere that the industry won't stick an ad.

Most Americans accept advertising as a part of the circus of life. We at Commercial Alert certainly do. But the advertising industry seems caught up in a death spiral of disrespect. In its desperate clamor to claim the attention of potential shoppers, the industry invents a new intrusive ad mechanism almost every week, until citizens are driven nuts by all the billboards, product placement, junk faxes, pop-unders and all the rest of it.

no royal treatment

As for the bromide that the "consumer is king"-well, no one harasses a real king.

The industry's implicit message is a total lack of respect for our time, our privacy, our attention, our peace of mind, and not least for our concerns about our kids. "Your attention is ours," the industry says, in effect. "We are entitled to it at every moment." This implicit disrespect for consumers is starting to overwhelm the explicit messages that each advertiser is trying to get across.

The industry's disrespect is obvious in the spread of coercive advertising. If advertising were popular, why would the industry force us to watch it? But it does; the industry takes advantage of captive audiences in schools, colleges, movie theaters, airport lounges, mass transit and at ATM's, gas pumps and doctors' offices, among other places.

Even worse is the industry's disdain for health, especially that of our children. American children are suffering from an epidemic of marketing-related diseases, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, while millions of children will die from the marketing of tobacco when they grow older. Yet the industry denies any responsibility for the declining health for our youth, and the prospect that our children may have shorter life spans than we do.

Worldwide, the industry is creating a powerful backlash over its impact on public health. Last year, the World Health Organization unanimously approved the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which bans the advertising of tobacco products in countries whose constitutions permit it. Hundreds of the world's top public health organizations, scholars and elected officials have endorsed a proposed worldwide ban on the marketing of unhealthy food to children.

Then there's the corruption of civic institutions, like city governments, schools and police. Coca-Cola has signed marketing deals with Huntington Beach and East Lansing, Mich., while PepsiCo has agreements with San Diego, and Fresno, Calif. The schools are rife with advertising. So are our post offices. One company has even been trying to sell ads on police cars. More and more, our civic institutions are looking like commercial pawns in a banana republic.

reaching limits

We Americans are a tolerant bunch, but there is a limit to the amount of hassling and insults we will absorb.

The upshot is: If you have contempt for citizens, we will have contempt for you, too. The outcome of that mutual contempt will be decided in courts and legislatures for decades to come, but the rising intrusiveness and unpopularity of the industry does not bode well for its chances.

Mutual contempt is bad for business. But it can be reversed. You might start with a bit of self-restraint.

This country is hungry for acts of heroism and principle in the advertising arena. If advertisers want to stand out from the noise, then stop the commercial trespassing. Make it known that you respect us, and our civic institutions, children, noncommercial culture, public health and public spaces. Then act accordingly. This would make advertising more welcome, and probably more effective, too.

If you don't take responsibility for your own actions, don't be surprised if citizens demand some relief. Such as: prohibitions against forcing anyone to watch advertising; bans on ads that increase the incidence of marketing-related diseases; no advertising to children 12 years of age and under; and no conversion of governments, schools and public spaces into advertising vehicles.

It is better for the industry to act voluntarily. Otherwise, after a long court battle, angry citizens will get rid of the commercial speech doctrine and replace it with the right to be left alone.

About the author

Gary Ruskin is executive director of Commercial Alert. He founded the non-profit organization, which aims to "protect children and communities from commercialism," in 1998 with Ralph Nader.

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