Financial motivations have infiltrated our nation's mass media to the point where objectivity is often compromised, and messages of truth and artistic impression are often indistinguishably mingled with messages motivated by marketing and promotion for financial gain. In recent years, this view has gravitated from the radical fringe to a mainstream observation.
While this is an assessment of today's state of affairs, by no means did we arrive at this circumstance overnight. It is the product of many decades of a progression toward integrating marketing into every conceivable aspect of our culture. It used to be that these practices were relegated to the space and time set aside for advertisements. But when product marketers began to realize that they could gain an additional advantage by inseminating the content to which the advertisements were attached, the wall of separation began to crumble. Now, if there is any division at all, it is more like a layer of gauze than a firewall:
- When a scene in a film involves a star actress reaching into a refrigerator and asking her costar if he would like a Pepsi, it is not because the screenwriter believed that the choice of a Pepsi was crucial to the film's artistic integrity. Instead, it is product placement.
- When a television "news" broadcast includes, during its brief half-hour, a story of a new movie, television program, or line of clothing, it is not because that new show or product is more newsworthy than other, legitimately newsworthy, events. Instead, it is cross-promotion.
- When a basketball team takes the floor and each of its players are wearing the same brand of shoes, it is neither a coincidence nor the coach's opinion that those Converse / Nike / Reebok / Adidas shoes are any better than any other brand. Instead, it is corporate sponsorship.
- When a national magazine contains an ad for a product or another publication that is generated by the same parent corporation, it is not just because it was a good place to run the ad. Instead, it is the leveraging of corporate assets.
- When a tennis pro or auto racer stands in front of the interview cameras wearing clothes that are covered in slogans and name brands, it is not because those had been the only clean clothes they could find in their closet. Instead, it is a lucrative endorsement contract.
The examples could, of course, continue ad nauseum, as they can be identified in virtually every venue and every facet of American life. The problem is, they can have a detrimental impact. They subtly set standards for what one must wear, be, do, achieve, and acquire in order to be a member of society and carry a sense of self worth. This may sound preposterous in the abstract, particularly in the case of our older generation whose values and identity were established prior to this emergent era. But, for the youngest members of our society, who are the most malleable and have been weaned on these messages, they are a potent source of (mis)guidance and self-assessment.
If one has not learned to decipher these codes -- segregating truth and art from promotion and consumerism -- then they become a victim. Some people might say that a failure to decipher may not be consequential. But, victimization is clear when a six-year-old develops a preference for Big Macs and Snickers Bars because everyone on TV looks like they're having so much fun when eating them. The impact is striking when a ten-year-old feels compelled to wear clothes with the latest insignia to send appropriate signals to their classmates. The price is paid when a teenager develops a low self-esteem, convinced that she is not up to the standards of her peers because she doesn't own what they own. Society loses when a 20-year old is angered that he cannot envision acquiring things that he has come to believe he needs, and then turns to crime to acquire them.
Ideas / Solutions
The good news is that this problem is, by and large, curable. It starts with awareness. By becoming aware of the efforts and techniques of the marketing professionals, one can spot where relevance and significance leave off, and where promotions and financial interests take over. With coaching, even young children can begin to distinguish the difference. Breakfast cereals in the shape of their favorite cartoon characters can provide a good opportunity for learning, for example, when they find that those cereals don't necessarily taste better than others. Teenagers definitely have the ability to decipher disguised messages.
One solution is for all students -- perhaps in the ninth, tenth, or eleventh grade -- to take a nationally-developed, abbreviated course in Mass Media Consumer Protection. The course would be designed to heighten awareness of these pervasive practices, and is easily justified on the basis of teaching the skills that are essential to functioning in modern society, becoming a discerning consumer, and, ultimately, a mature, responsible adult. Such coursework would also be a good platform for development of certain fundamental character traits, such as distinguishing "wants" from "needs", understanding the impact of "keeping up with the Joneses" on self respect and respect for others, and identifying the motives of corporate marketers.
Although the course would focus on this subject matter, the lessons learned would greatly advance critical thinking in our students by teaching techniques that aid in interpretation and ways to look beyond the surface toward what lies below. These lessons could help bridge the severe chasm between the skills of students in our better schools and those of students in under-performing schools. The resulting critical thinking skills would go a long way in raising the performance of the majority. Of vital importance to employers who lament the decline of a skilled labor pool, these are skills that bolster the mental processes that make good employees. Opening the minds of millions to critical thinking techniques has the potential to improve long-term employability and productivity.
Such a class would not need to meet as regularly as courses in the basic academic skills, and could be combined with other coursework recommended in subsequent chapters. All four curricula could be taught within the same semester: one fourth of a semester for each of the four courses, with the grades from each averaged for one final grade.
The goals of education should be recognized as including the assimilation of substantive knowledge and information, developing lifelong individual acuities, producing critical-thinking adults, and providing society with people ready to contribute to the workforce. Consumer Protection in Mass Media coursework would help advance all of these objectives.