TV Advertising’s Double Threat

How to be a better materialist in 60 seconds.

I recently heard about a father who critiques (and sometimes ridicules) the commercials his family watches on TV. He often asks his kids: “Can this product really do that?” “Is that really true?” “What emotional need are they appealing to there?”

This dad’s got a good idea.

Many people—not just conservative Christians—complain loud and long about sex and violence on television. But most of us just accept the commercials.

Our modern, sophisticated lack of concern stands in stark contrast to the attitudes of the ancients. About 2250 B.C., the Code of Hammurabi made selling something to a child or buying something from a child without power of attorney a crime punishable by death. Today, we hardly seem to notice that our children are exposed to 350,000 television commercials by the time they reach the age of 18.

The commercial exploitation of our children should be reason enough for resistance. But TV advertising carries yet more dangerous perils. Thirty years ago, Vance Packard explained that advertisements weren’t just selling a product, they were marketing answers for hidden human needs. He catalogued a number of those needs, including a reassurance of worth, ego gratification, and a sense of power.

The electronic packaging and many of the products have changed since then, but today’s TV ads aim at those same basic human needs. A commercial that tells viewers, “You deserve a break today,” reassures them of their worth as persons just as surely as “Have it your way” offers them decision-making power. And the ad that comments, “You never looked so good,” ...

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