The other day as I was driving my daughter to a doctor’s appointment, a woman pulled up alongside us, leaned over and held a book up to the passenger-side window. I gave her a friendly wave, because I’m always up for a good book recommendation. But she continued to hold it there, staring straight ahead, as we both edged forward in the traffic.

Gosh, I thought. She really likes this book. And seems to think that it’s just the book for me!

I took a closer look: the title was The Marketing of Evil, and on the cover was an apple being temptingly proffered. Later that day, I looked the book up online and read the description:

* at the beginning of a list

* on the vanity license plate of a traveling campervan

* to your dog, followed by a beef-and-cheese-flavored snack from pocket, counting on word of mouth to spread from there

* to your demons

* to your high school guidance counselor

Mike Tennant is the co-author of The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture with Terry O’Reilly.

***

A few decades back, Texan Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson gazed down the highway and didn’t like what she saw. Billboards blocked her view of the plains, of the distant hills, and of her beloved wildflowers. So she complained to her husband, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who prompted Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Act, which placed limits on the spread of posters— or billboards as they’re popularly known— and preserved the views that Lady Bird Johnson loved so well.

So what makes this the Age of Persuasion, and why write about it?

Advertising — like it or not — is the mightiest, most pervasive culture force of the 21st Century. It’s infused in every aspect of life today. Ads are on condoms, in space, in churches, and stamped on the sand at public beaches. Ads are written into books (not ours!) movies, even stage plays. I think we need to start a meaningful dialogue about how all that affects our culture.

 

You and co-author Terry O’Reilly are both functioning ad men- doesn’t that make you biased when you write about advertising?

We love what we do. Make no mistake there. That said: we think a majority of the ads people see and hear on a given day fail. Speaking for myself, I believe 95% of ad creation is garbage, strewn carelessly across the culture landscape. 4% might actually earn people’s time and attention.

 

Okay, ad-guy: are there places you believe ads should not go?

I wish newspapers and news broadcasts were not ad-driven. It forces editors and reporters to look over their shoulders. Imagine reporting on the Gulf spill when you know BP is a sponsor. Or any other oil giant? Trouble is, I can’t think of another economic model that works for delivering news.

Personally- again I speak for myself here- I also believe there’s no place for ads in public schools, no matter how cash-strapped they are. It crosses a line from serving kids to using them- literally selling their time and attention to advertisers.

 

Yikes. So what good is there in advertising?

More than people give it credit for. It underwrites the cost of so much of our media- TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and yes, websites. It helps pay for our public transit. And every now and then- maybe once in every umpteen thousand ads- there’s are ads that actually inspire: rare gems that leave the cultural campsite better than they found it.

 

Name three.

Terry put me onto the magnificent Volkswagen ads of the early 1960s, by Doyle Dane Bernbach of New York, including print ads headlined “Think Small” and “Lemon,” and sensational TV ads such as “Funeral” and “Snow Plough,” which live on today on YouTube.

More recently, the fantastic TV ad for Old Spice, and the “World’s Most Interesting Man” campaign for Dos Equis are better entertainment, to me, than much of the broadcast content they sponsor. There are always a few great ads out there; ask anyone who goes to a revue cinema to watch award-winning ads from Cannes or the London International Ad Awards or the New York Festivals.

 

Gusty day, isn’t it?

Yeah. But then, these are gusty times.

 

The biggest problem I’ve always had with Western philosophy, especially in the wake of the neo-Platonic Humanism that fueled the Renaissance, is contempt for crowds. Pericles’ famous comment about “hoi polloi,” hailing the masses as the fount of Athenian greatness, has somehow been transmogrified into a symbol of contempt for crowds and crowd behavior by Western intellects. I’ll none of that¹. Crowds, like individuals, are capable of intelligence, and of stupidity.  Yet bigotry against crowds seems a common affliction of modern intellectuals, especially progressive ones.

Wow.

Really? Really?

This is where we’re at?

I normally refuel my car at QuikTrip, a regional convenience store chain that differentiates itself from others with clean facilities and prompt, friendly customer service. I mean, I don’t really give a shit about the customer service because I always pay at the pump, but on the occasion that I do have to go inside for something, it’s not an unpleasant experience the way some of those places are. It’s clean and brightly lit and the employees aren’t scary.

QuikTrip probably breaks even on us pay-at-the-pumpers, so in order to make a profit they try to lure us inside to buy goods and services. The way they try to convince us is to advertise these goods and services near the pumps, and usually the ads involve food. Because we’re all in a hurry and usually hungry, right? One recent ad was for some kind of breakfast confectionery concoction,  like a cake or a biscuit or a strudel (I don’t really remember exactly) that I presume is manufactured in a giant plant somewhere. And since QuikTrip marketers realize most Tulsans are overweight, that many of them probably feel a constant, nagging guilt about eating too much of the wrong foods, the tag line they chose was:

“Because you have all day to burn it off.”

They know most of us won’t burn it off, but that doesn’t matter because the profit margin on the breakfast is large in comparison to gasoline. And besides, if no one was overweight, the exercise machine business would dry up.

I realize that in order to sell something you often are forced to market it. But at what point does the sheer gaudiness of advertising gall us enough to ignore it? And what about the quality of the product? When do we finally put our foot down and say “no” to the McRib? Pressed pork in the shape of a rack of ribs? Bones included? Really?

Where I live, when you drive down any of the main city streets, the curbside advertising is often downright ugly. Businesses fight for the attention of your eyes with nothing less than their survival at stake. When you’re looking for a tailor shop, for a Greek restaurant, for a salon, you welcome those many-colored signs hoisted high into the air, but when you’re just driving home from work, caught in traffic, when you actually look at this marketing with a more critical eye, it almost seems sad. Desperate, even.

Over the years, Tulsa has gradually expanded southward, and traveling from north to south is like driving through time. The farther south you go, the worse the problem gets–except in planned, affluent neighborhoods–but even those residents are forced to drive into the commerce to buy the things they want.

Advertisers have become more brazen over the years, I suppose, because there is more competition than ever for services rendered. More companies offering more services means more ads competing for your attention. Everyone speaks a little louder until the conversation on what to do with your money becomes a roar imploring you to spend.

But on what? Unique, durable items that wow you with their innovation and quality? Or cheap, soulless shit stacked twelve feet high at your local Wal Mart Supercenter? It’s your choice, really. After all this is America.

I find it telling, though, that the best restaurants in Tulsa employ modest, even subtle signage. Advertising isn’t a priority because apparently word of mouth does the job more effectively.

The reason I mention all this is because on Saturday I stopped at a convenience store that wasn’t QuikTrip. This one is called (I am not making this up) Kum & Go. And while filling my car with gas, you know what I saw on the nozzle? An ad for NEW BANANAS FOSTER CAPPUCCINO!

On the oily nozzle of the gas pump.

At Kum & Go.

Doesn’t that sound delicious?