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

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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.