Published on Saturday, February 23, 2002 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Shop Till You ... Stop!
by Shawna Richer
Sut Jhally has seen the enemy, and it is ads.
The 46-year-old communications professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, founder of the groundbreaking Media Education Foundation, argues that our survival as a species is dependent on minimizing the threat from advertising and the commercial culture that spawns it.
Next week, the Simon Fraser University alumnus will deliver that school's annual Smythe lecture on his pet topic: "Advertising and the End of the World." He will argue that commercialism threatens us even more today than before Sept. 11.
Jhally was born in Kenya, raised in England and educated in Canada. But he has been living and teaching in the United States for nearly two decades. He says he would love nothing more than to live in Canada, "a civilized America with values America doesn't have. It's tough sometimes for Canadian progressives to see this, but things really are better in Canada." Yet he continues to reside and toil in what he affectionately describes as "the belly of the beast."
That's partly because it is home, but also because he strongly believes it is the most effective place, as the most consumer-mad country in the world, for his work to make a difference.
Jhally's crusade has not been adopted in the post-terrorist-attack frenzy to redefine our social and cultural convictions. His is not a 9/11-bandwagon, Irony-Is-Dead, The-World-Has-Changed-Forever proposition. On the contrary, Jhally's work was inspired by his teacher years ago, the renowned Canadian communications scholar and policy adviser Dallas Smythe, whose thinking on economics and the media became influential in the 1940s.
Now, Jhally works to get his mentor's views accepted by the mainstream. In a society drenched in and driven by advertising, it's an uphill battle.
"Advertising is like a drug dealer," Jhally said this week in an interview from his home in Northampton, Mass., a college town about 160 kilometers outside Boston. "It's always there offering us a hit, cajoling us to take a whiff. And the extent to which we do stops us from thinking of real ways we can become happy."
Smythe, a native of Regina who died in 1992, was the first to look at media as economic institutions rather than cultural ones, purporting that economics is the central dynamic of the corporate-media system. Jhally says we ignore this view at our peril.
"The economic function of mass media is driven by advertising," he says. "It's to make sure products are sold and consumed. What happens when you stop looking at mass media as vehicles for the dissemination of ideas, and start looking at them as vehicles for capturing audience attention for advertisers?
"We are still blind to what mass media is really about. Media companies stay in business because they get their money from advertisers and they provide advertisers [with] audience attention."
Jhally moved to Canada at the age of 22, in 1978, after accepting a scholarship to the University of Victoria. He continued his studies at Simon Fraser. On March 1, at the Halpern Center on SFU's campus in Burnaby, B.C., he'll return to deliver the prestigious lecture at the school he still considers his intellectual home, the place he credits with "teaching me how to think."
As opposed to how to conform. Jhally is a firm believer that as advertising spreads, it perpetuates its own values, and eventually its own ethics and morality.
"It's every nook and cranny into our children's consciousness from the moment they can perceive," he says. "The reason the planet is on its last legs is because it's been pushed by consumption. The environmental crisis is always connected to production. Why do we have to keep producing things? Because people have to keep buying them. If advertising didn't fuel that consumption, if there was another set of values that wasn't about endless consumption, we may be able to think about production in a new way that will not jeopardize the future of the planet."
Jhally also reasons that if the main export of the Middle East was strawberries rather than oil, the attacks of Sept. 11 would never have happened. "We have to guarantee access to oil. Military conflicts come about because of scarce resources. If the cost of that is 100,000 dead Iraqis in the Gulf War or bombs dropping in Afghanistan or lots of brown people killed, then that seems to be a cost the West is willing to pay."
Jhally's not blaming Americans. It's just that he strongly feels any analysis of the event that doesn't take a broader view can't begin to understand the basic problems.
"It was one of the worst acts in human history," he says. "But if we want to prevent it, and you want to be intellectually honest, you must take a hard look at the broad context. In the United States, there's a lot of intellectual dishonesty in which everything is being hidden behind a wave of patriotism and blind follow-the-leader. If that carries on, there's no hope of dealing with the complex issues Sept. 11 was one part of."
Yet patriotism has become the theme of much recent advertising. General Motors, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan are just a handful of companies who used the red, white and blue to sell cars and clothes.
Who can forget the pleas, not even a week after planes leveled the World Trade Center, of then-New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani asking tourists to visit Manhattan: Shop, see a play, shop, go for dinner, shop some more, he encouraged. U.S. President George W. Bush also boosted shopping. Consumers responded, and advertisers adapted.
Designer Kenneth Cole's latest glossy multipage spread in magazines and on billboards offers pithy advice on how to live from Sept. 12 on: "Buy some shoes," Jhally says wryly. "Really, after a while, it became obvious that nothing had really changed. You knew advertising was back when sex and triviality made a return. And today you'll see very little difference from before 9/11. The view now is that, 'Yes, the world has changed -- and how can we take advantage of it?' "
Jhally prefers to focus on the individual's role when discussing solutions to the planet's problems. Advertising is not going to trigger apocalypse on its own, but as the propaganda of a market system, he says, it helps persuade society to subordinate other values to shoes and sweaters and SUVs.
How do we reverse it? Do we even want to? Intrinsically, we know that Ralph Lauren bed sheets and Prada handbags and Manolo Blahnik shoes won't make us any happier. But it doesn't stop us from buying.
"If you ask people what would make them happy, few would respond with the answer a BMW or a big house," Jhally says. "What we do know from studies is that people want basic things. Autonomy. Control. Intimacy and love and connection and relaxation. That's what drives people.
"Advertising uses the images of a deeply desired social life that the market can't provide and link those to the things a market can provide.
"Happiness has not gone up even, as a society, we've gotten richer and have more access to more things. Advertising is the illusion that stops us from recognizing that."
If Jhally's program seems like a common wish to return to a simpler time, his take on academics and getting his message across is refreshingly straightforward. He realizes that it's more important to reach what he calls "the kid in the baseball cap in the back row of class" than to preach to the converted.
"When intellectuals talk among themselves, they talk in a way that is impossible for a general audience to understand," he says. "They may be talking about great things, but they're in an intellectual alley. Unless we talk to that kid, we're just hanging out with people who already agree with us. Not enough academics are willing to take that risk. The first job of education is to get people to see the world they live in, to pull back the curtain and allow people to see what's behind it.
"Society does not fall from heaven fully formed. It's made and constructed by ordinary people. Deep down, people know the world in which they live is not very satisfying because they're geared towards consumption. In America, people just work way too hard. Why? To buy stuff. What for? Because the market system has us believing happiness will come from it. Well, happiness doesn't come from it."
© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc