Ad It Up

By Terry Calhoun

Commercials on television tend to enrage me and laugh tracks are guaranteed to give me a headache. Plus, where do people find the time to watch TV?

The day that the Ohio State University Buckeyes beat the University of Michigan Wolverines, my wife and I bought our first new television. It’s been more than a decade since we’ve even had a television. (I keep wanting to say “television set,” instead of just “television.” I don’t know if that’s generational or not, but I suspect it is.)

So far we’ve watched “The Game” and a few iTunes-downloaded episodes of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Our still-at-home kids, 18 and 21, have had “That 70s Show” and “The Simpsons” on a few times, but I haven’t sat down to watch with them yet. In fact, having a television (set) isn’t as seductive as I had worried it would be. The best thing about it is that on weekends I can hook my laptop up to it and work online using the 32-inch screen as a monitor and not have to wear my reading glasses.

Just having a television (set?) around, though, makes me think more about “commercials” and advertising in general. Reading the news d'es, too. For example, those raccoon-like stripes that football players, duck hunters, and a number of folks who live in hunter-gatherer situations put under their eyes have some functional value. But I learned in the New York Times last weekend that football players are now using them as backgrounds to billboard-style stencils of things like “Number 1” or “Make Me”: pronouncements. Someone will find a way to charge a fee for the commercial exposure and we’ll soon have entire teams with matching “ads” on their cheekbones.

What won’t people put advertisements on? Someone in the 1950s wrote a science fiction story about a man who had a plan to shoot canisters of dense powder onto the moon in such a way as to create a huge soft drink advertisement across the face that we can see from Earth. There are patents on file regarding methods to project advertisements on the eyeballs of pedestrians walking by shops. Parents, amazingly, let young girls wear shorts with provocative lettering across the back. Eyes that would normally never be permitted to stare at a 15-year-old-girl’s behind are drawn to those letters. What are they thinking?

Even if humans were to disappear, nature would still have commercials. As I write this column, I am sitting in the Voltage Lounge of the Royal Caribbean ship, Sovereign of the Seas. As part of my preparation for this short trip to the Bahamas I read a few books on coral reef wildlife. Many different kinds of creatures live in some kind of symbiosis on a coral reef. Entire classes of “cleaner fish” or shrimp survive by eating dead scales and parasites off of the exterior of other kinds of fish. Some of them float around like neighborhood cleaning stations and use color or motion to “advertise” to their “customers,” which seek them out.

We all know that many edible berries and fruits advertise to animals with the attractiveness of their fruit, so that the animals can propagate their seeds. As a child I was fascinated with how the Viceroy butterfly mimics the appearance of the Monarch butterfly so that birds – at least those which have previously tasted the apparently disgusting Monarchs (never had the courage to eat one myself) would leave the Viceroys alone.

So, what’s wrong with commercials? Maybe nothing is, in principle anyway. We do need to locate the things we need and even the things we just want. What would a world in which there were no “attractive” things look and feel like? The problem comes when advertising is done to excess – but who gets to decide what excess is?

We’ve seen wave after wave of advertising methods sweep across the Internet, culminating in multiple pop-up ads, mini-movies that live in the corner of your computer screen and fly out at you if your cursor moves nearby, and so much spam that e-mail is, for some, dysfunctional.

At the moment, I am hiring a managing editor for SCUP’s journal, Planning for Higher Education. I am also on two search committees for executive director positions, one with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and the other with the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA). Having carefully read more than one hundred of them in the past month, it hasn’t escaped my notice that resumes are also a form of advertising.

Some think that when advertising g'es wrong is when it obscures rather than reveals, when it is used to create desires that are not otherwise inherent, or when it used to cause harm. What’s harm to one creature or person, however, is not necessarily so for another. Think of the Anglerfish, or of those lumpy, colorful fishes that lack the visible aqua-dynamics of what we think are “normal” fish slicing through the water, so that it can snuggle up against coral reefs and remain unnoticed while schools of its feeder fish swim by. The feeder fish might think it’s unfair and wrong to pretend to be harmless when you are not, but at least one of the parties involved gets a full stomach out of it.

And the spammers are getting full stomachs, too. How is it that they can stay in business? Well, the up-front costs are low per-millions-of-messages. Who are the people who fall for those schemes? Interestingly, new users, especially those who are adult and just getting online in 2006, may be responsible. The result is a very human situation where a few perpetrators flood this new environment with the cheap effluent of spam e-mails, knowing they’ll attract enough suckers to fill their stomachs.

To me, the worst thing that advertising on the Internet d'es is flood the environment with “noise” that obscures the information I really want. My e-mail is, in fact, quite dysfunctional right now because the spammers are sending me 3,000 messages a day, burying the 200-300 that I really want to read.

That’s especially annoying here aboard the Sovereign of the Seas, where they’re about to charge me 50 cents a minute to go online and download the 3,000+ messages that I have had sent to me in the day since we left port.

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