Love or Hate Advertising, It's More Egalitarian Than the Alternative

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Thomas Friedman is worried that different classes seldom encounter one another in America. But he's got the causes all wrong.

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There are sensible observations in Thomas Friedman's weekend column: market values are governing more spheres of life in America than ever before; it is troublesome that people of different income levels are increasingly unlikely to encounter one another; and we are losing some "places and institutions that used to bring people together from different walks of life." For more on those subjects, go read some Mickey Kaus and then some Charles Murray.

What I can't figure is why Friedman treats mass advertising as if it's intimately connected to these trends. Quoting from a new book, he tells us that in 2000, "a Russian rocket emblazoned with a giant Pizza Hut logo carried advertising into outer space," that in 2001, a British novelist wrote a book commissioned by a jewelry company that mentioned jewelry a dozen times, that  stadiums are named for corporations, that "New York Life Insurance Company has a deal with 10 Major League Baseball teams that triggers a promotional plug every time a player slides safely into base," and that for $500, Pete Rose "will send you an autographed copy of the document banishing him from the game." Moreover, he tells us, a New Jersey high school had a local supermarket buy naming rights to its gym, and seven states permit advertising on school buses.

Says Friedman:
 

Seen in isolation, these commercial encroachments seem innocuous enough. But Sandel sees them as signs of a bad trend: "Over the last three decades," he states, "we have drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society. A market economy is a tool -- a valuable and effective tool -- for organizing productive activity. But a 'market society' is a place where everything is up for sale. It is a way of life where market values govern every sphere of life."

Why worry about this trend? Because, Sandel argues, market values are crowding out civic practices. When public schools are plastered with commercial advertising, they teach students to be consumers rather than citizens. When we outsource war to private military contractors, and when we have separate, shorter lines for airport security for those who can afford them, the result is that the affluent and those of modest means live increasingly separate lives, and the class-mixing institutions and public spaces that forge a sense of common experience and shared citizenship get eroded.

This is analytically sloppy. Advertising on school buses may be problematic. Outsourcing war to private military contractors definitely is - but for a very different reason. Shorter security lines for affluent air passengers are problematic for a third reason. Conflating those things makes no sense.

Let's focus on advertising generally.

What Friedman misses is how frequently advertising increases shared experiences across income levels. For example, his column is bizarrely titled, "This Column Is Not Sponsored by Anyone," despite the fact that right above it on NYTimes.com there is a banner ad for a Citi/American Airlines credit card. What's the effect of that sponsorship? The fee paid to the Times is part of why the newspaper could offer the column online where it can be read free by anyone.

Without advertisers, they'd have to charge for the column. Lots of people would be priced out of that market.

Think about the aspects of American life that are shared across income groups: professional sports, television shows like American Idol, magazines like US Weekly, big budget movies, fast food, free Web based email, Facebook - all of it is subsidized to various degrees by advertising.

Perhaps there is a terrible cost to this unprecedented commercialization of life. But even if de-commercializing American had all the salutary effects you'd expect from reading Ad Busters or Don DeLillo, it would almost certainly make the lived experience of rich and poor more divergent. Watching TV would be much more expensive. There'd be no such thing as free email, and the rich would be using a better service. Mass market pro sports either wouldn't survive in their current form or ticket prices would go up. And that's not an exhaustive list, because advertising rewards the ability to attract a mass audience, incentivizing common culture.

"At a time when to fix our society we need to do big, hard things together, the marketization of public life becomes one more thing pulling us apart," Friedman writes. But that's not always true.

If by "the marketization of public life" we mean that airports are increasingly carved up into luxury lounges where access is restricted to affluent passengers, he's got a point. But if we mean that a sports stadium can charge 15 percent less for tickets because it sold naming rights to the building itself, the scoreboard, the halftime show, and the cheerleaders? That's one of many times when the marketization of public life brings us together. And one day we may miss it.

After all, niche advertising is the trend. If everything is targeted, the subsidies consumers enjoy by way of advertisers will flow to the rich even more than is presently the case. (Did you know that rich people get a different version of Sports Illustrated with extra golf coverage and supporting advertising?) That ought to worry Friedman a lot more than mass market advertising for Pizza Hut being shot into space.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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