Book Review: Deadly Persuasion (or: Can’t Buy My Love)

One of the criticisms that is unfairly leveled at atheists, from time to time, is that we necessarily embrace a narcissistic, materialistic worldview. It’s a simple image to conjure up: that of the live-for-today, to-hell-with-others egoist that is bound by no moral code; the purposeless scoundrel looking only to use others for nothing but his own benefit, fearing no afterlife retribution. This is an absurd notion, of course, and one that most every nontheist that I have ever met disproves through the daily example of his or her life. Without the prepackaged goals, rules, and dogma, the nonreligious I’ve known have had to look inward to build a deeper life full of meaning.

I think it behooves us, then, to point out not just the ill effects that religion and dogma can bring, but other aspects of our modern culture that promote a shallow and banal sense of life. One such example involves the crass commodification of our social environment.

Ironically, this is an issue on which I find myself in agreement with a certain subset of religious people. While it goes right over the head of many of the devout (generally the ones that adhere to the “prosperity gospel” ), there are plenty of Christians, and others, that recognize the the pop culture of consumption and branding is in many ways at loggerheads with an examined life of purpose, meaning, and personal growth.

There is no greater expert on the subject of how aggressive marketing can degrade the quality of a culture than Jean Kilbourne. As a writer, filmmaker, and internationally recognized expert on advertising, addiction, and women’s issues, it has been estimated that she has given lectures at roughly half the universities and colleges in the U.S. Her unique talent is her ability to see and expose the underlying strategies and tools employed by purveyors of all manner of goods to persuade us—methods that seem all the more shocking when we actually see them. Her book Deadly Persuasion, which has also been published under the title Can’t Buy My Love, is a fascinating study of the power of the ubiquitous ads that surround us in our every waking moment.

(Before I go on, I’ll point out that to oppose the manner in which much modern advertising is performed is not to oppose a healthy capitalistic economy, a system that quite clearly has worked better than any other. This is not a diatribe against the availability of every imaginable trifle, or the competition amongst companies to market a more useful product. It is rather about certain methods that advertisers continue to use that have, Kilbourne asserts, a negative effect on the way we interact and the way we view ourselves, others, and material goods. It is about devaluing the currency of genuine human contact.)

The book considers advertisements in magazines as television, and considers a number of different kinds of campaigns in dedicated chapters. There are individual discussions on alcohol marketing, the auto industry, food, tobacco, and the exploitation of human relationships.

“Advertising encourages us not only to objectify each other but also to feel that our most significant relationships are with the products we buy.” Kilbourne states in her introduction. “Although we like to think of advertising as unimportant, it is in fact the most important aspect of the mass media. It is the point.” She goes on to show how a key goal is to make us insecure about our present lives, for example, as is done in the ubiquitous women’s magazines that juxtapose images of cheesecakes or pies on the cover with articles on weight loss tips and images of skinny models inside. After all, “people who feel empty make great consumers.”

“Advertising… twists the notion that we can recreate ourselves – not through dedicated work, but merely by purchasing the right product… [It] often sells a great deal more than products. It sells values, images, and concepts of love and sexuality, romance, success, and perhaps most important, normalcy… we are surrounded by hundred, thousands of messages every day that link our deepest emotions to products, that objectify people and trivialize our most heartfelt moments and relationships.”

To give some examples of the objectification she cites, I’ll just mention the commodity that receives perhaps the most lavish attention from Madison Avenue: the automobile. Kilbourne devotes an early chapter to the subject of car advertising (Can an engine pump the valves in your heart?), and through a series of oddly similar examples, shows how many ad campaigns aim to humanize their machines: “Rekindle the romance”; “If anyone should ask, go ahead and show them your pride and joy” (this under a picture of a wallet showing two photographs – one of a couple of children and the family dog, the other a Honda); “We don’t sell cars, we merely facilitate love connections”; “Stylish, responsive, fun–if it were a man you’d marry it”; “Drive the new Paseo, fall in love”; “She loves her new Mustang. Oh, and whatshisname too”; “A change from you high-maintenance relationship”; ”It’s not a car, its an aphrodesiac”; “What makes you happy? Is it the sparkle in a lover’s smile? Or the warmth of a goodnight kiss? But could it be a car?”;“While some cars can hug the road, very few can actually seduce it.” And so on. Kilbourne does more than list these and countless other examples: she deconstructs them and their implications.

Another troubling issue that the book addresses is the pernicious effect of advertising that is directly aimed at children. This is even more troubling in light of studies that show that young children don’t differentiate between the shows and the advertisements. The chapter on children led me to wonder how much of our national drug-abuse problem among teens is stoked by the way advertising is generally presented. While certainly the causes are many and varied, I think about my own typical childhood, growing up with hours of television every day. And the ads are still relentlessly telling us that purchasing a product makes wonderful things happen: a man opens a soda and a marching band explodes out of his TV into his room; the interior of an SUV becomes a landscape with waterfalls; wearing the right brand of jeans causes your world to shift into a nighttime city scene where a lovely brunette looks at you longingly. It seems quite rare anymore to see to a commercial anymore where use of a produce does not result in some kind of supernatural effect. Perhaps in the process of growing up, when we come to realize that the implicit, fantastical promises of the ads are not true – perhaps this adds to the appeal of drugs that can help make the world seem as magical as we thought it would be?

In short, if you’ve ever wondered how advertisers try to manipulate us, and what the consequences of the onslaught of false promises might be, I highly recommend Kilbourne’s fascinating book. You will not look at your TV the same again, and you’ll likely come to agree with the author’s observation that “advertising and religion share a belief in transformation and transcendance… [but] in the world of advertising, enlightenment is achieved instantly by buying material goods.” And that although one may “love” their possessions, they cannot love one back.


One Response to “Book Review: Deadly Persuasion (or: Can’t Buy My Love)”

  1. Nice review, Just bought the book!

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