"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton on Advertising

“It is really not so repulsive to see the poor asking for money as to see the rich asking for more money.  And advertisement is the rich asking for more money.  A man would be annoyed if he found himself in a mob of millionaires, all holding out their silk hats for a penny; or all shouting with one voice, “Give me money.”  Yet advertisement does really assault the eye very much as such a shout would assault the ear.  “Budge’s Boots are the Best” simply means “Give me money”; “Use Seraphic Soap” simply means “Give me money.”  It is a complete mistake to suppose that common people make our towns commonplace, with unsightly things like advertisements.  Most of those whose wares are thus placarded everywhere are very wealthy gentlemen with coronets and country seats, men who are probably very particular about the artistic adornment of their own homes.  They disfigure their towns in order to decorate their houses.  To see such men crowding and clamouring for more wealth would really be a more unworthy sight than a scramble of poor guides; yet this is what would be conveyed by all the glare of gaudy advertisement to anybody who saw and understood it for the first time.  Yet for us who are familiar with it all that gaudy advertisement fades into a background.” – G. K. Chesterton

There is something unlikable about advertising.  Regardless of where it is and what form it takes, regardless of whether it’s tasteful or gaudy, advertising still makes things a little bit worse.  This is clear enough from the fact that people often ban advertising around their own homes when they can.  Some states such as Vermont have banned billboards.  Politicians in Maine are currently debating whether to allow them.  Other places have limited advertising on a smaller scale, and the logic behind such decisions is obvious.  Nature is pretty and cities can be beautiful, but littering either one with billboards makes them ugly.

In addition to the physical ugliness of advertising, there is also the moral ugliness.  A lot of advertising these days is just plain nasty, catering to our worse moral instincts in all kinds of way.  Some ads urge us to view ourselves as better than others or to put material things before people, while others use sex exploitatively or do other bad things.  Perhaps worst of all, ads downgrade anything that they do touch.  When a French telecom company made ads using speeches by Martin Luther King and Lou Gehrig with slight digital alterations, they necessarily cheapened those speeches.  The more you see a famous person or a beautiful scene exploited in that way, the less you can take the original seriously.

So that’s why I dislike i.  But the funny thing, as Chesterton points out, is that we generally view advertising as a vulgar, lower-class product.  Of course you tend to see more ads in lower-class places.  Posters are littered all over every wall in the more dismal urban areas and billboards pop up along the poorer rural routes, but it certainly isn’t the poor people who choose to put them there.  It’s rich people who choose to put them there.   Even when small businesses run by relatively poor people do advertise, they usually do it in a tasteful and restrained way.  Not so the rich.  They just want to smear their logos and slogans everywhere without regard to aesthetics.  Does Nike really need to put its ‘swoosh’ on every single object in the universe?  Does GEICO have to saturate the airwaves with its cavemen?  Of course not.  But the rich people who make the decisions at these big companies don’t lose anything from doing such gaudy ad campaigns.  They’re not the ones who have to put up with the ads a few feet from their windows.  They live in ritzy condos or inside gated communities.  It’s only the poor who have to put up with all this panhandling by the rich.


Comments on: "Chesterton on Advertising" (1)

  1. […] made my feelings about advertising known in this post.  But while advertising as a whole makes the world a more crude and ugly place, that doesn’t […]

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