Wendell Berry on Capitalism, Advertising, Greed and the Good Life


I have long in love with the writings of Kentucky octogenarian Wendell Berry. But I also continue to discover new perspectives in his writing, whether it is essays, fiction or poetry. The last example is my late discovery of his preface (“The Joy of Sales Resistance”) to his collection of essays. Sex, economy, freedom and community (1993), as well as some remarks concerning advertising in his essays which follow.

In a 2014 essay on this LAP site, I wrote about his and EF Schumacher’s beliefs regarding global warming and quoted Berry’s words that “the real names of global warming are garbage and greed”. I also quoted his 2012 speech in which he lambasted “the failure of corporate industrialism to concern itself with the common good”: “No amount of hacking with capitalism. . . can hide this failure for a long time. The evidence is everywhere: eroded, wasted or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of species; entire landscapes disfigured, hollowed out, flooded or exploded; pollution of the entire atmosphere and the water cycle; “Dead zones” in coastal waters; reckless waste of fossil fuels and fossil waters, minerals and mineable ores; natural health and beauty replaced by heartless, sickening ugliness.

Further, this essay indicated that Berry agreed with Schumacher’s words that advertising and marketing encouraged a “greed and…” frenzy. . an orgy of envy. But in the Preface “The Joy of Resistance to Sale” he goes even further. Consider these strong words: “We live in an age where technologies and ideas (often the same thing) are adopted in response not to need but to advertising, selling and fashion. . . . The first duty of writers who want to be useful even to themselves is to resist the language, ideas and categories of. . . ubiquitous sales speech, regardless of whose mouth it comes out. But then, it is also the first duty of all the others “, the duty to resist” these peddlers of guaranteed satisfaction, these artists of escape, these institutional and commercial fanatics “. Rarely since 1961 when The New York Times quoted historian Arnold Toynbee words about advertising– “the fate of our western civilization revolves around the question of our struggle against all that Madison Avenue stands for” – were heard such strong words.

One of the main problems with advertising … is that it has become so ubiquitous, so present in our daily life, that we hardly notice it anymore.

In the essays that follow this preface, Berry discusses some of the other evils of advertising. For example, “As salespersons, advertisers and propagandists in the industrial economy have become more ubiquitous and adept at seduction, communities have lost the loyalty and affection of their members. . . . Public life simply becomes the arena of unbridled private ambition and greed. “In addition,” in their advertising and entertainment [corporations] encourage sexual self-indulgence as a means of selling goods.

One of the main problems with advertising – even truer than it was almost thirty years ago when Berry wrote his essay – is that it has become so ubiquitous, so integral to our daily lives, that we cannot we hardly notice it anymore. It’s like the fable of the frog put in lukewarm water, which is heated so slowly that it does not notice the danger and is boiled to death.

And this slow boil has been going on for a long, long time. In a 2012 essay on this site, “Advertising, Our National Values, and Truth and Beauty,” I cited the work of historian William Leach Land of Desire: Merchants, Power and the Emergence of a New American Culture (1993):

Beginning in the 1890s, American businesses, along with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into one concerned with consumption, comfort and bodily well-being, luxury, expense and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than that. American consumer capitalism has produced a culture almost violently hostile to the past and to tradition, a forward-looking culture of desire that has confused the good life with the goods. It was a culture that first emerged as an alternative culture. . . and then unfolded to become the reigning culture in the United States.

And, of course, the increase in advertising and marketing has propelled this new “culture of desire”. Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948), wife of the famous writer of Gatsby the magnificent (1925), wrote: “We grew up basing our dreams on the endless promises of American advertising. In the mid-1920s, the leading newspaper in Muncie, Indiana stated, “The primary importance of an American citizen to his country is no longer that of a citizen but that of a consumer. Consumption is a new necessity. “The way to make a business thrive is to buy.” In 1926, the The New York sun satirized radio ads for a fictional football contest:

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the annual Yale-Harvard game held under the auspices of the Wiggins Vegetable Soup Company, which makes fine vegetable soups. The large bowl is packed and the scene, courtesy of the R. & JH Schwartz Salad Company, is most impressive.

The Yale boys just walk the field, led by the Majestic Pancake Flour Band, and are followed by Harvard rooters, led by the Red Rose Pastry Corporation Harmonists, makers of cookies and gingerbread cookies.

Officials meet with the two team captains in the midfield under the auspices of the Ypsilanti Garter Company of North America. They are ready to kick off. Here is ! Captain Boggs kicked off Yale courtesy of the Waddingham Player Piano Company, who invite you to visit its beautiful showrooms.

The ball was picked up by “Tex” Schmidt in agreement with the Minneapolis Oil Furnace Company, Inc., and returned 23 yards courtesy of Grodz, Grodz & Grodz, makers of the famous Grodz linoleums.

In the next play, the Harvard runner is thrown hard by McGluck, one of the Mahatma Cigarette Company performers, and is completely knocked out by two Yale guards, Filler and Winch, thanks to the Hazzenback Delicatessen Products Corporation, makers. delicious salads with potatoes, cheeses, smoked ham and salads. Yale is penalized fifteen meters thanks to the kind cooperation of the National Roofing and Copper Gutters Company.

The teams line up again. It is a forward pass. . . a long stint on the road under the direction of the Great Western Soap Powder Company, which manufactures the best soap powders and cleaning fluids in the world. The collar was caught by Schnapps, the back of Harvard, who slipped on the damp ground under the auspices of the Chocolate Factory Hector M. Milligatawney, the world’s leading manufacturer of candies and almonds …

A century later, satire has almost become a reality. As I mentioned in my 2012 LAP essay, consumer activist Ralph Nader cited additions from this era to New York Yankees baseball game radio broadcasts, “commercials that sponsored the pitching game.” (Chock Full o ‘Nuts), the number of throws (5 hours of energy), rally moment of the game (Rally BMW), temperature of the game time (Peerless Boilers), national anthem (Mutual of America Life Insurance), call for the bullpen (Honda) and 15th offside (Geico).

In the late 1990s, marketing a variety of products from big grain brands to Nike athletic shoes (made mostly by foreign workers) cost more than producing them. TV ads have eaten up a good chunk of ad spending. By the turn of the century, prime-time ads and promotions in the United States averaged nearly 16 minutes per hour, and during the day, about 20 minutes per hour. Advertising costs also continued to increase. 1999 The Super Bowl adds costs to businesses of $ 1.6 million for half a minute; in 2020, the cost was approximately $ 5.6 million.

Plus, advertisements are everywhere – TV, internet, radio, direct mail, outdoor billboards, on buses and other transportation, before and sometimes subtly (or not subtly) in movies, inside arenas. sports, on the poles of ski chairlifts. resorts, storefronts, calendars, airplanes, brand names or logos prominently placed on clothing and other products, on shopping bags, shopping carts, and in bus shelters and public washrooms.

In my LAP 2012 essay, I mentioned that New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that an online casino paid $ 10,000 to a Utah woman, Kari Smith, who needed money for her son’s education. tattoo your website on his forehead.

Over the past decade, advertisers have become even more familiar to us as businesses like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Netflix have used the information they have accumulated about us and sometimes shared it with other sellers. A few days ago I called a Google customer support number (1-855-836-1987). Have I received help? Nope. But instead, I was told to press # 1 if I wanted to hear about a special promotion – and I was told that three more times for other promotions. Speaking of phones, we are about to give up our landline as most calls are spam or scams.

In college (over half a century ago) I read the beautiful poem by WH Auden “The Unknown Citizen”– “. . . his reactions to the ads were normal in every way. . . ” – with its ironic ending,

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
If something hadn’t worked, we certainly should have heard.

As Auden and Berry suggested, God (or someone else) please help us if our own reactions are “normal” when it comes to such attacks on the truth.

Yes, “attacks on the truth”, because this is often what advertisements are. Do any of us really believe that the celebrities who sell products really believe the words they say? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) statement that “When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether on the Internet, on radio or television, or elsewhere, federal law says that the advertisement must be truthful, not misleading and, where appropriate, supported by scientific evidence ”is almost a joke. Not misleading? Ha! It often seems that the purpose of advertising is to make us tie a product to our desire for a better life.

walter moss
Walter moss

But the advertising people are not philosophers. What do they know about a good life? They’re just trying to sell us something. Like American comedian Dave Barry once noted, “The message of television has always been that the need for truth, wisdom and peace in the world is nothing compared to the need for toothpaste that offers whiter teeth and fresher breath.” This other man with a similar name – Wendell Berry – was right: “Resist the language, ideas and categories of. . . ubiquitous sales talk.

Walter G. Moss


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