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Advertising for Disaster

Bill Meredith

Like all children, I learned to talk by imitating what I heard, even though I didn't understand it. The radio was always on, and at an early age I could recite commercials. My parents told me that at the age of 2 I would toddle around saying "This is Lowell Thomas for Blue Sunoco. So long until tomorrow!" A year or two later, I remember asking my father why he used ESSO gasoline when Lowell Thomas said Blue Sunoco was better, and experiencing confusion and disappointment when he told me that Sunoco made the engine ping in our Model A Ford.

It was beyond me to comprehend that being blue didn't have anything to do with quality; after all, why else would Lowell Thomas keep saying it that way? Jack Benny said red jello was good, and it was. Ma Perkins said Oxydol was good; my grandmother used it faithfully, and her wash always came out white. I had been taught that nice people told the truth, and these examples bore it out; and when science was added, how could one not believe? My mother bought Ivory soap because it was "ninety-nine and forty-four one-hundredths percent pure; it floats!" The inference was that if a bar of soap didn't float, there must be something impure about it. I never thought to ask what "pure" meant; I just assumed it was good. I was in high school before this fallacy was pointed out to me, in an English class, of all places. We had encountered the term, "non-sequitur," and the teacher used the Ivory soap commercial as an example of the false logic that results when words or expressions which have no real connection are put together. She told us we should question things; ask, "Pure what?" She went on to observe that sulfuric acid could be 100 percent pure, but you wouldn't want to wash in it. If I had been absent that day, I might never have become a scientist; it was from that class that I became aware of the necessity for critical thinking.

In the half-century since I caught onto them, commercials have become a lot more sophisticated. They still use half-truths, non-sequiturs, scientific jargon and endorsements by nice people; in addition, psychology is employed to appeal to our subconscious desires and fears. Most of the public must be taken in by them; if the ads weren't paying off, hard-headed businessmen wouldn't be spending so much money on them. If it were simply a matter of gullible people wasting their money on things they don't need, I guess I wouldn't care. But more than that is involved. Public attitudes are being manipulated, and this concerns me.

One of the best… or worst… examples of this is an ad for a company that makes agricultural chemicals. It begins with "What if…," that current buzzword for deep thinking, and goes on in a woman's voice, clearly a nice person who is thoughtful and concerned about the welfare of the human race. I can't quote this commercial as precisely as I did when I was 2, but here is approximately what she says: "What if we think of the world as a combined garden and crop field? When crops grow where they grow best, we can make food more affordable and feed a hungry world."

The people who hear this ad are mainly urban, and are not going to be buying fertilizer or pesticides by the ton; so I assume the company has other motives in mind. Thinking back to Ivory soap, I found myself in a cynical frame of mind: perhaps it is intended to convince us that agricultural interests deserve political support because their sole purpose is to feed the hungry world. Who could argue with such a desirable goal? They must be good people if that's what they're about. Never mind the environmental effects of these chemical agents; such good people would not do anything harmful. And then my cynicism goes off track, and the image of Lawrence Slobodkin appears in my mind.

Slobodkin is a theoretical ecologist, a decade older than I but still active, who wrote a small book, The Growth and Regulation of Animal Populations, in 1961. At that time I was just starting my graduate studies; I was strongly influenced by it, and Slobodkin's personality embellished the effect. Once in the early '70's I took a carload of students to hear him lecture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington; I had told them about him, and when he appeared on stage one of them burst out in delight, "He looks like a Slobodkin!" And he did… a huge Russian bear of a man, with a bulbous nose and wild, bushy hair… but looks aside, he was one of the most articulate and thought-provoking people I ever met.

In the book mentioned above, Slobodkin wrote with concern about the growth of the human population. If we do not control our population, he said, "We must abandon all pretense of saving intact any wilderness areas and consider that we will treat the earth as a combined garden and factory; all other species will either prove useful to man or will be eliminated; they will either adjust to the omnipresence of man or die." [Italics added] This prescient statement was burned into my memory when I read it 43 years ago, and it comes back to mind every time I hear that commercial. Apparently, from the point of view of agribusiness, making the whole world a garden would be just fine. Apparently wildlife and natural habitats are expendable.

But there is more at stake than just wildlife. The population of the world has tripled in my lifetime. When I was born (1933), the world contained just over 2 billion people. By 1961, when Slobodkin was writing, there were about 3 billion; the 6 billion mark was reached in 1998. We are now approaching 7 billion. There are already more people than the earth's resources can support, especially if we expect them all to attain a lifestyle remotely comparable to ours in America… yet they keep coming, and no end is in sight. This is the single most important problem before us, but our leaders lack either the intellect, the courage or the integrity to face up to it.

There is indeed a hungry world to feed, and agribusiness would like nothing better than a brainwashed electorate who will support government policies to export more food. For several decades now, essentially all of the world's arable land has been under cultivation; the world is already a combined garden and farm field, yet the gap between population and food supply continues to widen. But instead of devoting resources to controlling population growth, political leaders bow to economic interests that would have them develop marginal lands. They do maintain a pretense of trying to save wilderness areas, but it is an hypocrisy; their actions speak otherwise, as they try to open places like the Tongas National Park to lumbering, drain wetlands, irrigate deserts… and, incidentally, create more demand for fertilizer and pesticides.

It is evident from their actions that our present leaders do not comprehend the urgency of this problem. As this year unfolds, it will be interesting to watch the political process and see if a new leader will emerge who has the wit and courage to challenge them on it. The hopeful side of me dares to wish for such a leader; the cynical side replies that, by the same metaphor, it might have been interesting to watch the passengers on the Titanic rearrange their deck chairs.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith