Commercial Culture

"[T]here will presently be no room in the world for things; it will be filled up with the advertisements of things."
- William Dean Howells, as quoted in Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America.

Overview & Connection to a New Dream

We live in a commercial culture. We sit down in front of the TV and ingest 50 to 100 ads per day.(1) We open the newspaper and see more ads than news. We turn on the computer and are targeted by ads matching our interests – thanks to Big Brother whose been recording our every surf. We answer the phone and are greeted by a fast-talking telemarketer. We walk out to the mailbox and find more ads than bills and letters combined. Thousands of other messages each day, at the ballpark, on billboards, even in our children’s schools, tell us to "buy," "buy more," "buy now!" Unlike other compulsive behaviors, society affirms that we are doing the right thing. We’re told that consuming to excess is our responsibility … to keep our kids happy … to communicate love… to grow the economy….

Unfortunately, giving into this bombardment only leads down a slippery slope. The ad shill’s game is to keep us dissatisfied with what we have, always wanting something else. As one former ad exec put it: "Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser."(2) But since we’re trying to fill non-material needs with material purchases, marketers need not worry that we’ll find contentment with their product.

There is hope. Shopaholics Anonymous aren’t springing up in every neighborhood, but resistance to the commercial culture is steadily mounting across the continent. The resistors are woefully outspent – Madison Avenue spent $285.2 billion in 1998(3) (more than the aggregate GDP of sub-Saharan Africa(4)) telling Americans to consume – but they have one major advantage in that most Americans realize something is out of whack and resent marketers manipulating their family. If a convincing campaign can poke through the flood of messages to consume, it has an eager audience. Several upstart groups are picking up momentum with just such compelling campaigns. Commercial Alert and the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education are challenging Channel One and the commercialization of our schools. TV-Free America has enlisted millions of Americans in annual TV-Turnoff Weeks. The Adbusters Media Foundation gives former marketers a chance at redemption by turning the ad world on its head with clever "subvertisements."

The Center for a New American Dream, recognizing that unscrupulous marketers are increasingly targeting young children with the "nag factor," has launched a "Kids and Commercialism" campaign to equip parents to fight back. We’re working with North Americans to forge a new American dream, a dream that can be achieved and sustained through future generations by consuming responsibly and by meeting non-material needs through non-material means, not a trip to the mall (that’s our motto – "More Fun, Less Stuff"). We hope you’ll join us.


  1. Michael F. Jacobson and Laurie Ann Mazur. Marketing Madness (Westview, 1995) as quoted in "Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture"
  2. Ron Harris "Children who Dress for Excess" Los Angeles Times 11/12/89 as quoted in "Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture"
  3. Direct Marketing Association,
  4. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1998

Copyright (c) 1999 CNAD
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