"Let me tell you the story of a man killed by advertising." So begins Émile Zola's satirical Death by Advertising, a short fiction story published in 1866 that describes the swift decline of Pierre Landry, a naïve believer in all claims of advertisers. What is remarkable about this story is not just that Zola had developed a compelling – and widely read – critique of advertising a hundred and forty years ago, but that within his imagined world we glimpse the beginnings of the mental environment movement.
Pierre Landry is a caricature whose purpose is to show both the absurdity and the dangerous consequences of incessant advertising. He was brought up reading and admiring newspaper and billboard advertising and taught to believe the claims made by advertisers without question. Pierre's purpose in life is to take full advantage of the proclaimed "Golden Age" of industrial progress. To do so, he decides he ought to follow the prescriptions of corporations entirely. "I've already planned how I want to live," declares Pierre in a speech that precipitates his early demise. "I intend to keep up with progress and enjoy all the advantages of the modern world without any further question. I want a blissfully happy life and for that, all I need is to consult the newspapers and posters, night and morning, and do exactly what they tell me. It's an infallible guide to true wisdom and happiness is guaranteed!"
Pierre may be a fool but he is a man of conviction as well. Suffering hardship after hardship due to the sham, flimsy products he purchases he persists in his belief that by "choosing the products most enthusiastically praised and recommended in rhapsodic terms by the publicity men, he could claim, with legitimate pride, that he was using the most advanced products of the most highly developed civilization in the world and had thus solved the problem of attaining perfection." Therefore despite buying swampland, building a paper-thin mansion, losing his hair and suffering health problems due to pharmaceutical experimentation, Pierre continues on his path until, consuming a final quack medicine, he dies – sacrificed on the altar of the "Great God Advertising."
Zola's story can be read as two separate, but related, critiques of advertising. The first, which I have outlined above, is that the primary problem with the uncritical acceptance of advertising is that it results in purchasing untested and deceitful products. I call this the "Unsophisticated Consumer Argument" and argue that it continues to be the primary anticonsumer argument in circulation today. Many of us deny that we could be Pierre Landry because we believe we are sophisticated consumers who shop critically by consulting online reviews, our friends' opinions or professional advice. Thus we accept Pierre's worldview that new is best, but distance ourselves from his naïvety even to the point of claiming that we neither consult nor are influenced by the claims of advertisers. That this critique of advertising ultimately fails to undermine consumer society is obvious. Even if we are smart shoppers, we are still shopping.
But there is a second, more convincing anticonsumer message proposed by Zola that I believe may be one of the first articulations of the mental environment movement. Zola writes that Pierre suffered mental damage just as he suffered physical pain because "advertising attacked his mind as well as his body." After purchasing every book favorably mentioned in the newspaper, Pierre's bookshelves "groaned under the weight of his collection of rubbish recording all the stupidity and corruption of the age ... The outcome of all this was to turn him into a moron ..." It is here that we find a critique of advertising that goes beyond questions of sophisticated consumption and hits the heart of the issue: the mental effects of the junk thought.
Like junk food can make us obese, junk thoughts and advertisements can make us moronic. But unlike fast-food, the consumption of which must always be intentional, fast thoughts hit us unawares: as we walk down the street our eyes scan billboards whose carefully-crafted imagery change us on a subconscious, spiritual level. We are, in a literal way, poisoned each time we see an advertisement and that is the essential danger of a consumer society based upon advertising.
Some of us are like Zola's hapless foil in our insistence on having the newest gadgets. Others are like Pierre Landry in their uncritical acceptance of whatever they see on television. The sad truth is that we are all spiritually similar to Pierre Landry. The truth that Zola glimpsed a hundred and forty years ago is that advertising has poisoned our minds and corrupted our culture. As we march toward collapse, the question remains whether we will go passively toward our death and remembered only as a foolish civilization killed by advertising, or whether there remains within us a spark of clarity from which a mental environment movement may catch flame.
Micah White is a contributing editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He will be giving a talk on the mental environment on September 19 at 6pm at the Napa Nest in Napa, California. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org