The Game was Fine but the Ads Were Wonderful

By Jeffrey A. Tucker

The Super Bowl began with an emotionally riveting performance by Gladys Knight, who sang the national anthem in the best possible way. She showed what an amazing performer she is. The performance highlighted the glory of what the gospel tradition means to American and world culture, once again redeeming popular styles as worthy of artistic admiration.

I got chills up my spine three times, and it happened again re-watching it this morning. And I just rewatched again.

The best moment: “the land of the free.” Makes me tear up, and feel great pride for what this country has inspired and achieved. Yes, freedom, ever more freedom. This is how you make America great again!

Then the game began. Pretty boring. Boring again. Trying to keep up but it’s pretty boring. Great athletes, no question, and a complicated game. Good for them, but I’m nodding off.

Oh, good, here are some ads! Now, to be sure, I was this way as a kid. I watched television to see the ads. I loved them all: cereal, toys, toothpaste, you name it. Something about how companies are spending millions to persuade me to buy their product made me feel special. It’s still true today. They are making things for me and begging me to part with money so that they can make a profit which in turn provides jobs and builds capital for more innovation, marketing, and consumer uplift.

Advertising is a social service by any measure.

The press was all over the ads this year, talking them up, discussing their implications, marveling at the strange deal between Game of Thrones and Bud Light that somehow worked, discussing the robot child in the TurboTax ad, laughing at the various cameos by big-name stars.

What’s Best for Us

For many reasons, the people who imagine themselves to be so much smarter than the rest of us have long loathed advertising. Stuart Chase, in his 1932 book A New Deal, seriously imagines banning it all. Why? It “forces” housewives to buy things they don’t need by “appealing to shame, fear, sex, mother love, success and greed.” “Untold purchasing power runs to waste as a result,” he theorized. This is why “such practices must be rigorously controlled. The consumer must be protected against himself.”

That’s pretty condescending but notice that Chase’s ambition – the intention but not the result – was more productivity. A few decades later, that changed. I’m thinking back to the warnings about advertising that were first issued by John Kenneth Galbraith in 1958 in his classic book The Affluent Society. This book was a watershed moment in social-democratic thinking. It was the moment when the New Deal ended. The promise of the New Deal is that it would save prosperity from capitalism’s tendency to drive people into desperate dependence and poverty. By 1958, in the midst of the postwar boom, it was obvious that this wasn’t true.

What to do? Galbraith’s idea was to switch the narrative. The real problem was not that capitalism couldn’t make us prosperous; it was that it made us too prosperous in the wrong way. Capitalism feeds consumer decadence. It stirs up false wants (here Galbraith seems nearly to plagiarize Chase). It wastes resources on fripperies rather than essential social needs. It stands condemned not because it fails to produce wealth but precisely because it does produce a vast amount of wealth we don’t need.

In particular, Galbaith took after advertising. He reports that “advertising has so long been regarded with such uneasiness by economists. Here is something which cannot be accommodated easily to theory,” he writes, failing to wonder whether that might indicate a problem with the theory. “Is breakfast cereal or detergent so much wanted if so much must be spent to compel in the consumer the sense of want?”

Oh, and he gives us an example of what he means. “A man who is hungry need never be told of his need for food. If he is inspired by his appetite, he is immune to the influence” of advertisers.

That’s true enough but extremely creepy. Is that really the kind of society we want to live in, so hungry that we will eat anything, so materially deprived that we only scarf around for survival, so lacking in choice that we’ll take for ourselves anything not nailed down? Yes, that sounds like socialism.

More Suffering

It’s a strange view of the world. The economic function of advertising is to convey information that buyers can use to make the best use of their money. It’s a way of announcing to consumers something that they might not know in order to help them make a decision among alternative uses of resources. In that sense, marketing is an essential part of the competitive process, one that is directed toward getting the attention of people who are in charge of the system, which is not the intellectuals (thank goodness) but rather the consumers.

From an aesthetic point of view, Galbraith’s perspective is barren of imagination, as much as Bernie Sanders is too, such as when he wondered why we need so many brands of deodorant.

It’s an extremely strange thing. Left socialism kicked off the 20th century with the bold claim that it would produce more for the masses than capitalism ever could; it began the 21st century with the opposite promise that they will implement a system without choice and material decadence and we would learn to love it.

Do you wonder why social democratic parties around the world have been in such long decline? Why the socialist left seems to fail so consistently at the polls? Why there is such a massive movement worldwide dedicated to getting these people off our backs?

Have a look at those three hours of Super Bowl television and observe the ethos of fun, sports, music, creative advertising, and, yes, national pride. If the very existence of this confuses you – or, even worse, disgusts you – then you have a lot to learn about people and life and how markets continue to serve society so well despite every attempt to strangle them.

If the economic function of advertising is to reveal to us what we do not know, what did we learn from the Super Bowl ads? I didn’t know that Coors Light contains corn syrup. I didn’t know that TurboTax will now offer real human tax advice. I didn’t know about Amazon’s new show. I’m happy to hear of Bumble’s progress. I had never heard of Devour frozen foods.

Is it wasteful? Just imagine if Professors Chase and Galbraith had gotten their way. And they combined forces with the music snobs and the rest of the planning elite who know what’s best for us. We would have been stuck with a football game that was more boring than it should have been, and the world would have been made much worse off.

Advertising, an extension of the freedom of speech, is ultimately about celebrating that of which Gladys Knight sang: “the land of the free.”

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and eight books in 5 languages, most recently The Market Loves You. He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. He is available for speaking and interviews via his emailTw | FB | LinkedIn