July 2009

Carolyn Juris

nonfiction

Ad Nauseam: A Survivorís Guide to American Consumer Culture by Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky

As a magazine editor, I'm always looking for a timely hook -- a reason to publish an article on a specific topic right now. And sometimes, even when I'm not seeking it out, a hook presents itself. I may not be thinking about a particular subject, but then I'll receive a press release trumpeting National Popcorn Day, or National Kite Month; these announcements inevitably urge me to run a related story. It's rare that I act on it, because to do so smacks a bit of editorial desperation. I spend little, if any, time considering who's behind the ersatz holiday. If I don't promote or acknowledge it, its existence doesn't affect me, so why bother questioning it. Right? Well, Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky, the editors of Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture, might disagree.

McLaren is the founder of Stay Free! magazine, launched in 1993 as a skeptical, sometimes hilarious critique of consumerism and the media. The publication, which now exists solely online, ran thoughtful essays on everything from the history of eugenics to the true meaning of the word "community," and gleefully pulled pranks skewering sacred American cows like fast food and SUVs. Roughly three-quarters of Ad Nauseum's content first appeared in the magazine in some form, including "I'm Dreaming of a White National Cheese Day," Alan Benson's piece on sponsored holidays. It may be difficult to find fault in, say, National History Day (brainchild of the History Channel) or National Senior Health Day (though one could argue that we should care about seniors' well-being every day). But when the National Potato Board distributes free lesson plans to willing teachers in February -- otherwise known as both National Potato Lover's Month and Snack Food Month -- and these curricula encourage schoolkids to calculate the number of chips consumed annually in the U.S., it's clear that something more insidious is going on.

This isn't news, of course, to anyone who's been paying even a little bit of attention. If we haven't quite reached Infinite Jest levels of corporate sponsorship (the majority of David Foster Wallace's 1996 satirical novel takes place during the "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment"), the degree to which advertising and consumerism pervade our lives is alarming and, fittingly, well-publicized. Ad Nauseum details oft-mentioned forms of ad creep, and the book contains plenty of "Yeah, I've done that" moments. Described something as being about the size of a Volkswagen Bug? Check. Used a line from a favorite movie as conversational shorthand? Check. Several pieces, though, delve into less familiar territory, and in these passages, the book's themes garner real heft. One of the strongest chapters explores subliminal advertising, and how the furor over its use, both real and imagined, has deflected substantive analysis of the way the media manipulates the public. Other sections discuss the affect of courtroom and cop dramas on our legal system, and examine exactly how the relentless barrage of commercial messages is, almost literally, rotting our brains. If some of the reportage seems to skate dangerously close to conspiracy-theory territory -- a drugstore chain's CEO suggesting that shareholders willfully spread germs in order to boost sales -- could it be that we've become conditioned to reject the very information that might open our minds?

That's the beauty of Ad Nauseum -- while I was reading it, and for a time after I was finished, I found myself questioning everything. Even the book's weaker spots made me think. When my attention wandered during the chapter called "On Advertising: Sut Jhally versus James Twitchell," was it because the conversation is a bit unfocused, and because the introduction to the dialog oversells the participants (Jhally is called "incredibly articulate," and Twitchell "witty, sharp, and prone to pithy aphorisms")? Or was it because I'm a card-carrying member of the MTV generation, 14 years old when video struck its fatal blow against the radio star, with an atrophied attention span?

Whichever answer is correct, the fact that the question even crossed my mind means that, at least temporarily, Ad Nauseum broke through the haze built up over years of media consumption. The book is no cure-all -- as its postscript points out, the real work of limiting advertising's influence is being done by watchdog and advocacy organizations. But calling attention to the ambient noise of consumerism that surrounds us is the first step in dismantling its power.

In addition to various other projects, McLaren designed a media literacy course for a group who are up to their ear buds in consumerism -- members of a Brooklyn high school's graduating class of 2003. She posted the entire program on the Stay Free! website, where teachers and anyone else interested may download it, no charge. The site describes Ad Nauseum as the curriculum's "up-to-date companion," and at times the anthology does read like a textbook. Each major section ends with "key questions" that, though not directly related to the reader's comprehension of the previous chapter, still have the feel of a pop quiz. Like many a classroom text, Ad Nauseum may best be consumed in small bites -- all the better to ease the digestion of its message.

Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture by Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky
Faber & Faber
ISBN: 0865479879
368 Pages

 

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