Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Lexus Parallel Parking not For All

Tibor R. Machan

One of the annoying elements of advertising is that it often treats us all as if we were just one person. So, for example, because some people may befit from a product--say Lexus's new automatic parallel parking device—it appears to be suggested in the ad that this is something for us all. Of course, very few products or services being promoted to us are really for all of us. But back when advertising used to come mainly from the radio and TV industry, and both of these were oligopolies, ads were indeed usually addressed to millions of people all at once, with no differentiation among them possible. With diversified commercials now possible, targeting people in markets whose interests it is possible to anticipate, this apparent one-size-fits-all assumption in ads has subsided.

Nonetheless, the habit is still pervasive, so this Lexus ad makes it appear that we all require help with parallel parking. It is exactly this that the Op Ed piece By Calvin Trilling in The New York Times, Friday, January 26th, brought to my mind. I thought about how the Lexus ad, which I have seen several times, "suggests" that we all need the help that the new model provides.

But that would to be to misunderstand the function of advertising, which is not to make suggestions, not to give advice, not to inform us of anything but simply to effectively promote products and services. And in promotions one uses hype or other attention-getting means because all one aims for is to alert people to the availability of a produce or service. Once they are aware, they then can reject or accept—it's up to them.

The late Harvard celebrity economist, John Kenneth Galbraith argued against this because he believed that advertising destroys our ability to choose, to be sovereign consumers. He believed corporations produce ads so as to create desires in us which we will have to fulfill by purchasing what they are marketing. This demeaning view is not totally unreasonable—indeed many ordinary folks outside of Harvard University tend to think of others as very vulnerable to the lures of commercials. Many of us think other people are uncritical when they view or hear or read ads and therefore we are being lead unwillingly to go out and buy stuff. But being uncritical is a matter of choice!

F. A. Hayek, another economist and Nobel Laureate, penned a rebuttal to Galbraith in which he pointed out that while becoming aware of new products and services does indeed create desires—as do all innovations in art, science, entertainment, technology, etc.—human beings have the capacity to select which of their desires they will try to fulfill. Depending on their budgets and other constraints, as well as their priorities apart from commerce, they may or may not act so as to fulfill a desire that may have been prompted by means of advertising. Men and women in the market place are free agents and as such are also free to do dumb things, so they can and often do respond to advertising mindlessly, hastily, imprudently. But this doesn't mean they have to. Yet that’s is just what Galbraith thesis suggests—that we lack sovereignty means we cannot govern ourselves, be in charge of our own actions.

Now such thinking is quite rampant because many educated and well placed scholars, natural and socieal scientists and researchers—not to mention philosophers—hold that whatever we do, we must do. We have no choice. So when people go out to buy something after having encountered an ad for it, they had to do this and the immediate cause to explain their conduct seems to be, well, the ad itself. Not their considered judgment as to what to do, which may have involved weighing alternatives against this option, even if ever so rapidly and even un-self-consciously. So the Galbraithian thesis gains support form the widespread deterministic understanding of human behavior.

As with all such determinist notions, this, too, runs up against the fallacy of self-exclusion. If we are all just doing what we have to, then what the proponent of this idea is doing he or she must be doing, like rain that must fall or earthquakes that must erupt. In which case the issue of whether it is true is moot—the utterings of a parrot cannot qualify as a theory of anything.

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