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THE GOODS : Invasion of the Ads : American are under siege. How can we maage to survive the commercial overkill in our daily lives?


There was a time, consumer advocate Michael Jacobson recalls, when advertising stayed in its place. "We all knew the boundaries--full-page ads in magazines and newspapers, 30-second commercials on television and outdoor billboards."

But over the last 10 years, this orderly parade has erupted into a marketing stampede. Commercial messages have swarmed into public schools, public television, art museums, sporting events, churches, movies, our mailboxes, our telephones and even onto the clothes we wear.

"I think Americans today are under siege from the time they are infants to buy into this commercial lifestyle," says Jacobson, whose 2 1/2-year-old daughter has already received Mickey Mouse T-shirts from doting relatives. "We were at the supermarket recently and there was a cute talking cookie display. You press a button and there would be a sales pitch."

This trend dismays Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington D.C., a nonprofit agency best known for such actions as exposing the fat content of movie theater popcorn. The author of several books on health and nutrition, Jacobson has now taken on commercialism. With environmental writer Laurie Ann Mazur, he has written "Marketing Madness: A Survival Guide for a Consumer Society" (Westview Press, Boulder, Colo.; $18.95 paperback, $59.95, hardcover).

Their book provides a 10-chapter guided tour through the ways marketing strategies are woven into almost every aspect of our lives. Some are obvious: Orkin Pest Control's financial aid to the Smithsonian's Insect Zoo, which results in an Orkin logo displayed at the zoo, and Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser wagon in President Clinton's inaugural parade.

The authors are particularly disturbed by the increased blurring of lines between commercials and news. A "sinister" aspect of this, they say, is the corporate video news release (VNR). Descendant of the printed press release, the VNR is supplied to broadcasters by tape or satellite. In June, 1991, more than 17 million Americans watched a TV "news" story about the 50th anniversary of Cheerios, a video clip filmed by the cereal's manufacturer.

Even non-commercial public television, now on the congressional budget chopping block, increasingly accepts advertising that poses as "corporate underwriting," say the authors, citing examples that include the long graphic sequence for Pepsi before and after the "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour."

"What has turned the tide has been the explosion of advertising, which has doubled since 1971," says Mazur, interviewed by telephone.

Certainly, the authors say, the most vulnerable of targets--children--are no match for Madison Avenue. Their opening chapter on "The Littlest Consumers" describe how marketers are invading children's lives as never before. They watch toy-inspired TV shows and movies that sell products. They can recite designer labels before they can read. Brand-name fast foods are found in thousands of school cafeterias.

At least 8 million schoolchildren get a daily diet of Channel One, the program that interweaves 10-minute clips of current events with two minutes worth of ads for sneakers, junk food and other products. (The Channel One deal from Whittle Communications, which offers free video monitors and a satellite in exchange for required daily viewing of the programs, is now used by 12,000 budget-strapped schools.)

"That's not the worst of it," Mazur says. "Marketers are writing the curriculum, too, and schools are so starved for resources they are gobbling it up."

Professional packagers as Lifetime Learning Systems put together educational "packets" for such sponsors as the American Nuclear Society, Coca-Cola Co. and the National Frozen Pizza Institute. Lifetime sales ads to corporations are upfront about the benefits: "Imagine millions of students discussing your product in class," the ads say.

A sample teaching kit sent to third-grade teachers purports to focus on math, social science and language arts, but is titled "Count Your Chips" and is sponsored by the National Potato Board and the Snack Food Assn.

"Parents feel really frustrated, having to spend most of their time saying 'no' and explaining to their kids why they don't need a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger," Mazur says. "It's almost as if a salesman comes to the door and says 'Excuse me, I need a few minutes alone to talk with your child about candy.' "

Melanie Rigney, managing editor of Advertising Age, echoes Jacobson's concern. "He raises interesting points and yes, there is clutter," she says. "Twenty years ago if you bought 30 seconds of prime time you could be assured of reaching the people you wanted. Now with TV, cable, magazines, on-line services, direct mail and the Internet, we're fractured, which is why you've seen these areas of explosion.

"What's good about all this," she adds, "is that it produces lots of jobs, it lets consumers know when someone has a new product on the market, it encourages the good old American way of competition and it's fun to watch from a social anthropological viewpoint."

Looking at the charts of advertising dollars continuing to rise, Jacobson is not optimistic.

"Thousands of people this minute are trying to push the frontier forward," Jacobson says. "The New York City School System is talking about ads on school buses. Huge space billboards have been proposed for low-Earth orbit, displaying corporate logos in the sky. Every bit of unused space, every moment of time is seen as an advertising opportunity."

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